Trade unionism and revolutionary syndicalism

July 13, 2012

by Michael Gilbert

The theory and practice of how to organize workers to take power into their own hands and fight for a new social order has always been uppermost in the minds of all true revolutionaries, even in the darkest moments of capitalist and state-capitalist repression. Following Marx, the founder of Marxist-Humanism, Raya Dunayevskaya, has shown that the struggle for freedom is one with Marxism and that the ideas of revolutionary Marxism, cured of all reformist delusions, are as valid today as they were in Marx’s time. Marxist-Humanism has placed the highest emphasis on the self-organization of workers as a class. The working class will break down the barriers of class, race, gender, and create a new human being, who will transcend the limits of the old society in a new non-alienated global social order.

What is the classic form of the self-organization of the working class? What form of organization appears whenever workers battle capitalism, whether in the U.S. in the nineteenth century or in China and Egypt today? It is the trade union.

Today, global capitalism is in a state of severe crisis and the “solutions” of international capitalists–be they the state-capitalists of China or the financial moguls of Wall Street–are more draconian cuts, severe forms of repression and social injustice, which goes hand in hand with the movement of millions of workers determined to fight for their rights and for a new society.

In the beginning of the industrial revolution the men, women and children who made factories run and made exorbitant profits for their employers while slaving under the most hellish life, began to realize that, as the old saying goes, there is strength in numbers. However, in the U.S., until the 1930s, the unions were essentially craft unions, dominated by fervently anti-revolutionary white skilled craftsmen. There were exceptions who were the U.S. union movement’s greatest leaders in its finest hours, be it the national labor uprising of 1877, the rail workers union of Eugene Debs, the Western Federation of Miners and its outgrowth, or the Industrial Workers of the World, a truly revolutionary syndicalist trade union organization whose goal was a social revolution and the end of the capitalist system.

With the 1930s and the rise of the CIO came the vast expansion of the union movement into thousands of factories and mills throughout the U.S. The 1930s saw the rise of the great unions in the steel, auto, rubber, coal and garment industries. That decade saw the emergence of a powerful union system in U.S. ports. It was the decade of the sit-down strike, bloody clashes between workers and the hired guns of the capitalist class and even general strikes. It finally seemed that U.S. workers realized that their power and strength was to be found in unity and militancy.


In the decades that followed the end of World War II the unions became more bureaucratic and less militant. They became partners with the capitalist system and ceased to be fighters for the entire working class. Workers who were not in unions ceased to be a concern of union bureaucrats. As the U.S. became less and less industrialized with the closure of factories and the outsourcing of jobs, unions represented a smaller and smaller part of the working class. Now, approximately 9% of the non-governmental work force is unionized.

Most young workers, in particular, have never been in a union, have never gone out on strike or supported other strikers. The spirit of solidarity which characterized the union movement at the beginning of the 20th century and during the 1930s is dead. The capitalist state is openly hostile to unions or any efforts by working people to organize unions and fight for justice. If you even whisper about a union in most non-union workplaces, you’ll be out on the street before you know what hit you.

The old unions have failed the working class in the most elementary task of all: liberating them from the chains of economic slavery. They failed because, long ago, they made a deal with the devil–the capitalist system–but the devil had better cards: control of the state bureaucracy that has never stood on the side of working people. The union bureaucrats were satisfied if they kept their place as the overseers of the unionized work force. They became a part of the system and had no intention of rocking the boat. Now the boat is going down and the old unions are going down with it.

Even the public sector unions are under a sustained and ferocious attack by the ultras in the capitalist state machine. These ultras want to make being in a union, having collective bargaining rights, having the right to strike, etc., a thing of the past. There are ominous parallels with the destruction of unions under the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century.

Revolutionary syndicalism has always been uncompromising in its opposition to unions using the capitalist political machine to gain alleged victories for the workers, even if the politicians claimed to be on the Left, socialists, or whatever. Today, as in the past, revolutionary syndicalists have no confidence in that part of the bureaucratic state that regulates unions and the life of workers, such as the National Labor Relations Board in the U.S. They put their faith in organizing all workers in strong, fighting unions that do not make deals with the bosses or the state. They put their faith in the ultimate weapon of the united working class: the general strike. Revolutionary syndicalists also believe in union democracy, members controlling their union and determining its future.

Revolutionary syndicalism is resolutely anti-capitalist, believing that the union struggles today will lay the foundations for the society of tomorrow. Revolutionary syndicalists believe in direct action on the job, in solidarity with other movements for revolutionary change. Revolutionary syndicalism also believes in the organization of the entire working class into one big union, such as the IWW, not the division of workers into separate rival unions. For example, there is no reason why teachers in public schools should be in a separate union from the custodians, kitchen employees, etc.

At every workplace, all those who work for “the other” should be united in one union. Every industry should be united in one union. It is scandalous that U.S. unions often spend more energy fighting each other than the system, their common enemy. The disunity in the union movement is a major cause of its organic weakness.

A revolutionary Marxist syndicalist organizer at Wal-Mart would tell those who work there that every Wal-Mart worker should be in one union across the world and that if the Mexican Wal-Mart workers strike, so should their U.S. counterparts, including those who work in the monster’s bowels in Arkansas. International working-class unity is the banner of revolutionary syndicalism, but that solidarity must begin at home.


Revolutionary syndicalists believe that the syndical organization of the working class must go beyond the factories, offices, and retail establishments and advocate the organization of unions in schools, public housing and private apartment buildings, ready to strike if their rights as students and tenants should be violated by the school administrators, public housing administrators, or landlords. Revolutionary syndicalism is a social movement that seeks to struggle in every area of modern society where there is oppression and social injustice.

There are tens of millions of U.S. workers who desperately need the power that can be found when workers unite and form unions. As the U.S. workforce becomes more exploited by a collapsing system, as working conditions become worse, as salaries are cut and benefits are taken away, the only defense the workers have is to unite and unionize. But what revolutionary in their right mind would want to bring workers into a trade union bureaucracy that is in bed with the whole capitalist system, a union structure which, in itself, is counter-revolutionary? No: there has to be a better way.

That better way lies in the self-organization of the working class wherever it may be found, in its discovery of its own power and rejection of the systems of alienation which permit those with power to control the rest of us. The key is the development of revolutionary consciousness, understanding that the alienation that millions feel from their work is caused by the existence of the capitalist system. One overcomes alienation by uniting with others in a common struggle for a new and non-alienated society, the famous negation of the negation of Hegel and Marx. But this will not occur through the old trade unions, the Democratic Party, or the various reformist currents that claim to be part of the Left.

Revolutionary syndicalism recognizes that the massive syndical organization of the working class can occur without and outside of the corrupt U.S. trade unions. It can occur when women and men who believe in the syndicalist ideal of a new society, who are in various workplaces of America, come together and form such an organization. Such unions will emerge from the daily struggles of people for social justice and a new world. But first we must have dedicated revolutionaries in the factories, offices, schools, and neighborhoods, to carry this forth. Marxist-Humanists can bring to a revolutionary syndicalist movement the fruits of a half century and more of struggle and theory, an appreciation of the Marxist conception of the historic role that the working class can play in profound social transformations. It can provide linkages between the workers and the youth who have once again taken to the streets to fight against the capitalist system, and they can introduce Marx and Marxism to a new generation and show the validity of his ideas. Like Marxist-Humanists, revolutionary syndicalists see the organization of the working class as the task of the working class itself and reject the notion of the vanguard party. Like Marxist-Humanism, revolutionary syndicalism stresses looking beyond the bourgeois society of today to the revolutionary society of tomorrow. And like Marxist-Humanism, revolutionary syndicalism sees the development of revolutionary theory coming from revolutionary practice and vice versa.

In both theory and practice, I believe that there is a strong foundation for the mutual incorporation of the ideas of revolutionary syndicalism and the ideas of Marxist-Humanism in the common struggle for a world in which capitalism is negated and a new world will arise from the ashes and debris of the old.

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