The term “CNT” makes the rounds, in tracts, at demonstrations, sometimes in the media. Although the three letters are becoming well known, their meaning remains mysterious. “National Labour Confederation” clearly refers to a union, but the rest remains obscure. The word “National” is hardly suitable in contemporary France. The references to revolutionary unionism and anarcho-syndicalism leave room for unfounded accusations of a kind of anarchism that is tarnished by violence and beloved to the media. All this serves to cloud perception of the reality of the CNT. The survival of a second “CNT” after an ancient schism does not help to simplify matters.
The twin roots of the CNT are revolutionary unionism and anarcho-syndicalism.
Revolutionary unionism dates back to the CGT of before WWI which was largely constructed by militants with an anarchist background. They brought along certain anarchist ideas (direct democracy), but left behind the idea of political organisation in favour of a working class oriented point of view, and devolved their own strategy; that of the general strike to take over the means of production.
Revolutionary unionism was born as a reaction against a form of anarchism that exalted the individual to the detriment of human society, and paradoxically abused human lives through armed terrorism. If revolutionary unionism based itself on Marxist analysis, it rejected political parties. The first struggle of anarchists and Marxists in the CGT was to repel party influence. After 1918, its defeat was demonstrated by the growing influence of social democrats, later of communists. There followed an episode with “communists” in the CGT-U. Then the CGT-SR took up the banner of revolutionary unionism and carried it forward until WWII.
The second historic root of the CNT is Spanish anarcho-syndicalism, which was the most important revolutionary current from the turn of the century until 1936. In most European countries the revolutionary movements were quickly “bolshevized” after the Russian Revolution, but not in Spain. The FAI (Federation of Iberian Anarchistes) was created in order to keep union politics under control. Spanish syndicalism invented its own vision of libertarian communism, which takes the group and not the individual to be the basic unit of society, while maintaining the principle of self-management which precludes the delegation of power. This vision was realized 1936-1939 by the collectives of Aragon and other Spanish regions, which had 2.000.000 members.
Up to the late 1990’s the media most often referred to us as “the CNT anarchists”. Then we became “the anarchist CNT union”; that is progress, but still not quite right. Now some are calling us “anarcho-syndicalists”; getting closer to the truth…
Today’s CNT oscillates between accepting the vision of libertarian communism and rejecting a political labels in order to make clear it refuses to be “nannied” by any political organisation. Membership is based on being working-class, not on accepting a particular ideology. There is an undeniable closeness to certain libertarian currents based on similarities in practical work. But this closeness turns into hostility versus any kind of individualism which runs counter to concept of humans as social animals.
The CNT depends more on action than ideology. Sometimes it is accused of actionism, sometimes it is suspected of stifling internal debate in favour of eternal action. Considering that reflection should be the fruit of action, that theory should follow from practice, and not the reverse, the CNT faces these criticisms calmly. The advantage is that it can unite members with many different beliefs without the endless squabbles that paralyze other groups. That flexibly is one of our main supports. The challenge is to avoid lapsing into actionism or reformism. We protect ourselves against these threats by sticking to our fundamental principles (self-management, opposition to co-management, revolutionary organisation of the class struggle, independence from political parties, direct action … ). That must de done, not just said. We believe that resistance develops from within the old world order. We refuse to preach unrealistic theories to the already converted in an ivory tower. So, yes, we are marching through poopoo, doing our best not to drown in it.
it is for good reason that one of our most fundamental principles is that of “direct action”. This is often misrepresented as an appeal to “senseless violence” by the media. The truth is that some direct actions are violent, but most are not. The word “direct” means that it is concerned people themselves who organize and do the “action”. What we regularly practice are strikes, boycotts, pickets, sit-down strikes.
Our CNT was born in 1946 and named after the prestigious Spanish model. In the historic Spanish context the “National” mean that the organisation was open to members of all the ethnic groups in the country and not limited to some reactionary regionalism that was trying to split up the workers. In the French context the “N” has proven less pertinent, and its significance in Spain has declined as well.
1) The CNT as a sect
At the beginning the CNT attracted all those who refused to pay allegiance to Bolshevism as required by the CGT and grew to circa 100.000 members. Then dogmatic infighting caused the CNT to shrink as quickly as it had grown. Not enough is known about this period, and we are carrying out research currently. From then until the 1990s the CNT remained a sect with between several tens and several hundreds of members. Having lost almost all contact with the shop floor, it naturally concentrated on propaganda.
During this time two splits took place.
The first is known as the “Tour d’Auvergne” after the street in which it had its office. Calling itself the “CNT deuxieme UR” until it joined the CNT-AIT in March 2006; it had circa ten members who concentrated on maintaining a website and producing anarchist propaganda. The causes of this schism are fuzzy and seem related to personal grudges.
The second split took place in 1993 and produced the CNT-AIT (http://cnt-ait.info ). In 1996 the XX Congress of the International Workers Association (AIT, in French) excluded “our” CNT with two votes in favour, one vote against and three abstentions. This minority vote cannot be called particularly consensus oriented. Here too, bad interpersonal relations played a role. The two opposing lines were a bit like this. On one side there was a tough, dogmatic line that opposed all participation in the election of staff representatives. The other line was willing to take part in such staff elections in order to protect its job branches, refusing to make anarchism the only acceptable program. That is our organisation, sometimes called CNT-Vignoles. These differences have proven to be relative; after the split some sections of the CNT-AIT did participate in the election of staff delegates while the sections of our CNT participated only where it suited them. Where there are no personal animosities, our two organisations cooperate fruitfully on the local level.
The CNT grew steadily throughout the 1990s. Both organisations left by the 1993 split had circa 100 members; a good result for that time. Ten years later we claim circa 5.000 members throughout France. Where there were once ten members in Paris, there are now a thousand. At demonstrations the “CNT-block” has several thousand members (7.000 the 1. May 2002, or even 10.000 according to the correspondent of “France Info”). But keep in mind that it is much harder to mobilize people for pure union demands (such as secure pensions, no layoffs), but ten years ago such mobilizations were anecdotal.
It may seem surprising, but it was the college student campaign of 1995 that pushed the CNT into working as a labour union. At first, the activism of students made the CNT known and brought it to the public’s attention. Based on a few job branches at the post office, in cleaning, education and on some scattered members, the CNT was thrust into the public arena as an organisation that mattered in the social struggle. The campus branches formed in that struggle have known their lows and highs, but they have persisted. Their graduating members have reinforced existing job branches and helped to found new ones throughout France. By the end of the 1990s, the CNT was greatly strengthened.
May 2000 was the public affirmation of the return of anarcho-syndicalism and revolutionary unionism. The CNT organized a festival titled “A Different Kind of Future” that comprised a week of concerts (Noir Desir), debates, screenings, exhibitions, theatre, etc. Various books, papers, brochure were published for the occasion. With 5.000 people on the street May 1 was turned black-and-red by fellow workers from all over France and the world. Other public events have confirmed this renaissance; the European counter-summit at Göteborg in June 2000 brought 10.000 demonstrators together under the various banners of SAC, FAU, CGT-E and CNT-F.
As we have seen, that question caused the 1993 schism. The question that we faced was simple. Either we would stick to our principles inflexibly and refuse to take part. That would make it very nearly impossible to create job s branches because without elected DPs it is practically impossible to get “representativity”. Without “representativity” in turn it is extremely difficult and dangerous to even attempt to set up a job branch. That is what the CNT-AIT chose. We chose the alternative of participation in order to set up job branches and grow into a mass union, while remaining on our guard. The CNT has a commission that collects and analyses the reports of staff delegates, which are circulated inside our organisation so that our discussion will be based on real experience and not on theoretical principles. We continue to debate this point. We are working on defining the proper methods of presenting our candidates, on which kinds of elections we can and cannot take part in, and how to keep elected representatives under rank and file control. The CNT is trying to find its own way between the extremes of the sect and the business union.
It is still early for a complete evaluation, but the social movement of spring 2003 has shown the immense progress made by the CNT since November-December 1995. Then we barely emerged from obscurity and only played a decisive role in the universities. The movement of spring 2003 broke out over issues of national education that had been simmering for months. We played a central role in the struggle of teaching assistants and other staff starting in autumn 2002. General assemblies held in March and April laid the foundations for efforts to overcome inter-professional boundaries in May. Thanks to our implantation in the aftermath of 1995, we played an essential role in several regions. We are also in the cultural sector of the economy (BNF, La Villette, la Cinémathéque, … ) were the movement became strongest during the summer. Our fellow workers in show biz undertook decisive actions in connexion with the renegotiation of annexes 8 and 10 (unemployment benefits). Let’s not write a catalogue; what counts is that we now function as real union movement and our perspective. Where we played an essential role the organising principles were general assemblies in charge of the strike, the expansion and convergence of the struggle. This was done in good co-operation with the rank and file of other unions. But our relations with the bureaucrats of the big unions tended to be very bad because they tried to put the brakes on the expansion of the strike in order to keep it under their control.
We are organized the same way that we think all of society should be organized; grassroots democracy, recallable representatives, task rotation …. Sometimes this can be difficult; it comes down to learning by doing.
Decisions are taken by the Locals which are the base of the CNT. The CNT is conceived as a free federation of Locals. It is up to workers to liberate themselves, so the Locals may decide what they will, as long as the federation agreement is respected. In the same way, Job Branches are autonomous as long as they respect the principles of their Local and of our federation. The Local organizes an industry with all the different workers employed there. The Job Branch also spans the different professions. Some forms of exploitation can make it hard to apply this principle. Cleaners, for an example, often switch job sites, industries, enterprises. Sub-contracting and externalisation help to keep the different categories of workers isolated from one another. We are still looking for forms of organisation which avoid the trap of inter-worker competition for the bosses’ benefit.
Today, circa 180 Locals are organized by the CNT. The Federal Bureau takes care of their relations between the CNT Congresses (held every two years). Its role is purely technical; it runs the day-to-day affairs of the federation, and keeps information flowing, both internally and externally. It applies the decisions taken by the Congress and organizes the Federal Committee meetings. The locals are also organized geographically into Local Unions, County Unions and Regional Unions. The Regional Unions meet in the Federal Committee every six months to; check that the decisions taken by the Congress are carried out properly, keep an eye on the elected federal officials, take necessary technical decisions, and followed-up on federal campaigns. Where there are enough Locals, they are also organized into Industrial Unions. Currently there are five Industrial Unions; Education, PTT, Public Works, Communication Culture and Show Business, Health and Social Workers. Industrial Unions role is purely one of co-ordination.
Fifteen Fellow Workers in the International Secretariat maintain international contacts, co-ordinate international activities, seek interaction with other unions compatible with the CNT with a view to developing grass-roots internationalism. After our exclusion from the IWA in 1996 we continued to refer to it until or Congress of 2001. We continue to uphold its principles, but have found that the organisation as such really does not exist anymore. Except for certain groups in Italy, Spain and France, the IWA is made up of moribund dogmatic national sections and has no influence at the international level. On the other hand, we have succeeded in reconstructing red-and-black internationalism with the Swedish SAC, the German FAU, the Spanish CGT. The large scale international demonstrations that were held at Amsterdam in 1998, Cologne in 1999, Paris in May 2000, Göteborg in 2001, and Seville in 2002. International meetings (San Francisco 1999, Göteborg 2001, Essen 2002 led to closer contacts with revolutionary unions on all continents and to numerous solidarity actions (especially Argentinean FWs in recent years). The CNT also sent a delegation to the G8 meeting at Evian which took part in three initiatives: the anti-capitalist village (VAAAG), the co-ordination of anti-authoritarian struggles (CLAAAC) and the social forums.
The CNT’s commissions begin life in a Local. Given enough interest, they may grow into nationwide networks. They are often started ad hoc to deal with an issue that has come to the centre of public attention and are dissolved after the crisis has passed. Others become fixtures. Our oldest standing commission is the one on women’s issues; it includes both women and men and deals with all forms of sexism. Of course, we have a prison commission. Our legal commission faces an ever growing demand for advice from the Locals, especially on staff elections and the establishment of Job Branches.
So, What is the CNT?
It has inherited a rich history, an important part of the working class movement. But it is best defined by the struggles it takes part in, that it sometimes even starts. It is still tiny in comparison with the big federations, but with growing influence, one that often finds like-minded people at the grassroots of other organisations. It is an organisation that refuses to be labelled politically, to be paralysed by dogma or to serve a political party. But it does take part in those eminently political struggles that point towards the kind of society that it wants. The little CNT has big plans; freeing workers, abolishing classes, social justice and equality, worker management. It is investing lots of energy to make this dream reality, to anchor it to day-to-day struggles, to share it with those who will, one day, change the world.
The Federal Bureau of the CNT
Une petite biblio de bouquins lisibles sans aspirines, très incomplète.
Editions de la CNT-RP : ces ouvrages peuvent être obtenus auprès de militants de la CNT, du service librairie au 33, rue des Vignoles, 75020 Paris.
o Autogestion et anarchosyndicalisme, analyse et critiques sur l’Espagne (1931-1990), Franck Mintz, 1999. Une approche critique très référencée de la mythologie anarchosyndicaliste.
o La CGT-SR et la révolution espagnole, Jérémie Berthuin, 2000. La révolution espagnole vue depuis la CGT-SR.
o De l’histoire du mouvement ouvrier révolutionnaire, actes du colloque nternational " Pour un autre futur ", collectif, en collaboration avec les éditions Nautilus, 2001. Inévitables, l’AIT, la CNT espagnole. Moins connues, la FORA argentine, l’USI italienne. Plus surprenant, l’anarchosyndicalisme japonais, etc.
o Pouget : les matins noirs du syndicalisme, Christian de Goustine, Editions de la Tête-de-Feuilles, 1972. Epuisé mais consultable dans certaines bibliothèques (la BPI, à Paris). Excellente biographie retraçant la naissance du syndicalisme révolutionnaire, sa filiation avec l’anarchisme, mais aussi la rupture réciproque avec celui-ci.
o Anarchisme et organisation, Rudolf Rocker. Une brochure du syndicaliste allemand de la FAUD de l’entre-deux guerres, révélant une conception de l’anarchisme radicalement opposée à l’individualisme.
o http://fraternitelibertaire.free.fr/ : bibliothèque virtuelle comprenant un grand nombres de textes téléchargeables sur l’anarchosyndicalisme et le syndicalisme révolutionnaire.
o La Makhnovchtchina, l’insurrection révolutionnaire en Ukraine de 1918 à 1921, Archinov, Spartacus, 2000 (réédition). La relation de la akhnovtchina par un de ses acteurs, engagée mais convaincante. Une épopée qui se montre bien proche, adaptée aux réalités paysannes de l’Ukraine d’alors, du syndicalisme révolutionnaire et de ce qui deviendrait l’anarchosyndicalisme en Espagne.
National Confederation of Labor
SR stands for « syndicaliste révoltionnaire » that is « revolutionary unionism » in the French original.
« Fédération anarchiste ibérique » in the French original.
« cogestion » in the French original. This is a form of industrial democracy watered down beyong recognition.
“Formation action universitaire » in the French original. This does n o t refer to Germany’s « Freie Arbeiter Union ».
« DP » for « delege personnel » in the French original. Under French law the DP is an elected reprensentative of staff, usually from a union, who enjoys certain, limited rights visa vice management.
« Représentativité » in the French original. Legally, « representativity » of a union at a job site means that it has demonstrated that it has real support among staff at that job site. Some of the biggest, yellowest unions have received a blanket representativity for the whole country. These include the FO (started with CIA money) and the present day, Stalinist CGT (which scabbed in 68).
There is something called the « Enterprise Committee » in medium and large French companies were elected representatives of management and labour meet. Sound too good to be true ? You got that right, because the President of the President of the Enterprise Committee is the CEO !
« syndicat » in the French original.
« section d’entreprise » in the French original.
« Comité conféderal national (CCN) « in the French original.
« union locale (UL) » in the French original.
« union départemental (UD)» in the French original.
« union régionale (UR) » in the French original.
« fédérations d’industrie » in the French original.
« Education, PTT, Bãtiment-Travaux Publics, communication culture spectacle, Santé-social » in the French original.
Because the books referenced here are not available in English translations, there is no use in translating this bibliography. For those who are strongly interested but do not read French, the best advice is to search for the proper names mentioned in the references with Google, Wikipedia, etc.