The anarchosyndicalist contribution to the theory of revolutionary consciousness

I’ve decided to try and draw together revolutionary theory about how consciousness develops, since I think there’s actually very little explicit ideas out there beyond people parroting the leninist conception or the spontaneist conception. One hugely overlooked area I’ve found is syndicalist ideas about consciousness. There appears to be debates in the early 20th century about syndicalist conceptions of the development of revolutionary consciousness, and in fact it seems to have represented a school of thought on how to bring about revolutionary consciousness in the proletariat. This is in spite of the fact that syndicalists themselves rarely wrote about such matters. Below I try to gather together the historical lessons of the proletariat engaged in syndicalist struggle, as a research thread rather than a thesis. I’m not a historian, and can’t pretend to have academic rigor, as I have to write my articles on my time off between work. If I had more time, I’d publish the debates in the rank and file syndicalist papers that really give life to these ideas, but instead took a small sampling of easily available representative pieces. I also ignore critiquing the limits of syndicalism here, as these contributions are less well known and acknowledged than the critiques I would put forward.

Faith in Struggle

The basic problem of consciousness is this, how can people go from believing what they do now  to being dedicated to fundamental transformation of society? This question has troubled radicals of all stripes throughout the ages. The question itself has a number of assumptions. Firstly, lack of such consciousness prevents revolution. Secondly, having it on some level at least brings us closer to revolution. Thirdly, this transformation will not happen on its own.

It is worth questioning this logic though. I’d hazard the assertion that no revolution that occurred has been done by a conscious revolutionary society. Instead revolutionaries have always been objectively minorities. Moreover though revolutionaries can come to represent the aspirations and perspectives of the people, revolutionaries can’t make revolutions for the people, nor are they able to impose their ideas on the people in struggle. Thus revolutions have been made by a majority of non-revolutionaries. That’s not to say people were duped. If I move to Atlanta, I may not know what i am moving to, but I know that I’m moving there, and how it differs from my present circumstance. I think the role of consciousness in revolution is thus overemphasized in that revolutionary consciousness itself only has a partial role in moving people towards revolution, it is an incomplete consciousness (especially in self-proclaimed revolutionaries!), and the relationship between struggle and consciousness are extremely complex. 

These are merely assertions that i won’t try to defend here with the struggles and reflection that brought me to them. Instead I want to explore a parallel in anarchosyndicalism (really syndicalism as well) that have implicitly a similar answer to the problem of consciousness, and one that departs radically from the traditional answers the left offered in terms of education, spontaneism, or substitutionism of the party. 

Before the 20th century, anarchism was an isolated philosophy. A turn to individualistic violent activities, or propaganda of the deed, alienated the base of anarchism, and brought severe repression on the movement. Anarchism produce the ideological propaganda group or the insurrectionary cell, both divided from the struggles of the exploited, and ineffective in deepening the struggles for transformation. Some anarchists went head on into workplace organizing in some of the first unions (especially in Latin America). Battles organizing helped produce a number of lessons through the struggle itself. Political infighting and electoralism divided the class, and weakened the fight against the capitalists. The use of indirect political action were fought on the ground where the capitalists were strongest, whereas direct action showed the power of the working class acting collectively. Moreover the workers occasionally, in high points of struggle, demonstrated their ability to assume control of the economy and reorganize it for collective needs. 

Rooted in the direct struggles of the workers, and emphasizing the need for a libertarian methodology and form of organization, anarchism saved itself from the dustbin of history, or the social democracy of marxism at that time. Through anarchosyndicalism anarchism reached the peak of its strength, and built the organizations, theory, and struggles that people now know as anarchism. 

At the heart of syndicalism, of which anarchosyndicalism evolved out of and eventually overshadowed, was a radical break with other revolutionaries on the concept of radicalization. Though it is hard to speak in quantitative terms since these movements were overwhelmingly proletarian and consequently had a gap between its most vocal elements and its base, some trends can be noted.

Unlike propaganda groups, syndicalists did not believe that the task of revolutionaries was solely to produce and distribute ideas that would inspire or engage the people to join the struggle. Unlike the state socialists, syndicalists did not think that capturing state power alone would produce a revolutionary proletariat (the anarchosyndicalists of course rejected the state route all together, but the CGT and IWW too emphasized the union over the electoral route). Syndicalism put struggle at the heart of its concept of radicalization. Struggle in the workplace and in society in general was the site where revolutionary consciousness could develop, but also blossom when there was enough space for such struggle not to be coopted and diverted into reformism, service unionism, or merely the conquest of state power without fundamentally altering the social relationships of capitalism. The syndicalist organization provided a vehicle for the development of consciousness collectively by proletarians organized around common grievances.  

"The level of selfishness or social duty, individualism or solidarity, that exists in society is the result of social structures and economic imperatives. So our consciousness would change if our society and economy were to change. When the way we worked and lived was different, so was our consciousness. As social structures and the economy have continued to develop and change in a selfish and negative fashion, so the negative side of individualism has come to the fore." Solidarity Federation, The Economics of Freedom

At the heart of this quote is an understanding of consciousness as rooted not merely in the dominant power structures of our time, but also in the activities and social organization that people engage in within society. This forms a kernel of the syndicalist methodology to revolution in that it implies to some degree that we require new means of organizing ourselves in order to open space for the development of revolutionary consciousness. 

Arguing against the leftist (both anarchist and marxist variants) idea that unions are inherently reformist in virtue of their including non-revolutionary workers, syndicalists argued that workers organizations are not static. The consciousness of union members change with the periods of struggle. Unions may come to revolutionary consciousness and activity in so far as the sections of the working class that make it up come to those conclusions in their thoughts and struggles.  

"We are often told that unions cannot be more than reformist because the must encompass a maximum number of workers. But history shows that mass unions are perfectly capable of developing anti-capitalist strategies (the Spanish CNT, the French CGT before 1914, the IWW, the Mexican CGT, the French CGTU …. ) Unions will tend to follow the consciousness of the working class because they are combat organisations, especially of the most militant parts of the working class. During periods of „social peace“ reformist tendencies will naturally come to the fore. In pre-revolutionary times unions are perfectly capable of developing a revolutionary program. A political party will come under the same pressure of class struggle, even when it is a so-called mass-party with a, rare, working-class leadership". Goals of the CSR, Comité Syndicaliste Révolutionaire

The Necessity of an active minority

The syndicalists believe/d that the struggle itself and its organs provide the deepest education for the communization of society by the working class itself. Through building united proletarian power, and the experiences of organizing and fighting the ruling class, the working class prepared itself and deepened its abilities to build towards revolution. 

"To them Socialist education does not mean participation in the power policy of the national state, but the effort to make clear to the workers the intrinsic connections among social problems by technical instruction and the development of their administrative capacities, to prepare them for their role of re-shapers of economic life and give them the moral assurance required for the performance of their task. No social body is better fitted for this purpose than the economic fighting organisation of the workers; it gives a definite direction to their social activities and toughens their resistance in the immediate struggle for the necessities of life and the defence of their human rights. At the same time it develops their ethical concepts without which any social transformation is impossible: vital solidarity with their fellows in destiny and moral responsibility for their actions." Rocker, Anarchism & Anarchosyndicalism

We see contradictions here though between the organization and the class. At once the site of revolutionary consciousness is situated in the class in struggle, but then the organization is identified with that class. Yet it is obvious to us now why this is problematic, of which spain is only the most glaring example of how organizations and the class can diverge at the most crucial moment. In a sense the organization takes the role of the party, merely a decentralized party, in counterpoint to a class acting to abolish itself. 

"It is axiomatic that neither the rebellious mood of militants, nor the structure of an organization, however well conceived, make it REVOLUTIONARY A labor movement is REVOLUTIONARY only to the extent that the workers feel the need to organize themselves into revolutionary unions dedicated to the abolition of capitalism and the state, to take possession of the means of production and establish a society selfmanaged by the workers. Lacking these revolutionary perspectives, rebellious movements gradually lose their dynamism and integrate themselves into the system. The chief function of a revolutionary minority is to "fan the flames of discontent" (IWW slogan).

Revolutionary ideas cannot be artificially planted. Workers become receptive when these concepts are confirmed and reflected through their own experience." Dolgoff THE AMERICAN LABOUR MOVEMENT: A NEW BEGINNING

We see here though an idea repeated throughout syndicalist publications that represents leaps and bounds over left thinking about consciousness. This is the idea that revolutionary consciousness emerges through struggle and reflection, and that that comes from present/ongoing/immanent processes within the working class itself, and that that is the basis of revolution. 

Syndicalists thus argued for struggles around day to day issues to open space for the emergence of class consciousness, against those who thought such struggle could only be reformist. This isn’t to say improving material conditions of workers is revolutionary (which some anarchist admirers of business unions affirm) nor that struggle inevitably leads to such consciousness, just that struggle is the domain where consciousness can emerge (perhaps with healthy skepticism of the propagandism of political organizations). 

"partial improvements do not have the effect of lulling the workers to sleep: instead they act as a reassurance and a spur to her in staking further claims and making further demands. The result of well-being – which is always a consequence of the display of proletarian might – whether the interested parties wrest it from the struggle, or the bourgeoisie deems it prudent and politic to make concessions, in order to take the edge off clashes which it foresees or fears – is to add to the dignity and consciousness of the working class and also – and above all else! – to increase and hone its appetite for the fight. As it shrugs off its physiological and intellectual poverty, the working class matures: it achieves a greater sensitivity, grows more alive to the exploitation it endures and its determination to break free of this is all the greater: it also gains a clearer perception of the irreconcilable contrast between its own interests and those of the capitalist class." Pouget, Direct Action

Syndicalists were aware though of the limitations of bread and butter struggles.The fundamental transformation of the social relationships of capital are the ultimate target, and this is no way guaranteed by shifts in working conditions.

"But, no matter how important one may suppose them to be, piecemeal improvements cannot take the place of the revolution, or stave it off: the expropriation of capital remains a necessity if liberation is to be feasible…Obviously partial gains (no matter how important we may suppose these to be and even if they should largely whittle away at privileges) do not have the effect of altering economic relationships – the relations obtaining between boss and worker, between leader and led. Therefore the worker’s subordination to Capital and the State endures. From which it follows that the social question looms as large as ever, and the "barricade" dividing the producers from the parasites living off them has not been shifted, much less flattened." Pouget, Direct Action


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