REFORM AND REVOLUTION, Moderates and Revolutionaries in the CGT

By Larry Gambone

Until the outbreak of the First World War, the Confederation General du Travail (CGT) was a revolutionary anarcho-syndicalist union federation. Thereafter, the CGT was taken over by reformists and became an ordinary conservative trade union. So goes the accepted viewpoint. Murray Bookchin makes a statement which is a classic in this regard. Under Leon Jouhaux, the syndicalist CGT became bureaucratized, and, apart from the revolutionary rhetoric, a fairly conventional trade union. 1 For Daniel Guerin, the anarchist aspect of the CGT ended in 1914. 2 Sima Lieberman states that The minimum program it published in December 1918 was reformist in nature.3 For Nicholas Papayanis, the CGT had became democratic and integrated into the capitalist state and that only Russian Bolshevism challenged French syndicalism to become authentically revolutionary. 4 Val Lorwin felt the demise of revolutionary syndicalism began even earlier, for the revolutionary current was receding by 1910. 5 Almost seventy five years have passed since the supposed “right-turn” of the CGT and therefore we are far enough removed in time to examine this claim in a more objective light. A first step in this examination requires a brief review of the history of anarcho-syndicalism before the break between “revolutionaries” and “moderates”. Anarchism had reached an impasse by the 1890’s. The “Propaganda of the Deed” era had proven a disaster, for the attentats had only created intense state oppression and the undying myth of the anarchist as bomb throwing terrorist. Some militants suggested that libertarians should amalgamate with the labor movement. Little was new in this approach, which was more of a return to anarchism’s Proudhonist roots, but the idea helped give birth to the CGT in 1895. 6 Anarcho-syndicalism’s chief theoretician was a young journalist, Fernand Pelloutier, who developed the basic ideology of the movement. Pelloutier made a clear break with the glorification of violence infecting anarchism and objected to barricades style revolution in the belief that military technology had made it obsolete. 7 The general strike was the modern way to make a revolution, a method both peaceful and legal.-Legal in a sense that a workers’ ability to labour is his property and he has the right to dispose of it as he sees fit-including withdrawing it. 8 Pelloutier broke with naive anarchism that sees all states as exactly the
same, and while stating that “no essential difference” existed among states, believed a republic provided greater opportunities for workers than other types of regimes. 9 He also
inspired the development of the Bourse de Travail, a kind of workers central which encouraged self-education and mutualism. Self-management of the work-place was the desired goal.


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