So, what is this Syndicalism, this criminal philosophy that I embrace? Here are a few of the key ideas of this political philosophy, as expounded in 1913 in the pages of the British magazine “The Syndicalist”. It's worth noting that this essay was written by a fill-in editor, Gaylord Wilshire, at a time when the regular editor, Guy Bowman, was on trial under the British equivalent of anti-syndicalism laws:
The essence of Syndicalism is the control by the workers themselves, be they intellectual or manual, of the conditions of their own work.
The growth of the machine process has divorced the worker from the control he formerly exercised by his individual ownership of the tools of production
Syndicalism proposes that this control of the technical processes now exercised by the capitalist shall pass to various groups of organised workers of the various industries. The product which is now the property of the capitalist would become under Syndicalism the property of the community.
Syndicalism is distinctly for mass action and mass consciousness, and recognises that nothing can be done without concerted, organised action. It believes in direct action by the mass and not by the individual.
Syndicalism is frankly revolutionary in its attitude towards property. It says that when the workers organise industrially they can and will take possession of the machinery of production.
Syndicalism emerged in opposition to, and as an alternative to, the parliamentary Socialist Parties that even a century ago were clearly showing the limits to progress on behalf of workers that electoral parliamentarism could achieve. As Rudolph Rocker explains:
Participation in the politics of the bourgeois states has not brought the labour movement a hairs' breadth closer to Socialism, but, thanks to this method, Socialism has almost been completely crushed and condemned to insignificance. The ancient proverb: "Who eats of the pope, does of him," has held true in this content also; who eats of the state is ruined by it. Participation in parliamentary politics has affected the Socialist labour movement like an insidious poison. It destroyed the belief in the necessity of constructive Socialist activity and, worst of all, the impulse to self-help, by inoculating people with the ruinous delusion that salvation always comes from above.
It would be a mistake to find in this strange about-face an international betrayal by the leaders, as has so often been done. The truth is that we have to do here with a gradual assimilation to the modes of thought of capitalist society, which is a condition of the practical activities of the labour parties of today, and which necessarily affects the intellectual attitude of their political leaders. These very parties which had once set out to achieve Socialism saw themselves compelled by the iron logic of conditions to sacrifice their Socialist convictions bit by bit to the national policies of the state. They became, without the majority of their adherents ever becoming aware of it, political lightning rods for the security of the capitalist social order. The political power which they had wanted to conquer had gradually conquered their Socialism until there was scarcely anything left of it.
That should ring some bells in an era where we see the ongoing failure of our elected representatives to advance the interests of workers and contain the hegemony of capital. The formal democracy allowed by capitalist states inevitably turns those who seek to bring change through the system into the greatest impediments to change. It simply is not possible to simultaneously serve the system and rearrange the relations of power. In the end, parliamentarism has in every case in every time ultimately served to reinforce the existing relations of power, and been the bastion for the defeat of such popular upwellings that have from time to time sought to institute change through the means of partisan electoralism. After all, we can see we are living in exactly such a time now, and that is a powerful reason that syndicalism, long out of fashion, suddenly speaks anew to our times.
Even some of syndicalism's harshest critics on the radical left acknowledge that the problems of opportunism, careerism and corruption give legitimacy to the syndicalist perspective:
Generally speaking, opportunism was most present in the parliamentary fractions of the socialist parties, and in a whole apparatus involved in parliamentary work. This apparatus also exercised the greatest attraction on all those careerist elements who joined the party in the hope of profiting from the growing influence of the workers' movement, but who of course had no interest in the revolutionary overthrow of the existing order. As a result, there was a tendency within the working-class to identify political work with parliamentary activity, parliamentary activity with opportunism and careerism, careerism with the petty bourgeois intelligentsia of lawyers and journalists, and finally opportunism with the very notion of the political party.
Faced with the development of opportunism, the response of many revolutionary workers was to reject political activity as a whole, and, so to speak, to withdraw into the trade unions. And so, inasmuch as the revolutionary syndicalist movement was a truly working-class current, its aim, as we shall see, was to build trade unions which would be the unitary organs of the working-class capable of regrouping it for the defence of its economic interests, of preparing it for the day when it was to take power through the general strike, and of serving as the organisational structure of the future communist society. These unions were to be class unions, free of the careerism of an intelligentsia which wanted to use the workers' movement in order to make room for itself on the parliamentary benches
There have at all times been some who suggest that given its emphasis on industrial organization, syndicalism may suffer the same limitations that “trade unionism pure and simple” does. While that can be addressed simply by pointing to the difference of the character of the syndicalist unions that have gained prominence at different times (the IWW in the USA, the Spanish CNT), Emma Goldman spells out the fundamental differences of principle:
The fundamental difference between Syndicalism and the old trade methods is this: while the old trade unions, without exception, move within the wage system and capitalism, recognizing the latter as inevitable, Syndicalism repudiates and condemns present industrial arrangements as unjust and criminal[!], and holds out no hope to the worker for lasting results from this system.
Of course Syndicalism, like the old trade unions, fights for immediate gains, but it is not stupid enough to pretend that labor can expect humane conditions from inhuman economic arrangements in society. Thus it merely wrests from the enemy what it can force him to yield; on the whole, however, Syndicalism aims at, and concentrates its energies upon, the complete overthrow of the wage system. Indeed, Syndicalism goes further: it aims to liberate labor from every institution that has not for its object the free development of production for the benefit of all humanity. In short, the ultimate purpose of Syndicalism is to reconstruct society from its present centralized, authoritative and brutal state to one based upon the free, federated grouping of the workers along lines of economic and social liberty. With this object in view, Syndicalism works in two directions: first, by undermining the existing institutions; secondary, by developing and educating the workers and cultivating their spirit of solidarity, to prepare them for a full, free life, when capitalism shall have been abolished.
More than any other aspect, it was the General Strike that came to be synonymous with syndicalism, both in its theory (Sorel's "social myth" of the General Strike) and in practice, in places like Lawrence, MA and Paterson, NJ.
So how did holding this this admittedly (enthusiastically) revolutionary doctrine become a criminal offense in most of the US? Enter the the Wobblies (pdf file of "The Crime of Economic Radicalism: Criminal Syndicalism Laws and the Industrial Workers of the World, 1917–1927", by Ahmed A. White):
The story of criminal syndicalism laws is inextricably intertwined with the rise of the IWW and its bold challenge to industrial capitalism. Had there been no IWW, had it not frightened the privileged and powerful with its bids to organize their workers against them and ultimately change the world, there would have been no criminal syndicalism laws. Once the IWW ceased to exist as a viable organization, criminal syndicalism prosecutions faded considerably. In fact, the relationship between the development of criminal syndicalism laws and the IWW runs even deeper than this. Criminal syndicalism laws were not only enacted as anti-IWW devices; the very substance of these laws was conditioned in various ways by repressive, anti-IWW campaigns already underway when states began to enact criminal syndicalism laws.
The history of criminal syndicalism laws itself helps to demonstrate that the repressive alignment of the state with capitalist interests, under the guise of upholding state security and protecting public safety, is in no way anomalous or anachronistic; nor is it subject to any thoroughgoing, let alone progressively more effective, limitation by law. This condition of repression is, instead, a fundamentally normal one little governed in fact by constitutional or other legal strictures, even in a supposedly open, liberal society. To a degree, law may restrain the dynamics of repression, but only where adhering to civil libertarian principles does not leave unchecked apparent threats to the existing social order. The fact that the IWW managed actually to threaten both the interests and the ideology of elites who were invested in the status quo and who also had access to organs of state power foreordained the enactment of these laws, the union’s prosecution under them, and the courts’ upholding of these prosecutions.
The adoption of “criminal syndicalism” laws can be seen as a means of streamlining the legalistic suppression and destruction of the IWW made necessary by the fact that the growth of the Wobblies, and the spread of their syndicalist doctrines, actually did “threaten both the interests and the ideology of elites who were invested in the status quo.” (It is precisely the ability of syndicalism to be a threat to the interests and ideology of today's hegemonic ruling elites that is syndicalism's greatest appeal to me.) Prior to the adoption of “criminal syndicalism” laws, local power centers and authorities had used a hodgepodge of various laws and statutes to harass and suppress the IWW:
Such was the case, for example, with the large scale and totally unfounded prosecution of IWW members for conspiracy to interfere with the war effort. In 1918, over 100 members, including most of the union’s top leadership and a handful of supporters and ex-members, were convicted of these charges and, in most cases, sentenced to substantial terms of imprisonment. Hundreds of other members and affiliates were subjected to deportation and other forms of immigration-related harassment because of their links to the organization. A less intensive, though more pervasive, pattern of legal repression occurred with the use during this period of vagrancy laws, “tramp acts,” and other relatively minor laws against IWW members and organizers. During the first few decades of the organization’s existence, IWW members were arrested and charged by the tens of thousands with these crimes in countless incidents scattered throughout the country. Such charges were used time and again to run members out of town, initiate beatings and other indignities, and preempt organizing and strike efforts. In still other instances, the repression of the IWW during this period went beyond legal artifice and selective prosecution to entail patently extralegal practices: official lawlessness as well as official complicity in private acts of antiradical vigilantism. Countless members were beaten and on occasion even killed by American Legionnaires, Ku Klux Klansmen, private detectives, and other self-nominated protectors of “true” Americanism.
Bisbee, Arizona in the summer of 1917 must stand out for its sheer scale and audacity. Amid a miners’ strike, county sheriff Harry Wheeler and some 2000 so-called deputies captured at gunpoint over 1000 men and, deeming them IWWs or otherwise subversive, deported them by train to the New Mexico desert. Although such deportation of Wobblies was not altogether uncommon, none matched this one in size, brazenness, and just plain recklessness. Many of the deportees, it turned out, had absolutely nothing to do with the IWW or any militant positions at all. Soldiers at a nearby encampment saved the deportees from death by exposure, but most of them, including many permanent Bisbee residents, were never allowed to return to that town
Despite this track record of official and unofficial lawlessness in protecting capital from the syndicalist menace, the “criminal syndicalism” statutes were composed in such a way to portray syndicalists as the violent ones, even “terrorists”:
These laws did this under the guise of criminalizing advocacy of “political or industrial change” by means of “sabotage,” “terrorism,” and other criminal conduct. In practice, it mattered little that the targets of these laws seldom, if ever, actually advocated such conduct as means of social change, or that key terms in the statutes, like sabotage, were only vaguely and ambiguously defined. What mattered instead was the ability to use these laws to outlaw the advocacy of social change itself, a purpose for which the statutes’ ambiguities were well-suited and its targets’ legal innocence was irrelevant.
With the continuous erosion of the IWW into a shell of its once powerful self, the objective of the “criminal syndicalism” laws had been achieved, the defeat of a radical political, economic and ideological challenge to the interests and ideology of the ruling class:
While the organization defiantly adhered to its radical ideals in the face of this campaign, in the end, such impositions played a key role in undermining the IWW, rolling back significant organizing gains made by the union in the late 1910s, and eventually reducing the IWW by the late 1920s to a shell of its former self. Only at this point, when the IWW had lost much of its capacity as a viable agent of labor representation and radical agitation, did the enforcement of criminal syndicalism laws really recede ... It was not until 1969, in Brandenburg v. Ohio, that the United States Supreme Court imposed real limits on how these laws could be enforced.
In an era where we see efforts from coast-to-coast aimed at outlawing collective bargaining, and more and more courts packed with extreme ideologues for the rule of capital, it isn't hard to imagine a legal concerto that would overturn Brandenburg. And that would not be good news for me, and all the other Thought Criminals that do things like advocate General Strikes.
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