What is Syndicalism?

Brendan McGuigan

Syndicalism is a working class movement, aimed at disrupting modern capitalism and its institutions. Syndicalism focuses on using labor unions as a tool for both undermining what are viewed as selfish capitalist interests, and for beginning to create the structures that will take over many of the roles of government in a more idealized society.

Woman holding a book
Woman holding a book

The modern movement of syndicalism began in the late 19th century, but didn’t really take off until the beginning of the 20th century. Syndicalism can, in many ways, be contrasted with more traditional socialist strands of thought at the time, which looked at political agitation as the best way to bring about social change. Although syndicalism in no way opposes political action, followers of the movement tend to see labor agitation as a more direct method to realizing immediate shifts in the status quo.

There are three modern movements that have a common thread of egalitarian sharing of resources: communism, socialism, and syndicalism. Communism is distinguished by its desire to eliminate private ownership entirely, with a command government distributing resources, and ultimate public ownership of most things. Socialism similarly rejects private ownership. Syndicalism, however, is compatible with the private ownership ideology, requiring simply that ownership of the means of production are shared, and the output of the production vessel is equally shared, as is the profit.

Syndicalism was perhaps most strong historically in Spain, especially in the era surrounding the Spanish Civil War and the rise of Franco. Much of the great victories of syndicalism occurred in this era, and many of the most influential writings within the philosophy came from Spain at the time. When Franco and the combined Fascist powers ultimately overcame the syndicalist and anarchist forces in Spain, it was seen as a great blow against syndicalism itself.

In the United States, syndicalism was best represented by the International Workers of the World, the IWW, commonly referred to as the Wobblies. The IWW peaked sometime in the early 1920s, with somewhere around 100,000 members, and the avowed support of hundreds of thousands of other workers who operated in solidarity. The IWW was differentiated from many other unions of the time by its commitment to grass-roots style organizing, rather than the more traditional union structure of empowering a group of leaders who would negotiate for the larger union. Ultimately, the IWW faced a large-scale schism over what policies would best further its agenda, with one faction desiring more focus on political agitation, and another faction pushing the agenda of syndicalism, with direct action and striking as the main agent of change.

Although technically syndicalism can refer to almost any form of hard-line trade unionism, it is generally understood in the modern context to refer to anarcho-syndicalism. Anarcho-syndicalism is a liberation-based philosophy of syndicalism, which seeks to regain control of the means of production not simply as a means to more adequately distribute wealth, but as a way to eliminate what is perceived as the fundamental cause of injustice and overarching hierarchy in the world, leading to a more broadly just society.

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Discussion Comments


Nice work. You might have hit harder on the idea that syndicalism historically rejects the notion of party politics, often to the point of open hostility. That is, after all, the tendency that divided syndicalists from the mainline socialist and Communist ideologies of the Second and Third Internationals.

But really, that complaint is only one of emphasis.

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