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Review of Syndicalism and the Co-operative Commonwealth
by Jack Fitzgerald
Previously published: Socialist Standard, July 1913, SPGB
07 Sep 2007
A critical review of book by same title by a leading member of the Socialist Party of Great Britain
Syndicalism and the Co-operative Commonwealth
by E. Pataud and E. Pouget
In more senses than one Syndicalism is “in the air”. “Philosophers” like Sorel have written its metaphysics; “intellectuals” like Mr. And Mrs. Sidney Webb have discussed it; penny-a-liners like Ramsay MacDonald and Philip Snowden have described it.
But none of these can be said to be active participants in the movement; hence the need for a description, or explanation, from some one inside its ranks. This book should fill the want.
The authors are well known officials of trade unions or syndicats, extensively advertised as leaders of Syndicalism, and have taken part in various French strikes.
A foreword of whole-hearted adulation is written by Mr. Tom Mann, some illustrations are provided by W. Dyson, a preface of partial praise is contributed by Prince Kropotkin. And it is published at Oxford. Here, then, is a combination that should provide us with a full and connected description of the vague and varying notions grouped under the term Syndicalism.
The book is cast in the form of a retrospect, being, supposedly, a description of the Revolution written sometime after the event.
The reader may imagine that the revolution predicted by the syndicalists will take place by the whole of the workers joining one union and then demanding the surrender of the capitalist class; or that it will be brought about by a few determined individuals indulging in desperate acts of violence and so destroying the power and position of the master class.
But you will have been mistaken, for the Revolution is going to be brought about without any special premeditation or arrangement, or even organisation for the purpose. This may seem somewhat startling, but our authors explain it with remarkable ease and simplicity.
The Revolution begins with a strike of building operatives over hours and wages. This looks somewhat prosaic and even commonplace. Ah! that is because you have not realised what marvellous changes will take place when the “revolutionary spirit” gets abroad.
At first the men on strike have no intention or idea of abolishing capitalism. A riot occurred in which some workers were shot. Strikes were being called in various parts of the country when this happened, and it “precipitated a revolutionary situation” (page 9).
The workers began to visit the scene of the murder, and to hold meetings; the trade unions discussed the situation, and the anti-militarists debated their course of action. Their object was to protest, by a suspension of work, against the Government’s action in shooting the workers, and to obtain some redress. The strike spread. The gasworkers came out; the electricians left the plants; the railway workers, many of whom were willing to do so, could not work because the machinery had been damaged beyond temporary repair; the bakers not only struck, but spoiled the ovens so as to prevent blacklegs working them.
With bewildering rapidity section after section were won over to the side of the “revolutionists”, or were persuaded not to help the enemy. Being in the minority, the “revolutionists” were bound to consider the keeping of the majority away from the masters’ side, and they were successful. In the country the peasants were won over by “a peasant syndicalism of a rather special type” (p. 141) and expropriated the landowners and took possession of the soil.
Some of the capitalist class fled the country, some were killed in the riots that occurred, and some joined the workers. Those that were left were ordered to emigrate when the workers won, but “no violence was used against them.”
The reader may ask: “If all these workers were out on strike and so many means of production rendered useless, how did the working class live during this period?”
It is here the genius of Syndicalism was shown. First the great co-operative stores shared out their provisions; then the stocks in the merchants’ warehouses were distributed; lastly the workers returned to work at those plants where the employers agreed that the food produced should first be given to the strikers, and the surplus could be sold by the masters to the rich at an enhanced price. For the goods supplied to the workers they received notes on the Labour Exchange.
“What,” you will demand, “were the Government doing?” Why, the Government were almost paralysed by the onward rush of the working class.
“But surely the armed existed?” you ask. Certainly. No one recognises the importance of the Army more than the Syndicalists. “They knew that a revolution had never been successful with the Army against it” (p. 69). They redoubled their anti-militarist propaganda. The Government not only received numerous demands for troops to protect works and property, but also endeavoured to run many of the more important services. These took a large number of men, and even then were not a great success. In the case of the supply of electricity they were so clumsy at the work that they broke several of the machines and had to close down the plant.
So many soldiers were used for this purpose that the large centralised stores of food were left almost unprotected, as were the huge arsenals, like Vincennes! True, as our author says, “it was not with cannon that the working class has opened fire on the wealthy classes. It is by act at once formidable and simple—by folding their arms” (page 52). And what could be easier than this? But it was not all. Often anti-militarists disarmed sentries, and then all the soldiers at a post. The barracks at Chateau-d’Eau were set on fire, after the water had been cut off, and the arsenal at Vincennes was taken and the arms distributed among the strikers.
When the Government tried to keep up communications (which had been cut off by the striking of the railwaymen and telegraph and telephone operatives) by means of motors driven by soldiers, warnings to drive slowly were erected at certain points, delaying progression, and often the motors, in charge of armed soldiers, were stopped by unarmed strikers, and confiscated.
Historical precedents are found for many of the actions in the French Revolution of 1793, though one incident has to look further back in history for its analogy. The strikers had erected a workshop “situated on a height and hidden from observation” (p. 46) which was used as a wireless station telegraph for the purpose of disturbing and confusing the wireless messages of the Government. The reader will remember the well-known biblical precedent for this.
And when the battle was won—what then? Better than ever. Recognising the terrible evils of Parliamentarism, politics and centralisation, the Syndicalists wipe these things out of existence.
“But how are disputes and differences as to matters of administration settled”, it may be asked. Quite simply. The matter is discussed, and after various debates agreement is reached by the various sections agreeing.
Production and distribution are carried on by autonomous groups without centralisation. Even the railways and Post Office are run by autonomous groups. There is a “Trade Union Congress”, with delegates from all trades and professions, in which “all the sub-divisions, all the classifications which Parliamentarism has engendered, belonged to another age...But here were workers, sitting there for the moment, and having to decide on points previously discussed by the comrades who had sent them there” (page 129, The Italics are mine).
As soon as the Congress was over the Confederal Committee, which consisted of delegates from the Trade Federations and the Labour Exchanges, began its work. This work was not direction, but condensation and analysis; it drew up statistics as to the indispensable minimum of production and consumption, and it served as a bond of union between all the groups. It was like the centre of a vast telephonic network to which there arrived, and from which there came, the information which secured the regulation of the social working, the maintaining everywhere of an equilibrium, “in order that there should not be excess at one point whilst there was scarcity at another” (page 137).
Very much, this, like strong centralisation with a bureaucracy at the top, you may fancy. That would only show you have not imbued the “revolutionary spirit”, else you would see at once that it is “Federalism”.
Such foreign supplies as were needed were obtained from the capitalist countries abroad by paying a higher price, and greed for gain outwitted foreign Governments.
Still these Governments, whose working class had not yet accepted Syndicalist and anti-militarist ideas in sufficient numbers to revolt, were not going to stand by quietly. Moreover, the capitalist refugees were urging them to crush the revolutionaries.
What could the latter do?
They called a general Congress of all the Unions, and delegates were chosen from all branches of human activities. These delegates were all “capable of discussing and deciding on questions affecting their general interests)page 197. Italics mine). No stupid referendums or voting here by the people, but decision by the delegates.
Disdaining a regular army, special committees of men with technical skill were set up. The greatest freedom of choice was “left to them, and the Congress approved the means by which they intended to have recourse, the facts of which they explained” (page 197).
One of the committees utilized the Hertzian waves, which, properly directed, would explode arsenals on land and magazines on ships, from a distance. Another committee concerned itself with preparing to inoculate the invading armies with plague, cholera, typhus, etc., while they guarded themselves from infection with “preventive and curative serums”.
Such powerful measures simply demolished the enemy like smoke before a gale, and the war ended in a few days.
Of course, the foreign governments knew of these means and how to use them, but refused to adopt them because “they meant to keep, even on the field of battle, the outward show of civilisation” —hence their defeat. What would have happened had they decided to use these means, with their much vaster resources, it were idle to speculate, seeing that they missed their opportunity.
Peace reigned throughout the world, as the working class of other nations, profiting by such a splendid example, also established co-operative commonwealths in the various lands.
Here, then, is the easy, quick, and effective road to Freedom. No stupid organisation, no absurd rules and regulations, no steady propaganda to help bring about the mental revolution (which even Kropotkin, in his preface, warns the authors is so necessary), no need to estimate what your enemies will do, or how far they will go in resisting the Social Revolution—a resistance that Kropotkin says the authors have considerably underestimated.
All that is required is some spasmodic anti-militarist propaganda accompanied by some subtle education in sabotage, some gathering of a determined minority in trade unions; then the working class, at present so firmly wedded to capitalist notions, so ready to follow the lead of the masters’ agents, who think they must vote for some candidate or they will be “wasting their votes” and who imagine Tweedledum to be slightly better than Tweedledee, will change their leaders, and, throwing over politics, will follow those who will arrange production without organisation, carry on war without army or navy, control the country without politics or votes, because assisted by the “plasticity of the multitude” (p. 227) and the “revolutionary spirit”, they will know, a priori, the right thing to do at any moment.
Transcription: Socialist Party of Great Britain.
HTML Markup: Michael Schauerte
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2007). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.
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