Dec 1, 1980

Syndicalism & ‘The Servile State’

“The syndicalists also criticized the ideological controls perpetrated by the new capitalism.”

“Syndicalist Theories of the State.” Sociological Review 28(February 1980):5–22.


Marxist commentators have frequently criticized revolutionary syndicalism for its supposed reluctance to consider the role of the state in capitalist society. Prof. Holton submits that such assessments grossly distorts syndicalist political reviews. Rather than neglecting the state in favor of an aggressive economism, syndicalists were acutely aware of its functions within the capitalist power structure.

During the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, a period in which the syndicalist movement appeared throughout the Western world, a number of problematic developments forced syndicalists to reassess conventional Marxist political theory and to reconsider their strategic position toward the structures of power. The foremost developments of this kind centered on state monopoly capitalism and the establishment of social welfare programs. Were these to be viewed as positive steps toward socialism or, instead, as a tactic for incorporating a docile proletariat into capitalist society.

In France, syndicalist theorists such as Pataud, Pouget, and Pelloutier regarded the state as an instrument of physical coercion in the service of bourgeois morality and ideology. Stressing moral preparation and working-class self-education for a renewed, revolutionary society, Fernand Pelloutier championed the work of the bourses de travail (loosely similar to British trades councils). He viewed the bourses as a “state within a state,” a center of alternative revolutionary purpose through which a new revolutionary man would emerge. This strand of French syndicalist thought provides little support for the old notion of syndicalism as purely economistic movement obsessed above all with Direct Action at the point of production.

British syndicalists were less concerned than the French with revolutionary upheaval. Instead, they pursued a vigorous and influential critique of corporate welfare capitalism as introduced by reforming Liberal governments at the beginning of the century. The “Servile State” slogan played a crucial role in popularizing this anti-state stance. The phrase was of course coined by Hilaire Belloc as early as 1908 to describe adopted by syndicalists, guild socialists, and the shop stewards movement.

Setting aside Belloc’s vision of peasant proprietorship in a Catholic England, they nonetheless retained his essential critique of the new “enlightened” activities of the capitalist state such as the use of national insurance for social control of workers. The syndicalists also criticized the ideological controls perpetrated by the new capitalism. These fostered a passive acceptance on the part of the workers of the current system, effectively neutralizing any impulses to overthrow their oppression and work out their economic freedom. Thus, despite certain theoretical and practical limitations, syndicalists may be exonerated from the charge of “neglecting” the state. As a result of their critique of the organs of power, syndicalists were able to enter the new phase of revolutionary activity (1917–1926) as revolutionaries worthy of serious, if critical, attention.