Revolutionary Trade Unionism: road to workers’ freedom – Workers Solidarity Federation ca. 1997

This leaflet was issued by the Workers Solidarity Federation (WSF), and advocated an anarcho-syndicalist approach to trade unionism. It was directed to, in reality, to rank-and-file members of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU).  Another version here.

While “anarcho-syndicalism” in certain English-speaking countries has come to be tied to a strategy of “dual unionism” (the formation of brand-new unions on a purely anarcho-syndicalist platform, outside the existing orthodox unions), the WSF and its successor organisations consistently argued for  the reform of existing unions along anarcho-syndicalist lines.

WSF disagreed with dual unionism on grounds including 1) it isolates radicals in marginal unions, rather than relating to large masses in the orthodox unions; 2) such isolation would  be to the benefit of the most conservative and bureaucratised elements in the existing unions; 3) dual unions tend to recruit workers neglected by existing unions, meaning it cannot be assumed that their enrollment in the new “anarcho-syndicalist” unions is any sign of  the increase in popular “anarcho-syndicalist” consciousness; 4) the current members of existing unions are highly unlikely to leave those existing unions, to join small and untried radical unions; 5) existing unions, no matter how conservative , are still genuine mass structures of and for the working class; and 6) historically, internal reforms have successfully transformed orthodox unions into mass revolutionary (or anarcho-syndicalist) formations, including notable examples like the French CGT and the Argentinean FORA.

The WSF rejected the notion that there was any contradiction between anarcho-syndicalism / revolutionary syndicalism and the Bakuninist/ Platformist/ especifist approach of organisational dualism i.e. the necessity of building a Bakuninist organisation of tendency that works within the existing mass working class structures (e.. orthodox unions). First, because such an organisation would be ideal for promoting and defending anarcho-syndicalism / revolutionary syndicalism as a strategy of counter-power and counter-culture; second, because this could be promoted and defended inside existing unions; third, because there is no necessary link between anarcho-syndicalism / revolutionary syndicalism and dual unionism; and finally, because there is a very notable strand of anarcho-syndicalism / revolutionary syndicalism that did, and does, recognise the need for specific anarchist (or syndicalist) political organisations, in addition to anarcho-syndicalist / revolutionary syndicalist unions (example, the FAI in the Spanish CNT, and Bakunin’s Alliance in the First International).

Now, the leaflet (link below image):

Revolutionary Trade Unionism - Road to Freedom CROP

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About Lucien van der Walt

I teach at Rhodes University, the Eastern Cape. I’m South African, born and bred. I have long been involved in union education, and have a background in social movement and left-wing activism, the Workers’ Library and Museum, the Anti-Privatisation Forum, and the National Health and Allied Workers Union (NEHAWU). I’ve presented or published 100s of papers conferences and workshops, published in key journals like 'Capital and Class' and 'Labor History', have co-edited 4 journal specials (these on global labour history, African labour, and unions in the Global South), and produced five books. I was Southern Africa editor for the 2009 'International Encyclopaedia of Revolution and Protest' (Blackwell). My focus has been on South Africa, but I have also done research in Zambia and Zimbabwe. I won the 2008 international 'Labor History' thesis prize, and the 2008/2009 Council for the Development of Social Science Research prize for best African dissertation, for my PhD thesis on South African anarchism, syndicalism and black militants. My books includd include 'Politics at a Distance from the State: Radical and African Perspectives' (2018, co-edited with Kirk Helliker), 'Negro e Vermelho: anarquismo, sindicalismo revolucionário e pessoas de cor na África Meridional nas décadas de 1880-1920,' and 'Anarchism and Syndicalism in the Colonial and Postcolonial World, 1880-1940: the praxis of national liberation, internationalism, and social revolution' (co-edited with Steve Hirsch, Brill, 2010/ 2014).