Anarchists and Unions

Peter Kropotkin

Les Temps Nouveaux, 25 May 1907

My dear friend,

I had no intention of intervening in the debate between Pierrot and Lagardelle, especially since Pierrot conducts it very well, and I have so many other things to do. But since Lagardelle felt obliged to muddle the debate by using my name and by insinuating that there exists a mysterious letter in my name against syndicalism [syndicalisme], which Pierrot will not go so far as to publish – I leave it to the reader to assess this method [of debate] – I am forced to talk about this letter.

Fortunately, I have found the rough draft, or rather the original, and I send it to you. Generally, I do not write a rough draft – at least, until now, I did not take this precaution – but after writing this letter I added, as you can see, some passages and it was necessary to copy it. This done, I put the original in a box, to consult one day for a work which I was preparing on socialism and the development of the workers movement.

Pierrot is quite right; I refused to write the foreword to the pamphlet of the Socialist Students not because I disapproved of the substance but because I disapproved of the form, the shape of the first draft. Moreover, if anyone is interested, here is what I said:

“Dear Comrades

“I had agreed to write a preface to our pamphlet Les Anarchistes et les Syndicats [Anarchists and Unions], before having read it. Now, after reading it, I see that I should have to write, not a preface, but a critique, and even a quite trenchant one in some places.

“Instead of simply limiting themselves to highlighting arguments that can be made in favour of taking a more active part in the struggles of the unions, the authors have proposed general ideas on anarchy, which I do not share, and in passing they subject those who think differently to them to petty attacks with which I cannot associate myself.

“The conception of Anarchy that dominated in the collectivist and federalist International is certainly not that of comrades today and nor is it mine (p. 10). There has been a whole evolution accomplished during these 30 years – backwards, perhaps some will say – forward, in my opinion. Between the Idée[s] sur l’organisation sociale [Ideas on social organisation] of the Jura Federation and La Société Nouvelle [The New Society], La Société au lendemain [The Society of tomorrow] ..., La Conquête du Pain [The Conquest of Bread], etc., there is a whole generation which, in my view, has neither stayed in the same place nor gone backwards, and which would have been welcomed by Bakunin himself, if he were alive today.[1]

“The notion ‘Anarchist because Communist’ is yours. Fine. It has, perhaps, the advantage of emphasising the importance of communism; but at least admit that it is not shared by a great number of anarchists; that for many liberty is as cherished as bread (I am amongst those);[2] ― that many call themselves anarchists although communists, and that absolutely sincere comrades think that communism and anarchy are incompatible (which does not prevent many of them from discovering that there is much to be done in the unions).

“In the third part of your pamphlet you allow yourself to be led by your thesis to the point of making several assertions which you would be hard pressed to justify. Certainly, when entering a union, the anarchist makes a concession ― just as he does by going to register the title of his newspaper, asking for permission for a meeting in Trafalgar Square, even signing the lease of his housing or his co-operative farm, or by letting himself be handcuffed without responding with punches. To treat as ideologues those who demonstrate that there is a concession is neither just nor justifiable. Without these ‘ideologues’ they would still flog you in prison, as they do in England.

“By entering a union, we make a concession, and when you say that the concession is less than is generally believed, that is simply correct. But let us not deny it. It is one of those concessions which, like the rest (the authorisation, the lease, the handcuffs), make us hate the present system more.

“When entering Union Life, we certainly can get carried away by our surroundings, as in Parliament.[3]

“Only the difference between a union and parliament is that one is an organisation for fighting Capital, while the other (parliament, of course) is an organisation for maintaining the State, Authority. One sometimes becomes revolutionary, the other never does. One (parliament) represents centralisation, the other (the union) represents autonomy, etc., etc. One (parliament) is repugnant to us on principle, the other is only a modifiable and modified aspect of a struggle that most of us approve of.

“If unions give themselves a social-democratic hierarchy, we could not enter them until it has been demolished.

In short, there is enough to say on the usefulness, for anarchists, to try to wrest unions from the politicians and to inspire them with broader and more revolutionary ideas, without seeking in this to limit this possibility of action to those who conceive of anarchy in a certain special way. I know anarchists of all shades who have taken part in workers unions. Once I work in some trade, it is only natural that I associate with my comrades in the factory, without asking them to understand socialism or anarchy in such a way or another. That has nothing to do with it.”

On that my original [letter] ends, on the eighth page. Probably I would not have added much [to it]. As for the date, I wrote on this draft: “Unions and Anarchists. April 1898.”

Now that I have answered M. Lagardelle’s little insinuation, I shall allow myself to ask him a question: Was there nothing more interesting to say about syndicalism than to gossip about this letter? Is he reduced to this? Supposing I had been a rabid enemy of syndicalism, would that have changed the relationship between anarchy and the union movement in any way? Are these just personal relationships? And would this not be the duty of someone who claims to be scientific, specifically to disentangle the ideas of Anarchy and those of the Union Movement?

Finally, if M. Lagardelle absolutely wished to speak of my ideas on the union movement, had he not, if it really interested him, my articles in Le Révolté [The Rebel], La Révolte [Revolt], and Les Temps Nouveaux [The New Times]. (as I am not French, they can easily be recognised by their style). Leafing through these collections for the years 1886-1898, I find during certain times of workers’ struggles one or two articles in each issue (feature and social movement articles) wherein I always return to the same ideas: Workers organisations are the real force capable of accomplishing the social revolution, after the awakening of the proletariat has been achieved, first, by individual actions, then by collective actions of strikes, revolts which are increasingly widened; and where workers organisations have not let themselves to be captured by the “conquest of power” gentlemen and have continued to walk hand in hand with the anarchists ― as they did in Spain ― they obtained, on the one hand, immediate results (the eight-hour day in [certain] trades in Catalonia), and on the other made good propaganda for the Social Revolution – that which will come, not by these lofty gentlemen, but from below, from workers organisations.

I have perhaps annoyed my readers by returning too often to this subject, but now I wonder if it would not be useful to make a selection of these articles to publish them in a volume.

What is most important is, that if we consult the collection of anarchist newspapers which have followed the Bulletin de la Fédération Jurassienne [Bulletin of the Jura Federation] and L’Avant-Garde [Vanguard] until Les Temps Nouveaux, we see that those anarchists who have always thought that the labour movement, organised by occupation, for the direct struggle against Capital – today in France it is called syndicalism and “direct action” – constitutes real strength, capable of bringing about and achieving the social revolution, by the egalitarian transformation of consumption and production, those of us who have thought in this way for the last thirty-five years have simply remained faithful to the guiding idea of the International, as conceived by the French in 1864 (against Marx and Engels), and such as it was always applied in Catalonia, in the Bernese Jura, in the valley of Vesdre [in Eastern Belgium] and partly in Italy. The International was a great syndicalist movement which accordingly posed everything that these gentlemen claim to have discovered in syndicalism.

We anarchists do not pretend to have discovered a new idea or a new religion. We say that we simply remained faithful to the practical idea that inspired the third awakening of the French proletariat and of the Latin proletariat in general. We refused to associate ourselves with the hiding away of this idea, which was done by the Germans and a few French Jacobins at the Hague Congress in 1872, when taking advantage of the defeat of the French proletariat, they tried to divert the International from its economic struggle to launch it into the conquest of power in the bourgeois State. And now that the proletariat, disgusted with parliamentary social-democracy, returns to the old idea of direct international struggle against Capital, and that there are again gentlemen who are seeking to divert this movement to make it a political stepping-stone, well, we will fight against them, as we fought against their forerunners, to always uphold the same idea of the liberation of the proletariat by the direct and aggressive struggle against its exploiters.[4]

End Notes

[1] Today we better understand the necessity of immediate expropriation and the necessity of Communism. (A note which I have added)

[2] I will just point out the countless strikes for the workers’ human rights; in general, they are the most bitter. A fact that I often mentioned in my articles on the labour movement. (A note which I have added)

[3] Observe England. 40 years ago, the English trade unions were fighting organisations. Becoming rich, protected by the government, flattered by the royal family, they lost their combativeness. Workers often complain of the bourgeois-ism of their immense clique of officials, like the German social democratic workers. (A note which I have added)

[4] An earlier translation of this article appeared as “Anarchists and Trade Unions” in Freedom (June 1907) and is included in Direct Struggle Against Capital: A Peter Kropotkin Anthology (Translator)