A Syndicalist League

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By Harry Kelly.

THE necessity of a Syndicalist League in this country becomes more and more apparent every day. And yet, when this assertion is made, it brings the usual rejoinders. First, we are laughed at and patronized for having "discovered" Syndicalism, and are compared to the German who suddenly awoke to the existence of a writer by the name of Goethe. Second, the Industrial Workers of the World are already in existence, and offer the same opportunities for effective work along syndicalist lines as a Syndicalist League, so why form another organization? Third, we must stand outside and aloof from all such organizations for fear of becoming demoralized and compromizing the ideal of Anarchism. Taking the above statements or objections in their order given, we will endeavor to answer them, and give our reasons for the formation of a Syndicalist League.

It is unimportant—even if true—that we have suddenly discovered Syndicalism. As one who has been long in the Anarchist Movement and read whatever was available on the subject in the English language, we are tolerably familiar with direct action and the general strike. For those of us who are unfortunate enough not to know any other language but English, the conception of Syndicalism is comparatively new. Five or six years ago, the term meant nothing more than our own trade unionism. The word "Syndicate" meant a body, not a policy, and signified much the same thing as trade union. At the present time Syndicalism means much more than unionism; it means a distinct form of unionism, a revolutionary, anti-parliamentary form of economic organization, which seeks to supplant the present system of production and distribution with another based upon the principle of free cooperation. This is entirely different from English and American trade unionism, and yet as we have stated, Syndicalism some five or six years ago was nothing more or less than French Trade Unionism—at least this was our conceptiontion and understanding. The fact that the thing we now know as Syndicalism was written and talked about as the General Strike, Direct Action and so on, for some years, is not in our opinion an argument against the formation of such a league as we have in mind. The question is: is it advisable, or necessary?

It is difficult to express disagreement with a political idea, without being called an emeny of the working class, reactionary, ignoramus and so on. This, however, we must expect; and while it is difficult to arrive at any intelligent understanding under such conditions, the zeal of the partisans often has its good effects in that they focus attention on their ideas. We have -read whatever came our way, discussed the subject with leading members of the organization, and tried diligently to get a correct understanding of the principles of the I. W. W. Tried, because the principle of solidarity which it embodies has a fascination for us, and yet it does not—for us—fill the bill. The principle of "one big union " to be effective, means perfect unanimity or conception of immediate interest, or centralization. In the Lawrence strike tyranny and misery were so universal, it was comparatively easy to unite the different elements. Ettor, Giovannitti, and Haywood, all did splendid work, but when it is remembered that the highest paid labor averaged but $9.00 a week, and the poorest considerably less, it can easily be seen that human suffering was the chief factor in uniting the different elements into a compact fighting mass. In dealing with the element known as skilled labor, we are face to face with an entirely different proposition. Where the stress of poverty is not great, we must perforce appeal to the idealistic side of man, and it requires a high degree of class consciousness to bring about such a reapproachment as at Lawrence. Every organization or social theory worthy of consideration seeks to improve the immediate condition of labor. The goal is freedom, as each understands the term; but while striving for that end, settlements and compromises are inevitable. To deny this is to deny life. The fundamental weaknesses of the now defunct Knights of Labor —with which form of organization the I. W. W. has many points in common—were two, lack of autonomy of trades and the power it gave the officials. In the settlement of trade disputes, carpenters, bricklayers, and cigarmakers ofttimes negotiated settlements for printers, and vice versa. Inability to understand conditions in trades other than their own created all kinds of trouble, and was one of the forces that ultimately disrupted the organization. Centralization means power in the hands of a few; and as power is demoralizing to those who use it, the result was corruption, as it would be in any organization.

"One big union" is an attractive phrase. It implies immediate action based on the theory of "an injury to one is the concern of all." As previously stated, however, it means a perfect unanimity of interest and understanding, or power in the hands of one or two leaders to get that immediate action. The latter is distinctly to be condemned; the former an ideal to strive for.

The I. W. W. has, to us, a future only with the unskilled ; and while that class of labor is of equal importance to the skilled in society, it is not more important. And here let us say, that we have no sympathy with, or desire to divide labor into classes other than revoluntionary and reactionary; when we speak of skilled and unskilled labor, it is to use expressions common to the understanding; and nothing more. While craft unionism, as exemplified by the American Federation of Labor form of organization, has very grave defects and has left much undone, it has accomplished a great deal for its members,—this notwithstanding that its principle of solidarity is limited to its own members and even there not deep. It is, however, unreasonable to ask men to desert that form of organization for another that in their opinion is weaker. Men are in the unfortunate position of having to live—or so they think—and however idealistic the worker may be, his immediate interests are very important to him. Much has been said by De Leon and others about the A. F. of L. men scabbing on their fellow workers. Not in the sense of taking another's job, but on the principle that the six-dollar-a-day plasterer gets his living at the expense of the dollar-and-ahalf or two-dollar-a-day longshoreman, who has to pay higher rent in order that the plasterer may get his wage. This is but partially true, as the plasterer himself has to pay the higher rent; but if he is scabbing, so is every one of us who receives more than the longshoreman. The Anarchist or Socialist editor, writer, lawyer and all who command high salaries contribute to the increased cost of living of the very poor; and merely because their tactics differ from the high paid trade unionist, it does not lessen the offence, if offense it be. No workingman, the plasterer not excepted, gets more than a living, and his right is as legitimate as any in society—and more than many—to improve his condition. The I. W. W. can not hope to make converts in the large cities where the higher paid labor is well organized, except in the case of a few idealists. They can, however, do much good work among the poorly paid organized workers, and we wish them all success in their efforts.

To stand outside the labor movement or such organizations as the I. W. W. or Syndicalist League—such as we have in mind—for fear we would become officials and get demoralized, is in our opinion to play the part of pedants. We have been outside the labor movement so long we have lost almost all our vitality. It is understood that each man or woman will work along lines most agreeable to them, but as a general rule of propaganda we should not limit ourselves to any one class, not even the working class.) It is a fact, however, that the propaganda of Anarchism in the English language has been carried on largely among the small middle class. If Anarchists have not sufficient faith in their own strength to prevent demoralization, and lack the character to refuse an office that may corrupt them, they are indeed in a bad way. Certain individuals are fitted by nature for the role of philosopher, but they are few and far between—America is a poor breeding ground for such individuals—even if we had, that applies to individuals and not to a movement which seeks to vitalize contemporary movements.

Syndicalism is a combination of craft unionism and I. W. W. solidarity. It seeks the destruction of capitalism and the replacing of it by free cooperation, carried on by federated groups. It is Socialism in the large sense, 'economic but distinctly anti-parliamentary. Such a Syndicalist League as we have in mind would not seek the destruction of existing craft unions and their incorporation in "one big union." It would endeavor to broaden their spirit and inculcate a greater degree of solidarity amongst them, leaving them at the same time local or trade autonomy. Its business would be to organize the unorganized upon a distinctly revolutionary and anti-parliamentary basis. It would also endeavor to organize the large and ever growing number of the smaller middle class, writers, teachers, doctors, lawyers, etc., and furnish an outlet for their activity. When one stops to consider the number of individuals engaged in these and similar occupations, hanging onto life by an eyelash, and what they might do if organized, it is inspiring. Mixed assemblies on the order of the K. of L. bodies of those who have no union to belong to, can be formed until a sufficient number of a trade or calling can be found to make a separate union. For the present the main work of the league should be to spread the doctrines of Syndicalism and to organize the unorganized. Speakers and lecturers sent to various unions to explain that Syndicalism does not mean the destruction of their organizations, but merely to deepen and extend their usefulness. Direct action and sabotage with their enormous potentialities can be set forth so as to prepare the workers in their strikes. The principles of Syndicalism are in the air and the number of people seeking an outlet from the political morass must be apparent to all. Syndicalism combines the wisdom of Aristotle who said that the best way to do things well was to do them well, and the philosophy of Ibsen who pointed out that the real joy of life lies in the struggle and not the attainment of the object striven for. Repeated struggle and failure to attain a higher standard of life will not only eventually cause the breakdown of present society, but fit us to enter the promised land—Free Society.

  • Harry Kelly, “A Syndicalist League,” Mother Earth 7, no. 7 (September 1917): 218-223.