The Spanish Civil War was the event which brought to the attention of the present generation of British workers the theory and practice of syndicalism. The Spanish anarcho-syndicalists were maligned in the capitalist and the communist press alike, but their achievements gave many workers in this country an inkling of a new method of organisation and struggle for the achievement of workers’ freedom, a revolutionary method that brooked no compromise with the enemy in the government or in industry and which, because it was based on the idea of spontaneous direct action by workers’ bodies organised at the place of work, would avoid the corruption and inefficiency which cannot be divorced from the traditional centralised Trade Union.
Yet this method of workers’ struggle, which seemed so new and foreign to the British workers of the 1930’s, was at one time represented by a vigorous tendency within the British labour movement. The syndicalist propaganda of Tom Mann, Guy Bowman and many of the anarchists of the early twentieth century found many adherents among such industries as mining and railway transport. In South Wales its adherents were particularly strong, and among the Rhondda miners the tradition, if not the name of syndicalism, has survived in a tendency to take vigorous direct action whenever the grievances of the workers and the weakness of the employers make such action possible.
In one industry, however, syndicalism became so strong that a purely syndicalist organisation embracing thousands of workers was formed and for a period of some years before the war of 1914-18 carried on a fight against the employers by direct methods which were almost always successful, where the compromising methods of the orthodox Unions had failed to gain any benefits for the workers. This was the catering industry, and W. McCartney gives in this pamphlet an admirable account of the formation and the eventful history of the French Cooks’ Syndicate, in which he was one of the most militant workers from its foundation until its decline during the war of 1914-18.
Owing to the abundance of suitable labour, the catering industry was one in which orthodox Trade Union methods were almost useless. There was no object in ordinary strikes, giving the employers perhaps days of notice, because they could easily recruit a sufficient labour force to make up for any deficiencies in their staff. So the syndicalist method, which was being used so effectively at this period by the unskilled American workers organised in the Industrial Workers of the World, was brought into action, and, by means of lightning stay-in strikes, timed to give the managements of hotels and restaurants the maximum possible embarrassment, the workers gained successes which astonished themselves and filled the magnates of the catering industry and of the orthodox trade unions with the greatest consternation.
The detailed history of this struggle is told by W. McCartney with the vividness which can only spring from the direct personal experience of a man in the midst of the fight. As a document of the class struggle it seems to be of great value, and particularly to-day, when so many workers have become completely disillusioned by their experience of the ineptitude and corruption of the orthodox trade unions during the recent war. The great General Strike of 1926, the fiasco which had every reason to be a great success in the revolutionary struggle, exposed the uselessness of the Trade Unions as a means of struggle, and the personal corruption of most of the prominent union leaders. But it has taken the present war to show, not only that the orthodox trade unions are useless as organisations for the revolutionary struggle of the working class, but also that they are capable of being taken over by the state and used for its evil purposes of regimenting and enslaving the workers in every industry. The record of the Unions in the last few years has been too black to allow any further doubt of their fundamentally reactionary nature, and thousands of workers are turning away from them in the hope of finding some other form of organisation that will carry out a real struggle in the interests of the workers and not in the interests of trade union bureaucrats.
That kind of organisation will be found in syndicalism, which teaches that the centralised craft union must be replaced by the federal industrial union which is based on autonomous organisation at the factory, the workshop, the farm or other place of work. Likewise, the reformist methods of struggle used by the orthodox trade union must be replaced by direct action which attacks the employer at his weakest point and is carried on inside rather than outside the place of work. W. McCartney’s pamphlet gives an excellent picture of the working of this method in actual practice.
One point which does not come within the province of this present pamphlet, is that syndicalism is not merely a method of attacking the employers. It has also its constructive aim, of achieving an order of society in which the whole of industry will be controlled on behalf of the community by the workers in autonomous groups linked in voluntary co-operation. To this aim all its struggles within a capitalist society are directed; syndicalists aim to weaken the structure of capitalism so severely by industrial action that a revolutionary change will become inevitable. Then the syndicates, their work of struggle over, will become the initial forms of organisation on which workers’ control of industry will be built. To appreciate the value of syndicalism it is essential to understand this dual role of the syndicate, which has nothing in common with that of a trade union merely working for reforms within a capitalist economy.
Already workers are again turning to methods of direct action. Only a few days ago we heard of bus conductresses who lay down in the road to prevent blackleg buses leaving the garage. The value of W. McCartney’s pamphlet is that it shows, in the description of a struggle in which he himself took an active part, how syndicalist organisation can co-ordinate and give direction to such methods, so that they can be used for a revolutionary purpose in the interests of the working class.