lessons of anarchism

Image: Elyeser Szturm

By Felipe Correa*

In 2019, the XNUMXth anniversary of the founding of the Communist International or, as it was historically known, the Third International, is celebrated. This experience forms part of a broader picture of the transnational history of workers' movements, which finds part of its expression in communism and social democracy.

When we analyze the international organizational efforts that have been carried out, since the International Workers Association (AIT, or First International, founded in 1864), by another current, much less known, despite being relevant – composed of anarchists, anarcho-syndicalists and revolutionary syndicalists – it is possible not only to understand this history in more depth, but also to find contributions for a necessary renewal of the political project of the Brazilian left.

Even if the Brazilian conjuncture is completely troubled, and largely unfavorable, it seems fundamental, in parallel with the conjunctural debates and struggles, that we dedicate ourselves to rethinking the project of the left in Brazil.

I think that it will not be possible to give due combat to the public and organized rise of the extreme right and the neoliberal right, nor to solve central problems of the left itself, reproducing what has been done in recent decades. And, in this re-discussion of the project, I believe that the history of anarchism, anarcho-syndicalism and revolutionary syndicalism has significant contributions.

One of these contributions was made during the debate, which began in the First International, in 1868, about the role of political parties and the conquest of political power in the socialist project. By properly studying this debate – which lasted, at the AIT, until the Hague Congress in 1872, and which was, unfortunately, quite distorted in the historiography – it is possible to say that it opposed two trends, two conceptions of socialism.

On the one hand, the centralists (headed by Marxists and social democrats), who supported the objectives of the AIT: “to transform the class into a party of the class and conquer political power”. On the other, the federalists (headed by anarchists and revolutionary syndicalists), who disagreed, as they understood as objectives: “the articulation of the class in a classist and revolutionary mass organization and the destruction of the State”.

Gested within the international working class, both projects faced each other and – despite the exegesis made in the Marxian work and studies in the field of Marxism – represented, by the understanding of the disputed agents themselves, two distinct strategies for the socialist field. What would be the best way to promote socialism? And, for that, would the State be a useful or even desirable instrument?

The centralists supported the struggle for universal suffrage, the contest of elections by social democratic parties and understood that the State could function as a lever capable of promoting socialism. Federalists emphasized that it was the revolutionary and mass organizations of the working class that should spearhead social transformation and that political power, not just private property, should be socialized – often referring to this as “destruction of the state”. or as a position against the seizure of political power.

The latter understood the State as a political organism of class domination, not just of the bourgeoisie; emphasized that the State itself structurally created the bureaucracy, another ruling class that did not necessarily defend bourgeois interests. In an eventual case of nationalization of private property, they argued, even if promoted by the socialists, the State would create a new bureaucracy, which would continue to dominate and exploit workers in the city and countryside.[I]

This conflict not only split the First International, in 1872, but generated unavoidable conflicts in the Second International, between 1889 and 1896, and in the Third International, between 1919 and 1921.

In the Second International, anarchists and revolutionary syndicalists – whose presence was significant and among which Landauer, Reclus e. Pelloutier – harshly criticized social democratic reformism and opposed the SPD line of creating parties and running for elections.[ii]

In the Third International, positively motivated by the Russian Revolution, anarcho-syndicalists and revolutionary syndicalists answered the 1920s call of the Comintern by engaging with anarchists and other socialists and syndicalists in the libertarian camp who had been severely repressed by the Bolsheviks since 1918.[iii] Between 1920 and 1921, these union members established conditions for their participation in Profintern, formed in 1921; the main one was the class independence of the communist parties. In 1921, realizing the complete submission of the organism to the Russian CP, organizations of this line in several countries split: first in Germany, Sweden, Holland and Norway; after Spain, Italy and France. Then they would thicken the so-called Syndicalist International.[iv]

However, it was not only in these international initiatives that anarchists, anarcho-syndicalists and revolutionary syndicalists were present. In reality, such current even put into question this very numbering of the internationals which, according to their statements, meant nothing more than a teleological vision of history, constructed a posteriori, considering the history of the three Internationals as an evolution, reaching communism, the highest point of socialism. When we extrapolate the study of the three internationals, it is possible to notice that the AIT tried to be reconstructed in other circumstances and in different ways.

First, in the self-styled “anti-authoritarian” sector, which continued the First International from 1872 – when the centralist sector interrupted its activities – and lasting until 1877. When, in 1872, at a congress without representation, the General Council expelled Bakunin and Guillaume of the AIT and, with that, ended up excluding almost the entire base of the association, this formed an Anti-authoritarian International. She considered that "the destruction of all political power is the first duty of the proletariat" and that, "rejecting every compromise to achieve the realization of the social revolution, the proletarians of all countries must establish, outside all bourgeois politics, the solidarity of the revolutionary action”.[v]

Second, at the Socialist Revolutionary Congress in London, in 1881, when anarchists, syndicalists, communists and blanquists declared the foundation of a Black International, which, however, had no further developments. The central issue posed on that occasion was the need to oppose reformism through a revolutionary project and to break with radicalized discourses without support in practice. To that responded the “propaganda by the fact”, approved and claimed in the congress. As part of the federalist camp, among others, Kropotkin, Michel and Malatesta participated.[vi]

Third, at the Anarchist Congress in Amsterdam, in 1907, which also declared the foundation of an Anarchist International, also devoid of further developments. There, a debate on the best way to organize anarchists was faced in a deeper way – and syndicalism was an essential part of this debate. Among others, Goldman, Fabbri, Dunois, Monatte participated.[vii]

Fourth, at the London Syndicalist Congress in 1913, which advocated the creation of a Syndicalist International, with the presence of revolutionary syndicalist organizations and anarcho-syndicalists. This congress harshly criticized the reformism of the International Secretariat of National Trade Union Centers (ISNTUC), linked to the Second International, and posed the following fundamental question: is it necessary to create a revolutionary syndicalist and anarcho-syndicalist organization or is it more productive to act in broader organizations (such as the ISNTUC itself) to influence them from within (confédération Générale du Travail, CGT position)?

This congress was attended by 38 delegates, representing 12 countries in Europe and Latin America and 250 workers – Cornelissen was a central character. That effort was temporarily halted with the outbreak of World War I.[viii]

The Syndicalist International

It was only in the passage from 1922 to 1923, with the foundation of the Syndicalist International, that this reconstruction of the First International – sought for years by anarchists, anarcho-syndicalists and revolutionary syndicalists – was successful. With the conflicts in the Third International, this current of federalist heirs of the AIT decided to continue the 1913 project and founded the homonymous International Workers Association, later called the Syndicalist International. At the time of its founding, this association - for its founders, the legitimate continuation of the AIT, as it was a mass association, of a trade union type, as the First International was, and not an international of parties, as the Second and the Second Third International – represented 1,5 million workers from 13 countries in Europe and Latin America.

Its main organizations were: Federación Obrera Regional Argentina (FORA, Argentina); Confederación Nacional del Trabajo (CNT, Spain); Unione Sindacale Italiana (USI, Italy); General Confederation of Labor (CGT, Portugal); Freie Arbeiter Union Deutschlands (FAUD, Germany). In its heyday, this “Berlin International” – with the outstanding participation of Rocker, Schapiro, D'Andrea and Souchy – came to represent 3 million workers, forming, in 1923, the third largest unionist force in the world. It constituted an alternative to the “Amsterdam” (social democratic) and “Moscow” (communist) internationals. It held, after 1922-1923, another five congresses, until 1938, and entered a crisis in the context of the rise of fascism and the civil war in Spain.[ix]

The ten principles of the Syndicalist International are summarized below, in order to explain its proposed political and strategic line for the socialist popular movement. It is proposed:

(1) establish – among workers in all countries – an economic base association (focused on concrete needs), classist and revolutionary, to fight capitalism and the State; its ultimate goal is free communism. (2) promote a future society model based on self-management and federalism of cities and countryside, taking councils as a foundation; oppose the State, political parties and dictatorships. (3) to defend the struggles for demands and their conciliation with the aforementioned revolutionary, self-managed and federalist objective. (4) guarantee the autonomy, independence, self-management and federalism of workers in their struggles; your organization must be “bottom-up” (from the bottom up). (5) encourage anti-parliamentaryism and opposition to collaboration with governments and parliaments.

And yet: (6) promote internationalism, reject nationalism and borders. (7) oppose militarism and state wars. (8) encourage direct action, strikes, boycotts, sabotage and general strikes. (9) be aware that violence will often be necessary to carry out and defend changes and transformations. (10) ensure the protagonism of the masses as a path to these changes and transformations.[X]

To renew the Brazilian left

Finally, I consider that these principles offer alternatives to the aforementioned renewal of the Brazilian left. Among them, I highlight a few.

(a) the need to break with the conciliatory reformism and the defense of order that has been the rule in the Brazilian left; and to once again raise the banner of renewed revolutionary and democratic socialism.

It must be borne in mind that, even distant, a truly egalitarian and libertarian project of socialism has not yet been carried out (and, therefore, the “real socialism” of the XNUMXth century is not an alternative) and, therefore, must be discussed and discussed. conceived as a distinguished finalist project. Let us remember that socialism does not mean nationalization of the means of production, nor “equality of opportunities”, and much less a limited social democracy that seeks small gains for those at the bottom – socialism means socialization of the means of production and, as stated in the Syndicalist International, also of power political. Radical, grassroots democratization – that is the true meaning of democracy.

(b) the understanding that popular movements (trade unions, social movements, etc.) should constitute the focus of workers' articulation, from below. Movements that are not emptied of meaning and radicality due to electoral disputes, corporate interests, etc., but that can articulate the working class as a whole (including informal, “precarious” and unemployed), depending on their concrete needs, for the struggle and confrontation; for the conquest of reforms and for revolutionary practice. Depending on how they are carried out, struggles for reforms can contribute to a revolutionary project.

(c) the conception that these movements can be a school of equality and freedom, and that they can stimulate, in practice and theory, the construction of the subjects of transformation. Such movements need to have autonomy and independence from the institutions of capital and the State, and focus on social conflict and direct class struggle, and not on the formal dispute for space in the State and in the different bureaucracies.

It is always good to keep in mind that the motto “the emancipation of workers will be the work of the workers themselves” does not involve something that should be reserved for an uncertain future, but that it has to start being promoted today, within the midst of daily struggles and confrontations. . Workers must lead and self-manage their struggles, promoting the necessary changes and transformations. They cannot and should not serve as a lever to place minorities or bureaucracies of any kind in power (of their own organizations and/or of the State) which, once empowered, will continue their exploitation and domination. Political organizations (parties) should be seen as enemies, opponents or allies, depending on how and if they contribute to this project.

(d) these movements need to combat nationalisms and militarisms of all kinds, and understand that these changes and transformations do not happen with pacifism. Reforms and, especially, revolutions, require breaking with this backward position, which sees in the most combative actions something that only strengthens the enemy. More advanced levels of social conflict are essential, even if they are aimed more at social positions than at people.

* Felipe Correa he is a university professor, researcher and editor; coordinates the Institute of Anarchist Theory and History (ITHA)


AVRICH, Paul. The Russian Anarchists. Oakland: AK Press, 2005.

ANTONIOLI, Maurizio (org.). The International Anarchist Congress: Amsterdam (1907). Edmonton: BlackCat, 2009.

BERTHIER, Rene. Social Democracy & Anarchism in the International Workers Association 1864-1877. London: Anarres, 2015.

CORRÊA, Felipe. Freedom or Death: Theory and Practice of Mikhail Bakunin. São Paulo: Faísca / ITHA, 2019.

DE JONG, Rudolf. “The AIT of Berlin: from 1922 to the Spanish Revolution” (and annexes). In: History of the Revolutionary Workers Movement. São Paulo: Imaginario, 2004.

ECKHARDT, Wolfgang. The First Socialist Schism: Bakunin vs. Marx in the IWMA. Oakland: PM Press, 2016.

GUILLAUME, James. L'Internationale: documents et souvenirs, 4 vols. Paris: Gerard Lebovici, 1985.

PATEMAN, Barry. “International Revolutionary Socialist Conference”. Kate Sharpley Library, 2013/2017.

SKIRDA, Alexander. Russian Anarchists, the Soviets and the Revolution of 1917. São Paulo: Intermezzo, 2017.

THORPE, Wayne. “Towards a Syndicalist International: The 1913 London Congress”. In: International Review of Social History, vol. 23, 1978.

_____. “The Worker Themselves”: revolutionary syndicalism and international labor, 1913-1923. Amsterdam: IIHS, 1989.

VAN DER WALT, Lucien. “David Berry and Constance Bantman (eds.) New Perspectives on Anarchism, Labor and Syndicalism: the individual, the nation, the transnational”. In: Anarchist Studies, 20.1, 2012.

WOODCOCK, George. History of Anarchist Ideas and Movements, vol. 2. Porto Alegre: L&PM, 2002.

To read more (in Portuguese):

CORRÊA, Felipe. Black Flag: re-discussing anarchism. Curitiba: Prisms, 2015. [https://ithanarquista.wordpress.com/2018/10/31/felipe-correa-bandeira-negra-rediscutindo-o-anarquismo-pdf-do-livro/]

VAN DER WALT, Lucien. “World Revolution: for a balance of impacts, popular organization, struggles and anarchist and syndicalist theory around the world”. In: FERREIRA, Andrey C. Insurgent Thought and Practices: anarchism and autonomies in the uprisings and resistances of capitalism in the XNUMXst century. Niterói: Alternative, 2016. [https://ithanarquista.wordpress.com/2017/02/15/lucien-van-der-walt-revolucao-mundial-para-um-balanco-dos-impactos-da-organizacao-popular-das-lutas-e-da-teoria-anarquista-e-sindicalista-em-todo-o-mundo1/]

_____. "Out of the Shadows: The Mass Base, Class Composition, and Popular Influence of Anarchism and Syndicalism". In: FERREIRA, Andrey C. Insurgent Thought and Practices: anarchism and autonomies in the uprisings and resistances of capitalism in the XNUMXst century. Niterói: Alternative, 2016. [https://ithanarquista.wordpress.com/2016/10/12/lucien-van-der-walt-fora-das-sombras-a-base-de-massas-a-composicao-de-classe-e-a-infiuencia-popular-do-anarquismo-e-do-sindicalismo/]

[I] On this conflict and the debate at the AIT, see: Corrêa, 2019, pp. 324-386; Eckhardt, 2016; Berthier, 2015.

[ii] Woodcock, 2002, vol. 2. Even after 1896, there was a presence of revolutionary unionists in the Socialist International, especially within parties that tried to reconcile this form of unionism with the dispute of elections. Among them, the following stand out: PSI, in Italy; SPA, in the USA, with Bill Haywood (IWW); SLP, in the US, with De Leon. As well as the International Secretariat of National Trade Union Centers (ISNTUC). (Van de Walt, 2012)

[iii] On the Bolshevik repression of anarchists and anarcho-syndicalists in the Russian Revolution, see: Avrich, 2005; Skirda, 2017.

[iv] Thorpe, 1978; DeJong, 2004.

[v] Guillaume, 1985, vol. III, p. 8.

[vi] Woodcock, 2002, vol. two; Pateman, 2/2013.

[vii] Antonioli, 2009.

[viii] Thorpe, 1978, 1989.

[ix] De Jong, 2004; Thorpe, 1989. In this process, in 1929, the foundation of the Asociación Continental Americana de los Trabajadores (ACAT), a branch of the International Trade Union in Latin America, stands out.

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