Anarcho-syndicalism: A Past Phenomenon, A Vision for the Future

By Greg R

It’s common for many folks familiar with anarcho-syndicalism to look at it as both a set of ideas and a phenomenon which occurred at a certain period (in the early 1900s) as a result of certain conditions of capitalism at the time and a particular response to them. The experiment in libertarian Spain is the most famous and perhaps the most successful, although anarcho-syndicalist movements of note have also occurred in South America, Africa, and Asia. These historical movements had their own problems and successes which are important for modern socialists to learn from. Modern anarcho-syndicalists in large part reject the idea that anarcho-syndicalism is bound by the problems and failures of previous experiments. Instead, they see anarcho-syndicalism as a framework for powerful tactics that have the potential to abolish capitalism and replace it with a positive alternative; libertarian socialism. To this end, we seek to put together what a modern anarcho-syndicalist vision might look like, and this essay attempts a start in this regard.

A Focus on Modern Capitalism

The capitalism of today is different from that which anarcho-syndicalists in the early 1900s faced. In the U.S., while there is still a sizeable amount of local production, many industries have moved their factories to other countries due to capitalists shifting costs. In the U.S. a large service sector has emerged, membership in the business unions is in rapid decline and worker compensation in general is largely either stagnant or has decreased while profits for capitalists and employers is skyrocketing. This means that the divide in political/economic power here is widening at an alarming rate. In other countries in which the working class find themselves with these new factories, call centers, etc. they now have these new employers to struggle with as well as their domestic employers. Foreign capital pressures create cost problems for less dominant nation states due to imperialism, and these costs always get shifted onto the local working class population.

A New Unionism

The steady decline in business union membership, cost-shifting and various other factors present the need to build new networks and/or coalitions of directly combative working class organizations such as unions and solidarity networks to create powerful working class power from below to fight the bosses, win immediate demands and push forward to eventually fire the bosses and replace capitalism with socialism. These organizations may look to the past – for example the more radical and combative unionism of the late 1800s and early 1900s. But they also must focus around present issues for working class people, and be focused on the future goal of replacing capitalism with a positive alternative.

An International, Non-Eurocentric Movement

There is a need for the new organizations to not only be built but also to be networked internationally in a manner that is both democratic and not centric to any one country or continent. Eurocentrism has long been an issue with socialism in part because socialist thought largely came out of Europe. It’s important that an international federation of radical working class organizations be able to balance needs from various countries and continents and not be too heavily weighted to any one in particular. This is a delicate balance but it’s important since a successful international socialist movement isn’t likely to come from thoughts and ideas dominant within a particular country or continent. This is because the specific nature struggles against capitalism have varies greatly from country to country and only people struggling locally will be likely to understand their situations best. In addition toppling capitalism (a global system) and replacing it with libertarian socialism will take global coordination and organization of the working class majority throughout the world. This is important because workers in the U.S. for example whose companies may have outsourced particular departments can effectively coordinate actions more powerfully with their fellow workers abroad against their common bosses.

An Intersectional Focus on Class Struggle

The IWW slogan “An Injury to One is an Injury to all” is an excellent expression of intersectional working class solidarity. This means that we do not pick and choose which class injuries require solidarity, but rather we understand that all class injuries require solidarity. This means that we see the struggles against racism, ableism, homophobia, gender essentialism, patriarchy, ecological destruction, etc. as directly part of the class struggle against capitalism. This is because they are used by those with power to disempower the rest, ensure class divisions persist and divide the working class for the benefit of the bosses and capitalists. These injuries must be combatted as a focus of new libertarian organizations as well as within them.

A Replacement of Sub-cultural Politics with Popular Politics

Much of radical left politics, at least in the U.S., exist in a largely subcultural fashion, are not popular, and tend to prioritize a cliquey culture instead of a broad intersectional working class inclusion and outreach. This is a problem because it harms the ability to extend solidarity to working class people who need it, and harms the ability of making our ideas and actions popular and well-received. If our politics do not become popular, they will not be successful. So we need to focus on building local organizations that are inclusive of working class folks in a broad and intersectional fashion, and prioritize this, rather than small groups or cliques of friends who happen to share common political interests.

New Revolutionary Theory and Social Science

There’s also a strong need for modern anarcho-syndicalists to do new theoretical and social science work. While Proudhon, Marx, Bakunin and many others have done excellent work in theory and social science, we aren’t bound by their shortcomings and there’s a strong need for contemporary work in this area. This includes work in understanding modern advanced capitalism as well economic theory and developing ideas on how the positive alternative to capitalism might look and function. We will need to develop contemporary concrete proposals for libertarian socialism that may draw from folks who have done strong work in this area in the past like Cole, Kropotkin, Castoriadis and others.


While there’s much to be learned from anarcho-syndicalism historically, the ideas and focus of revolutionary libertarian unionism are still very much relevant to the possibility of creating new powerful anti-capitalist movements today. However, it’s important that activists and organizers not only learn from the past but also focus on understanding how capitalism has changed and build new combative working class organizations focused around immediate local struggles against capital. In addition it’s important that these organizations be organized internationally, have an intersectional class struggle focus and be able to make their politics popular instead of sub-cultural and cliquey. Finally, it’s important for folks to engage in new theoretical and social science work, to understand advanced capitalism and create new economic proposals among other important theoretical work.

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