SYNDICALISM AS PROPHYLACTIC. Excerpts from Robert Michels’ Political Parties. A Sociological Study of the Oligarchical Tendencies of Modern Democracy (1915) PART FIVE: ATTEMPTS TO RESTRICT THE INFLUENCE OF THE LEADERS.

Report on the Dockers’ Strike of 1889


According to the syndicalist doctrine, it is essential to transfer the revolutionary centre of gravity of the proletariat from the political party to the trade union. The union is conceived as a politically neutral organism, one which does not adhere to any party, but which is socialist in inspiration and aim.

It is the great merit of the syndicalists that they have understood how disastrous would be isolated syndicalist activity, devoid of any general theory, living simply from day to day; and to have advocated with much energy the indissoluble union of the working class, organized in its trade unions, with the socialist idea as spiritus rector and as ultimate aim. The syndicalists desire (and here, for once, they agree with the Marxist politicians) to diffuse among the organized workers the conviction that the trade union cannot attain its aim except by the elimination of capitalism, that is to say, by the abolition of the existing economic order. But the syndicalists also desire (and here they are in open conflict with all the other currents of contemporary socialism) that the trade union should not merely be an asylum for socialist ideas, but that it should also directly promote socialist activity, pursuing not simply a trade- unionist policy in the amplest sense of the term, but in addition and above all a socialist policy. Syndicalism is to put an end to the dualism of the labour movement by substituting for the party, whose sole functions are politico-electoral, and for the trade union, whose sole functions are economic, a completer organism that shall represent a synthesis of the political and of the economic function.1

1. Enrico Leone, Che cosa e il Sindacalismo, Tip. Industria e Lavoro, Rome, 1906, p. 28.

Hence it is not the purpose of syndicalism to do away with organisation as the basis of the labour movement. It expressly recognizes that this basis is indispensable. The syndicalists hold, and with good reason, that the dangers of organisation cannot be eliminated simply by suppressing the organisation, any more than we can prevent intoxication of the blood or diseases of the circulation by withdrawing the blood from the vessels. These would be quack cures, alike fatal in their result, for the latter would kill the human organism and the former would kill the political and social organism. The problem rather is to discover an appropriate means for reducing to a minimum the chief defect that seems inherent in organization, namely, the rule exercised by the minority over the majority. Here we find a political school, whose adherents are numerous, able, well educated, and generous-minded, persuaded that in syndicalism it has discovered the antidote to oligarchy. But we have to ask whether the antidote to the oligarchical tendencies of organisation can possibly be found in a method that is itself also rooted in the principle of representation. Does it not rather seem that this very principle is in insoluble contradiction with the anti-democratic protestations of syndicalism? In other words, is not syndicalism itself affected by a manifest antinomy?

The great significance of syndicalism is found, above all, in the clear and penetrating manner in which it has recognized the dangers of bourgeois democracy. “With a genuinely scientific scepticism it has stripped away the veils which conceal the power exercised by the democracy in the state, showing that this power is really no more than the hegemony of a minority, and demonstrating that it is in acute opposition with the needs of the working class. “Democracy intends to continue the exploitation of the producing masses by an oligarchy of professionals from the intelligentsia” 2 All the struggles which international syndicalism has undertaken against the German social-democracy, against the Italian and French intellectuals, and against the trade unions constituted upon a bureaucratic basis, may be reduced in ultimate analysis to a struggle against democratic demagogy.

2. Georges Sorel in a letter to Enrico Leone, ”Divenire Sociale,” v, fasc. 12, 1909.

Syndicalism is, however, mistaken in attributing to parliamentary democracy alone the inconveniences that arise from the principle of delegation in general. Mantica is right when he says that the syndicalists themselves have not succeeded in getting rid of the mental impedimenta with which all those are burdened who belong to any party, whether it participates in parliamentary elections or rejects such participation on principle.3 Nolens volens, the syndicalist party is nothing more than a socialist party inefficiently revised and corrected. The syndicalists wish to stop where logically there is no stopping- place. All that the syndicalists have written upon political parties in general, and upon their big brother the socialist party in particular, applies to themselves as well, because it applies to all organizations as such without exception.

3. Paolo Mantica, postscript to an article by Fiorino dal Padulo, Elezionismo o Anti-Elezionismo? , “Divenire Sociale,” vi, fasc. 19 and 20, p. 272.

The more syndicalism endeavours to displace the axis of working-class policy towards syndicalist action, the greater is the danger it runs of itself degenerating into an oligarchy. Even in the revolutionary syndicalist groups the leaders have frequent opportunities of deceiving the rank and file. The treasurer of a strike, the secretary of a trade union, even the participator in a conspiracy or the leader upon a barricade, can betray those from whom they have received their instructions far more easily and with much more serious consequences than can a socialist member of parliament or municipal councillor. French syndicalists have frequently insisted with a certain violence upon what they speak of as “direct action” as the only means of bringing the working class into effective operation as an autonomous mass not represented by third persons, and of excluding a priori all representation “which could only be a betrayal, deviation and bourgeois corruption.”4 But they arbitrarily restrict their one-sided theory to the political party alone, as if it were not inevitable that like causes should produce like effects when their action is displayed upon the field of the syndicalist movement. They reason as if they were immunised against the action of sociological laws of universal validity.

  1. Trans. From Cf., inter al., Edouard Berth, Bourgeoisie et Proletariat dans le Mouvement socialiste italien, “Mouvement Socialiste,” anno ix, series ii, p. 16; and reply by R. Michels, Controverse socialiste, in the same review, pp. 282 et seq.

The organic structure of the trade unions is based upon the same foundation as that of the political party of the workers, namely, the representation of the interests of the rank and file by individuals specially elected for that purpose. In the decisive moments of the struggle for higher wages, the masses do not represent themselves but are represented by others. Trade unions without representatives, without some kind of executive, do not exist and are inconceivable.

The management of a trade union is sometimes a post of transition extremely favourable to a political career. In Germany, 35 trade-union leaders sit in parliament, and in England 27. In France the two first permanent secretaries of the Metallurgical Federation have become deputies.5 The strike, direct action by the proletariat, which the syndicalists regard as the panacea for all the ills affecting the labour movement, offers to men with a taste for political life, excellent opportunities for the display of their faculty for organization and their aptitude for command. The same may be said of the political strike, the general strike. For the professional leaders of the working-class, the economic strike is often precisely what war is for professional soldiers. Both present a good opportunity for rapid and splendid promotion. Many labour leaders have risen to extremely exalted and lucrative positions because they have directed a great strike, and have thus attracted the attention of the general public and of the government. The political position now [1912] occupied in England by John Burns is largely due to the celebrity he acquired as a strategist when he led the great dockers’ strike in London during the year 1889. He then created a solid foundation for his subsequent popularity, and in particular he then gained the confidence of the most important categories of organized workers, and thus paved the way for his elevation from the bench of the working engineer to the rank of cabinet minister. This is one example among many which could be adduced in support of the assertion that very frequently the strike, instead of being a field of activity for the uniform and compact masses, tends rather to facilitate the process of differentiation and to favour the formation of an elite of leaders. Syndicalism is even more than socialism a fighting party. It loves the great battlefield. Can we be sur-prised that the syndicalists need leaders yet more than do the socialists?

  1. Union Federate des Ouvriers Métallurgistes de France, Bourse du Travail, Paris, p. 16.

The syndicalists reject the system of democratic representation and of bureaucracy. They desire to substitute for it “the more combative tactics of the revolutionary army of liberty, tactics founded upon the tried ability of the leaders.” The modern labour leader, they tell us, must not be a bureaucrat. Already to-day, they add, the great strike-leaders arise suddenly from obscurity as did formerly the great leaders of revolution.” In so far as it corresponds to historic truth, this conception does not at the best afford more than a general explanation of the institution of leadership. Its adequacy would be far greater were it possible to prove that these strike-leaders, whose necessity is admitted by the syndicalists themselves, when they have emerged from obscurity to fulfil a temporary need, were to prove sufficiently disinterested to undergo a spontaneous eclipse as soon as the strike was over. We know, however, that in general they seize the opportunity to secure a position of permanent influence. No form of strike, however much it may seem to be inspired by the autonomy of the masses, will be able to kill the dragon of demagogy, or even to prevent the formation of a class of independent leaders.

Under certain conditions, the mere theoretical propaganda of the idea of the strike and of direct action has sufficed to secure power and influence for the popular leader, to lift him upon the shoulders of the multitude to a position in which he could pluck at his ease the golden apples of life. Aristide Briand, born at Nantes of a family of small tavern-keepers, having joined the socialist party in Paris, speedily acquired fame and power among the workers by his defence of the doctrine of the general strike and the military strike. He soon gained so great a prestige as to require but a few years to climb to the position of premier of France.” The starting-point of his triumphal march was the Nantes congress (1894), where he secured the acceptance of the idea of the general strike as part of the official programme of the French trade unions.

Syndicalism is hostile to the “democratic” policy of the socialist party and the “authoritarian” syndicates, for the syndicalists hold that “ democracy” affords a mere caricature of the fundamental principle of the labour movement, and they declare that from the democratic soil no fruit can spring but that of oligarchy. No other movement bases itself so energetically as does the syndicalist movement upon the right and ability of the masses for self-government. “Where, as in France, the leadership of the labour movement is in their hands, they lay great stress upon the fact that their authority is restricted to carrying into effect the resolutions passed at the sovereign assemblies of the comrades. They assure us that the Confederation Genérale du Travail, which sits in Paris, is not a directive organ, but a mere instrument for the coordination and the diffusion of the revolutionary activity of the working class. They describe this body as equally hostile to “centralization” and to “authoritarianism.”6 All impulse to action, we are assured, starts from the masses, and the syndicalist leaders are merely the exponents of this impulse. In strikes, the activity of the Comité Confederal is not directive in the strict sense of the term; this body is a mere intermediary to ensure the solidarity of the workers, to secure an element of suractivite and of polarization. Such is the theory. In practice, these same French syndicalists complain that in all decisive questions the masses wait until those above take the initiative, and that in default of such initiative the comrades remain with folded arms.

  1. Emile Pouget, La Confédération Genérale du Travail, ed. cit., pp. 7 and 34.

As in all groups characterised by an ostensibly democratic ideology, among the syndicalists the dominion of the leaders often assumes veiled forms. In France, the trade union leaders are forbidden to seek election as deputies, for they must be preserved from all impure contacts. They must remain in constant communication with the masses, and their activities must be carried on in the full light of day. It is none the less true that the necessities of their position often oblige them, in the interest of the trade unions, to enter into relationships with the organs of state, in such a way that their antiparliamentary attitude is apt to mean no more than that, instead of treating with the government in the open, from the summit of the parliamentary tribune, where their actions are, in part at least, visible to the rank and file, they negotiate mysteriously out of sight in ante-chambers and passages.

The theory of the masses professed by the syndicalists has a reverse side to which it is well to pay attention. The trade-union organizations, taken as a whole, do not include in their membership more than a minority of the workers susceptible of organization: in Italy, 11 %; in England, 23 %; in Sweden (where the proportion is highest of all), 42.21 %. Among the organized workers, it is once more only a minority, which plays an active part in trade-union life. The syndicalists at once lament this fact and rejoice at it, being inspired, in this respect, by sentiments that are by no means logically consistent. They rejoice to be rid of the dead weight of those who are still indifferent or immature. No doubt this attitude is inspired by the old Blanquist idea, that masses too vast and intellectually heterogeneous paralyse all activity by their lack of mobility, and that only alert minorities are enterprising and bellicose. If they were logical, the syndicalists would draw the conclusion that the general movement of the modern proletariat must necessarily be the work of a minority of enlightened proletarians. But the democratic tendencies of our time prevent the formulation of such a conclusion, or at least prevent its frank avowal, for this would bring the syndicalists into open conflict with the very basis of democracy, and would force them to proclaim themselves, without circumlocution, partisans of an oligarchical system. The syndicalist oligarchy, it is true, would not consist (like that of the socialist party) in the dominion of the leaders over the masses, but in the dominion of a small fraction of the masses over the whole. There are a few theorists of syndicalism who already speak unreservedly of socialism as an evolution based upon the action of working-class elites. 7

  1. Cf. the essays of Angelo Oliviero Olivetti and Alfredo Polledro in “Pagine Libere,” 1909-10; especially Polledro’s article Dal Congresso di Bologna alia Palingenesi Sindacalista (anno iv, 1909, fasc. 14).

The oligarchical character of the syndicalist movement is displayed most conspicuously in the demand (made for reasons which have nothing to do with democracy) for absolute obedience to the orders of the organized elite. “The indifferent, because they have neglected to express their will, can do more than acquiesce in decisions already made.”8 Following the example of the reformist trade unions of Germany and England, those French unions that are inspired by the doctrine of revolutionary syndicalism hold fast to the principle that the organized workers have the right to issue orders to the unorganized.

  1. Trans. From Emile Pouget, La Confédération Générale du Travail, ed. cit., p. 7.

It may be admitted that the supreme directive organs of the French labour movement do not possess that plenitude of powers which the corresponding hierarchical grades of other countries have at their disposal — above all in Germany, There are various reasons for this difference, such as the national character of the French, the weakness of the organizations, etc. But even in France there is a great difference between theory and practice. In the first place the leaders exercise a powerful influence upon the organized comrades through the newspapers, which, as every one knows, are not edited by the masses. In addition there exists a whole hierarchy of sub-chiefs. The number of trade unionists enrolled in the Confederation Genérale du Travail is about 350,000, whilst the number of subscribers to the Voix du Peuple, the central organ of the Confederation, is no more than 7,000. These subscribers are described as “the most active militants, members of union shops and trade councils … Through their mediation the Confederation’s ideas are diffused.” 9 Here we have a frank confession that there exists a graduated intellectual subordination that conflicts with the syndicalist theory. Even the general strike was primarily conceived in France as a hierarchical procedure. A resolution voted at the Nantes congress (1894) specified that the general strike must be accurately prepared in advance by a central committee of eleven and by a large number of local sub-committees. These were to give the signal and to direct the movement. Today the syndicalists reject this conception on account of its Jacobin character; but in practice they are compelled to conform to the idea, notwithstanding the theoretical contradiction in which they are thus involved. In the works of some of the French syndicalist writers who have a strong tendency towards aestheticism, such as Edouard Berth, we find that the Jacobin germs of the theory in question have undergone a full development.

9. Trans. from Ibid., ed. cít., pp. 30 and 33.

The more syndicalism gathers power, the more conspicuous among the syndicalists become the effects that are everywhere characteristic of the representative system. From the ranks of the French syndicalists, leaders have already sprung whose sensitiveness towards the criticisms of their followers can be equalled only by that of an English trade-union leader. Youthful syndicalism, although born out of opposition to the authoritarianism of the leaders, is thus quite unable to escape the oligarchical tendencies that arise in every organization. For the syndicalist leaders, as for others, the preservation of their own power becomes the supreme law. So far has the process already gone in France, that they have abandoned the old tactics of taking advantage of the prosecutions instituted against them by the government to make propagandist speeches in court and to employ the language of heroes and prophets. Instead, on these occasions, they act with extreme prudence and display diplomatic reserve. Sorel himself speaks of the “progressive degeneration of trade-unionism”. And he has declared: “The General Confederation of Workers takes on more and more the aspect of a government employee.”