Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Proposed Roads to Freedom, Chapter III

Chapter III (pages 56-85), “The Syndicalist Revolt”

[An e-version of Chapter III is available here.]

Socialist parties evolved in various ways throughout Europe. In Germany, a revisionist socialism is quite popular, though favoring neither revolution nor industrial action. In England, Marxian socialism has never been popular, but Fabian-style, non-revolutionary socialism helped to inspire the Labour Party, which also encompasses the Trade Unions. [Russell himself, it seems, at one time was affiliated with the Fabian Society.] The Labour Party, however, is not Syndicalist, in that it prefers political to industrial action. It was in France where Syndicalism grew out of the existing institution of the Trade Unions. Mainstream French socialism had in part been undercut by the co-option of some leading socialists into the ruling party; these socialists then began to act in unsocialist ways. As a result, radicals sensed the futility of political action, so the industrial activity of Syndicalists won their sympathies by default.

“Syndicalism stands essentially for the point of view of the producer as opposed to that of the consumer; it is concerned with reforming actual work, and the organization of industry, not merely with securing greater rewards for work [p. 62].” In France, local trade unions are affiliated with other trade unions in their region, and are associated with the other trade unions in their industry throughout the nation. The idea is that the local ties can help overcome a too-parochial interest in their industry, and the national ties can prevent a too-parochial interest in their locality. Politics are supposed to be kept out of the unions.

“The essential doctrine of Syndicalism is the class-war, to be conducted by industrial rather than political methods. The chief industrial methods advocated are the strike, the boycott, the label and sabotage [pages 65-6].” Methods of sabotage vary from the unobjectionable – such as revealing the true quality of goods to consumers or working to the rules – to the morally unacceptable – such as causing railway accidents. While capitalists decry sabotage, they are quick to engage in it when it advances their interests. ("The label" refers to the placement of a label on goods certifying that they are made by union workers.)

Normal strikes, for Syndicalists, are but a prelude to what they really want, which is a General Strike that will destroy the current wage and employment system.

“Syndicalist aims are somewhat less definite than Syndicalist methods [p. 68].” They want to destroy the state, which is a capitalist lapdog. Syndicalists, unlike Socialists, do not think the institution of the state would be much improved by worker control. In keeping with their low regard for the state, Syndicalists tend to be anti-militarist. Each industry can govern itself under worker control, with some means required (but often not spelled out) to coordinate among industries. Syndicalists adopt an internationalist perspective.

Anarchists are sympathetic to Syndicalism, but place little hope in the General Strike as a way to effect change: anarchists generally embrace more violent direct actions. Russell notes that labor movements that can win by violence, and sustain their victory, could generally do so without the violence – a strong argument against Anarchist tactics.

Syndicalism is a form of industrial unionism: workers are clumped together based on the industry in which they work. This is as opposed to craft unionism, in which all electricians, for instance, would be in the same union, irrespective of what industry they plied their skills in. “Industrial unionism is a product of America…[p. 74],” and is reflected in the Industrial Workers of the World. This grouping is sensible when the goal being sought is revolution, as opposed to, say, better working conditions, and the IWW favors the abolition of the wage system.

American labor is far from homogeneous. Unskilled workers in the IWW or the Western Federation of Miners frequently are of foreign origin and lack the right to vote. Skilled native workers in America form a sort of “aristocracy of labor [p. 76],” with interests separate from those of the unskilled workers. These workers are organized around craft lines, in the American Federation of Labor.

Labor strife in the US tends to be much more violent (on both sides) than in Europe. “The employers have armies of their own and are able to call upon the Militia and even, in a crisis, upon the United States Army [p. 78].” (So the socialists are correct, the state really is an institution serving the interests of capitalists in the US. Incidentally, it was advocacy for a British lack of cooperation with the US Army -- because the Army suppressed labor -- that led to Russell being sent to prison as Proposed Roads to Freedom was being completed.) The labor movement in the US can be expected to become less violent when the proportion of recent immigrants diminishes.

Russell believes that revolutionary changes require industrial unionism, as that organizational structure sharpens the class war (p. 80). Nevertheless, in Great Britain, it is the more moderate type of Guild Socialism that has a better chance to succeed in effecting change. “Guild Socialists aim at autonomy in industry, with consequent curtailment, but not abolition, of the power of the State [pages 81-2].” Russell finds their proposal to be the best among the contenders, offering the prospect of liberty without the violence attached to Anarchism.

Under Guild Socialism, each factory, directed by elected managers, arranges its own affairs. Factories within the same industry are part of a National Guild, which tackles industry-level issues. While the Guilds manage production and the distribution of resources among Guild members, the state, on behalf of the community, owns the factories. (But the Guilds, not the state, are the employers.) A joint committee of producers and consumers would have the ultimate authority to settle disputes, and would fix taxes and prices. The state in essence looks after the interests of consumers, while the Guilds look after the interests of producers. Guild Socialism aims both to improve wages and to make work more fulfilling.

Russell concludes the chapter with a recitation of some of the virtues of the Syndicalist Revolt: virtues that more than offset its shortcomings. Syndicalism has promoted the interests of producers, while focusing more on liberty than on material wealth. Whatever its future prospects, Syndicalism has reminded us of the need for radical change, not a piecemeal approach that leaves the current system intact.

No comments: