Letter to Black Flag

Your anonymous writer faults me for observing in Anarchy After Leftism that “the Italian syndicalists mostly went over to fascism,” referencing David D. Roberts’ The Syndicalist Tradition and Italian Fascism. As proof, he quotes Roberts as writing that “the vast majority of the organised workers failed to respond to the syndicalists’ appeals and continued to oppose intervention” in the First World War. Obviously this statement does not contradict mine. It is about war, not fascism. The war was over before the fascist movement began. And it is about the “organised workers,” not about the members of the USI, which had only 100,000 members in 1914, and lost some of them when the interventionists split.

Contrary to Comrade Anonymous, the split was not between a cabal of intellectuals and “leaders” — in quotation marks, as if to imply that they were not what they really were, the syndicalist leaders — and the rank and file. True, the eggheads and officials split, but they were not alone: “The split was complex, penetrating to the rank and file level and even dividing individual unions, but the result was a further loss in working-class support for the syndicalists” (Roberts, p. 113). You may not like what Roberts has to say, but I didn’t misrepresent his position. Denounce him, not me.

Even if Comrade A were right, what does this fiasco say about syndicalism? Syndies assure us that their cumbersome hierarchies of bottom-up organising and accountability to the base are both the means to and the forms of a free society. Yet the Italian leaders and thinkers were almost all for a war which, the Comrade implies, almost all the rank and file were against. Syndical organisation is thus a self-refuting failure.

Comrade A also asserts “that these leading syndicalists” — he ignores the follower syndicalists — “were not anarchists and so not anarcho-syndicalists.” When did I ever say they were? But this is quite a change in the Black Flag party line. Two years ago you opined, “In reality there is no such thing as just ‘syndicalism’ and anarcho-syndicalism and revolutionary syndicalism are the same thing” (“What is Anarcho-Syndicalism?” Spring 1997). If this is so, then no doubt remains that the Italian anarcho-syndicalists mostly went over to fascism.

The article is almost entirely an exercise in irrelevance. I was not referring to the official positions taken by one small organization in 1915 or 1919, but rather to the ultimate political trajectory of those Italians who had once considered themselves syndicalists. A modest but militant minority did put up a fight against fascism so long as that was possible. But many accomodated themselves to the fascist version of the corporatism espoused by all syndicalists. There was more to it than opportunism: syndicalism and nationalism (and then fascism) had been converging since before the war.

Roberts makes this clear, but consider another opinion from another historian, A. James Gregor, Italian Fascism and Developmental Dictatorship, p. 108: “Thus, by 1919, Italian nationalism and revolutionary syndicalism shared substantial similarities” such as “their doctrinal emphases on mass mobilisation, mimetic example, elite rule, mythic suasion, and collective development and modernisation... . To these ends, both nationalism and revolutionary national syndicalism advocated an ethic of discipline, sacrifice and labor for a nation still caught up in the psychology of underdevelopment.” In other words, fascists share with syndicalists — including anarcho-syndicalists — to this day a dedication to work and workerism, productivism, industrialism, and sacrificial moralism. We post-leftists reject this heritage.