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What is Anarcho-Syndicalism?

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  • Written By: Matt Brady
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  • Last Modified Date: 01 September 2016
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Anarcho-syndicalism is a branch of anarchism whose proponents call for liberating the working classes through the strength of labor unions. Anarcho-syndicalists are also sometimes call libertarian syndicalists or revolutionary syndicalists. The tenets of anarcho-syndicalism call for toppling oppressive structures largely through direct action, such as mass labor movements and strikes, as opposed to indirect action, such as lobbying politicians to fight for labor rights. After abolishing the state and wage system, anarcho-syndicalism calls for a socio-economic system run by self-managing labor councils.

Anarcho-syndicalists believe that wage systems and governments—even capitalist free-markets—are oppressive, preventing individuals from realizing their full freedom and potential. They also believe that the wage system stifles labor with inequitable top-down management hierarchies.

The movement grew out of European labor struggles in the late 19th century. In particular, the seeds of the anarcho-syndicalist movement grew out of the formation of the International Workingmen's Association (IWA), which was also known as the First International. The First International assembled for the first of many times in St. Martin’s Hall, located in London, England, in 1865. It was there that various different anarchist and communist philosophies were debated.

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Following the meeting at St. Martin’s Hall, the labor movement split into two large factions: Marxism—led by Karl Marx—and what was then known as collectivist anarchism—led by Mikhail Bakunin. These two different movements have been referred to as the statist, or Marx, wing and the anarchist, or Bakunin, wing. Collectivist anarchism laid the philosophical foundation for what would come to be known as anarcho-syndicalism.

Marxism called for changing the socio-economic structure through the use of political might, whereas followers of anarcho-syndicalism believed that political dealings wouldn't be enough; a more direct opposition to capitalism would be necessary. Bakunin also argued that Marx and his followers, once they gained political power, would ultimately become as faulty and corrupt as those powers they had opposed.

Followers of anarcho-syndicalism grew throughout Europe, particularly flourishing in Spain by the 1920s. In fact, Spain may have given origin to the word "syndicalism" with the Spanish word "syndicalismo," which means unionism. Given that, the movement could be called anarcho-unionism; for whatever reason, though, the name syndicalism stuck, even in English translations. By the late 1930s, anarcho-syndicalism was playing a key role in the Spanish Civil War. As various parties jockeyed for power after the unsettling of the Second Spanish Republic, anarchists and Marxist followers alike contributed to the national fight and debate over the country's future.

Anarcho-syndicalism endures as one of the more popular branches of anarchy, and the movement still enjoys a healthy number of followers. As with any philosophical movement, there are varying shades of anarcho-syndicalism. Some followers, for example, blend anarchist beliefs with tenets of communism. Such individuals have been called anarcho-communists.

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