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International Workers' Association (IWA-AIT)

Syndicalism for the Twenty-First Century: From Unionism to Class-Struggle Militancy

By Gabriel Kuhn and Torsten Bewernitz - CounterPunch, December 6, 2019

The capitalism we grew up in has collapsed. Its democratic mask has become transparent and its social pretensions hollow. In times of crisis, capitalism resembles a wounded predator and attacks indiscriminately. Crises also open up new possibilities for workers’ resistance, but this needs organizations that can sustain it. The last decade has painfully shown that such organizations do not exist. Capitalism’s current crisis is far from over, though. There is still a chance.

We are both active in syndicalist organizations. One of us in the German Free Workers’ Union, FAU, the other in the Central Organization of Workers in Sweden, SAC. In this text, we raise the question of where the future of syndicalist organizations lies. Our proposal might seem ironic: in order to save syndicalism’s mass orientation, the focus on unionism needs to be overcome.

Since the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States, the Brexit referendum, and the rise of the extreme right in various European and Latin American countries, there have been plenty of discussions about the left having lost touch with the working class. Oddly enough, syndicalists are largely absent from this debate, although the syndicalist tradition would predestine them to be an important voice in it and offer practical experience. When leftist pundits discuss what is often referred to as a “new class politics,” they regularly evoke inherent aspects of the syndicalist tradition, from direct action and self-management to horizontalism and internationalism.

Yet, syndicalists must blame themselves for their absence. “Real syndicalism” has largely become cliquish, paranoid, and self-marginalizing. The rejection and hostility that we experience from mainstream unions goes a certain way to explain this but not all of it.

One reason for the state of the syndicalist movement is that syndicalists dogmatically adhere to a particular form of organization that, with very few exceptions, hasn’t proven successful in almost a hundred years: the syndicalist mass union. Let’s be honest: if syndicalist unions that have existed for several decades struggle to have four-digit membership numbers, they have failed as aspiring mass unions. The Spanish CGT, with close to 100.000 members, is the only syndicalist union that can claim mass support today – and it is often accused of “reformism,” or even “traitorism,” by other syndicalist unions.

Syndicalist unions aren’t benefiting from the current crisis of mainstream unions, which organize no more than ten percent of the global proletariat. This although neoliberalism has given rise to a new army of “unorganizable” workers (today often called the “precariat”) who filled the ranks of the syndicalist mass unions a century ago. In short, revolutionary syndicalism as we know it might be a thing of the past. In order for it to survive, it needs to be reinvented.

Minuscule unions cannot be the answer. Militant workers’ organizations, however, might be. A union with a thousand members can only have limited impact; a class-struggle organization with a thousand members can have a huge impact if they are committed militants and organizers.

The dogmatic syndicalist attachment to the mass union is based on a false interpretation of history. Syndicalism’s ultimate goal was not to establish mass unions. Syndicalism’s ultimate goal was to establish a classless society, or, as many a syndicalist preamble declares, “libertarian socialism.” A hundred years ago, building mass unions appeared to be a viable means to reach this goal. Today, it does not. This doesn’t discredit the syndicalist idea of strengthening worker’s self-organization and solidarity in order to fight capital and the state. It only means that syndicalism has to express itself in other forms.

Socialist Internationals in History

By Richard Greeman - Institute for Social Ecology, October 4, 2015

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

This study is based on the premise that any profound social transformation in our era of globalized capitalism would have to take place on a planetary scale. History has shown that revolutionary movements, when geographically isolated, are inevitably either crushed or assimilated into the capitalist world system. This internationalist conclusion first became apparent to working people during the 19th century as capitalism and the Industrial Revolution spread across Europe, and it was first elaborated theoretically by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in their 1848 Manifesto of the Communist League with its ringing conclusion: “Workers of the world, unite!”

SIDEBAR

In point of fact, the French socialist and feminist Flora Tristan (1803-1844), ahead of her time, was the first to call for a “universal union” of workers. Moreover, Tristan’s “union” was truly “universal” because she proclaimed the necessity of uniting “workers of both sexes” – in Working Class Unity (L’Union Ouvrière). It took two years before the International Workingmen’s Association, of which Marx was a founder, began to admit women as members and it was three years before a woman, the feminist Harriet Law, was added to the General Council.

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