History of syndicalism: conditions and prerequisites

Today, syndicalism, like many other concepts, have separated from their historical context and are hanging in the air. This is due as a whole to the depoliticization of the society and also to the leveling effect of the globally dominating right thinking and analysis. In a series of articles we will go through the formation and development of the union movement, therefore trying to shed light on its purpose and complicated metamorphosis for the last almost 3 centuries. We are hoping that this initiative is useful to the Bulgarian syndicalist – to learn from the previous generations and to get a comprehensive look of the union movement objectives that are to follow, and also to the non-union workers – to pick a side or at least to understand what’s at stake for the social struggle continuing today in full force.

In this first part of history of syndicalism, we are going to examine the conditions and prerequisites of the development of worker unions.

The beginning

The origin of the unions can be traced back to the 18th century in Britain, where the fast growing industrialization and the spread of the capitalist relation in the society drives away huge masses of men, women and children from rural areas to the big cities. With the decline of the system of guilds, many impoverished urban artisans join those masses. All those unskilled and semi-skilled laborers organized spontaneously into their own associations, which later will be an important arena for the development of trade unions. Those unions are sometimes considered to be successors of the medieval Europe’s guilds.

Conditions and prerequisites

The Rise of the capitalism

Syndicalism originated and developed as a response to capitalism and private property dominating first the English and then all European societies. So in order to understand correctly the preconditions of the development of the syndicalism, we should get to know the conditions in which capitalism is formed, as well as the private property and the modern national state, and the consequences of them on the broad society masses who became an incubator for the trade union movement. In short, there are several conditions for the spread of the capitalism. On the one hand we have political revolution, which manages for a short time to break the old aristocratic system of privileges and authorize new political class of merchants, bankers and entrepreneurs who have grown rich by colonialism and expansion of the global market. In practice such authorization is seen in the creation of the parliamentary, where participation in the government is now possible not merely by inherited aristocratic privileges, but according to property qualifications i.e. wealthiest citizens rank up to the aristocracy in the parliament, which in turn became a major institution of the emerging nation-state. This process is accompanied by the technological revolution, especially in agriculture, where the new machines enable processing of larger areas with less human labor. This is all happening in the context of intensive colonialism, which is widening the world market and is allowing more specialized production. Thus large agricultural areas in England, for example, are turned into pastures for sheep (due to the demand for wool in the world market), while other areas need less manpower because of the introduction of new technologies.

At the same time, the old feudal relations are torn and big part of the feudal aristocracy is broke and selling land (and sometimes even titles) to representatives of the above-mentioned newly rich urban class of merchants and bankers called bourgeoisie (from bourg – city). Another part of the old aristocracy marked their old feudal estates and declared them private property and expelled a big part of the former vassals, who are no longer needed for process the fields with new machines, and the few remaining villagers are made wage workers. Exactly this combination of events was the beginning one of the largest migrations in human history, which continues today – migration from rural areas to cities. Banished from the land millions of villagers flow into the cities – under-skilled, poor and disenfranchised. When they appear in the cities it becomes possible for the industrial complex to emerge, as it needs cheap labor poor and disadvantaged enough to accept the hard work and the horrific conditions in the factories. In order to discipline the newcomers, the capitalists are turning to the state to guarantee to exert sufficient pressure on the workers, who are forced to sell their labor in a highly-competitive environment for the first time. A law was passed to cap the maximum salary that a villager can receive. The purpose of this brutal legislation is to transform the people deprived from their sustenance into a disciplined and obedient class of wage workers, who will offer their labor to the capitalists for handouts. The state is also applying pressure on the beggars, whose ranks are filled continuously by the landless villagers and the bankrupt artisans. The temporary wanderers were tied and pilloried with hot irons and the permanently homeless were executed.

Prerequisites for self-organization

Besides poverty and readiness to work, people from the rural areas also have something else. The cooperative and democratic spirit of the old rural areas and fellowships. They are successors of the ancient tradition of mutual assistance and self-government. Traditions that they managed to preserve in constant clashes with the feudal that never vanished completely. With their inflow in the factories those traditions and spirit come into sharp conflict with the capitalist exploitation and discipline. And because of the appalling working conditions, paltry wages and insecurity combined with the free spirit brought from rural areas, it is not surprising that throughout England a spontaneously organized labor fellowships are started and also associations through which workers help each other while struggling to improve the conditions in which they are situated. Typical for these associations are the democracy and equality for the members, inheritance of egalitarian way of life in rural communities and fellowships.

With the development of factory production-based capitalism, workers for the first time began to be gather in large groups and under the same terrible working conditions, in the same building, daily. Naturally, it didn’t take them long to recognize their common interests against their superiors and bosses. This growing sense of class consciousness is the catalyst that led to organized actions of the workers as a class. The decline of the guilds, along with the protection they offer, made it increasingly clear to workers that they must seek new forms of organization. So they began to form alliances for their own self-defense. Even in 1683, the printers in London began to organize in formations, with a system of sanctions for “non-compliance” with the rules of the Fellowship. Around the late eighteenth century, the government started intensive actions to put these primitive unions outside the law. To protect themselves from restrictive legislation, workers began to organize “friendly societies” to hide their secret union activity. It was a successful strategy and those “friendly societies” quickly spread around most parts of the UK. So effective was this form of organisation that the sustained action against the starvation caused by soaring food prices during the eighteenth-century was able to draw on a well-developed and self-organised national network of working class friendly societies.




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