Anarcho-syndicalism and Anarchist Communism: Different, But Conjoined
In my experience those who are new to Anarchism frequently ask what the difference is between Anarchist Communism and Anarcho-syndicalism. Are they the same? Are they opposed to one another? Can one be an Anarcho-syndicalist without being an Anarchist Communist, or vice versa? To answer this question we must spell out what Anarchist Communism and Anarcho-syndicalism are in the first place.
We will start off with Anarchist Communism since it might be the most confusing to the uninitiated. For most people the word "communism" conjures up the most ruthless statism and the "totalitarian" regime while Anarchism conjures up images of chaos and disorder. Neither of these things describe communism, or Anarchism respectively. These meanings are instilled in the popular consciousness by the powers that be, for their benefit. Political propaganda has long associated Anarchists with bomb throwing terrorists who want to destabilize every semblance of order and drop bodies wherever they go. In this sense the joker from Batman might be considered an "Anarchist".
Something similar has occurred with the word "communism". When the revolutionary Marxist party "Bolsheviki" took over Russia in 1917 western capitalist powers called this new government "communist". They continued to do so after Stalin had taken power in Russia and did the same with the regimes that cropped up elsewhere in the world during the 20th century that were inspired by that in Russia such as China, Cuba, Vietnam, and North Korea. The Bolsheviks considered themselves to be Marxist communists, but never considered Russia to be a "communist" society. After Stalin took power he declared in the 1930s that Russia was "socialist" which is what the subsequent communist party ruled regimes considered their societies. They maintained that socialism was a path on the way to communism which they were supposedly fallowing. During the cold war capitalist powers called the communist party regimes "communist" to defame what were it's geopolitical enemies while the communist party regimes maintained that they were on the path toward communism to justify their own power. This continues to be the dynamic between the US and it's allies and the remaining communist party regimes such as Cuba and North Korea.
To understand the actual political philosophy behind these terms we have to turn to the respective movements which employed them. For the Anarchist movement from the 19th century up to today Anarchism meant the desire for and practice of dismantling capitalism and replacing it with a society organized through voluntary cooperation and mutual support. To Anarchists this society will be "libertarian socialism", achieved through horizontal social organization without command and obedience and one where production is owned and operated cooperatively through this type of social organization. For the corresponding communist movement (some of which's members were Anarchists) communism meant the vision of a future mode of production where society is a classless commonwealth made up of freely associated producers who collectively own the product of social labor. Once Bolshevism morphed into Stalinism this vision of a future mode of production became less and less important to "communists" as most of them fallowed the ideology of the ruling classes in the communist party regimes who certainly didn't want a classless society.
After the death of the International Working Men's Association (the first ever international socialist and working class organization) in the 19th century Anarchists adopted the idea of communism as the form libertarian socialist society should take. These Anarchists, including Peter Kropotkin who was introduced to Anarchism through the international, Errico Malatesta, and Rudolf Rocker thus founded "Anarchist Communism" which attached Anarchist political philosophy to the goal of a communist society. Anarchist Communism continues to be the hope of Anarchists in the 21st century.
Tomes can be written about Anarcho-syndicalism, but for our purposes it will be the simplest of these two concepts to explain. Anarcho-syndicalism developed at the end of the 19th century through to the beginning of the 20th, particularly in France with the CGT labor union. It continued through the 20th century hitting a low point after the first world war, but surviving the late 20th century until the 21st century where Anarcho-syndicalist unions and propaganda groups (political action organizations) exist in various parts of the world generally united by the Anarcho-syndicalist international, International Workers' Association. Anarcho-syndicalism is the combination of the political philosophy of Anarchism and the method of class struggle by the name of "syndicalism" which entails forming labor unions to fight against the capitalist class at the point of production.
As you have probably detected from the above Anarcho-syndicalism is not the same thing as Anarchist Communism. The latter is an Anarchist vision for a post-capitalist society while the former is an Anarchist strategy to achieve such a society. Despite their difference these two ideas and practices have an essential connection. Firstly Anarcho-syndicalists have often been Anarchist Communists and vice versa. Rudolf Rocker, the founding father of Anarcho-syndicalism, was an Anarchist Communist before becoming an Anarcho-syndicalist and argued for an Anarchist Communist society in his book "Anarcho-syndicalism: Theory and Practice". The Anarchist Communist Peter Kropotkin had ideas of labor associations that prefigured Anarcho-syndicalism while the later Russian Anarchist Communists who wrote "The Organizational Platform of Libertarian Communists" advocated "syndicalism as the method" of class struggle. The modern Anarcho-syndicalist international advocates "Libertarian Communism" (another word for Anarchist Communism) as the society it seeks to create. Secondly I want to argue that both ideas and practices need each other.
Anarcho-syndicalism Needs Anarchist Communism
One does not have to be an Anarchist Communist to be an Anarcho-syndicalist, yet Anarcho-syndicalism can only be successfully carried out with the goal of Anarchist Communism. Anarcho-syndicalism is a strategy to achieve libertarian socialism (defined above). Libertarian socialism requires bottom up organization and the end of class society through the collective ownership of production. Anarchists have historically conceived of libertarian socialism in non-communist ways. For instance the first person to call himself an Anarchist as a political label, Pierre Joseph Proudhon, argued for a libertarian socialism based on collectively owned enterprises which buy and sell to each other. The Cuban Anarchist Fernando Tarrida del Mármol and the Russian Anarchist Volin argued that Anarchists should unite against capitalism and put the question of what should come after capitalism aside until the completion of the revolution.
Neither of these perspectives would suit the victory of Anarcho-syndicalism. Proudhon's schema would not lead to socialism at all because the collective ownership of production requires the collective ownership of it's product. Individuals and separate firms buying and selling in private exchange thus could not exist without monopolization of production for a specific class. The schema of Volin and Marmol simply refuses to answer the question of how to create a free society, thus it has no hope of implementing libertarian socialism. The only way to implement bottom up socialism would be to have collective ownership and cooperative organization of production and it's product. This will require all of human society to be a classless commonwealth where production and distribution are carried out explicitly to meet people's needs through self-managed communal planning, i.e. communism.
Anarchist Communism Needs Anarcho-syndicalism
One does not have to be an Anarcho-syndicalist to be an Anarchist Communist. For instance the Anarchist Federation in the United Kingdom rejects Anarcho-syndicalism as the strategy for class struggle revolutionary Anarchism. It rejects Anarcho-syndicalism because it believes unions to be mediation agencies through which capitalists manage conflict with workers. This ignores the point of Anarcho-syndicalist revolutionary unions, which Emma Goldman points out; "The fundamental difference between Syndicalism and the old trade union methods is this: while the old trade unions, without exception, move within the wage system and capitalism, recognizing the latter as inevitable, Syndicalism repudiates and condemns present industrial arrangements as unjust and criminal, and holds out no hope to the worker for lasting results from this system.".1 She goes on; "Of course Syndicalism, like the old trade unions, fights for immediate gains, but it is not stupid enough to pretend that labor can expect humane conditions from inhumane economic arrangements in society. Thus it merely wrests from the enemy what it can force him to yield; on the whole, however, Syndicalism aims at, and concentrates its energies upon, the complete overthrow of the wage system. ".2
Anarchist Communism is Anarchist because it understands that communism can only be achieved through the self-organized struggle of the working class against the capitalist system. The only form in which this can be done is to organize into associations of workers, organized by workers themselves, to carry out class struggle and eventually take control of society to re-organize it along libertarian socialist lines. These are revolutionary labor unions. When Anarchists organize revolutionary labor unions for class struggle they are carrying out the revolutionary strategy of Anarcho-syndicalism.
Anarchist Communism and Anarcho-syndicalism are two distinct theories and practices. Despite this they are not at all contradictory, in fact they need each other. For Anarcho-syndicalists to achieve a libertarian socialist society they must implement Anarchist communism and for Anarchist Communists to achieve their vision of such a society they must build an Anarcho-syndicalist labor movement. This is why historically the vast majority of Anarcho-syndicalists were Anarchist Communists and vice versa.
1. Syndicalism: The Modern Menace To Capitalism, Emma Goldman
Fighting For Ourselves, Solidarity Federation
Anarcho-syndicalism In The 20th Century, V. Damier
Communism and Anarchy, Peter Kropotkin
Note On Individualism and Anarchism, E. Malatesta
Property Is Theft, Pierre Joseph Proudhon
Anarchism Without Adjectives (1890), Robert Graham
Anarchist Synthesis, Volin
Introduction To Anarchist Communism, Afed
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