Murray Bookchin: Anarchism vs Syndicalism (1992)

[Graham] Purchase [in "Social Ecology, Anarchism and Trades Unionism"] not only ignores these momentous developments and the analyses that I and others have advanced; he grossly misinterprets and demagogically redefines any criticism of syndicalism, indeed, trade-unionism, as an expression of hostility toward anarchism as such. Assuming that Purchase knows very much about the history of anarchism and syndicalism, this line of argument is manipulative and an outright distortion; but to be generous, I will say that it reveals a degree of ignorance and intolerance that deserves vigorous reproval. In fact, in the late nineteenth century, when syndicalism emerged as an issue among anarchists, it was furiously debated. The outstanding luminaries of the anarchist movement at the the turn of the century — such as Errico Malatesta, Elisee Reclus, Emma Goldman, Sebastian Faure, and others — initially opposed syndicalism for a variety of reasons, many of which show a great deal of prescience on their part. And in time, when they came to accept it, many of them did so in a highly prudent manner. Malatesta, in his fundamental criticism of syndicalism, argued that the generation of a revolutionary spirit ‘cannot be the normal, natural definition of the Trade Union’s function’. Although he eventually accepted anarchosyndicalism with apparent reluctance, he continued to call for a far more expansive form of anarchist organization and practice than many syndicalists were prepared to accept.

In practice, anarchist groups often came into outright conflict with anarchosyndicalist organizations — not to speak of syndicalist organizations, many of which eschewed anarchism. Early in the century, the Spanish anarchocommunists, influenced primarily by Juan Baron and Francisco Cardinal, the editors of Tierra y Libertad, furiously denounced the anarchosyndicalists who were later to form the CNT as ‘deserters’ and ‘reformists’. Similar conflicts developed in Italy, France, and the United States, and perhaps not without reason. The record of the anarchosyndicalist movement has been one of the most abysmal in the history of anarchism generally. In the Mexican Revolution, for example, the anarchosyndicalist leaders of the Casa del Obrero Mundial shamefully placed their proletarian ‘Red Battalions’ at the service of Carranza, one of the revolution’s most bloodthirsty thugs, to fight the truly revolutionary militia of Zapata — all to gain a few paltry reforms, which Carranza withdrew once the Zapatista challenge had been broken with their collaboration. The great Mexican anarchist Ricardo Flores Magon justly denounced their behaviour as a betrayal.

Nor can much be said in defence of the leaders of the CNT in Spain. They swallowed their libertarian principles by becoming ‘ministers’ in the Madrid government late in 1936, not without the support of many of their followers, I should add, and in May 1937 they used their prestige to disarm the Barcelona proletariat when it tried to resist the Stalinist counterrevolution in the Catalan capital. In the United States, lest present-day anarchosyndicalists get carried away by legendary movements like the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), they should be advised that this syndicalist movement, like others elsewhere, was by no means committed to anarchism. ‘Big Bill’ Haywood, its most renowned leader, was never an anarchist. Still other IWW leaders, many of whom tilted toward an anarchist outlook, not only became Communists in the 1920s but became ardent Stalinists in the 1930s and later. It is worth noting that serious Spanish anarchists, even those who joined the CNT, regarded the influence of the CNT’s trade-unionist mentality on the FAI (Iberian Anarchist Federation) as deleterious and ultimately disastrous. Toward the end of the civil war, it was questionable whether the FAI controlled the CNT or, more likely, whether the CNT, with its strong trade-union mentality, had essentially diluted the FAI’s anarchist principles. As Malatesta had so perceptively declared, even as he cautiously accepted the amalgamation of anarchist with syndicalist principles under the pressure of a growing syndicalist movement in Europe, ‘trade unions are, by their nature, reformist and never revolutionary’ (emphasis added). For an oaf like Graham Purchase to bombastically equate syndicalism with anarchism — an act of arrogance that is as fatuous as it is ignorant — and then to go on and essentially equate trade unionism with syndicalism deserves only disdain.

The authentic locus of anarchists in the past was the commune or municipality, not the factory, which was generally conceived as only part of a broader communal structure, not its decisive component. Syndicalism, to the extent that it narrowed this broader outlook by singling out the proletariat and its industrial environment as its locus, also crucially narrowed the more sweeping social and moral landscape that traditional anarchism had created. In large part, this ideological retreat reflected the rise of the factory system in the closing years of the last century in France and Spain, but it also echoed the ascendancy of a particularly vulgar form of economistic Marxism (Marx, to his credit, did not place much stock in trade unionism), to which many naive anarchists and nonpolitical trade unionists succumbed. After the Revolution by Abad de Santillan, one of the movers and shakers of Spanish anarchosyndicalism, reflects this shift toward a pragmatic economism in such a way that makes his views almost indistinguishable from those of the Spanish socialists — and, of course, that brought him into collusion with the Catalan government, literally one of the grave-diggers of Spanish anarchism. Syndicalism — be it anarchosyndicalism or its less libertarian variants — has probably done more to denature the ethical content of anarchism than any other single factor in the history of the movement, apart from anarchism’s largely marginal and ineffectual individualist tendencies. Indeed, until anarchism shakes off this syndicalist heritage and expands its communalistic and communistic heritage, it will be little more than a rhetorical and mindless echo of vulgar Marxism and the ghost of an era that has long passed into history.

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from “Deep Ecology, Anarcho-Syndicalism and the Future of Anarchist Thought,” 1992. Full text of both Bookchin’s piece and the Purchase article he is replying to, is available here in the Freedom Press book Deep Ecology & Anarchism: A Polemic.

1 Response to “Murray Bookchin: Anarchism vs Syndicalism (1992)”

  1. 1 Je suis marxiste « Poumista Trackback on January 11, 2013 at 9:46 am

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