R Darlington, Radical Unionism: The Rise & Fall of Revolutionary Syndicalism (Chicago, 2013)

Syndicalism isn’t known by most people today. It sounds like ‘syndicates’ and therefore English speakers might say it’s something vaguely connected with the mafia or maybe groups of people who like playing lotto. It is actually a form of revolutionary or radical unionism that flourished internationally (including in Aotearoa) for a period of about 20 years at the start of the 20th century.

Hundreds of thousands of workers in a wide range of employment joined syndicalist unions. They struggled for both immediate gains and for the longer term goal of a total social and economic transformation. They wanted the overthrow of the capitalist economic system and its replacement by a co-operative society controlled by workers as a whole. They had successes and in some countries such as Spain, forms of syndicalism played a significant role in major revolutionary outbreaks, though in the end they failed to reach their maximum goal and made mistakes.

Ralph Darlington is an academic who has written a number of articles and books about Syndicalism. In ‘Radical Unionism’ he divides the book into two parts, the first is largely descriptive and the second analytical. In the first half of the book he seeks to fill some of what he perceives as the gaps and weaknesses of much of the existing academic writing on the topic. For example, rather than writing individual country accounts, he attempts to provide an overarching international view of the movement via case studies of six countries (USA, Britain, Ireland, Italy, France, Spain) (pp. 6-8) . It is possible to complain that the author has neglected to include some interesting or important geographical locations in his review of international syndicalism. South America had a strong movement and Australia and New Zealand were part of the scope of events too. However, there has to be some limitations in order to avoid a work being unwieldy or tipping into critical incoherence. In addition, Darlington has chosen places with a wide range of experiences in the history of syndicalism and he has not gone for obscure or soft options in his choices (p. 9).

As noted, the first half of the book is essentially descriptive. The first chapter for example describes aspects of syndicalist philosophy and practice. These include their emphasis on class war (pp. 19-21), rejection of parliament under capitalism (pp. 22-24), autonomy from political parties (pp. 25-28), direct action (pp. 32-39) and the role of the General Strike as a revolutionary technique (pp. 39-42). When he does venture explicit biases, the author provides a largely sympathetic account of the Syndicalists. For example, he defends them against those who wish to marginalise the importance of the movement due to never gaining the support of the majority of unionised workers. As he states, it may be true they failed to get numerical majorities in most cases but their moderate and reformist opponents didn’t either. In fact the syndicalists achieved remarkable influence over working class struggle despite their sometimes small numbers (p. 150). There are also instances where Darlington makes valid and thought provoking criticisms that still have relevance for today’s radical movements. Syndicalists were often weak in relation to gender roles and race issues, for example (p. 104-111).

Darlington’s sympathy towards the syndicalists, needs to be understood and approached with caution. Syndicalism had an eclectic range of influences upon it, including to a large degree anarchism but the author identifies a Marxist inspired strand as being important too. Early in his text Darlington acknowledges he is a Leninist. Since Leninism sees itself as Marxist and Darlington has identified a Marxist component to syndicalism, his approach to the movement could not therefore be wholly negative. Yet as a Leninist, he views syndicalism as an inadequate transitional form of struggle. This is not, as some cruder Marxist theorists have claimed because its proponents represented a primitive stage of economic activity, but because it failed politically. He patronisingly explains the latter’s two decades of predominance as being because it “…emerged at a time of stagnation in socialist thought, in the gap between pioneering revolutionary Marxist ideas and the triumph of the Leninist concept of the revolutionary party that reached its culmination in the Russian Revolution of 1917” (p. 61).

This leads to the second half of Darlington’s book. In this part his Leninist conception of politics seriously skews his explanatory credibility. Again, he is unable to completely jettison sympathy for elements of syndicalism but ultimately denies its value due to the alleged superiority of his own politics (p. 279). The writer follows the Trotskyist variant of Leninism. He therefore tries to deny any continuity between those with initial ascendency in the Bolshevik party and the Stalinists who soon rose to the fore once Lenin was dead and Trotsky exiled. Thus he claims that Lenin and Trotsky engaged in a “…relatively comradely approach…aimed at trying to win over the syndicalists through fraternal argument on the one hand…” whereas those who later sided with Stalin had a “…bureaucratic sectarian bullying [approach] on the other” (p195). The saintly Lenin engaged in “patient dialogue” (p. 197) with syndicalists, while others engaged in vituperation. Anarchist claims of persecution by the Bolsheviks is characterised by Darlington merely as “alleged” (p. 173 & 192) as if there was not a shred of evidence to support the claims. Further, he posits the standard Trotskyist position that the Bolshevik regime degenerated only under Stalin. He claims it wasn’t until 1927-29 that “Workers were denied the right to strike and trade unions lost any independence from the state” (p. 287) as if this phenomenon came out of nowhere.

Darlington’s crude black and white separation between Lenin and Trotsky on the one hand and Zinoviev and other pro-Stalin Bolsheviks, is denied by the behaviour of the Bolsheviks collectively from their very assumption of power. They manipulated organs of power such as the soviets that were established during the revolutionary period or simply shut them down. Rival left-wing parties were intimidated into submission and strikes were crushed using the secret police or army. Further, dissident leftists such as the sailors of Kronstadt were in the approving words of Trotsky “shot down like partridges”. The anarchists of the Ukraine were also militarily attacked by Trotsky in his capacity as head of the Red Army during the Civil War period. All of this has been well documented for decades. Darlington’s picture of a gentle Lenin and Trotsky trying to quietly win people over by persuasion strains credibility to breaking point!

Darlington is correct however in highlighting the success of the Bolsheviks in taking power in Russia as part of the reason for the decline in support for Syndicalism. The victory of the Bolsheviks and eventual consolidation of their regime caused huge re-assessments on the part of every kind of political current internationally, from the extreme Right to Liberals, Social Democrats and the Left. Those who had been involved in the syndicalist movements in Ireland, USA, England, France, Italy and Spain also had to consider how they could approach this new force. Many succumbed to the attractiveness of a regime that had achieved power and used many progressive sounding buzz words to describe itself. The Bolsheviks had been clever at various points to lure potential supporters from outside their small numbers. It is understandable some syndicalists would be among those who succumbed to that allure. As detailed above, subsequent events were to prove the latter sadly mistaken. While Syndicalists failed to promote a strategy of seizing state power as an objective, the conduct of the Bolsheviks and the way the revolution played out, show this as more a strength than the weakness Darlington claims.

It needs to be noted that syndicalism was more closely aligned to anarchism than any other political movement in terms of its methods and goals. It was in fact the anarcho-syndicalist variety of syndicalism in Spain that gained the biggest number of supporters of any of the nationally based movements. It also briefly had the greatest opportunity of putting its ideas into practice. This came in the middle of 1936, in reaction to a right-wing military uprising. It saw thousands of ordinary workers take control of factories and other workplaces and successfully manage them in their own name for a period. It was primarily militants from the anarcho-syndicalist CNT union who took the lead in this process.

Despite some political affinity, syndicalism in its various forms has been criticised from the outset by various anarchists. In the ‘classic’ period of birth and growth at the turn of the 20th century, syndicalism was criticised by the likes of the Italian activist Malatesta, during the events in Spain by dissident anarchist factions, and in more recent times by people such as Murray Bookchin and Joseph Bonanno. It is not the place within this current book review to detail the full extent of these criticisms. In brief they include the idea that syndicalism can never be fully revolutionary because of its tendency to compromise with the status quo in pursuit of a degenerated trade union mentality that wishes to achieve immediate gains. In that sense its role is to negotiate the rate of exploitation with the capitalists rather than truly overthrow them. Another relates to the idea that syndicalism is no longer valid due to structural changes in post-industrial capitalism. Interested readers are welcome to investigate in greater detail the views of the anarchist thinkers mentioned, to get a fuller picture of what they believe. The point is that the criticisms made by the latter are more in tune with a positive approach to the task of changing society than the agenda Darlington reveals in ‘Radical Unionism’.

Given the evident weaknesses in Darlington’s perspective, is his book worth reading? Yes. Firstly because there are very few new books at all on this subject, academic or otherwise. Given a certain affinity between aspects of anarchism and syndicalism, any new text on the latter should be of interest to anarchists. Secondly, the first half of his book in particular often has excellent descriptions of what the syndicalists believed. This is helpfully marshalled into an international overview while looking at significant national cases relevant to the movement. Thirdly, some of his criticisms are worthwhile acknowledging and thinking about. Lastly, nobody genuinely interested in politics should fail to engage with the ideas of opponents in some way and reading such a book fulfils that role in this case.