This article explores the revolutionary values and objectives of anarcho-syndicalism by utilizing primary sources of two influential socialist uprisings (The Paris Commune of 1871 and Revolutionary Catalonia in 1936) in conjunction with the ideas of philosophers Diego Abad de Santillan, Peter Kropotkin, and George Orwell.
To those with a mainstream understanding of political theory, the word ‘anarchism’ is likely synonymous with the terms’ oblivion’ or ‘chaos.’ Most would envision an anarchist society as void of order, control, or stable institutions. However, if you ask revolutionary philosophers such as Peter Kropotkin about the meaning of anarchism, they would likely cite it as the abolition of hierarchy (not social order) and the state (not structured society). As members of an advanced civilization built on the hierarchical structures that anarchists advocate against, these ideals and objectives seem unfathomable and perhaps contradictory. However, studying the underlying beliefs, perceptions, and values of anarchists is valuable to even the most moderate intellectuals as it pinpoints the deepest sources of political understanding and disagreement; perceptions of human nature, ethics, and freedom.
Anarchism is challenging to define as it is more than a single ideology; it is skepticism of government, fear of oppression, and longing for direct democracy that is shared by radical theorists across the political spectrum. Although these ideologues believe in the abolition of the state, they often still advocate for minimal governing power to be granted to a different kind of institution – whether it be labor syndicates, committees, markets, or otherwise. From this point is where the value of anarchist theorizing derives. The replacement proposals of radical intellectuals is an explicit window into their perception of human nature, social institutions, and desired social outcomes.
This article studies the theory and practice of anarcho-syndicalism, a left-wing anarchist ideology that advocates for the replacement of state-capitalism with decentralized democratic planning. Anarcho-syndicalists usually identify inequality as the primary source of misery, and both the state and capitalism as the primary sources of inequality. By studying these ideas, even if we are not convinced to start a revolution of our own, we can learn more about our core assumptions about human nature and social power structures. These are the lessons that this article seeks to extract from the last 170 years of anarchist history – beginning with what many consider among the first attempts of a worker’s revolution.
Voices of Paris Commune
In the late 1860s, industrial capitalism and autocratic regimes held France, like much of the world, in social upheaval. Fundamental political and economic reforms were demanded from the workers, who had been overworked, oppressed and impoverished.
Revolutionary acts of protest by the working class began as early as 1871, when an unarmed demonstration by radicals was fired upon by Breton Mobile Guard on January 22, killing five and wounding eighteen. Strikes and protests only increased in size, frequency, and intensity leading to the siege of France by the Prussians. After the French failed to protect the city, the local revolutionaries recaptured Paris and remade it in their collectivist image.
By March 1871, the Central Committee of the National Guard, a group aligned with the First International and directly elected by the working-class battalions of the Guard, officially held control of the city. They soon declared municipal independence and announced immediate elections in Paris – marking the beginning of a two-month social experiment that would be studied and interpreted for over 170 years to come. The Central Committee’s manifesto of March 18 reads;
“The proletarians of Paris, amidst the failures and treasons of the ruling classes, have understood that the hour has struck for them to save the situation by taking into their own hands the direction of public affairs… They have understood that it is their imperious duty, and their absolute right, to render themselves, masters of their own destinies, by seizing upon the governmental power.”
Immediately after taking power, the Communards sought to create a new social order, one radically opposed to the class system building around them. Their techniques for countering oppression included a direct democratic governing style where the leaders alternate their roles frequently, and an economy also built around democratic action. The Committee had liberated all goods in pawn shops, rolled back prices of rent, established a 6,000-franc cap on salary, allowed workers to take control of their businesses, and restricted night shifts at bakeries and other shops. As the Commune continued, it steadily radicalized further, soon postponing all debts and abolishing debt interests. The Commune also fiercely opposed a national army, with a heavy emphasis on personal protection. The Committee had eliminated the Standing Army and replaced it with the National Guard, which was composed of every citizen capable of being armed.
The vision of the Commune was reactionary to the industrial landscape developing around them. The workers, more than envisioning slight changes to their society, sought a world entirely void of hierarchy, class, and oppression. They believed that remaking the institutions which enforce class dynamics was essential to achieving their vision. Much of the ideologies that we associate the Commune with today (anarchism, socialism, etc.) haven’t yet been formally practiced by 1871. Therefore, the Commune had few predecessors to model. It is also worth noting that there were few, if any, political scientists in the Committee. This social dynamic was purely shaped, not by the minds of scholars or politicians, but working-class revolutionaries. These factors further make studying the Commune an exercise in not only political theory but human nature and social psychology. Mitchell Abidor’s Voices of the Paris Commune explores the story of the Commune by collecting first-hand interviews with those involved. Former-Commune member Paschal Grousset spoke of the revolutionary motives to La Blanche in the journal’s “Inquiry on the Commune” column (1897);
“It’s hardly necessary to affirm that two million men don’t rise up without a reason, don’t fight for nine weeks and don’t leave thirty-five thousand corpses on the streets without having good reasons. For many, these reasons were the result of the long suffering which is the life of seven eighths of a so-called civilized nation… For most people, the dominant idea, the main idea, primordial need to defend the republic, directly attacked by a clerical and royalist Assembly.”
The Commune lasted for only two months before Versailles troops cooperated with the Prussians to invade Paris. An estimated 30,000 Communards were executed, and 38,000 were imprisoned. Decades later, Peter Kropotkin released his crucial work, The Conquest of Bread (1892), which then became gospel to many anarchists and inspired revolutions to follow. In the preface of the book, Kropotkin refers to the Paris Commune of 1871;
“In March 1871, Paris had proclaimed that henceforward it would not wait for the retardatory portions of France and intended to start within its Commune its own social development. The movement was too short-lived to give any positive results. It remained communalist only. But the working-classes of the old International saw at once it’s historical significance. They understood that the free Commune would be henceforth the medium in which the ideas of modern socialism may come to realization. The free agro-industrial communes…must be vast agglomerations, like Paris, or still better, small territories.”
Homage to Catalonia
Half a century after the Paris Commune, class conflict continued to plaque the capitalist world as a divided Spain spiraled into civil war in 1936. Several factors were building to the conflict, most deriving from a violent clash of political ideologies growing within the discontent of the Second Republic. The Spanish ideologues, radically various in philosophies yet similar in their passion, sought very different (and incompatible) visions for the future of their nation. Combined with the clashing economic and diplomatic interests of both domestic and foreign actors and the desperation of the Spanish lower classes, this ideological crossroad for the future of Spain became a chaotic prelude to the bloody worldwide conflict that soon followed. Predictably, the ideological hotbed of Spain during the 1930s served as fertile ground for a workers revolution, particularly within the Spanish region of Catalonia, which, after already hosting a counterculture, had been recently increasing its regional autonomy.
As Spain diverged into the separate nations of Franco’s Fascist regime and the loosely unified Republican loyalists, the Catalan workers sought another fate for their region, a new form of society that resolves the hierarchical dynamics of class and governance by distributing social power every individual worker. Virtually all businesses were collectivized and democratically run by the workers. The concept of private property was abolished, and citizens took and gave as they pleased. The economy became organized by local trade unions and decentralized planning committees that were composed of directly elected officials and workers. Within a year, the movement soon grew to encompass 8 million workers and collectivize 75% of the Catalan economy.
Diego Abad de Santillan was among the most influential anarchists during the Spanish Revolution of the 1930s. The writer and economist, widely known for his radical activism across the world (most notably in Germany, Mexico, and Argentina), was asked by the National Confederation of Labor at the height of its power to outline the specific organization of the new socialist world. Santillan, fixated on the theoretical dynamics of an anarchist economy, came back with The Economic Organism of the Revolution (1936), a 40-page manifesto that vividly describes the structure of a hypothetical anarchist society (tailored explicitly for Syndicalists of Barcelona).
Santillan identified the primary obstacles of his collectivist vision as government and capitalism, the two central institutions that have enforced competition for the most recent glimpse of human history. He declared that freedom derives only from radical democracy and a lack of coercion from bureaucratic or economic forces. After being subjected to a society of minimal governmental democracy and economic totalitarianism, Santillan and the Catalan Anarchists sought a radical democratic reform. In Part 2 of After the Revolution, Santillan describes the basic structure of his proposed democratic society, in which all industries are directed solely by democratic Councils, theoretically enabling unprecedented economic democracy;
“In place of the capitalist, private owner and entrepreneur, after the Revolution we will have factory, shop or industrial Councils, constituted of workers, executives, and technicians in representation of the personnel of the enterprise, who will have the right to moderate and revoke their delegates. No one knows better than the workers themselves the capacity of each one in a determined establishment. There, where everybody knows everybody, the practice of democracy is possible. The factory Council in representation of the personnel in the same place of work will coordinate and cohere the work in their establishment and combine same with similar activities of other establishments or productive groups…There is complete autonomy without any intent of caprice in production, because the same has to respond to the necessities and possibilities in line with the exact knowledge of the conditions of each establishment and the needs and demands of the population.
The factory Councils will be combined by functional relation and form the syndicates of producers of similar goods, syndicates of trade or of industry; these new institutions have no proper authority in the internal structure of local establishments. They will provide for the modernizing of implements; attend to the fusion and coordination of factories, suppression of unproductive establishments, etc. The Syndicates are the representative organisms of local production and not only do they care for its preservation, but condition the future; creating schools of apprenticeship, research institutes, and experimental laboratories in accordance with their means and initiative. The Syndicates are co-leagued in accordance with the basic functions of economy, which we divide into eighteen sectors or general branches of activity necessary for the progressive march of a modern society.”
In late December 1936, writer George Orwell traveled to Barcelona, intending to write newspaper articles about the Catalan Anarchists. However, almost immediately after being immersed in the revolutionary atmosphere, he became of the countless foreigners who joined the anarchist militia. He later cited the decision as “the only conceivable thing to do” after his exposure to the classless society which the workers created. He writes in the first chapter of his account in Catalonia, published as Homage to Catalonia (1938);
“It was the first time that I had ever been in a town where the working class was in the saddle. Practically every building of any size had been seized by the workers and was draped with red flags or with the red and black flag of the Anarchists; every wall was scrawled with the hammer and sickle and with the initials of the revolutionary parties… Every shop and cafe had an inscription saying that it had been collectivized; even the bootblacks had been collectivized and their boxes painted red and black. Waiters and shop-walkers looked you in the face and treated you as an equal … All this was queer and moving. There was much in it that I did not understand, in some ways I did not even like it, but I recognized it immediately as a state of affairs worth fighting for. “
As the war continued to intensify and engulf the upper reaches of Spain, the workers’ enthusiasm fell dramatically. Additionally, an increasing amount of Republican war-funding was sent by the Soviet Union, whose communist forces discouraged the anarchist movement. As the Soviets continued to suppress the Catalan revolutionaries (first by influence and then by force), the region began to return to its former state. George Orwell, in the sentimental ninth chapter of his memoir, recalled traveling back to Barcelona from the war front and finding “the revolutionary atmosphere had vanished.” Soon after, the Fascists captured the region and abolished Catalan autonomy, outlawed the Catalan language, and destroyed much of the area’s newspapers, books, and records. The Franco regime continued to rule Spain (and suppress Catalan culture and autonomy) until 1975.
In many ways, anarchism is the complete antithesis to modern Western governmental and economic styles. However, it is also extremist in many of the same rhetorical values of American democracy. The ideas of decentralized power, pluralism, justice, democracy, and equality written by the Constitution’s Framers are similar to the rhetoric of anarchism except in degree. Both anarchist and republican ideologies perceive great inherent value in democratic governing, though the anarcho-syndicalists favored direct-democracy over a representative system. In both Paris and Catalonia, every worker was automatically a member of the Committee and given extraordinary power over their community’s decision-making processes. In American society, votes are cast much less frequently, and members of the government are educated representatives rather than uneducated working-class laborers.
However, the societal organization of a community ultimately depends more on economic than governmental functions. On this dynamic, anarchists and liberals disagree profusely. The anarcho-syndicalists of Paris and Barcelona believed that political democracy alone was inadequate for the decentralization necessary for an equal and participatory society. Workers wished to have a voice in both their government and their industry, displaying a radical notion of democracy that surpasses the commitment of most liberals. By collectivizing businesses and organizing industry through decentralized planning committees, the anarcho-syndicalists sought to revolutionize work relations and create an economy where workers cooperate (rather than compete) to fulfill the community’s industrial and agricultural needs. This dynamic, they believed, would result in workers pursuing more meaningful work while democratically minimizing wage inequality.
The effectiveness of this model is dependent on the democratic fluidity of the planning institutions. If the committees are genuinely democratic, then they are aligned with the anarchist philosophy of decentralization as they would distribute economic power from owners to workers. If the planning institutions feature an authoritarian structure, then they would further consolidate power from owners to centralized committees. If these institutions were to remain democratic (as they appeared to through the lifespan of the Parisian and Catalan Communes), they could enable popular participation to the degree that is unfathomable to contemporary capitalist workers. The democratization of industry reflected the willingness of anarchists to take more responsibility in their workplace. Instead of fulfilling specialized roles, they wished to distribute responsibility, power, and authority. Although this perception was not uncommon among blue-collar workers in early industrial societies, working-class culture has shifted dramatically towards passivity and individualism. If economic democracy were to be successful today, it would require a massive, widespread shift in how Americans perceive work, democracy, equality, freedom, and industry.
Although syndicalists believed decentralization to be the ultimate solution, it did not save them from the conquest of powerful authoritarian regimes. As American intellectuals equate decentralization to instability, both the Paris and Barcelona Communes fell to foreign centralized powers. Because of this dark fate, it is impossible to determine the sustainability of the syndicalist model in a society protected from foreign conquest. Unfortunately, no nation ever will be fully protected; thus, radically decentralized communities will always be challenged by the inevitable pressure of international regimes – just as the two primary historical communes were. This point aside, the Parisian and Catalan anarchists sought to address undeniable crises of inequality in radical and fascinating ways. The experimental devices which they wielded – a decentralized economy, a democratic and transparent overseeing committee, and a social contract of solidarity – temporarily succeeded in bringing about the society of classlessness, a Utopian vision that countless philosophers have declared impossible. For a short time, they defied the Western understanding of human nature and united as a class without the social devices of the state and capitalism. I cannot predict where the next implementation of anarchism will take place, but, so long as there are humans, there will always be the pursuit of radical liberation from authority – even if only achieved for a couple of months.
Abidor, Mitchell. Voices of the Paris Commune. PM Press, 2015.
Gould, Roger V. “Multiple Networks and Mobilization in the Paris Commune, 1871.” American Sociological Review, vol. 56, no. 6, 1991, p. 716.
Marx, Karl. “The Civil War in France.” Marx: Later Political Writings, May 1871.
Kropotkin, Peter. “Conquest of Bread.” 1892.