Britain’s Brief Anarcho-Syndicalist History
On large-scale unrest and why it matters in politics today
George Orwell famously fought in the Spanish Civil War as a soldier for the Partido Obrero Unificación Marxista (Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification).
While fighting, he observed and catalogued his thoughts on the nature of this particular Guerra.
One such thought is rather enlightening as to the reason for the conflict. Describing the region of Aragon, Orwell suggests it was:
“(T)he only community of any size in Western Europe where political consciousness and disbelief in capitalism were more normal than their opposites.”
At that time, he was most likely correct.
Though of course, what followed was the Second World War. This suggests Spain, (and Aragon), was simply the prototype for future European epochal conflicts between some variants of left and right.
Yet Britain never really got that memo.
Yes, there was a dialogue. Debate, even. Perhaps, depending on your own political beliefs, at various points throughout the 20th Century, Britain moved too far one way or other on the left/right spectrum.
But unlike France or Germany or Spain or Italy, a “proper” socialist or fascist government never came to power.
Maybe it’s down to good old fashioned British moderation and temperance. Or perhaps, it’s because Britain’s labour history is altogether radically different from its continental cousins’.
To understand why Britain’s political path appeared to diverge so dramatically from other Western European powers throughout the 20th century, we must travel back to the end of the previous century.
At the close of the 1800s, the political and social landscape of Europe looked very different to the early 1800s.
Industrialisation meant that a workforce, a labour mass, existed for the first time across developed nations.
What resulted from this transformation of peasants into workers was unionisation.
Recognising the strength of the collective as a means to bargain with the wealthy factory owner really had a moment in the late 1800s and early 1900s, all across Europe and in fact most of the industrialised world.
This burgeoned, particularly in France, into what became known as the Syndicalist movement. This was unionisation, but radicalised. The collective bargaining remained, but was joined by violent and semi-violent protest, an opposition to political parties and parliamentary process, and the general strike.
Syndicalism was a fluid, somewhat undefined movement that transcended national borders, but ultimately one that saw a post-capitalist, federalist society in which workers’ rights were paramount as the end goal.
In Britain, the somewhat similar Chartist movement had seen reasonable success throughout the 19th century.
Male suffrage was achieved through protest, and though there was some bloodshed (notably the Peterloo Massacre which in fact pre-dated the Chartist movement but was borne of similar goals), this was very much a peaceful, constitutionally navigated movement that achieved success by appealing to the moderating rational elements of British politics.
Did the success of the Chartist movement hinder any potential Syndicalist movement from truly taking hold in Britain?
Perhaps. But there is another key reason Syndicalism only ever found a home on the fringes of the Labour movement in Britain.
Britain was the first industrialised nation in the world. The British Trade union movement began as early as the late 18th century. Compared with movements in mainland Europe, the mainstream British Unionists had an almighty head start on the Syndicalists.
Methods and modes had been long established, meaning that any movement that sought to shake up the order was not only fighting against the state, but the existing status quo of the Labour movement too.
Still, to suggest that Syndicalism gained no traction in Britain would be unfair.
In particular, Anarcho-Syndicalism (distinct from other forms of Syndicalism through its desire to overthrow both the Capitalist system and the state) found a thread of influence within the British working class.
At the International Anarchist Conference of 1907, Pierre Monat suggested that:
‘Syndicalism…opens to anarchism, which for too long has been turned in on itself, new perspectives and experiences’
It was in this combination of the two philosophies that the greatest salience was found in Britain.
Between 1910 and 1914, there was an unprecedented amount of strike action in Britain, across all industries. In working class communities in the north of England, and in East London, in particular, Anarcho-Syndicalists had a clear and key influence upon a number of striking movements.
Where before, in the latter 19th Century, strikes saw to establish worker’s rights or improve pay, there was a distinct feeling among the strikers of the early 20th century that the system wasn’t working.
Termed “The Great Unrest”, this period shook the foundations of the British capitalist state, who truly feared for its collapse, and even enlisted the military to suppress various outbreaks of protest.
What concerned the establishment the most was, as this unattributed quote suggests:
“The general spirit of revolt, not only against employers of all kinds, but also against leaders and majorities, and Parliamentary or any kind of constitutional and orderly action”.
Then, with the outbreak of war, what was appearing to be a burgeoning movement was largely quashed.
Though some Syndicalists channelled their efforts into home-front support, through shop workers unions for example, many Syndicalists could not square the circle of military activity and political action, and ultimately the collective movements waned.
The rise of Bolshevism, the Russian Revolution and latterly, Communism, further contributed to the decline, with many former Syndicalists taking up the Communist cause in the UK in place of their previous political and economic ideology.
By the end of the First World War, Syndicalism was all but over in Britain.
The irony of the 1926 General Strike, very much the archetypal Syndicalist idea, was that there were few actual Syndicalists left in Britain by then, with the General Strike baton having been passed into the realms of the mainstream Labour movement.
What does any of this have to do with British politics today?
Well, first of all, an actual Labour MP recently called for a General Strike at party conference, though this is really just an interesting aside.
More importantly, understanding this period of British history, and in particular the influence of Syndicalism on “The Great Unrest” gives us some ideas of the potential paths of contemporary politics.
In 1911, the richest 1% in Britain owned 70% of the wealth.
In 2001, this had dropped to 23% for the top 1%.
Since then, though, that number has been steadily rising once again. Some sources put the figure at around 25%, others as high as 50%.
What is clear, and something we can see even outside of the stats, is that the conditions that manifested during the latter 19th and early 20th centuries that resulted in the Syndicalist movement are once again beginning to swirl in the UK.
In fact, the now-intrinsic globalist elements of our economic system means that such factors will be further magnified.
What happens to our political and economic systems when such rank inequality becomes endemic? You need only look at what happened between 1910 and 1914.
The Great Unrest could be getting a sequel… with potentially more unrest than ever before.
Syndicalism may just yet have another moment in the sun.
Jackson Rawlings is a political philosopher, writer and thinker with some big ideas about how we can change the world for the better.