The revolutionary trade unions

Issue: 121

Simon Basketter

Ralph Darlington, Syndicalism and the Transition to Communism (Ashgate, 2008), £60

According to the syndicalist Tom Mann, “The object of the unions is to wage the class war and take every opportunity of scoring against the enemy.” One cannot imagine such a statement passing the lips of a single trade union leader today, and this helps illuminate the inspiration provided by “syndicalism”—the revolutionary trade unionism that sprang up across the world in the first couple of decades of the 20th century. Ralph Darlington’s book documents the militancy and the aims of syndicalism. It covers Britain, Ireland, the US, France, Spain and Italy in particular, with sensitivity to the important differences in the movement in each locality.1 Its aim is to bring together the common politics of the movement and to look at its relationship to the Communist movement after the Russian Revolution of 1917.

The syndicalists organised with a flair that is often lacking at even the most basic level in many union organisations. They held in common the idea that socialism must come from below as a product of working class self-activity. That commitment meant a determination to organise the unorganised. For example, the Lawrence, Massachusetts, textile workers’ strike of 1912 involved some 23,000 strikers who spoke at least 14 different languages. The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) organised them all using mass pickets and 10,000_strong daily protests to win. Such militancy was also symbolised by barbers in Paris fighting for shorter working hours who warned, “Any client who had the audacity to keep workers beyond eight o’clock in the evening ‘would be scalped’.”

The growth of reformist ideas and bureaucracy in unions and politics pushed the syndicalists to an emphasis on collective direct economic action. As Darlington writes:

“Syndicalism was a reaction to the deterministic conception of Marxism that dominated most of the labour parties of the Second International, which saw history as governed by iron economic laws and excluded any genuine role for human consciousness and activity in shaping society. Whereas this old approach was a recipe for passivity, the syndicalists’ emphasis on the revolutionary potential of the working class was a call to arms.”

Because they believed in militant trade unionism as the mechanism for overthrowing capitalism, the syndicalists rejected the idea of strikes as a passive siege where workers waited for a result. Instead they advocated marches and mass pickets. The use of tactics such as the secondary picketing of other workplaces, the blacking of goods and the sympathetic strike were deliberate choices, not just a means of building up confidence to the point of a general strike. The Irish revolutionary James Connolly, who was heavily influenced by syndicalist ideas, explained the attitude well:

“No consideration of a contract with a section of the capitalist class absolved any section of us from the duty of taking instant action to protect other sections when said sections were in danger from the capitalist enemy. Our attitude always was that in the swiftness and unexpectedness of our action lay our chief hopes of temporary victory, and since permanent peace was an illusory hope until permanent victory was secured, temporary victories were all that need concern us”.2

So syndicalists would refuse to build up large strike funds, partially due to an entirely reasonable wariness of bureaucracy but also because it encouraged action as the way to win strikes. This worked extremely well when workers were confident and moving forward, but was less useful in periods of setback. It also harboured other problems in the long term: for example, the IWW tended to move on after a strike, often leaving behind little permanent organisation.

An overwhelming rejection of parliamentary change as the mechanism for bringing in socialism led to the argument that real power was economic. For instance, there was a determined opposition to state ownership of production by the syndicalists. There was also an opposition to political parties, in part because they introduced non-workers into organisations in contrast to unions that could unite all workers. Overall the argument was that since the rule of the capitalists had an economic root the axe had to be put to that root—and that meant political issues were subordinate to economic ones.

However, Darlington’s book should help counter the tendency for the left to see syndicalism as meaning an absence of politics. For instance, the most successful campaigns of the IWW were their free speech campaigns, mobilising for the right to carry out street oratory. These were clearly highly political and laid some of the basis for the tactics of later union and civil rights movements. Most importantly, the syndicalists overwhelmingly opposed the First World War, unlike the majority of socialist parties. As one IWW leaflet put it, “General Sherman said ‘War is Hell’. Don’t go to Hell in order to give the capitalists a bigger slice of Heaven.”

The problem was that while most of the syndicalists propagandised against the war in general they found it difficult or even unnecessary to agitate against it. The politics of syndicalism meant not agitating in the workplace against the war. The weakness of syndicalism was political. It took the position that a correct trade union view of the world and a socialist consciousness were essentially the same thing. This encouraged the view that any politics outside economic struggle were irrelevant.3

This further encouraged the playing down of theory, the hostility to parties and the belief that some form of new socialist society would spring up organically out of a general strike. Even those wings of syndicalism that were far from hostile to being in political parties and standing in elections (including those grouped around Daniel De Leon in the US, and James Connolly in Britain and Ireland) practised a form of militant industrial struggle during the week and entirely separate, and less important, political organisation at the weekend.

As a revolutionary reaction to the growth of reformism, syndicalism, at its best, pushed trade unionism to breaking point. The question was whether it would break. Syndicalism came before the experience of the Russian Revolution and was, in James P Cannon’s words, “a great anticipation”. The Russian Revolution, through both the experience of the soviets and, centrally, the capture of state power, opened an important debate between the Communists and the syndicalists over the relationship between unions and politics which is examined in Darlington’s book. In contrast to the syndicalists, the Communist argument was that while workplace struggle showed the need to unite and overcome divisions it did not automatically overcome those ideological and political divisions in the class.

In contrast to syndicalism’s hostility to parties the Communists argued that a revolutionary party was needed to overcome divisions in the class. The second congress of the Comintern passed theses, quoted by Darlington, that made the point:

“The revolutionary syndicalists often talk about the great role of the determined revolutionary minority. Well, a truly determined minority of the working class, a minority that is Communist, that wishes to act, that has a programme and wishes to organise the struggle of the masses, is precisely the Communist Party.”

As James P Cannon wrote:

“One of the most important contradictions of the IWW…was the dual role it assigned to itself. Not the least of the reasons for the eventual failure of the IWW—as an organisation—was its attempt to be both a union of all workers and a propaganda society of selected revolutionists—in essence a revolutionary party. Two different tasks and functions, which, at a certain stage of development, require separate and distinct organisations, were assumed by the IWW alone; and this duality hampered its effectiveness in both fields”.4

This weakness expressed itself in the fact that syndicalism, while growing in direct opposition to reformism, in practice tended to leave the door open to it. It did this politically by leaving politics to the reformists, but also organisationally by not working within existing unions. While there was lack of unanimity on the question among the syndicalists, the general attitude can be summed up by Eugene Debs, who argued, “To talk about reforming these rotten graft infested unions which are dominated absolutely by the labour boss, is as vain and wasteful of time as to spray a cesspool with attar of roses”.5 This stands in contrast to Lenin’s position, quoted by Darlington, which argued that to withdraw from the official unions “because of the reactionary and counter-revolutionary character of the trade union leadership…[would be] the greatest service Communists could render the bourgeoisie”.

While the Comintern drew the correct conclusion by arguing for work within existing unions, it offered little by way of strategy apart from arguing that they should have a Communist leadership. This tended to downplay the strength of the bureaucracy and its roots within the unions. Partially this was due to the Bolsheviks’ limited experience of deep rooted reformist trade unions. Grappling with the tendency of unions to form a bureaucracy, and with the resilient strength of this bureaucracy, was a learning process for all concerned. On this point Darlington’s book is particularly clear. For instance, he explains how the tradition in Britain of working in existing unions led to the development of strategies for putting pressure on officials and developing rank and file attitudes to the bureaucracy, despite the limits of the syndicalist approach.

Darlington also notes that while Lenin and Leon Trotsky did their best to draw the syndicalists into the orbit of the Comintern, others such as Grigory Zinoviev and Karl Radek tended to simply lecture the syndicalists about their faults. They pointed to the limitations of trade unions as a vehicle for fundamental change while simultaneously arguing that they could be transformed into revolutionary bodies if they only had the correct leadership.

This confusion came to a head with the setting up of the Red International of Labour Unions (RILU). This was intended to attract trade unions in general and the best syndicalists in particular into the Communist sphere of influence. But, as Tony Cliff and Donny Gluckstein note, “The RILU was bound to fail because it was attempting the impossible—to be an official mass union body committed to Communist politics before a revolutionary crisis made such an organisation possible… It could recognise the period it was in and stand as an organisation of the militant rank and file looking to the minority with advanced ideas who were involved in struggle or it could pose as a conventional trade union body”.6

The RILU rejected the first of these options. The only way of achieving the second option was to abandon its politics to win over non-revolutionary trade unions. Darlington’s informative, detailed account reinforces Cliff and Gluckstein’s critique.

Despite their mistakes the Communists were generally right in their approach. Outside Spain the syndicalist movement had collapsed by the 1930s. Many individual syndicalists went on to become important figures in building the Communist movement internationally.

Darlington’s book impressively pulls together the diverse literature on syndicalism. But more importantly, by looking at syndicalist politics thematically and studying their often stormy relationship with the Communists after the Russian Revolution, he has done a service to all those grappling today with how to engage with the politics of trade unions and political trade unionism.


1: The book also provides a useful overview of the literature discussing whether “syndicalism”, “industrial unionism” and its variants, as a fairly atheoretical movement, can be usefully understood as a single, unified phenomenon.

2: James Conolly, “Old Wine in New Bottles”, available online at

3: The point is well made in Kieran Allen’s The Politics of James Connolly (Pluto, 1990), pp71-74.

4: James P Cannon, “The IWW: The Great Anticipation”, available online at

5: Quoted in Theodore Draper, The Roots of American Communism (Elephant, 1989), p19.

6: Tony Cliff and Donny Gluckstein, Marxism and Trade Union Struggle (Bookmarks, 1986), p50.