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 10th generation 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 450+ papers, including conferences and workshops, co-edited 4 journal specials (on global and African labour history, and the left), and produced five books. Southern Africa editor for the 2009 'International Encyclopaedia of Revolution and Protest' (Blackwell). I won the 2008 international ‘Labor History’ PhD thesis prize, and the 2008/2009 Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA) award for best African dissertation, for my thesis on South African anarchism, syndicalism and black militants. I have also done research in Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe.