One of the most persistent of human frailties is the tendency of individuals and groups to fall back, in times of a terribly fragmented reality, onto obsolete, even archaic ideologies for a sense of continuity and security. Today we find this not only on the right, where people are evoking the ghosts of Nazism and deadly forms of an embattled nationalism, but also on the “left” (whatever that word may mean anymore), where many people evoke ghosts of their own, be they the Neolithic goddess cults that many feminist and ecological sects celebrate or the generally anti- civilizational ambience that exists among young middle-class people throughout the English- speaking world.
Unfortunately, backward- looking tendencies are by no means absent among a number of self- professed anarchists, either, some of whom have turned to mystical, often expressly primitivistic ideas imbricated with ecotheologies and goddess- worshipping ideologies of one kind or another. Still others have turned uncritically to the eternal verities of anarcho-syndicalism, even though it came to its end as a historical force in the Spanish Civil War of 1936- 39. Enough critical literature on ecotheologies is now available that serious people can exorcise those ghosts from feminism and ecologism. But anarcho-syndicalism, one of the most cloistered of libertarian tendencies today, still evokes a great deal of sympathy owing to its roots in a once- insurgent labor movement.
What I find disturbing about much anarcho-syndicalist literature is its tendency to claim that anarcho-syndicalism is the alpha and omega of “true” anarchism, in contrast to other libertarian tendencies that involve a broader view of social struggle than one that is largely focused on traditional conflicts between wage labor and capital. Certainly not all anarcho- syndicalists would be unsympathetic to, say, eco- anarchism or a communitarian anarchism that is concerned with confederations of villages, towns, and cities, but a degree of dogmatism and stodgy fixity persists among worker- oriented anarchists that I believe should hardly be characteristic of left libertarians generally.
To be told, as anarcho-syndicalist theorist Helmut Rüdiger wrote in 1949, that syndicalism is the “only” ideology “that can relate anarchistic ideas to working people–that is, to the larger part of the population” [der großen Menge der Bevölkerung] seems a cruel joke in the world of the 1990s (Rüdiger, 1949, p. 160). At least the author of so sweeping a claim was an old-timer, an editor of Arbetaren (a Swedish syndicalist weekly), and he penned them in 1949, when it was still unclear that the proletariat had ceased to be the “hegemonic” revolutionary class that it seemed to be a decade earlier. Rüdiger was also willing to broaden the scope of anarcho- syndicalist ideology by introducing some of the more community-oriented views of Proudhon into his ideas. But in conversations with and writings of more recent anarcho- syndicalists, I have increasingly come across similar claims maintaining that syndicalism or “workers’ control” of industry is synonymous with anarchism. Many anarcho-syndicalists seem to regard any libertarian ideas that challenge even the “hegemony” of syndicalism in its various mutations- – generally anarcho- syndicalist in character- – “anti- proletarian,” anti- “classist,” and as propagating a cultural “deviation” from their own bedrock anarchist analysis of class conflict in capitalist society.
That the proletariat that once rallied to the banners of the Spanish National Confederation of Labor (CNT) and the early French General Confederation of Labor (CGT) has changed its apparent character, structure, and outlook over the past century; that capitalism today is no longer quite the capitalism that emerged generations ago; that vital issues have emerged that have a great deal to do with hierarchical structures based on race, gender, nationality, and bureaucratic status, not only economic classes; and that capitalism is now on a collision course with the natural world- – all these problems and many more that are in such dire need of coherent analysis and sweeping solution tend to largely elude the anarcho- syndicalists I have encountered–that is, when they do not simply deal with them marginally, in metaphorical or economistic terms. What is no less troubling, the trade- unionist mentality among some of my own anarcho-syndicalist critics tends to obscure the fact that anarchism itself has historically made a response to social and cultural issues that is much broader than the class struggle between workers and bosses. The result is that today, the more wide- ranging tendencies in anarchist history are either ignored or simply written out of the movement’s past. How successful I or anyone else am likely to be in challenging this deeply entrenched syndicalist mentality, with its claims to ideological “hegemony,” is questionable. But at least the record of anarcho-syndicalism should be clarified and certain of the problems it presents should be confronted. Some attempt should be made to take into consideration the sweeping changes have occurred since the 1930s, to which many anarcho- syndicalists seem oblivious; certain truths that are part of the history of anarchism generally have to be redeemed and explored; and problems should be faced, disagreeable as they may be, and resolved as much as possible, or at least discussed without leaning on a fixed dogma as a substitute for frankness.
Anarchism: The Communal Dimension
It is arguable whether anarchism is primarily a product of relatively modern individualistic ideologies, of Enlightenment rationalism, or of initially inchoate but popular attempts to resist hierarchical domination- – the latter, an interpretation that I share with Kropotkin. In any case, the word anarchist already appeared in the English Revolution when a Cromwellian periodical denounced Cromwell’s more radical critics as “Switzering anarchists” (Bookchin, n.d., vol. 1, p. 161). During the French Revolution, a generation before Proudhon employed the term to designate his own views, royalists and Girondins repeatedly used the word anarchistes to attack the enragés. That the Reformation peasants of Germany in the 1520s who rose up to defend their common lands and village autonomy in the name of an authentic folk version of Christianity are characterized as anarchist, as is Tolstoy despite his devout religiosity, should lay to rest any denials of the fact that the anarchist tradition encompasses expansive, folk- like movements.
It is questionable whether individualism as such is the sine qua non of anarchism- – my own view of anarchism is strongly social- – but anarchism can be seen as emerging in different social periods and conditions in many different forms. It can be found among tribal peoples who resisted the emergence of statist institutions; in the popular opposition of peasants, serfs, slaves, and yeomen to various systems of rule; in the conflict of the enragés and radical sectionnaires of the Parisian assemblies with the Jacobin centralists; and in the proletariat’s struggle in its more heroic periods against capitalist exploitation- – which is not to deny the presence of statist elements in many of these forms of popular resistance as well. Proudhon seems to have spoken largely for craftspeople and the emerging working classes of the nineteenth century; Bakunin, for peasants and an emerging industrial proletariat; avowed anarcho- syndicalists, for factory workers and the agricultural proletariat; Kropotkin, for oppressed people generally, in a still later period when a communistic society based on the principle “From each according to his or her ability, to each according to his or her needs” (or a “post- scarcity society,” in my language), seemed eminently feasible.
I must emphasize that I am not trying to present a rigorous scheme here. It is the remarkable overlap of evolving social conditions and ideologies in the past two centuries that may well explain what seems like “confusion” in an unavoidably disparate body of libertarian ideas. It is important to emphasize, in my view, that anarchism is above all antihierarchical rather than simply individualistic; it seeks to remove the domination of human by human, not only the abolition of the state and exploitation by ruling economic classes. Indeed, far from being mainly individualistic or mainly directed against a specific form of class rule, anarchism has historically been most creative and challenging when it was focused on the commune rather than on its economic components such as the factory, and further that the confederal forms of organization that it elaborated were based on an ethics of complementarity rather than on a contractual system of services and obligations.
Indeed, the importance of the commune in traditional anarchist thought has not received the full attention it deserves, possibly due to the influence that Marxian economism had on anarchism and the hegemonic role it assigned to the industrial proletariat. This economism may also have been supported by Proudhon’s influential writings, many of which anarchists cite without due regard to the time and circumstances in which they were written. Today only a diehard Proudhonian, for example, is likely to agree with Proudhon’s belief, expressed in The Principle of Federalism, that “the idea of anarchy . . . means that political functions have been reduced to industrial functions, and that the social order arises from nothing but transactions and exchanges” (Proudhon, 1863, p. 11). Proudhon’s economistic interpretation of anarchy, with its focus on the self-sovereign individual as a contractual bearer of goods and services (a focus he shared with traditional liberalism in that he structured his views around indivdiual contracts as well as a “social contract”), is not the most edifying of his ideas.
What I find most worth emphasizing in Proudhon is his highly communal notion of confederalism. He was at his best, allowing for certain reservations, when he declared that “the federal system is the contrary of hierarchy or administrative and governmental centralization”; that the “essence” of federal contracts is “always to reserve more powers for the citizen than for the state, and for municipal and provincial authorities than for the central power”; that “the central power” must be “imperceptibly subordinated . . . to the representatives of departments or provinces, provincial authority to the delegates of townships, and municipal authority to its inhabitants” (Proudhon, 1863, pp. 41, 45, 48). Indeed, Edward Hyams, in his highly sympathetic 1979 biography, glows with appreciation as he summarizes Proudhon’s federalism:
It is of the essence of the Proudhonian federation contract that when entering into it, the contracting parties undertaking equivalent and reciprocal obligations towards each other, each reserves to himself a greater measure of rights, of liberty, authority and property than he concedes to the federal authority: the citizen remains master of and in his own house, restricting his rights only in so far as it is necessary to avoid encroaching on those of others in his parish or commune. The commune is self- governing through the assembly of citizens or their delegates, but it vests the county federal authority with certain powers which it thus surrenders. The county, again self- governing through the assembly of delegates from the federated communes, vests the federal authority of the national federation of counties, with powers which it surrenders. So the federation of counties, or regions is the confederation into which the erstwhile sovereign state has been transformed; and it may, in its turn, enter into federative contracts with other such confederations. (Hyams, 1979, p. 254)
To be sure, Hyams places a disquieting emphasis on Proudhon’s individualism of the citizen, who seems to exist in tension with his or her commune, and on contractual relationships as such. Hyams uncritically accepts Proudhon’s notion of different confederal levels of society as each involving the “surrender” of rights rather than being structured into merely administrative and coordinative (as distinguished from policy- making) bodies. Nonetheless, Hyams’s notion of Proudhon’s “federation contract” has a certain modern ring to it. The proprietarian mentality that appears in so many of Proudhon’s writings–which might well be mistaken for recent versions of “market socialism”–is dispensable. The point I wish to stress is that Proudhon here appears as a supporter of direct democracy and assembly self- management on a clearly civic level, a form of social organization well worth fighting for in an era of centralization and oligarchy.
Before Mikhail Bakunin became deeply involved with the International Workingmen’s Association (IWMA) in the 1870s, he too placed a very strong emphasis on the commune or municipality in his vision of an anarchist society. In his Revolutionary Catechism of 1866 (not to be confused with Nechayev’s of 1869), Bakunin observed:
First: all organizations must proceed by way of federation from the base to the summit, from the commune to the coordinating association of the country or nation. Second: there must be at least one autonomous intermediate body between the commune and the country, the department, the region, or the province. . . . The basic unit of all political organization in each country must be the completely autonomous commune, constituted by the majority vote of all adults of both sexes. . . . The province must be nothing but a free federation of autonomous communes. (Bakunin, 1866, pp. 82-83)
Even more boldly, as late as 1870 Bakunin drew an implicit distinction between national parliamentarism and local electoralism, patently favoring the latter over the former.
Due to their economic hardships the people are ignorant and indifferent and are aware only of things closely affecting them. They understand and know how to conduct their daily affairs. Away from their familiar concerns they become confused, uncertain, and politically baffled. They have a healthy, practical common sense when it comes to communal affairs. They are fairly well informed and know how to select from their midst the most capable officials. Under such circumstances, effective control is quite possible, because the public business is conducted under the watchful eyes of the citizens and vitally and directly concerns their daily lives. This why municipal elections always best reflect the real attitude and will of the people. Provincial and county governments, even when the latter are directly elected, are already less representative of the people. (Bakunin, 1870, p. 223)
For Peter Kropotkin, “the form that the social revolution must take [is] the independent commune” (Kropotkin, 1913, p. 163). Commenting on Bakunin’s views, which Kropotkin held to be communist rather than collectivist in reality, he went on to add that federalism and autonomy in themselves are not enough. Although he critically greeted the Paris Commune of 1871 as an “attempt which opened a new era in history,” elsewhere in his writings he saw it as a largely cloistered phenomenon, in which the commune itself, composed of a sizable number of Jacobins, was separated from the people. Not only would “socialism” have to become “communistic” in the economic sense, he averred; it would also have to have the political structure of “self- governing” communes, or in contemporary words, a “participatory democracy.” In France, Spain, England and the United States, he wrote optimistically, “we notice in these countries the evident tendency to form into groups of entirely independent communes, towns and villages, which would combine by means of free federation, in order to satisfy innumerable needs and attain certain immediate ends. . . . The future revolutions in France and Spain will be communalist- – not centralist” (Kropotkin, 1913, pp. 185-86).
Underpinning these visions of Proudhon, Bakunin, and Kropotkin was a communalist ethics- – mutualist in Proudhon, collectivist in Bakunin, and communist in Kropotkin- – that corresponds to a sense of civic virtue and commitment. Whether it was regarded as contractual or complementary, confederalism was to constitute a moral cement and a source of communal solidarity that transcended a bourgeois egotism based on self- interest. It was precisely this sensibility that gave anarchism the right to claim that–in contrast to Marx’s emphasis on class economic interests, indeed on “interest” as such”–it was an ethical socialism, not simply a scientific socialism–Kropotkin’s zeal in the latter respect notwithstanding (see Kropotkin, 1905, p. 298).
Anarchism: The Syndicalist Dimension
The historic opposition of anarchists to oppression of all kinds, be it that of serfs, peasants, craftspeople, or workers, inevitably led them to oppose exploitation in the newly emerging factory system as well. Much earlier than we are often led to imagine, syndicalism- – essentially a rather inchoate but radical form of trade unionism- – became a vehicle by which many anarchists reached out to the industrial working class of the 1830s and 1840s. In the nineteenth century the social contours of what may be called “proletarian anarchism” were very difficult to define. Were peasants, especially landless peasants, members of the working class? Could farmers with small landholdings be so regarded? What of intellectuals, fairly privileged technicians, office and service employees, civil servants, professionals, and the like, who rarely regarded themselves as members of the proletariat?
Marx and Engels personally eschewed terms like “workers,” “toilers,” and “laborers,” although they were quite prepared to use these words in their popular works. They preferred to characterize industrial workers by the “scientifically” precise name of “proletarians”–that is, people who had nothing to sell but their labor power, and even more, who were the authentic producers of surplus value on production lines (an attribute that even Marxists tend to ignore these days). Insofar as the European proletariat as a class evolved from displaced preindustrial strata like landless peasants who had drifted toward the cities, the factory system became their economic home, a place that- – presumably unlike the dispersed farmsteads and villages of agrarian folk- – “organized” them into a cohesive whole. Driven to immiseration by capitalist accumulation and competition, this increasingly (and hopefully) class-conscious proletariat would be inexorably forced to lock horns with the capitalist order as a “hegemonic” revolutionary class and eventually overthrow bourgeois society, laying the foundations for socialism and ultimately communism.
However compelling this Marxian analysis seemed from the 1840s onward, its attempt to reason out the proletariat’s “hegemonic” role in a future revolution by analogy with the seemingly revolutionary role of the bourgeoisie in feudal society was as specious as the latter was itself historically erroneous (see Bookchin, 1971, pp. 181-92). It is not my intention here to critically examine this fallacious historical scenario, which carries considerable weight among many historians to this very day. Suffice it to say that it was a very catchy thesis- – and attracted not only a great variety of socialists but also many anarchists. For anarchists, Marx’s analysis provided a precise argument for why they should focus their attention on industrial workers, adopt a largely economistic approach to social development, and single out the factory as a model for a future society, more recently in particular, based on some form of “workers’ control” and “federal” form of industrial organization. But here an array of problems confronted anarchists even more than Marxists. How were they to relate to small farmers, craftspeople, déclassé elements, and intellectuals? Many of these groups were in fact more predisposed in the past to hold a broader libertarian perspective than were industrial workers, who after a generation or two of industrial discipline tended to accept the factory hierarchy as a normal, indeed “natural,” way of life. And were industrial workers really as “hegemonic” in their class struggle with the “bosses” as the sturdy anarchist peasantry of Spain, many of whom were easily drawn to Bakuninst collectivism, or the largely craft- type workers who embraced Proudhonian mutualism, or the Zapatista Indian peons of Mexico who, like the Makhnovist Ukrainian militia, adhered to what was an intuitive anarchistic outlook? To the extent that anarchists tried to mingle their ethical views with Marxian claims to “scientific” precision, they laid the basis for tensions that would later seriously divide the anarchist movement itself and lead more economistically oriented anarchists into compromises that vitiated the ethical thrust of anarchism as a social movement.
The involvement of anarchists with the IWMA reinforced the vague syndicalist trend that certainly had existed in their movement before the word “anarcho- syndicalism” was coined. As early as the 1870s, more than a decade before French anarchists proclaimed anarcho-syndicalism to be the best, often the only approach for achieving a libertarian society, Spanish anarchists influenced primarily by Bakuninism had created a diffuse but largely syndicalist union movement that combined the visions of a revolutionary general strike with insurrections and a commitment to a confederally organized system of “workers’ control” (see Bookchin, 1977, p. 137). Nor did French anarcho-syndicalism itself emerge ex nihilo: the General Confederation of Labor (CGT), established in 1895 with its dual chambers of local and national industrial confederations, encompassed a wide spectrum of reformist, revolutionary, “pure” syndicalist, and anarchist views. Anarcho- syndicalism never fully dominated the CGT’s outlook even in its most militant period, the decade before the outbreak of the First World War (see Stearns, 1971, which shows how tame the CGT really was.)
Nor was anarcho-syndicalism ever completely accepted among anarchists as coeval with anarchism. Many outstanding anarchists opposed syndicalism as too parochial in its outlook and in its proletarian constituency. At the famous Amsterdam Congress of 1907, Errico Malatesta, the gallant Italian anarchist, challenged the view that anarcho-syndicalism should supersede anarcho-communism. Without denying “the weapon which syndicalist forms of action might place in [anarchism’s] hands,” observes George Wood*censored* in his account of Malatesta’s objections at the congress, Malatesta
insisted that syndicalism could be regarded only as a means, and an imperfect means at that, since it was based on a rigid class conception of society which ignored the fact that the interests of the workers varied so much that “sometimes workers are economically and morally much nearer to the bourgeoisie than to the proletariat.” . . . The extreme syndicalists, in Malatesta’s view, were seeking an illusory economic solidarity instead of a real moral solidarity; they placed the interests of a single class above the true anarchist ideal of a revolution which sought “the complete liberation of all humanity, at present enslaved from the triple economic, political and moral point of view.” (Wood*censored*, 1962, p. 267)
This passage touches upon all the problems anarcho-syndicalism- – not only “pure syndicalism”- – were to create in the anarchist movement. Ideologically, anarcho-syndicalists slowly began to debase communist anarchism’s emphases on the commune in favor of trade unions, on the humanistic ethics of mutualism in favor of the economistic interpretation of social conflict, on the opposition to a generalized notion of domination in favor of the particularistic class interests of the proletariat.
This is not to contend that anarchists should have ignored trade unions, economic problems, and class conflicts. But anarcho-syndicalists increasingly supplanted the communal, ethical, universalistic, and anti-domineering character of anarchism as a broad vision of freedom in all spheres of life with their own narrower one. Ultimately, the tendency to parochialize anarchism along economistic and class lines grossly constricted its scope to a trade-unionist mentality. As Malatesta himself warned, “Trade Unions are by their very nature reformist and never revolutionary.” Moreover:
the real and immediate interests of organised workers, which is the Unions’ role to defend, are very often in conflict with their [i.e., revolutionaries’] ideals and forward- looking objectives; and the Union can only act in a revolutionary way if permeated by a spirit of sacrifice and to the extent that the ideal is given precedence over interest, that is, only if, and to the extent that, it ceases to be an economic Union and becomes a political and idealistic group. (Malatesta, 1922, p. 117; emphasis added)
Malatesta’s fears, in fact, were subsequently realized with a vengeance. It is fair to say that the performance of the anarcho- syndicalist movement has been one of the most dismal in the two- century history of modern anarchism. A few examples may suffice to show what became a general affliction that burdened self- styled libertarian trade unions. In the Mexican Revolution, the anarcho-syndicalist leaders of the Casa del Obrera Mundial shamelessly placed their proletarian “Red Battalions” in the service of Carranza, one of the revolution’s most blatant thugs, to fight against the revolutionary militia of Emiliano Zapata- – all to gain a few reforms, which Carranza withdrew once the Zapatista challenge had been definitively broken with their collaboration. The great Mexican anarchist Ricardo Flores Magón justly denounced their behavior as a betrayal (Magón, 1977, p. 27).
In the United States, lest present- day anarcho- syndicalists get carried away by the legendary Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), or “Wobblies,” they should be advised that this syndicalist movement, like many others elsewhere, was by no means committed to anarchism. “Big Bill” Haywood, its most renowned leader, was never an anarchist, and after he jumped bail and fled to Moscow rather than face judicial challenges–to the shock of his “Wobbly” supporters–he eventually drifted toward the Communist “Red Trade International” (Profintern), however uncomfortable he may have felt with it. Still other “Wobblies” such as Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, William Z. Foster, Bob Minor, and Earl Browder, who either were anarchists or tilted toward anarchism, found a comfortable home in the American Communist Party well into the 1940s and after. Many “Wobblies” who attended meetings of the Communist International soon began to shun Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman in Moscow, despite their close frienship with the two anarchists in the pre- Bolshevik period, as Goldman bitterly attested (Goldman, 1931, vol. 2, p. 906).
In France, where the ostensibly syndicalist General Confederation of Labor (CGT) generated the strong syndicalistic emphasis among anarchists throughout the world at the turn of the century, the union was never itself anarcho-syndicalist. Many French anarchists, to be sure, flocked into this very fragile confederation and tried to influence its members along libertarian lines. The CGT’s members, however, no less than many of its leaders, tended toward reformist goals and eventually were absorbed into the Communist movement after the Bolshevik revolution. Not only was anarchist influence on the CGT limited at best, but as Peter Stearns tells us, “One strike resulted when a manager spoke of ‘anarchy on the site,’ for the ditchdiggers (in Paris, interestingly enough) felt that he had accused them of being anarchists.” Further:
It is clear that, even in Paris, convinced syndicalists were a small minority of active union members. And only a minority of even the more excitable workers were unionized and therefore likely to be syndicalist; in Paris in 1908, that is, in the peak period of agitation by unskilled construction workers [who were the most likely candidates for supporters of an anarcho-syndicalist outlook- -M.B.], only 40% belonged to a union. The resentment some expressed against being called anarchists suggests a persistent distrust of radical doctrines, even among active strikers. (Stearns, 1971, pp. 58, 96)
Nor can much more be said about the CNT in Spain, which by 1938 comprised the most militant and socially conscious working class in the history of the labor movement and at least exhibited considerably more anarchist zeal than any other syndicalist union. Yet this extraordinary confederation tended repeatedly to move toward “pure and simple” trade unionism in Barcelona, whose working class might well have drifted into the Socialist General Union of Workers (UGT) had the Catalan bourgeoisie showed even a modicum of liberality and sophistication in dealing with the proletariat of that area. The Iberian Anarchist Federation (FAI) was organized in 1927 largely to prevent CNT moderates like Salvado Segui, who tended to hold class-collaborationist views, and the “Thirty,” who were bitterly opposed to FAI militancy and that of insurgent CNT unions, from gaining control of the confederation as a whole. This moderate tendency came very much to the fore with the outbreak of the civil war.
A host of complex issues existed in the relationships between the Catalan state and the syndicalist CNT, which all but absorbed the FAI in the 1930s (often cojoining its acronym to that of the union as the “CNT-FAI”). But its anarcho-syndicalist leadership after the July 1936 uprising actually made no effort to collectivize the economy. Significantly, “no left organization issued calls for revolutionary takeovers of factories, workplaces or the land,” as Ronald Fraser observes.
Indeed, the CNT leadership in Barcelona, epicentre of urban anarcho- syndicalism, went further: rejecting the offer of power presented to it by President [Luis] Companys, it decided that the libertarian revolution must stand aside for collaboration with the Popular Front forces to defeat the common enemy. The revolution that transformed Barcelona in a matter of days into a city virtually run by the working class sprang initially from individual CNT unions, impelled by their most advanced militants; and as their example spread it was not only large enterprises but small workshops and businesses that were being taken over. (Fraser, 1984, p. 226-27)
Fraser’s interpretation is corroborated by Gaston Laval, one of the most distinguished anarchists in the Spanish libertarian movement, whose Collectives in the Spanish Revolution (1975) is generally regarded as the most comprehensive work on the collectives. Laval emphasizes the importance of the usually unknown anarchist militants, a minority in the CNT, who constituted the authentic and most thoroughgoing impetus for collectivization. “It is clear,” observes Laval, that
the social revolution which took place then did not stem from a decision by the leading organisms of the C.N.T. or from the slogans launched by the militants and agitators who were in the public limelight but who rarely lived up to expectations.
Laval does not specify which luminaries he means here, but continues:
It occurred spontaneously, naturally, not (and let us avoid demagogy) because “the people” in general had suddenly become capable of performing miracles, thanks to a revolutionary vision which suddenly inspired them, but because, and it is worth repeating, among those people there was a large minority who were active, strong, guided by an ideal which had been continuing through the years a struggle started in Bakunin’s time and that of the First International; for in countless places were to be found men, combattants, who for decades had been pursuing constructive objectives, gifted as they were with a creative initiative and a practical sense which were indispensable for local adaptation and whose spirit of innovation constituted a power leaven, capable of coming up with conclusive solutions at the required time. (Laval, 1975, p. 80)
These “combattants” were probably among the first to enlist in the militias in 1936 and to perish on the battlefronts of the civil war–an irreparable loss to the Spanish anarchist movement.
To sort out and critically appraise the different kinds of collectives or systems of “workers’ control” that emerged after the street fighting in Barcelona, moreover, would require a volume substantially larger than Laval’s Collectives. Laval, whose anarcho- syndicalist credentials are unimpeccable, frankly made the following observation:
Too often in Barcelona and Valencia, workers in each undertaking took over the factory, the works, or the workshop, the machines, raw materials, and taking advantage of the continuation of the money system and normal capitalist commercial relations, organised production on their own account, selling for their own benefit the produce of their labour. (Laval, 1975, p. 227; emphasis added)
The Catalan government’s decree of October 1936 “legalized” these collectives with the CNT’s approval and opened the door to governmental participation in various “workers’ control” committees, eventually all but turning them into nationalized enterprises. But even before this process was completed, Laval acknowledges, there was “a workers’ neo- capitalism, a self- management straddling capitalism and socialism, which we maintain would not have occurred had the Revolution been able to extend itself fully under the direction of our Syndicates” (Laval, 1975, p. 227-28).
Whether or not the full “socialization” (that is, CNT control) of the collectivized factories and enterprises would have obviated the highly centralized economic tendency within the CNT, however syndicalistic, is arguable. In cases where the CNT actually achieved syndicalist control, “the union became like a large firm,” notes Fraser in his remarkable oral history of the civil war, Blood of Spain. “Its structure grew increasingly rigid.” Observes Eduardo Pons Prades, a member of the Libertarian youth, “From outside it began to look like an American or German trust,” and he then goes on to declare that within the collectives (specifically the wood and furniture one), the workers
felt they weren’t particularly involved in decision- making. If the “general staff” decided that production in two workshops should be switched, the workers weren’t informed of the reasons. Lack of information- – which could easily have been remedied by producing a news- sheet, for example- – bred discontent, especially as the CNT tradition was to discuss and examine everything. Fortnightly delegates’ meetings became monthly and ended up, I think, being quarterly. (Pons Prado quoted in Fraser, 1979, pp. 222-23)
That the Spanish workers and peasants in the mid- thirties made social changes and moved toward a degree of industrial and agricultural democracy unprecedented in the history of past revolutions- – this, I must emphasize, at a time when the legitimacy of “proletarian socialism” seemed to be warranted by a century of rising working-class militancy and class consciousness- -does not alter the problems raised by the prospect of a future society structured around trade unions and a very specific class interest. Certainly, to make anarcho- syndicalism the equivalent of anarchism as such must be vigorously challenged. Indeed, it is by no means a matter of purely historical interest to ask whether a tendency in the anarchist tradition is alive or dead- – a problem that anyone sympathetic to syndicalist versions of anarchism faces especially today, in view of the pragmatic nature of its doctrine and orientation. And if it has no life among proletarians, we are obliged to ask why. For when we examine the possibilities, failings, and history of anarcho-syndicalism, we are examining how we define anarchism itself: whether its ideals can be built on the interests of a very particularistic part of society largely guided by limited economic interests (a problem that Malatesta clearly perceived), or on an ethical socialism or communism that includes but goes beyond the material interests of an oppressed humanity. If we cannot regard anarcho-syndicalism as viable, we must try to determine what, in the existing society, does offer some avenue to a free community of cooperative people who still retain their autonomy and individuality in an increasingly massified world.
Workers and Citizens
What after all did anarcho- syndicalists mean by the “proletariat,” apart from those who were prepared to include “agrarian workers” in unions (which the CGT did not do and the CNT largely neglected in the late 1920s and early 1930s)?
I have suggested that the concept was defined mainly along Marxian lines, albeit without Marx’s more searching, if erroneous, economic analysis. It implicitly included key concepts on which Marx’s theory of “historical materialism” rested, notably the notion of the economy as the “base” of social life and the privileging of the industrial workers as a historically “hegemonic” class. To their credit, nonsyndicalist anarchists who gave a friendly nod to syndicalism because of moral pressure tended at the same time to resist this troubling simplification of social issues and forces. On the eve of the Spanish Civil War, the CNT was largely composed of industrial workers (a fact, I may add, that belies Eric Hobsbawn’s view of anarchists as “primitive rebels”). It had already lost most of its agrarian following to the Spanish Socialist rural unions, apart from a few strongholds in Andalusia and Aragon (see Malefakis, 1970). Gerald Brenan’s image of Spanish anarchism as a peasant movement as late as the 1930s, although still rather popular, is largely flawed. It represents a typically Andalusian view of anarcho-syndicalism that advanced a limited perspective on the movement (Brenan, 1943). In fact, the leftward shift of the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) in the 1930s can be explained in great measure by the entry of thousands of Andalusian day laborers into Socialist-controlled unions, even while they still retained the anarchic impulses of the previous generation (Bookchin, 1977, pp. 274-75, 285, 288-90).
Despite the “moral tone” that anarchists gave to the CNT (as Pons Prado phrases it in the recent Granada video documentary), the highly economistic emphasis of leading CNT figures, or “cenetistas,” such as Diego Abad de Santillán in his widely read work After the Revolution, reveals the extent to which syndicalism had absorbed anarchism in its image of a new society, unwittingly melding Marxian methods of struggle, organizational ideas, and rationalized concepts of labor with anarchism’s professed commitment to “libertarian communism” (see citations in Bookchin, 1977, pp. 310-11). The CNT’s notion of “socializing” production often involved a highly centralized form of production, not unlike the Marxist notion of a “nationalized” economy. It differed surprisingly little from statist forms of economic planning that slowly eroded workers’ control on the factory level. Their efforts led to serious confrontations between the more anarchistic “moralists” and the syndicalistic “realists,” whose libertarian views often served as a patina for a narrow trade unionist mentality (see Fraser, 1979, pp. 221-22; Peirats, n.d., pp. 295-96).
Indeed, the CNT became more and more bureaucratic after the halcyon days of 1936, until its slogan of “libertarian communism” merely echoed its anarchic ideals of earlier decades (Peirats, n.d., p. 229-30). By 1937, especially after the May uprising, the union was anarcho-syndicalist only in name. The Madrid and Catalan governments had taken over most of the industrial collectives, leaving only the appearance of workers’ control in most industries. The revolution was indeed over. It had been arrested and undermined not only by the Communists, the right- wing Socialists, and the liberals but by the “realists” in the CNT itself.
How did a change so sweeping occur in a period of time so brief, in an anarcho- syndicalist organization that had such a huge proletarian following? How is it that a professedly libertarian movement that, by Frederica Montseney’s own admission (see Granada Films, n.d.), could have stopped the Franquista advance by using libertarian tactics alone–that is, the preservation of the militias, the collectivization of industry and agriculture, and the resolute defense of the revolutionary gains in the cities and countryside against an unswerving Communist strategy of counterrevolution–failed to do so? And failed in such a tragic, humiliating, and demoralizing fashion? Franco’s military victories and the fear they inspired do not fully explain this defeat. Historically, no revolution has ever occurred without civil war, and it was by no means evident that Franco was receiving effective military support from Germany and Italy until well into 1937. Even if external circumstances doomed the revolution to defeat, as Laval (1975, p. 68) and Abad de Santillán (1940) seem to have believed early on, the anarcho- syndicalist movement would seem to have had little to lose at the time if it had permitted the Barcelona uprising of May 1937 to recover the revolution’s gains and militarily confront its enemies from within the republic. Why, in fact, did the workers who raised barricades in Barcelona during that fateful week obey their leaders and allow themselves to be disarmed?
These questions point to an underlying issue: the limitations of a movement that privileges any class as “hegemonic” within the capitalist system. Such issues as what stratum, class, or constellation of groups in society constitute the “subject” of historical change today are in the foreground of discussions in nearly all radical movements–with the possible exception of the anarcho- syndicalists I have encountered. In Spain, to be sure, the most fervent anarchists went to the front in the early months of the civil war and suffered an immensely high death toll, which probably contributed to the considerable decline in the “moral tone” of the movement after 1936. But even if these anarchist militants had remained behind, it is questionable whether they could have overcome the largely trade unionist mentality of the syndicalists and inertial forces that shaped the mentality of the working class itself.
Which brings us to what in my view is one of the major sources of error in the notion of proletarian hegemony. The industrial working class, for all the oppression and exploitation to which it is subjected, may certainly engage in class struggles and exhibit considerable social militancy. But rarely does class struggle escalate into class war or social militancy explode into social revolution. The deadening tendency of Marxists and anarcho-syndicalists to mistake struggle for war and militancy for revolution has plagued radical theory and practice for over a century but most especially during the era of “proletarian socialism” par excellence, from 1848 to 1939, that gave rise to the myth of “proletarian hegemony.” As Franz Borkenau contends, it is easier to arouse nationalist feeling in the working class than feelings of international class solidarity, especially in periods of warfare, as the two world wars of this century so vividly reveal (Borkenau, 1962, pp. 57-79). Given the steady diet of “betrayals” to which Marxists and anarcho-syndicalists attribute the failure of the proletariat to establish a new society, one may well ask if these “betrayals” are really evidence of a systemic factor that renders meaningless and obscure the kind of “proletariat” that Marxists and anarcho- syndicalists adduce as the basis for privileging the working class as a whole in the name of “proletarian hegemony.”
Often lacking in explications of the notion of “proletarian hegemony” is a historically nuanced account of the workers who did raise barricades in Paris in June 1848, in Petrograd in 1905 and 1917, and in Spain between 1870 and 1936. These “proletarians” were most often craftspeople for whom the factory system was a culturally new phenomenon. Many others had an immediate peasant background and were only a generation or two removed from a rural way of life. Among these “proletarians,” industrial discipline as well as confinement in factory buildings produced very unsettling cultural and psychological tensions. They lived in a force- field between a preindustrial, seasonally determined, largely relaxed craft or agrarian way of life on the one hand, and the factory or workshop system that stressed the maximum, highly rationalized exploitation, the inhuman rhythms of machinery, the barracks-like world of congested cities, and exceptionally brutal working conditions, on the other. Hence it is not at all surprising that this kind of working class was extremely incendiary, and that its riots could easily explode into near-insurrections.
Marx saw the proletariat as “a class always increasing in numbers, and disciplined, united, organised by the very mechanisms of the process of capitalist production itself.” As for the class struggle: “Centralisation of the means of production and socialization of labour at last reach a point where they become incompatible with their capitalist integument. This integument is burst asunder. The knell of capitalist private property sounds. The expropriators are expropriated” (Marx, 1906, vol. 1, pp. 836-37). Allowing for their varying alternatives in managing the industrial system, anarcho-syndicalists share this theoretical construct about the fate of capitalism and the role of the proletariat no less than Marxists. In Spain, this largely economistic approach, with its high regard for the unity that the factory system imposes on workers, proved fatal. In areas influenced by the CNT, the workers did indeed “expropriate” the economy, albeit in a variety in ways and forms that ranged from “neo- capitalist” to highly “socialized” (or centralized) forms. But “workers’ control,” whatever its form, did not produce a “new society.” The underlying idea that by controlling much of the economy the anarcho-syndicalist movement would essentially control the society (a rather simplistic version of Marx’s historical materialism) proved a myth. The Catalan state in particular, before it finally turned to violence to completely eviscerate “socialized” workers’ control, exercised its leverage over the Catalan financial and marketing system and simply inserted its own representatives into the workers’ committees and confederal bodies, eventually reshaping the industrial collectives into de facto nationalized enterprises (see Laval, 1975, p. 279).
To the extent that wage- labor and capital do confront each other economically, their struggle- – a very real one indeed- – normally occurs within a thoroughly bourgeois framework, as Malatesta foresaw generations ago. The struggle of workers with capitalists is essentially a conflict between two interlocking interests that is nourished by the very capitalist nexus of contractual relationships in which both classes participate. It normally counterposes higher wages to higher profits, less exploitation to greater exploitation, and better working conditions to poorer working conditions. These patently negotiable conflicts turn around differences in degree, not in kind. They are fundamentally contractual differences, not social differences.
Precisely because the industrial proletariat is “disciplined, united, organised by the very mechanism of capitalist production itself,” as Marx put it, it is also more amenable to rationalized systems of control and hierarchical systems of organization than were the precapitalist strata that historically became the proletariat. Before this proletariat became integrated into the factory system, it mounted uprisings in France, Spain, Russia, Italy, and other relatively unindustrialized countries that are now so legendary in radical history books. Factory hierarchies, with their elaborate structures of managerial supervision, were often carried over into trade unions, even professedly anarcho-syndicalist ones, where workers were unusually vulnerable to “labor bosses” of all kinds- – a problem that still plagues the labor movement of our own day.
Inasmuch as anarcho- syndicalists and doctrinaire Marxists alike often characterize the views advanced in this article as “anti- proletarian” or “anti- working class,” let me once again emphasize very strongly that I am not denying the importance of gaining working-class support for anarchist ideals. Nor am I deprecating the extraordinary achievements of the Spanish workers and peasants in the revolution of 1936, many of which were unmatched by any previous revolution. But it would be the height of self- deception, victimizing anarchists no less than concerned readers of other radical viewpoints, to ignore major limitations that also marked the Spanish revolution–limitations that, seen in retrospect, must now inform anarchist theory and practice. Indeed, many Spanish anarchists in various ways seriously questioned the involvement of their movement with syndicalism, even after they succumbed quite understandably to a syndicalist version of “political correctness” that seemed meaningful a half-century ago.
To its credit, Spanish anarchism- – like anarchist movements elsewhere- – never completely focused on the factory as the locus classicus of libertarian practice. Quite often throughout the last century and well into the civil war period, villages, towns, and the neighborhoods of large cities, as well as popular cultural centers, were major loci of anarchist activities. In these essentially civic arenas, women no less than men, peasants no less than workers, the elderly no less than the young, intellectuals no less than workers, déclassé elements no less than definable members of oppressed classes- – in short, a wide range of people concerned not only with their own oppressions but with various ideals of social justice and communal freedom–attracted anarchist propagandists and proved to be highly receptive to libertarian ideas. The social concerns of these people often transcended strictly proletarian ones and were not necessarily focused on syndicalist forms of organization. Their organizations, in fact, were rooted in the very communities in which they lived.
We are only now beginning to understand, as I have emphasized in my writings over the years and as Manuel Castells (1983) has empirically shown, how much many radical workers’ movements were largely civic phenomena, grounded in specific neighborhoods in Paris, Petrograd, and Barcelona, and in small towns and villages that formed the arenas not only of class unrest but civic or communal unrest. In such milieux, oppressed and discontented people acted in response to the problems they faced not only as economic beings but as communal beings. Their neighborhoods, towns, and villages, in turn, constituted vital sources of support for their struggles against a wide range of oppressions that were more easily generalized into broad social movements whose scope was wider than the problem of their shops and factories. It was not in the factory or workshop alone that radical values and broad social ideals were usually nourished but also in community centers of one kind or another, even in town halls, as history of the Paris Commune of 1871 so clearly demonstrates. It was not only in Petrograd’s factories that mass mobilization against czarist oppression emerged but in the city’s Vyborg district as a whole.
Similarly, the Spanish revolution was born not only in Barcelona’s textile plants but in the city’s neighborhoods, where workers and nonworkers alike set up barricades, acquired what arms they could, alerted their fellow residents to the dangers that the military uprising posed, functioned communally in terms of supply and surveillance of possible counterrevolutionaries, and tried to satisfy the needs of the infirm and the elderly within the larger framework of a modern city and seaport. Gaston Laval devotes a substantial section of his book, called “Towns and Isolated Achievements,” to a civic form of “socialization” that, in his words,
we shall call municipalist, which we could also call communalist, and which has its roots in Spanish traditions that have remained living. . . . It is characterized by the leading role of the town, the commune, the municipality, that is, to the predominance of the local organisation which embraces the city as a whole. (Laval, 1975, p. 279)
This kind of anarchist organization is by no means unique to Spain. Rather, it is part of the larger anarchist tradition that I described earlier and that has received, I must emphasize, comparatively little recognition since the emergence of syndicalism. Anarchism, in fact, has not been well- served by the forms of syndicalism that have shifted its focus from the commune to the factory and from moral values to economic ones. In the past, what gave anarchism its “moral tone”–and what “practical” activists in unions and on shop floors so often resisted–was precisely its concern for a communism structured around civic confederations and demands for freedom as such, not simply for economic democracy in the form of workers’ control. Presyndicalist forms of anarchism were occupied with human liberation, in which the interests of the proletariat were not neglected, to be sure, but were fused in a generalized social interest that spanned a broad horizon of needs, concerns, and problems. Ultimately the satisfaction and resolution of these needs, concerns, and problems could be met only in the commune, not in a part of it, such as the factory, workshop, or farm.
To the degree that anarchists regarded a free society as nonhierarchical as well as classless, they hoped that specific interests would give way to communal and regional interests, indeed, to the abolition of interest as such by placing all the problems of the community and the confederated region onto a shared agenda. This agenda was to be the concern of the people at large in a direct face- to- face democracy. Workers, food cultivators, professionals, and technicians, indeed, people in general, were to no longer think of themselves as members of specific classes, professional groups, and status groups; they were to become citizens of a community, occupied with resolving not separate particularistic conflicting interests but a shared general human body of concerns.
It is this kind of moral vision of a new society that gives to present- day anarchism a relevance that no other form of communistic or socialistic movement has advanced in recent memory. Its concept of emancipation and community speaks to the transclass problems of gender, age, ethnic, and hierarchical oppression–problems whose scope reaches beyond the dissolution of a class-ridden economy and that are resolved by a truly ethical society in which the harmonization of human with human leads also to the harmonization of humanity with the natural world. Anything less than this vision, I submit, would fall short of the potentialities of humanity to function as a rational, creative, and liberatory agent in both social and natural history. Over many books and essays, I have articulated this broad conception of humanity’s self- realization in what I consider to be a constructive vision of anarchy: a directly democratic, humanly scaled, confederal, ecologically oriented, and communistic society.
To perpetuate the historical shift of anarchism from a largely ethical form of socialism (in its most generic sense) to anarcho-syndicalism–a largely economistic form of socialism most often premised on the factory structure–would be, in my view, highly regressive. Many of the largely syndicalist tendencies in Spain and elsewhere that professed to believe in a libertarian communist society did not hesitate to borrow methods and immoral forms of behavior from the capitalist economy itself. The economistic mentality of the so-called “practicals” and “realists” who presumably knew how to manipulate workers and express their pragmatic interests brought an increasingly amoral, even immoral tone into the CNT’s leadership. This tone still seems to linger on in the dwindling anarcho-syndicalism of the 1990s. A disregard for nuanced ideas, a simplistic vision of social change, and a sometimes absolutist claim to the anarchist legacy surfaces, in my experience, with a frequency that tends to make anarcho-syndicalism a very intolerant, if not an unsavory movement.
No one, least of all myself, would want to prevent anarchists from entering factories, sharing the problems of workers, and hopefully winning them to libertarian ideals. It would be helpful, in fact, if many of them followed through on their own pragmatically oriented ideas by participating in the lives of the proletarians they tend to hypostasize. What I challenge is the specious claim that anarcho-syndicalism constitutes the totality of anarchist thought and practice, that it is the “only” ideology that “can relate anarchistic ideas to working people,” that it preaches a doctrine of “proletarian hegemony” despite the repeated failures of sizable, even mass syndicalist movements and the steady distortions of syndicalist history. Helmut Rüdiger notwithstanding, the proletariat is not “the larger part of the population.” Indeed, as a result of changes in the productive and organizational forms of modern capitalism, the factory proletariat is drastically diminishing in numbers today, and the future of factories with large workforces is very much up in the air. Certainly Spain today, like the rest of the Western world, bears very little resemblance to what it was early in the twentieth century–even to what I personally saw in Spain a quarter-century ago. Sweeping technological revolutions and major cultural changes, as a result of which formerly class-conscious workers now identify with the “middle class,” have turned anarcho-syndicalism into a ghost of its former self. To the extent that this ghost claims to constitute the totality of anarchism, it is utterly incapable of dealing with social issues that were latent even in times past, when a commitment to “proletarian socialism” was the outstanding feature of radical movements.
Actually, workers have always been more than mere proletarians. Much as they have been concerned about factory issues, workers are also parents who are concerned about the future of their children, men and women who are concerned about their dignity, autonomy, and growth as human beings, neighbors who are concerned about their community, and empathetic people who were concerned with social justice, civic rights, and freedom. Today, in addition to these very noneconomic issues, they have every reason to be concerned about ecological problems, the rights of minorities and women, their own loss of political and social power, and the growth of the centralized state- – problems that are not specific to a particuIar class and that cannot be resolved within the walls of factories. Indeed, it should, I think, be a matter of particular concern to anarchists to help workers become fully conscious not only of their concerns an economic class but of the broadly human concerns of the potential citizens of a free and ecological society. The “humanization” of the working class, like any other section of the population, crucially depends upon the ability of workers to undo their “workerness” and advance themselves beyond class consciousness and class interest to a community consciousness–as free citizens who alone can establish a future ethical, rational, and ecological society.
As “practical” and “realistic” as anarcho-syndicalism may seem, it represents in my view an archaic ideology rooted in a narrowly economistic notion of bourgeois interest, indeed of a sectorial interest as such. It relies on the persistence of social forces like the factory system and the traditional class consciousness of the industrial proletariat that are waning radically in the Euro-American world in an era of indefinable social relations and ever-broadening social concerns. Broader movements and issues are now on the horizon of modern society that, while they must necessarily involve workers, require a perspective that is larger than the factory, trade union, and a proletarian orientation.
–November 6, 1992
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