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Lawrence Strike and IWW: Syndicalism | The Nation

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Lawrence Strike and IWW: Syndicalism

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The IWW takes the fight for syndicalism to Lawrence, Massachusetts. The Nation is having none of it.

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The Lawrence strike has brought into public notice in this country a new type of labor union and a new philosophy of the labor movement. The strike at Lawrence was conducted by the Industrial Workers of the World, familiarly known as the I. W. W., whose principles go by the name of Syndicalism. The term has been popularized recently by events in England, where Mr. Tom Mann, a veteran labor leader and the exponent of the new movement in the British trade unions, has been put in prison for preaching sedition to the army in connection with the coal strike. Isolated theories and practices of Syndicalism have already become fairly familiar to the general reader. Such are the "general strike" which constitutes the basic principle of Syndicalism, and "direct action" which has achieved notoriety through the acts of the McNamara brothers. Even the French word sabotage has become acclimated in the newspapers. But a general account of the Syndicalist movement has been wanting till recently. The deficiency is now supplied by an admirable monograph, entitled "The Labor Movement in France," from the hand of Mr. Louis Levine and published under the auspices of the Columbia University Department of Political Science.

Syndicalism in its latest phase has arisen out of peculiar conditions in the French labor movement. But the truth of Mr. Levine's contention is quite apparent: Syndicalism is essentially a revival of conditions that prevailed at the beginning of the international labor movement fifty years ago. When the "Internationale" was founded in 1864, it was almost from the beginning torn between two conflicting tendencies, which in broad terms we may characterize as the revolutionary spirit and the evolutionary, the anarchistic and the Socialistic, the gospel of violence as preached by Michael Bakunin, and the gospel of gradual transformation under the laws of industrial development as set forth by Karl Marx. In other words, the labor movement is only human. Like all great social and political movements, it has had its moderates and extremists, its legalists and its revolutionaries. Labor and Socialism have witnessed the alternate ascendency of one faction or the other. In France, characteristically, this shifting of bases has always found its most vigorous expression. There, on the one hand, Socialists have consented to enter a bourgeois Cabinet and cooperate with the "exploiters" of the working classes. And there, on the other hand, the syndicalist theory has been most completely worked out.

Syndicalism or revolutionary trade-unionism is, in the first place, a sharp reaction against political or parliamentary Socialism. In theory it holds that the presence of Socialist or trade-union representatives in Parliament is useless or worse than useless. It not only repudiates individual representatives of the working class, such as Millerand, Briand, and Viviani, as traitors to their class; but it regards the parliamentary system in itself as conducive to the sacrifices of principles, the encouragement of petty intrigue, the fostering of cowardly conciliation, and thus to the weakening of the revolutionary spirit among the workingmen. Moreover, parliamentarianism leads to the domination of the working-classes by non-workingmen. It is the "intellectuals" who get themselves elected to Parliament; and such men, with all the good will in the world, cannot really enter into the feelings and the aspirations of the working-class. The "intellectuals" are necessarily inclined to take a philosophic view of the "war between the classes." They are content to make gradual progress. They accept reforms. They cannot understand the real workingman's passionate yearning for liberation, to be obtained in his own day and by any means.

Syndicalism, therefore, rejects the idea of capturing the bourgeois state by legislative methods. It rejects palliatives and reforms because they do not go to the heart of the trouble, which is simply irreconcilable class warfare. Because the state is always bound to be under the control of the propertied classes and the "intellectuals," Syndicalism declares war against the state. It finds in the workingmen's organizations the only efficient agent for overturning society. It regards the general strike as the lever that will accomplish the overthrow. The general strike may come to-day or at any time. Meanwhile it is necessary to maintain the class spirit unimpaired, to nourish it on partial strikes, on constant agitation. Every victory over the employer is to be made the base for further conquests. The irrepressible conflict is to be hastened by a policy of constant irritation. Better than having Socialist Deputies in Parliament, is to force a bourgeois Parliament into concessions by force—by strikes, sabotage, protest meetings, and every other form of mass action. The labor unions are the "standing army" of the revolution. They may not represent a majority of the workingmen. Even within the unions the majority may not be in favor of direct action. But that does not matter. In every historic movement, the conscious, resolute minority has carried the indifferent majority with it.

Syndicalism has also its constructive philosophy. When the looked-for "general strike" has come and succeeded, when the present system of capitalist protection is overthrown, then the labor unions are to step in and assume control of the business of production. The future state, as pictured by Syndicalism, will be a loose, federative structure of producers' unions in which the workmen will also be the owners, directors, and distributors. But, as a matter of fact, Syndicalism does not concern itself greatly with the nature of the future state. It has taken the old cry that the laboring-class has everything to gain and nothing but its chains to lose, and has given to this watchword a philosophical cast. The most eminent theoretician of the Syndicalist movement, M. Georges Sorel, is a confessed Bergsonisn. We must trust ourselves to the stream of life. Creative evolution, working in the domain of industry, will work out the salvation of society.

Just now the most significant thing in Syndicalism is that it constitutes a menace, not to society, but to the Socialist party. It brushes away disdainfully the results of decades of Socialist effort and says virtually that the 110 Socialist members of the Reichstag, the seventy-odd Socialist members in the French Chamber, the forty labor members in the House of Commons, the large Socialist party in the Austrian and Italian Parliaments, amount to nothing. All this is interesting to us of America, where political Socialism is learning its first steps. Socialists have hardly done rejoicing over Milwaukee. Schenectady, and Mr. Berger, when up rises this spectre of "direct action" in their path. They are willing to accept the established doctrine that the Socialist party and the unions represent the two arms of the militant working class. But the Syndicalists arise and proclaim themselves alone as the people. Salvation will not come through a Socialist majority of "intellectuals" in the House of Representatives and the Senate, but through a minority of determined workingmen leading the masses into battle on the economic field. No wonder the Socialist Call loses its temper and declares that "worse than the 'aristocracy of intellect' is the 'aristocracy of revolution.' . . . It becomes 'an aristocracy of revolutionary intellect' without a glimmering of intelligence and none of the revolutionary impulse. It becomes merely a personal concern, with no shade of democracy in it, with subservient followers and with unquestioned leaders." This exposition of Syndicalism, we leave to speak for itself.

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