Syndicalism, revolutionary trade unionist movement advocating control of government and industry by trade unions, to be achieved through such direct action as general strikes and sabotage. In another usage, common in France, where the term originated, syndicalism is synonymous with trade unionism, while revolutionary trade unionism is known as revolutionary syndicalism.
In common practice, trade unions are regarded simply as instruments for improving the conditions of workers within an existing social organization. Syndicalism, however, envisions a stateless society in which production, conducted not for profit but in order to satisfy the needs of the community, is administered by a federation of self-governing industrial unions and associations of non-industrial workers. Thus, it accepts the Marxist theory of class struggle culminating in collective ownership of goods and the means of production, while rejecting the Marxist concept of government by proletarian dictatorship. In this respect syndicalism accepts the anarchist concept that centralized government in any form is undesirable.
Doctrines that could be labelled syndicalist were formulated in London in the 1860s by Karl Marx and presented to the first session of the International Workingmen’s Association, or First International, in Geneva in 1866. The Russian revolutionary Mikhail Aleksandrovich Bakunin developed these doctrines and added his own anarchist theories; he was expelled from the First International in 1872. True syndicalism, however, came into being in France later in the 1870s. It was strongly influenced by the writings of the French anarchist Pierre Joseph Proudhon and those of the French social philosopher Georges Sorel, who added a demand for violent revolutionary action. In the 1890s, two French syndicalist organizations, the Confédération Générale du Travail (General Labour Confederation) and the Fédération des Bourses du Travail (Federation of Labour Exchanges), grew in importance; they merged in 1902. The movement achieved its greatest impact in the years before World War I. In England during this period a related movement, guild socialism, had some impact.
The jailing of some syndicalists as pacifists during World War I and the subsequent defection of many syndicalists to Communism through the 1920s reduced the effectiveness of the movement. Only in Spain, where the Confederación Nacional de Trabajo (National Confederation of Labour) achieved a membership of 1 million workers, did the movement grow. Spanish syndicalists supported the Loyalist cause during the Spanish Civil War and were virtually exterminated after the Fascist victory in 1939. Syndicalism then devolved into a kind of vaguely defined intellectual utopianism.
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