The Bourgeois Roots of Anarcho-Syndicalism

“We favor the development of a worker’s movement based on direct democracy, not just because it will be more effective in the present day fight against the employing class, but also because it foreshadows – and lays the basis for – a society of freedom and equality, without authoritarianism or exploitation.”
-from a flyer put out by the Workers Solidarity Alliance, an anarcho-syndicalist organization.

In the fourteenth or fifteenth century a social transformation began to take place which reached its dramatic peak in the American War of Independence and the French Revolution. This period was the uprising of the bourgeoisie against the feudal system and the power of the Catholic Church. In place of feudalism, the economic system of capitalism and the political system of political democracy arose. Rather than allow a non-elected aristocracy or a king to rule, liberal democracy demands that “the people” rule through their representatives or their vote. Like the anarcho-syndicalists quoted above, the bourgeoisie wanted a “society of freedom and equality, without authoritarianism or exploitation.” Leave out the parts about “workers” and “the employing class” and Thomas Paine might have written the quote.

Of course, the anarcho-syndicalists will tell us that they aren’t using the words in the way the bourgeois revolutionaries did. I’d take them at their word if it weren’t for the fact that anarcho-syndicalism reflects bourgeois ideology in much more significant ways than merely borrowing its terminology. The values upheld by anarcho-syndicalists do not significantly differ from those of the more radical of the bourgeois liberal theorists, and their project, upon examination, proves to be merely the extension of the liberal project.

As I’ve already said, the economic system that came to power with the bourgeoisie is capitalism. I won’t go into a lengthy description of capitalism – suffice it to say that the defining quality of capitalism, as compared with other economic systems, is not the existence of capitalists but the production of excess capital allowing for continued economic expansion. Capitalism is a highly moral system – that is to say it requires values which take priority over individual needs, desires or greed in order to expand smoothly. These values which are essential to capitalist expansion are production and progress. Every technological advance is, thus, to be embraced unless it can be shown to be a threat to further expansion of capital. Essential to production and progress is work and so the bourgeois highly value work – and, contrary to the image painted by “radical” labour propagandists, it is not uncommon for capitalists to work many more hours than industrial workers, but it’s organizational rather than productive work. Those who manage to avoid work are the moral scum of capitalist society – parasites off the working people.

Anarcho-syndicalists embrace every one of these capitalist values. Their goal is “the real human mastery of production.” In spite of the high level of anthropological evidence to the contrary, they assume that primal people spent most of their time just striving to survive and that it is only thanks to the production of technology and its progress that we can live the wonderful lives we all do now, and enjoy all the lovely commodities – oops! Sorry, I’m waxing sarcastic! The syndicalists recognize a few specific technologies as threats to survival but see technology in general and progress in general as positive things. In light of this, it is no surprise that they rhapsodize over work, because without work there would be no production or progress. Like the bourgeoisie, they see those who avoid work as “parasites.” (See Chaze Bufe’s Listen Anarchist!) The only real problem they have with the capitalist system is who’s in charge – they’d prefer the One Big Capitalist, the international union of working people, rather than various individuals, corporations and states to be in charge. But the basic structure would be the same. Like the bourgeoisie – and maybe even more than the bourgeoisie – the anarcho-syndicalists embrace the values essential to capitalism.

If production and progress are positive values, making work essential, then social conformity is equally essential. I’ve already said that work avoidance is seen as parasitism. Any pleasure that cannot be commodified and so brought under the control of production is unethical. The vagabond, the tramp, the gypsy, the outlaw, any individual who makes no positive contribution to society is condemned as a failure or a criminal. Even the bohemian – the non-conforming artist, musician or poet – is suspect in bourgeois eyes – at least until a way is found to recuperate their renegade creative urges.

This same attitude towards those who don’t fit into society is held by anarcho-syndicalists. Chaz Bufe’s castigation of “marginals” in Listen Anarchist! makes this quite clear. The way the CNT constantly put down the anarchist outlaw Sabate (while continuing to take and use the money he gave them from his robberies) is truly disgusting. Throughout its history, anarcho-syndicalism has tried to quench the fire of unruly rebels, sometimes through persuasion and sometime through insult, to move anarchic rebels to conform and to accept society. Wherever anarchic rebellion went beyond the reforms the anarcho-syndicalists were calling, these supposed non-believers in law would be the first to cry, “Criminal! Terrorists!” Like the bourgeoisie, they want production to progress smoothly, and that requires social conformity.

Hand in hand with social conformity goes a love for social peace. It is true that the bourgeoisie has exploited wars between nations to expand capital, but this is always precarious since any violence can upset the smooth running of capitalism. Only violence instituted by the proper authorities with a rational and ethical basis has any place in bourgeois society. Personal conflicts are not only not to include physical violence but should be polite, dealt with through rational discussion, negotiation or due process. Certainly passions should not flare. The social peace is to be broken only under the most extreme of circumstances.

Anarcho-syndicalists also value social peace. From Luigi Fabbri’s Bourgeois Influences in Anarchism to Bufe’s Listen Anarchist!, they try to warn anarchists away from violent verbal expression – ironically, trying to claim that this springs not from false conceptions of anarchism created by the bourgeois press – why they think people with courage and intelligence to rebel against authority would accept the word of the bourgeois press, I don’t know. Like the bourgeoisie, the anarcho-syndicalists call on us to express our disagreements rationally, free of passion, in a peaceable way. Any active, violent expression of individual rebellion is considered irresponsible, counter-revolutionary and unethical by the anarcho syndicalists. The perpetrators are labelled, at best, as dupes and more often as common criminals and terrorists. In fact, outside of a “revolutionary situation,” anarcho-syndicalists reject most form of illegal activity as counter-productive (but is that necessarily bad?). Only the uprising of the working class (the “proper authority” in anarcho-syndicalist theory) can justify violence – and that violence must be rational and ethical so as to keep the instruments of production intact and make as smooth of a transition as possible to anarcho-syndicalist production.

Anarcho-syndicalists also wish to create a rational, ethical society. They call on us to “attack irrationality…wherever and whenever it arises.” The problem they see with the present society is that it is not rational or ethical enough. Since reason is the source of ethical behavior (in their view), it must prevail in all areas of life. Not our passions or desires, but our “rational self-interest” should be our guide, say the syndicalists, echoing the utilitarians. It is both more rational and more ethical if the producer controls the means of production, they proclaim, blithely ignoring the question of whether it is possible for anyone to control the means of production in industrial society.

Both bourgeois liberal theorists and anarcho-syndicalists want a rational, ethical society based on freedom, equality and justice, guaranteeing human rights. Both want a smoothly running economy with high levels of production guaranteeing scientific and technological progress. Both require social peace and conformity to realize their projects. It is difficult not to think that their projects are the same. I see only two significant differences. The bourgeoisie sees the economy as an apolitical force that can progress efficiently and ethically in the form of private enterprise. The anarcho-syndicalists recognize the economy as a political force which must, therefore, be run democratically. The bourgeois liberals believe that representational democracy can create their ideal. Anarcho-syndicalists believe that democracy must be direct – though they never seem to ask us if we want to spend time directly voting on every social issue that comes up. The project of the anarcho-syndicalists is really just an extension of the project of the project of bourgeois liberalism – an attempt to push that project toward its logical conclusion.

“The every day activity of slaves reproduces slavery” -Fredy Perlman

This brings me to the final parallel between bourgeois liberalism and anarcho-syndicalism, a parallel not of ideas, but of ignorance. Neither seems capable of recognizing the realities of the social system we live under. While talking about freedom and democracy, the bourgeois liberal and the anarcho-syndicalist both only see the human authorities that control them; they are blind to the social activities in which they participate which are the real source of their slavery. Thus, the bourgeois liberal is content to get rid of priests and kings, and the anarcho-syndicalist throws in presidents and bosses. But the factories remain intact, the stores remain intact (though the syndicalists may call them distribution centers), the family remains intact – the entire social system remains intact. If our daily activity has not significantly changed–and the anarcho-syndicalists give no indication of wanting to change it beyond adding the burden of managing the factories to that of managing the factories to that of working in them–then what difference does it make if there are no bosses? – We’re still slaves! The “name-change does not exorcise the beast.” But there is a reason why the bourgeois liberal nor the anarcho-syndicalist can see the slavery inherent in the social system. They do not see freedom as the ability of the unique individual to create her/his life as s/he chooses. They see it as the ability of the individual to become a fully and actively integrated part of a progressive, rational society. “Slavery is freedom” is not an aberration of Stalinist of fascist thinking; it is inherent in all perspectives which ascribe freedom to society rather than to the individual. The only way to guarantee the “freedom” of such societies is to suppress non-conformity and rebellion wherever they arise. The anarcho-syndicalists may talk of abolishing the state, but they will have to reproduce every one of its functions to guarantee the smooth running of their society. Anarcho-syndicalism does not make a radical break with the present society. It merely seeks to extend this society’s values so they dominate us more fully in our daily lives. All true rebels, the renegades, outlaws and wild free spirits could no more accept an anarcho-syndicalist society than the present one. We would have to continue raising hell, creating a radical break with society, because we don’t want more control over our own slavery–and that’s all the anarcho-syndicalists offer us. We want to throw off the chains and live our lives to the full.

-Feral Faun


[This is the English original of an article which appears in French in the pages of Guerre au Paradis.]

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