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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Revolutionary syndicalist internationalism, 1913-1923 : the origins of the International Working Men’s Association Westergard-Thorpe, Wayne


Revolutionary syndicalism constituted a variant ideology within the labour movement which advocated direct industrial action, federalist policy of local autonomy, antistatism .and a divergent vision of the purpose of labour organizations and the role of labour in modern society. Its repudiation of political action and its categorical insistence upon the autonomy of trade union organizations set it apart from both socialism and communism. The present study treats revolutionary syndicalism as an international phenomenon and analyzes the efforts to translate syndicalist ideology into an international strategy in the period 1913-1923. It demonstrates that while the impetus of syndicalist internationalism had clearly developed prior to the First World War, divergent strategical perceptions deriving from varying national circumstances divided European syndicalist organizations and prevented the most prestigious of them, the French Confederation General e du Travail, from condoning pre-war efforts to establish a new and revolutionary trade union International. The French therefore opposed these efforts, urging instead the tactic of revolutionizing the existing reformist trade union International from within. Though most foreign syndicalist organizations saw the policy of the French as a contravention of syndicalist doctrine, deference to and solicitude for the French organization proved decisive in leading the London assembly to temporize about the establishment of a syndicalist International. The hostility to the war of the great majority of syndicalist organizations reinforced the urgency with which they viewed the need for a genuinely revolutionary labour International. The Bolshevik Revolution and the emergence of communist internationalism, however, opened new prospects and avenues of international action. Seeing in its early forms and slogans their own ideals of decentralization, antistatism and workers' control, most syndicalists initially became firm partisans of the Revolution, while the Bolsheviks, recognizing their revolutionary potential, appealed to the syndicalist organizations to rally to Moscow. The symbolic fascination exerted by the Revolution in Russia upon the syndicalists prolonged their collective assessment of communist internationalism over several years. Even after the exclusively political character of the Comintern had been made manifest by its second congress in 1920, the attention of the syndicalists remained rivetted upon Moscow, where plans were proceeding for the establishment of a revolutionary trade union International. The organizational principles adopted by the Bolshevik-sponsored Profintern in 1921, including the collaboration of trade unions and communist parties and the subordination of the Profintern to the political Comintern, provoked the final breach with the syndicalists. Ongoing organizational disputes had thus thrown into relief the ideological and strategical divergences between syndicalists and communists. The syndicalists, moreover, had already witnessed the suppression of native syndicalist movement and the installation of a new bureaucratic mechanism of command and a new ruling oligarchy in Russia. The establishment of the IWMA in December 1922 marked the restoration of syndicalist internationalism to its own path following its deflection by the Bolshevik Revolution. In the larger view, the breach between syndicalists and communists marked again the schism between political and non-political elements which had earlier come to the First and Second Internationals. By filling in the historical hiatus concerning the origins of the most durable of all anti-authoritarian Internationals, the present study seeks to enhance our understanding of the continuing appeal of the syndicalist conception of labour movement tactics and goals in the early decades of the twentieth century.

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