Sunday, 4 December 2011

Book Review: Syndicalism Compared!

Ralph Darlington: 'Syndicalism and the Transition to Communism: An International Comparative Analysis' Ashgate, 2009, 323pp.ISBN: 978-07546-3617-5 (hbk) £60.00

Reviewed by Sheila Cohen

SYNDICALISM has not enjoyed a good press over the decades. Frequently conjoined with 'anarcho-', it shares the status of a number of other 'isms' - economism, workerism, fundamentalism - repudiated by the left. So this new, and impressively comprehensive, treatment is all the more welcome.

After all, what is syndicalism? As this book shows, the meanings of the term are many and various, ranging from 'workers' control' through union amalgamation and industrial and 'revolutionary' unionism, to a healthy dose of anti-parliamentarianism and a still healthier suspicion of the union bureaucracy.

One good place to seek more precision is within etymology, and here comes a first surprise. Rather than syndicat meaning 'union', the French term actually translates as 'local trade branch', or, in Darlington's explanation, 'basic unit of organisation which united workers…employed in the same trade or industry in a certain town' (p121). In other words, something close to the Workers' Councils which sprang up across the different national movements surveyed by Darlington and were close in their organisational form to the revolutionary soviets in Russia.

However, the origin of the term 'syndicalism' is not the only 'surprise' in this book. Another is the paradoxical failure by many syndicalists to clearly understand the nature of union organisation. While most critiques of syndicalism focus on its politically naïve dismissal of the state, Darlington's detailed analysis demonstrates that the lack of conscious awareness of the contradictory nature of trade unionism played an even more destructive role.

Thus, although the Unofficial Reform Committee within the South Wales Miners' Federation produced a 'devastating critique of union officialdom' with its 1912 pamphlet The Miners' Next Step, the practical strategy of the group was not so much to guard rank and file independence as to attempt to influence the union bureaucracy, particularly its left wing. As a result, the URC was itself 'not immune from the problem of bureaucracy' (p224). In time-honoured fashion, fire-breathing militants like the URC's Noah Ablett 'ceased', in the words of one contemporary critic, ''to be revolutionary, except in words…'.

The crucial failure by many syndicalists to recognise the internal dynamic of bureaucratisation continued to weaken and dissipate their influence. As late as the Second Congress of the Comintern, Willie Gallacher was forced to report that 'Every time we succeeded in making one of our own comrades an official of the trade unions, it turned out that…the trade unions corrupted our own comrades too…' (quoted p224).

However, the Comintern's own slogan 'Conquer the Unions' demonstrated that the young Communist Party had itself failed to get the point. The Comintern's strategy of 'revolutionary unionism' crucially failed to recognise that 'unions' are not monolithic units but contradictory organisations created out of the struggle against exploitation which, in the process of that struggle, may generate either quasi-revolutionary or, more often, repressive tendencies.

Yet by the time of the First World War the shop stewards' committees of the period were beginning to arrive at a much clearer recognition of the need for rank and file independence from the bureaucracy, as captured most clearly in the famous statement by the 1915 Clyde Workers' Committee: 'We will support the officials just so long as they rightly represent the workers, but we will act independently immediately they misrepresent them.'

This conscious awareness of the need for class independence was carried into the postwar period. As Darlington recounts, 'After the war…the stewards extended the concept of rank-and-file independence to the idea of the seizure of state power by the Workers' Committees, which were now conceived of as embryonic "soviets"…'. Disappointingly, however, this potential 'was quickly undermined by the collapse of the movement after the war…' (p229n)

Yet the 'collapse of the movement' was not the only factor. A key player in the class struggle scenario was, of course, revolutionary Russia itself - and, as Darlington's account demonstrates, its role was not entirely constructive. The Comintern's determination to rapidly create Communist parties in all the key European nations vitiated a more complex awareness of the specific conditions and possibilities of the still highly revolutionary post-war period.

Although the Comintern advocated the formation of factory committees, 'there was no detailed exposition or consideration of how this could be done, let alone any serious integration of the experience of the syndicalist-influenced British shop stewards' movement…' (p231).

For its part, the Leninist leadership chafed at the 'exclusive orientation on the industrial struggle and denial of "politics" ' seen as characteristic of syndicalists (p234). For conscious revolutionaries, 'although syndicalism clearly represented a significant step forward from parliamentary reformism…the exclusive emphasis on the industrial struggle meant that in practice it represented the mirror image of reformism, with its separation of economics and politics' (p245).

Most of all, this 'separation' was revealed in the syndicalist failure to fully recognise the issue of state power, as indicated in the widespread syndicalist strategies of 'workers' control of industry' and the 'revolutionary general strike'. As J.T. Murphy pointed out long afterwards, '…"workers' control of industry" without "workers' ownership of industry" is utterly impossible', and Darlington adds, 'Only if the general strike progressed to the level of an insurrection to seize state power could it prevent an inevitable counter-attack…' (p250).

And yet, and yet…The organisational form which could and should have overcome these contradictions was, once again, the soviet. The Comintern itself 'argued that it was these democratic workers' organisations, rather than the trade unions, that needed to take power from the capitalist class…' (p254, reviewer's emphasis).That this did not transpire, in Britain or elsewhere, marks the tragedy of the post-war failure of revolutionary promise.

In many ways Darlington's study of syndicalism is an extended analysis of the vexed question of party and class. 'Class' influenced 'party' in that '…the revolutionary Marxist tradition was itself refined as a result of the influence of syndicalism, notably with the placing of trade union struggle at the very core of the communist project', while 'party' criticised 'class' in 'pointing to a number of crucial limitations within the syndicalist tradition, including…the insufficiency of unions compared to soviets as the chief agency of revolution…' (p279, author's emphasis). Yet both, it emerges in Darlington's powerful and comprehensive account, faltered over the simple, yet decisive question of how to understand that central class organisation - the trade union.

Sheila Cohen is a Visiting Lecturer in Industrial Relations and a Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Research in Employment Studies, University of Hertfordshire. She is the author of Ramparts of Resistance: Why Workers Lost Their Power and How to Get It Back (Pluto Press 2006) as well as numerous articles and pamphlets on trade unionism, working-class activism and the nature of work. She is an activist in and supporter of the National Shop Stewards' Network.

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