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Can unions bring down the system?

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Syndicalist unions committed to revolution flourished during the early 20th century. Ralph Darlington examines what they stood for—and their limitations
Issue 2371
Workers and supporters gather during the 1911 Liverpool transport strike. Syndicalists played a key role in the dispute
Workers and supporters gather during the 1911 Liverpool transport strike. Syndicalists played a key role in the dispute (Pic: Socialist Worker archive)

Syndicalist unions emerged in many countries amid an international upsurge in militant strikes during the first two decades of the 20th century. They were committed to destroying capitalism through revolutionary trade union struggle.

They rejected parliamentary politics in favour of reliance on workers’ strength at the point of production. They were also hostile to traditional unions with bureaucratic leaderships.

Some existing unions were won over to syndicalist principles. Other workers formed new revolutionary unions and organisations.

The Confederation Generale du Travail (CGT) in France was among the largest and most famous unions influenced by syndicalism. There was also the Unione Sindacale Italiana (USI) in Italy, the Confederacion Nacional de Trabajo (CNT) in Spain and the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union.

They became the majority tendency in the trade union movement in the years running up to the First World War. Elsewhere syndicalism became the rallying point for a significant minority of union activists. 

This was true of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in the US. In Britain syndicalism was represented within the pre-war Industrial Syndicalist Education League.

The international syndicalist movement developed rapidly. This reflected growing discontent with the failure of social democratic parties and mainstream unions to deliver real improvements in social and political conditions.

Worker-intellectuals led the movement. These included “Big Bill” Haywood and Elizabeth Gurly Flynn in the US, Jim Larkin in Ireland, and Tom Mann and JT Murphy in Britain.

An upsurge in workers’ militancy and growing political radicalisation provided fertile soil for syndicalists to gain a mass hearing. They won leadership of major strikes, such as the 1911 Liverpool Transport Strike, the 1913 Dublin Lockout and 1914 “Red Week” general strike in Italy.

Syndicalism’s heyday as a current inside the international trade union movement lasted only 20 years. It came to an end with the ebb of revolutionary workers’ struggles in the early 1920s.

But the seizure of state power by Russian workers in 1917, under the leadership of the Bolshevik Party, proved the decisive ideological and political challenge.


New revolutionary Communist parties were established in the wake of the revolution. They rapidly superseded most syndicalist organisations.

Yet syndicalism made a significant contribution to the explosive wave of working class struggles of the period. It celebrated workers’ militant action and revolutionary unionism. 

This meant it made a distinctive ideological and political contribution to debates about how to fundamentally transform society.

Syndicalism was a philosophy of class warfare in which only the complete revolutionary overthrow of capitalism could emancipate the working class. The traditional conservative British trade union motto was “a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work”. But syndicalists wanted the abolition of the wages system altogether. 

They rejected trying to win reforms under capitalism in favour of revolutionary industrial struggle.

Placing faith in the ballot box seemed to select a field of combat where working class power was at its weakest. Its potential economic muscle seemed strongest at the point of production—so this was their focus.

And syndicalists agreed with the revolutionary Karl Marx that the state was an instrument of class domination that had to be overthrown.

Syndicalists were disgusted by the parliamentarianism, opportunism and betrayal of the labour and socialist parties. They rejected the need for a political party altogether.

They viewed all political issues as subordinate to industrial organisation and collective trade union struggle that could forge workers’ unity. 

Reformist trade unions were condemned for their sectionalism, bureaucracy, reformism and conservatism. These unions failed to adequately represent rank and file union members or unorganised workers outside their ranks. 

Syndicalists advocated reconstructing these unions on class-wide and revolutionary lines. In some countries they tried to change the character and goals of the unions. In many others they tried to construct new, revolutionary unions in opposition to the reformist organisations.

Syndicalists believed an intensification of militant industrial struggle and direct action tactics had the potential to emancipate the working class. They saw a revolutionary general strike as the logical culmination of this struggle.

The victorious Bolshevik revolution inspired leading syndicalists across the world. They took up an invitation to travel to Moscow to participate in debates about strategy and tactics at congresses of the Communist International.

Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky acknowledged their revolutionary potential. He described syndicalists as people “who not only wish to fight against the bourgeoisie but who, unlike [the reformists], really want to tear its head off”.

But Bolshevik leaders also saw serious flaws in syndicalist theory and practice and conducted sharp arguments. The Bolsheviks argued that abandoning existing reformist unions to their reactionary leaders isolated syndicalists from the wider working class. 


They said revolutionaries should instead try to win rank and file workers to their cause. Bolshevik leaders spelt out the paradox of trying to build revolutionary unions committed to workers’ power.

Unions under capitalism are necessarily concerned with winning immediate, limited improvements for workers. This leads them to act as reformist bargaining agents and mediators of industrial conflict.

Trade unionism expresses the contradiction between capital and labour—but it isn’t a means of resolving it. Syndicalist groups found it difficult to combine the dual roles of being both a revolutionary organisation and a trade union.

The Bolsheviks also criticised syndicalists’ subordination of political issues to industrial struggle. They argued that this mirrored reformism, with its separation of politics and economics.

It also fails to provide a consistent political alternative to the reformists. Bolshevik leaders criticised the syndicalist conception of the revolutionary overthrow of the capitalist state as inadequate.

Syndicalists saw this as coming via a general strike without workers’ seizure of state power or the establishment of a workers’ state based on workers’ councils. But this workers’ state is necessary to overcome the inevitable, violent counter-attack of the capitalists.

The Bolsheviks also argued that syndicalists’ aversion to a political party handicapped their ability to overcome the unevenness in working class organisation and consciousness.

It hampered their ability to build permanent organisations that could survive a fall in the level of workers’ struggle.

Syndicalists stressed the leading role that a “revolutionary minority” could play. The Bolsheviks insisted that this was, in essence, an incomplete theory of a “vanguard” revolutionary combat party.

Lenin’s party aimed to fuse industrial and political issues together with workers’ immediate struggles in order to win the long term goal of revolution.

Most syndicalists remained aloof. But a number of the movement’s foremost leaders unceremoniously abandoned their previous strategy and joined the new Communist parties. 

The debates between the syndicalist and revolutionary Marxist traditions are relevant today, as a “pop-up” union in Brighton shows.

Some workers at Sussex university formed a local, unofficial union earlier this year. They were angry because they felt the established unions weren’t fighting cuts and privatisation hard enough.

This approach has similar problems to syndicalism in that it bypasses the problem of bureaucracy inside the unions.

Going elsewhere to try and avoid the union bureaucracy lets bureaucrats off the hook. On top of this it abandons the other workers in those unions and pulls some of the best militants away from the mass of workers. And it downplays the potential for building a rank and file within existing unions.

This article is based on a talk given at Marxism 2013. Hear the full meeting at


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