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A Syndicalist Paradigm For Our Age

Jack Ross

We stand today at a unique, precipitous, and paradoxical moment in economic history.


The American dispensation of state capitalism is triumphant, but faces grave challenges, not only
in the strict economic realm of globalization and its backlash, but also as this is closely tied to
America’s world standing teetering on the brink of freefall. At once the fall of communism has
demonstrated how right Marx was as we witness globalization’s race to the bottom, and at the
same time the failure of every ostensibly socialist project ever put into practice, not only of
Stalinism but with the deep roots both politically and economically of the emerging global system
in historic social democracy. It is completely logical therefore that we should look to the historic
syndicalist movement to yield at least some if not the bulk of answers for what radicals and
progressives should stand for and seek as an alternative in our time. But there remains much to
learn and rediscover in this undertaking, lessons from history along with innovations in economic
science, that is vital for the road ahead.
Let us first address and define our terms, namely syndicalism along with the term preferred
by many if not most in this room, anarcho-syndicalism. To begin with, what is syndicalism? By
its proponents in the late 19th and early 20th centuries it was defined as direct governance of the
economy by the trade unions over their respective industries, and by historians and others looking
back on the movement it is defined as distinct from socialism because it calls for the
collectivization of individual industries and shops unto themselves as opposed to the state or any
larger collective. So defined, syndicalism absent any prefix is already inherently anarchist, as its
central organizing principle is premised on independence from state action, and that worker
control is necessary to ensure its integrity. What then is anarcho-syndicalism? Believed by most
to have originated as a concept with the IWW, which, having split with the AFL entirely over
tactical disputes on the question of direct action, took its emphasis on direct action absent larger
theory to its logical conclusion, of adopting opposition not simply to the state but to the existence
of capital itself. It was thus that much of the IWW and classical anarchist movement were so
shrewdly co-opted by the Communists in the 1920s and 30s.
As the great historians of the new left such as Gabriel Kolko and the late James Weinstein
taught it, the early 20th century witnessed the triumph of Keynesianism over classical socialism
and any of its more classically liberal rivals, such as syndicalism, and if it can be agreed that
whatever changes there have been in America’s political economy since then are nothing more
then the difference between left-Keynesianism and right-Keynesianism, the question becomes
what can constitute a new radical alternative in light of the failure of socialism, if not as an ideal as
an organizing principle. The most prominent and popular such alternative to emerge in the 20 th
century has been in the Austrian school of economics, whose principles, while very often
perverted by present day neo-liberals, when properly understood stand not as a competing
outlook with syndicalism for the loyalty of opponents of the present order, but in fact as its
necessary corollary. The Austrian school first emerged early in the 19th century to articulate a
radical liberal alternative to the classical economy then at its zenith, and thus made a prime point
of contention its rejection of the labor theory of value, in favor of the principle of subjective
utility. But this must be understood in its context.
The leading Austrian contemporary of Marx, Eugen Von Bohm-Bawerk, put it thus: “I
have criticized the law of labor value with all the severity that a doctrine so utterly false seemed to
me to deserve. In the future anyone who thinks that he can maintain this law will first of all be
obliged to supply what his predecessors have omitted - a proof that can be taken seriously. Not
quotations from authorities, not protesting and dogmatizing phrases, but a proof that earnestly
and conscientiously goes into the essence of the matter. On such a basis no one will be more
ready and willing to continue the discussion then myself.” Bohm-Bawerk thus left the door wide
open for a labor theory of value to be established within the context of the principle of subjective
utility, which is simply the self-evident principle that value is in the eye of the beholder. This was
achieved late in the 19th century by Benjamin Tucker, the leading American proponent of the
classical anarchist tradition who championed a doctrine he called “individualist anarchism”. A
disciple of the early American anarchist theorist Lysander Spooner, who began by synthesizing his
work with that of Proudhon, Tucker recognized the principle of subjective utility as key to a
proper systemic articulation of Proudhon’s critique of Marxism.
Subjective utility dictating that value is attached to a product by its consumer, Tucker
developed the simple and self-evident formulation that “the natural wage of labor is its product”.
Tucker’s writings had an incredible and decisive impact on many of his more famous
contemporaries. Most famously and obviously of these was Henry George, who identified himself
most closely with the milieu represented by Tucker, and whose writings served to provide the
macroeconomic framework to complement the classical anarchist microeconomic framework. In
particular, George’s championship of free trade - the real thing and not what goes by that name
today - served as an articulation of both the ultimate aim and underlying principle of labor’s
aspirations under the syndicalist ideal, as defined by Tucker’s principle of labor value. While the
Austrian school today claims both Tucker and George, it has rejected their fundamental
innovation, insisting on closing the door which Bohm-Bawerk had left wide open before.
What says the Austrian school of syndicalism? The most accomplished of the Austrian
economists, Ludwig Von Mises, in his epic volume Socialism, after examining the different
professing variances of socialism (written in 1921), concludes that the one which is truly distinct
and worthy of being classified as such is syndicalism, for the very reason so enunciated already,
that it called for the collectivization merely of individual enterprises which would remain still
freely and fully engaged in the market. As Von Mises put it, “The petty bourgeois ideas which
Marx thought to overcome are very widespread, even in the ranks of the Marxian socialists. The
great mass desire not the genuine socialism, that is, centralized socialism, but syndicalism. The
worker wishes to be the lord of the means of production which are employed in his particular
undertaking. The social movement round about us shows more clearly every day that this and
nothing else is what the worker desires.” In Socialism Mises already expressed significant doubts
about the practicality of syndicalism, and decades later when he wrote his second major work,
Human Action, in 1949, he declared it fundamentally flawed because he felt it made production an
end in itself, which is the economic essence of fascism.
Coming so shortly after World War II - Mises was himself an exile from Nazi-occupied
Austria - this is certainly understandable. However it can be reasonably deduced that it was the
state, not the producers and workers themselves, who demanded production as an end in itself,
and this is the lesson of fascism, both the European variety as well as in the case of the New Deal
and its present collapse, the necessity of independence from the state. We must then look back to
the syndicalist idea in the time of Tucker and George, and its influence on the American labor
movement which was just coming into being in their time. Subscribing to this syndicalist outlook
and first establishing itself in opposition to the notions of political action toward “cooperative
commonwealth” which defined the then-dominant Populist movement, the programmatic doctrine
of the early AFL was therefore essentially “Austrian syndicalist”, and the greatest advocate of this
dispensation was the father of the American labor movement, Samuel Gompers. Gompers, of
course, received his early political indoctrination not from anarchists but from Marxists, yet even
so this is highly informative to the Austrian syndicalist paradigm, indeed is a critical component of
it. Deriving his classically liberal syndicalism from his original Marxism, Gompers thus emerged
as the most radical of the Marxist revisionists.
As Austrian political theory developed in the second half of the 20th century, a subject to
which I will return shortly, extending its paradigm from the birth of classical liberalism, Marxism
became so defined as seeking the stated ends of liberalism by conservative means, meaning the
means of the state and the elite, namely, coercion. This was of course the essence of Leninism,
and it ultimately became so of social democracy as well - for while the leading revisionists such as
Bernstein and Kautsky readily acknowledged the problem of seeking liberal ends by conservative
means, they contented themselves to the avenue of electoral politics, which history proved to be
too great a compromise with the state, whereas Gompers was able to establish a practicing
syndicalist movement which was able to seek liberal ends by liberal means. Let us examine this
then in light of the history of the American left. The main revisionist narrative was, of course,
adopted in America by the early Socialist Party, and as numerous sections of it were won over as
time went on to New Deal liberalism and ultimately today to neo-conservatism, it was those who
remained committed over time to the principle of seeking liberal ends by liberal means who would
constitute the better part of the new left.
It was Von Mises’ greatest student, Murray Rothbard, who formulated the above
paradigm of ends and means in the course of his prolific collaboration with the best scholars of the
new left. It was Rothbard who developed the fusion of Austrian economics with the political
doctrine of individualist anarchism that originated with Benjamin Tucker and Henry George,
which is the overarching paradigm of modern libertarianism, its now overwhelming debasement
by thinly veiled Beltway Republicans notwithstanding. Indeed, as what has become of
libertarianism demonstrates, this Austrian syndicalist paradigm never materialized in its logical
place as the putting into practice of Rothbard’s paradigm. In the seminal essay of his new left
collaboration, Left and Right: The Prospects For Liberty, Rothbard disregarded the relative
liberalism of the revisionists’ means and simply said that Leninism followed by Maoism, because
of their commitment to “national liberation”, remained of the real left. This appealed to the
destructive biases of the new left, while also without second thought carrying on Mises’ reflexive
rejection of any place for labor value contrary to Bohm-Bawerk, which also served to indulge the
anti-labor biases of the new left.
So what of Austrian syndicalism as a paradigm for our time? As a completion of the
libertarian framework that emerged in the time of the new left, it is highly relevant to our time.
Those libertarians who remain squarely opposed to the Bush regime readily acknowledge that in
this period they must cast their outreach increasingly leftward and not rightward, but the
American left has aged terribly these last few decades. But more important is its application to
the present upheavals in the labor movement, to which the above elaborated history offers many
lessons. Most writers on the recent events in the labor movement have simply maintained that
there is no definite left and right in the dispute, and this is but a shoddy excuse for lack of insight.
If we apply Rothbard’s reconstruction of the political spectrum as a template to understanding the
nature of the political spectrum of the labor movement in the new situation, we can see how what
was once the ostensible left has now become the ostensible right. The first thing that must be
acknowledged in understanding this is that the old social democratic right wing of the labor
movement which was dominant throughout the second half of the 20th century is plainly dead and
buried, and we all should, and no doubt do, rejoice in that fact.
But it is necessary in that context to understand the more ostensibly leftist outlook that
has replaced it in the labor establishment, and what about it has provoked the current rupture in
the labor movement. It is most often by its academic partisans referred to as “social movement
unionism”, and arbitrarily applies the mores of the new left to the notion that there are “social
movements” that labor must subordinate itself and its interests to, that is, in the politics of the
present day, the coarse social agenda of the left wing of the Democratic Party. It originated as the
traditional critique from the left of business unionism, with some roots in the outlook of the CIO,
but it has become in the last several years the conservatism of the labor movement, and is
conservative in the most real sense, in that it hearkens back not for a new dispensation but a
restoration of the old, in this case, of the New Deal, or of a romanticized version of it. Thus to
the untrained eye the dissident coalition appears to be not at all to the left but in many ways to the
right of the more traditional leftist dispensation in the labor movement, but considering the history
that has been elaborated here, it is the older, largely unrecognizable, more authentic left, seeking
liberal ends by liberal means in opposition to the partisans of a tired old ideology. The approach
to trade unionism championed by the dissident leaders certainly does in its substance reflect many
of the old guard mores, but in this day and age this tends not toward business unionism, but
toward the fundamentally anarchist tradition of trade unionism, of organizing for mutual aid, and
let us therefore call it “mutual aid unionism”.
The numerous proposals for capital forming ventures by many of these leaders is a
powerful reflection of this in practice, but there are two important theoretical edifices on which it
rests, and which deserve acknowledgment. The first is from the late Louis Kelso, who developed
the employee stock ownership program and who championed it as the fulfillment of what he
called “binary economics”, essentially the Austrian syndicalist paradigm in practice, emphasizing
most of all the need to shift from labor intensive to capital intensive means of economic growth.
The second is from a young amateur radical economist named Kevin Carson, who recently wrote
what is essentially the macroeconomic complement to Kelso, deriving it directly from the writings
of Benjamin Tucker, entitled Studies In Mutualist Political Economy, which is on sale here.
Carson has, far more thoroughly than I could ever be able, placed this new syndicalist paradigm
into the larger history of economic thought, and together with his current project, Studies In The
Anarchist Theory Of Organizational Behavior, may well constitute the greatest work of political
economy since Das Kapital, defining the new syndicalist paradigm for our age.