First International Syndicalist Congress

First International Syndicalist Congress

The First International Syndicalist Congress was a meeting of European and Latin American syndicalist organizations at Holborn Town Hall in London from September 27 to October 2, 1913. Upon a proposal by the Dutch National Labor Secretariat (NAS) and the British Industrial Syndicalist Education League (ISEL), most European syndicalist groups, both trade unions and advocacy groups, agreed to congregate at a meeting in London. The only exception was the biggest syndicalist organization worldwide, the French General Confederation of Labor (CGT). Nevertheless, the congress was held with organizations from twelve countries participating. It was marked by heated debate and constant disagreements over both tactics and principles. Yet, it succeeded in creating the International Syndicalist Information Bureau as a vehicle of exchange and solidarity between the various organizations and the "Bulletin international du mouvement syndicaliste" as a means of communication. It would be viewed as a success by almost all who participated.


In the later 19th and early 20th century syndicalist organizations emerged all over Europe and the Americas. The French General Confederation of Labor (CGT) was very influential in this respect. The founding of syndicalist organizations in other countries or existing labor unions turning to syndicalism was often the result of the CGT's influence. The Charter of Amiens was important for the Free Association of German Trade Unions's turn to syndicalism, the leaders of the Italian Syndicalist Union had close contacts to France, and Tom Mann and Guy Bowman decided to found the British Industrial Syndicalist Education League only after a trip to France.

Bulletin international du mouvement syndicaliste"] In 1907, following the International Anarchist Congress in Amsterdam, Christiaan Cornelissen started publishing the "Bulletin international du mouvement syndicaliste" as a journal for the international syndicalist movement. It was funded by Dutch, German, Czech, Swedish, and French syndicalists, sometimes even with support from the American Industrial Workers of the World.

In 1909, the Dutch NAS declared: "To us it appears [...] necessary that the question of whether the isolation of revolutionary organizations needs to last should be posed seriously in every country" [Quote according to Gras 1971, pg. 86, French original "Il nous semble [...] nécessaire qu'on se pose sérieusement, dans tous les pays, la quéstion de savoir si l'isolement des organisations révolutionaires doit continuer."] and suggested an international syndicalist congress. The Catalonian syndicalist group "Solidaridad Obrera", the future National Confederation of Labor (CNT), was quick to support this proposal. However, the largest syndicalist union worldwide, the French General Confederation of Labor (CGT), was opposed to this proposal, since it was already affiliated with the International Secretariat of National Trade Union Centers (ISNTUC), the international secretariat of reformist trade unions, and because this was likely to cause a split between the radical and the reformist wings of the CGT. The French syndicalist leader Pierre Monatte convinced the Dutch to withdraw their proposal. [Gras 1971, pg. 85-86.]


Yet, in February 1913, both the British Industrial Syndicalist Education League (ISEL) and the Dutch National Labor Secretariat (NAS) published very similar invitations for an international syndicalist congress independently of each other. Both criticized the existing labor internationals, especially the reformist social democratic International Secretariat of National Trade Union Centers (ISNTUC), from which, according to the Dutch group, "all revolutionary propaganda [...] is excluded systematically." [Quote according to Westergard-Thorpe 1979, pg. 36, French original: "toute propagande révolutionnaire [...] est exclue systématiquement".] Likewise, its political counterpart, the Second International, was attacked by the British as a "body that exacts a pledge of parliamentarism and is composed of glib-tongued politicians who promise to do things for us, but cannot even if they wanted." [Quote according to both Westergard-Thorpe 1979, pg. 36 and Thorpe 1989, pg. 53.] Furthermore, the syndicalists lamented the lack of an international syndicalist organization. The British proposal called for the congress to be held in London, while the Dutch left this question open and called for suggestions for the site of the meeting. [Westergard-Thorpe 1979, pg. 35-36; Thorpe 1989, pg. 53.]

The invitations were immediately received warmly by numerous syndicalists, the Free Association of German Trade Unions (FVdG), Pierre Ramus's journal "Wohlstand für Alle" from Austria, the Central Organisation of the Workers of Sweden (SAC), the Spanish periodical "Tierra y Libertad", the Italian Syndicalist Union (USI), the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in the United States, and the Syndicalist League of North America. Christiaan Cornelissen, editor of the "Bulletin international du mouvement syndicaliste" and a prominent anarchist in Paris, also welcomed the idea, but considered the May date proposed by the ISEL too soon, as the decentralized decision-making employed by syndicalists required more time for preparation. [Westergard-Thorpe 1979, pg. 36-37; Thorpe 1989, pg. 53-54.]

French dissent

The French General Confederation of Labor (CGT), the largest syndicalist organization worldwide, however, was critical of the proposal. As a member of the ISNTUC, it strove to radicalize it from within. While in most countries both radical syndicalist labor federations and mainstream socialist ones existed, in France, there was only the syndicalist CGT, and thus it could be a member of the ISNTUC. However, the FVdG in Germany, for example, where the ISNTUC-affiliated Free Trade Unions would not allow a rival organization from the country to join, did not have this possibility. The CGT wanted to preserve unity within the European labor movement, even with non-syndicalist groups, and was afraid affiliation with a syndicalist international would jeopardize its relations to the mainstream socialist unions. Moreover, the CGT, itself, was in a crisis, with the reformists within the organization rapidly gaining influence and making it even harder to forge alliances with other radical unions. [Gras 1971, pg. 87-88; Westergard-Thorpe 1979, pg. 37-40; Thorpe 1989, pg. 54-55, 58.]

All foreign syndicalists rejected the CGT's view. Some held that the CGT could participate in the syndicalist congress while remaining in the ISNTUC. Others felt membership in the social democratic international and syndicalist doctrine were incompatible and considered revolutionizing the social democrats impossible. They warned that the CGT strayed from a revolutionary course by collaborating with the reformist social democrats. They pointed out that the French union already had a considerable reformist wing. [Westergard-Thorpe 1979, pg. 38; Thorpe 1989, pg. 54-55.]

The French responded by pointing to the fact that the British ISEL's domestic policy was similar to its international aims. The ISEL did not constitute a union in its own right, but rather tried to infiltrate and radicalize existing unions, particularly the General Federation of Trade Unions. Pierre Monatte, a CGT leader, even declared that by changing its course, it would harm unionism in all of Europe. He also insisted that it would be impossible for the CGT to both participate in the ISNTUC and the syndicalist congress. [Westergard-Thorpe 1979, pg. 42-43, 45; Thorpe 1989, pg. 59.]

Meanwhile, both the ISEL leaders Tom Mann and Guy Bowman and Cornelissen adopted a new stance towards the French dissidents. Bowman expressed his confidence that the CGT would change its mind once the congress was about to start, while Mann even offered the CGT to host the congress. Knowing the CGT as a whole would not change its position, the two attempted to draw the "bourses du travail", the regional organizations of the CGT, to participate with these remarks. Cornelissen, himself active in the French syndicalist movement, explicitly adopted this approach: "Is the French movement organized on the basis of "the autonomy of local and regional unions" or is it not?", he asked. These approaches were, however, largely unsuccessful, as the CGT leaders, even at a local level, were not impressed. [Westergard-Thorpe 1979, pg. 44-45: Thorpe 1989, pg. 60-61.]

As the CGT did not participate, the "New Statesman" would later liken the congress to "playing "Hamlet" without the Prince of Denmark". [Thorpe 1989, pg. 69; Thorpe 1990, pg. 240.]


The discussion also turned to the question of what the exact goal of the meeting should be. The Dutch NAS, the British ISEL, and the German FVdG felt that, as "Einigkeit", the organ of the Germans, put it, that " [t] he creation of an autonomous Syndicalist International is a necessity for the self-preservation and onward development of syndicalism." Opposition to this view came from two different directions. Cornelissen felt it would easier to attract French unions to a congress meant to establish international relations than to the foundation of an international organization. Alceste De Ambris, a leader in the Italian USI, on the other hand argued that international secretariats such as the ISNTUC were, quite simply, useless, unlike international congresses which could help the national federations break out of their isolation. [Westergard-Thorpe 1979, pg. 42-43; Thorpe 1989, pg. 59.]

Among the organizations endorsing the congress, most wished it take place in the Netherlands. In April, however, the ISEL simply announced the congress would take place in late September in London. Not wanting to start a dispute, the Dutch NAS gave in and agreed the meeting would take place in the UK. Soon thereafter, however, problems with the organization of the congress turned up. The ISEL was in a process of dissolution and shaken by internal disputes, especially between the leaders Tom Mann and Guy Bowman. Financial troubles further aggravated these problems. After Cornelissen and Albert Jensen of the Swedish SAC voiced their concerns about how the preparations were going in June and July respectively, Bowman, at the time the sole leader of the ISEL as Mann was in the United States on a speaking tour, announced the congress would take place from September 27 to October 2 at Holborn Hall in London. He also announced an agenda for the meeting would be appearing soon, but he was not heard from for another while. [Westergard-Thorpe 1979, pg. 45-47; Thorpe 1989, pg. 61-62.]

In August, the debate with the CGT flared up again. Writing in "La Bataille Syndicaliste", Léon Jouhaux declared the solidarity of CGT militants with the syndicalist congress, yet made it very clear that his organization would not participate. Cornilessen used these remarks to point out to local leaders that it was up to them whether they would come to London or not. De Ambris's response was more aggressive; he accused the CGT of desertion and reiterated his rejection of international secretariats particularly of the ISNTUC, which the CGT was affiliated to. In a response drafted by many leading French syndicalists, including Monatte, Jouhaux, Alphonse Merrheim, Alfred Rosmer, and Georges Dumoulin, "La Vie Ouvrière", the CGT's official organ, attacked both Cornelissen and De Ambris. It claimed the uses of the congress, the exchange of information and mutual aid between national federations, were not as great as the risk of deepening schisms within the European labor movement, especially if a formal international organization was to be founded. In his response, Cornelissen claimed the CGT's were neither "corresponding to the current development of our international syndicalist movement nor [...] particularly revolutionary." In order to have the last word in the debate "La Vie Ouvrier" its response, which denied Cornelissen of even being syndicalist. [Westergard-Thorpe 1979, pg. 47-52; Thorpe 1989, pg. 62-66.]

Meanwhile, the preparations in London were scarcely coming along. It became necessary for Christiaan Cornelissen to travel to England to salvage the project. At the time the Irish Transport and General Workers' Union, which had syndicalist elements, was involved in the Dublin Lockout and the British were focused on supporting that union. Bowman even suggested postponing the congress or holding it in secret, but Cornelissen would have none of it. Cornelissen along with some supporters of his who lived in London finished the preparations. [Westergard-Thorpe 1979, pg. 52-53; Thorpe 1989, pg. 66-69.]

The congress in London was attended by delegates of many different kinds of organizations: educational and propaganda groups, national syndicalist confederations, union federations, local trade unions, local branches of national trade unions, local trades councils, etc. All major European national syndicalist union confederations, but the French CGT sent delegates: the German FVdG, the Dutch NAS, the Swedish SAC, and the Italian USI. The Danish "Fagsoppositionens Sammenslutning" (FS) was represented by the SAC delegate Albert Jensen. Meanwhile, Argentina was represented by two syndicalist confederations, the Argentine Regional Workers' Confederation (CORA) gave its mandate to the Italian Alceste De Ambris, while the more radical Argentine Regional Workers' Federation (FORA) sent a delegate of its own. The Brazilian Regional Workers' Federation, unable to send a delegate for financial reasons, opted to be represented by Guy Bowman. The Spanish National Confederation of Labour (CNT), banned at the time, was unable to have a representative travel to London, but the Catalonian regional confederation was represented by a member living in temporary exile in France. Despite the CGT boycotting the meeting, a number of French delegates were present. The Paris hatters' union, six unions of construction workers from the capital, as well as three independent textile unions all sent delegates. The Belgian regional union "Union des Syndicats de la Province de Liège" was represented at the meeting, as was the Cuban Havana Union of Café Employees. Besides the hosts of the meeting the ISEL, a number of British trade unions sent a total of nine delegates. Thus, a total number of twelve countries from Europe and Latin America had delegates at the First International Syndicalist Congress. The Austrian Free Trade Unions Association was unable to raise the funds to send a representative and therefore adhered without actually being present. Estimates of the total membership of the organizations that attended the meeting range between 220,000 and 250,000. Additionally, the American Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) organizer George Swasey attended some of the sessions, though not as a delegate of his union. Cornelissen and the Russian anarcho-syndicalist Alexander Schapiro also attended, but did not represent any organization. Alfred Rosmer of the CGT attended the congress as a correspondent for "La Vie Ovrière". [Westergard-Thorpe 1979, pg. 54-55; Thorpe 1989, pg. 69-71.]

Voting rights and presidency

On September 27, the First International Syndicalist Congress commenced. Among the first questions discussed was to what extent educational and propaganda groups should be able to participate. The Germans advocated admitting only representatives of trade unions, while the Dutch thought all organizations advocating syndicalist ideas should be permitted to participate in the discussions and vote on all issues. The compromise they were able to agree on allowed non-trade union organizations to take part in debates, yet barred them from any votes which would entail financial obligations on the part of the unions. This essentially disenfranchised the ISEL, the hosts of the meeting. [Westergard-Thorpe 1979, pg. 55-56.]

The next issue at hand was the question of presidency. Fritz Kater of the Free Association of German Trade Unions, Jack Wills of the Bermondsey and Leicester Trades Councils, and Guy Bowman ran for this function, with the former two being elected co-presidents. Bowman along with Cornelissen was chosen as congress secretary and as a translator, a task he did not take very seriously forcing Alexander Schapiro to help out. [Westergard-Thorpe 1979, pg. 59.]

The second day of the congress was opened by a speech by Kater. He explained that the two most important tasks of the congress should be to draft a declaration of principles and to decide upon how international cooperation between syndicalist groups should continue. However, instead of tackling these issues, the congress then plunged into a lengthy discussion on Wills' co-presidency: it was revealed that Wills was a local councilor in a London borough and a number of delegates, particularly from France and Spain, argued that a politician could not preside over a meeting of syndicalists opposed to the state. The Dutch delegates, on the other hand, argued that Wills' political involvement was irrelevant, as long as he was a syndicalist on economic and unionist questions. Wills, himself, claimed that he was not a politician, since a borough councilor's duties were strictly administrative, while insisting that he was a fervent opponent of parliamenterianism. The dispute unveiled two different interpretations of syndicalist rejection of politics: the one advanced by the French and Spanish held that participation in the parliamentary process is in itself a hindrance to class struggle; the Dutch on the other hand sought to unify all workers, no matter their political or religious beliefs. Finally, Wills agreed to resign in order to end the dispute and was replaced by Jack Tanner of the Hammersmith Engineers. [Westergard-Thorpe 1979, pg. 59-61; Thorpe 1989, pg. 73-75.]

National reports and declaration of principles

Even after that issue was resolved, the congress did not turn its attention to the points raised by Kater. First, it discussed and condemned the police's treatment of Portuguese syndicalists and the British government's actions in the Dublin Lockout. Next, a series of national reports gave delegates the opportunity to learn about their allies' struggles in their respective countries. The most contentious of these reports were the two submitted by French unions. The first came from delegates, who were members of the CGT. They claimed that the French "revolutionary organization preserved its purely revolutionary aspect and refused to accept the interference of Parliamentarians" and remained "a driving force against militarism, patriotism, the State, and capitalism, and anything which prevented the march of the movement", despite the fact that the organization as a whole had decided to abstain from the London congress. A delegate representing several union that were not aligned with the CGT disagreed. [Westergard-Thorpe 1979, pg. 61-62; Thorpe 1989, pg. 74-75.]

It wasn't until the fourth day that the debate on the declaration of principles started. On the evening before, a resolution committee had discussed and revised a draft submitted by the Dutch. The committee's proposal was then debated by all delegates. The most controversial part of the draft was a sentence stating that "the proletariat can only effectively influence the state by methods of direct action". Opponents of this sentence held that the state should be ignored and that class struggle could only occur on economic grounds. Its proponents, however, claimed that the proletariat lived under the political tyranny of the state just as it lived under the economic tyranny of capitalism and that neither could be ignored. De Ambris further complicated the discussion by calling for the phrase "political and economic" be replaced by "capitalist system" throughout the text. The discussion on this question was prolonged and lively. It became a debate on the syndicalist rejection of statism. De Ambris's support eventually ebbed and he gave in; the declaration that was finally unanimously accepted contained a number of references to the overthrow of the state. [Westergard-Thorpe 1979, pg. 62-65; Thorpe 1989, pg. 75-76.]

This declaration rejected "capitalist slavery and State oppression", from which, as it claims, "the working class of every country suffers". According to the document these wrongs, are "a necessary result of private property in the means of production and distribution". As a solution, the congress "declares for the socialization of such property by constructing and developing our Trade Unions in such a way as to fit them for the administration of these means in the interest of the entire community." However, the syndicalists felt "Trade Unions will only succeed when they cease to be divided by political and religious differences [... and] by using Direct Action". [Westergard-Thorpe 1979, pg. 64.]

Establishment of an international

The final and equally contentious issue on the agenda was the question of how the international relations between the syndicalist groups were to be continued. Both the German FVdG and the Italian USI drafted proposals to be discussed. The Germans advocated the creation of an international Syndicalist Secretariat seated in Amsterdam and administered by the Dutch NAS. The Italian proposal called for no more than a committee to maintain the relations between syndicalist organizations. [Westergard-Thorpe 1979, pg. 65; Thorpe 1989, pg. 76-77.]

At first the advocates of a Syndicalist International dominated the discussion. However, even many of the proponents favored postponing the creation to another congress. As expected, De Ambris argued vehemently against a formal international organization, but many of his arguments were new. He estimated that such an organization would include no more than half a million workers, an insignificant figure compared to the membership of the ISNTUC. However, an Argentinian delegate claimed De Ambris's numbers to be wrong, stating that from South American alone 600,000 would join a Syndicalist International Much like the CGT in the run-up to the congress, the Italian was now worried about deepening the schism within Europe's labor movement and thus weakening it. He especially pointed to the CGT member unions at the meeting, saying they would be unable to go against their national and international affiliation, but would have no problems adhering to a committee of information. In his response, the German Karl Roche said that if the Italians were unwilling to join them, the Dutch and the Germans would start an international on their own. De Ambris sarcastically replied that he wanted to found an International as well, but without either the Germans or the Dutch. [Westergard-Thorpe 1979, pg. 66-68; Thorpe 1989, pg. 76-79.]

Eventually the Fritz Kater withdrew the German proposal in the name of his organization. It had become clear that, even among the proponents of an International, most preferred putting the founding off for the moment. The creation of the International Syndicalist Information Bureau, upon which all participants agreed, would have to suffice. The question where it would be seated was the next controversial issue. Both the German FVdG and the Dutch NAS proposed Amsterdam. Once again, De Ambris strongly disagreed. He felt Paris was a better location and suggested the hat makers' union as its administrators. Most delegates, however, felt the bureau could be seated neither in Paris, because of the CGT, nor in Berlin, as this city was the site of the headquarters of the ISNTUC, and therefore agreed with Amsterdam. Bitterly opposed to this idea, De Ambris, who had already been critical of the voting procedures, which gave each delegate one vote, from the start, proposed altering the rules as a last measure, but a vote - by delegate - rejected his proposal. Angrily, De Ambris then withdrew from the congress. The rest of the delegates then agreed that the Bureau would be managed by the NAS in Amsterdam. Its role would be to facilitate the exchange of information between the national groups, to cultivate syndicalist solidarity, and to organize future congresses. It would publish the "Bulletin international du mouvement syndicaliste", thus far edited by Cornelissen, and draw its revenue from the subscriptions to this periodical. All of these modalities, except for the seat of the bureau, were accepted unanimously. Kater then officially closed the congress calling for the remaining issues to be discussed at the next meeting to be held in Amsterdam. [Westergard-Thorpe 1979, pg. 68-70; Thorpe 1989, pg. 79-80.]


All participants of the 1913 congress in London considered it a success, with the notable exception of the Italian Alceste De Ambris. He criticized the voting system and the choice for the Netherlands as the seat of the Information Bureau. The others unanimously applauded the congress's results. Christiaan Cornelissen was confident this was the first step to a new labor International. The German "Einigkeit" noted that the congress had accomplished the tasks set out in Fritz Kater's opening address. The Spanish delegate and Guy Bowman both viewed the meeting as a historic event. Mans of the syndicalists viewed the formation of the Bureau as the biggest accomplishment, some even claiming that there was no real difference between it and an International. The Argentinian FORA even named it a "purely worker and antistatist" International. [Westergard-Thorpe 1979, pg. 71-75; Thorpe 1989, pg. 80-83.]

The French syndicalists and the reformists were more critical of the congress. The British Socialist Party's journal "Justice" labeled the declaration of principles "a strange mixture of Socialism and Anarchism", while the organ of the German Free Trade Unions claimed it "contains nothing but trite phrases". The congress itself, the German socialists declared, was "unquestionably a complete fiasco". Meanwhile, in his report for "La Vie Ouvrière", Alfred Rosmer said the declaration of principles lacked clarity, predicted only the Germans, Dutch, and Swedish would truly adhere to the Information Bureau, and attributed the failure of the congress to both its poor preparation and to the different views between the delegates. [Westergard-Thorpe 1979, pg. 71-72; Thorpe 1989, pg. 80-81.]

In early 1914, the Dutch group established a permanent committee for the International Syndicalist Information Bureau. On March 22, Cornelissen terminated his own publication of the "Bulletin international du mouvement syndicaliste". From there on, it was published in the Bureau's name, though Cornelissen continued to take care of most of the editorial duties. However, neither the Bureau nor the periodical lasted for long. After World War I broke out in August 1914, both had to be canceled. [Westergard-Thorpe 1979, pg. 75-76; Thorpe 1989, pg. 83; Thorpe 1990, pg. 241.]

After the First World War, the goal of a syndicalist International was indeed realized. The International Working Men's Association was formed in 1923. Its founding congress in Berlin made reference to the 1913 First International Syndicalist Congress as its predecessor. Though all major British newspapers reported on the congress at the time, it has received little coverage since. [Westergard-Thorpe 1979, pg. 56, 76-77; Thorpe 1989, pg. 71-72.]



*cite book
title=Alfred Rosmer (1877-1964) et le mouvement révolutionnaire international
publisher=Libraire François Maspero

first =Marcel van der
last =Linden
last2 =Thorpe
first2 =Wayne
editor-last =Linden
editor-first =Marcel van der
editor2-last =Thorpe
editor2-first =Wayne
contribution =The Rise and Fall of Revolutionary Syndicalism
title =Revolutionary Syndicalism: an International Perspective
year =1990
pages = 237–259
place =Aldershot
publisher = Scolar Press
id = ISBN 0-85967-815-6

*cite book
title="The Workers Themselves": Revolutionary Syndicalism and International Labour, 1913-1923
publisher=Kluwer Academic Publishers

first =Wayne
last =Thorpe
editor-last =van der Linden
editor-first =Marcel
editor2-last =Thorpe
editor2-first =Wayne
contribution =Syndicalist Internationalism before World War II
title =Revolutionary Syndicalism: an International Perspective
year =1990
pages = 237–259
place =Aldershot
publisher = Scolar Press
id = ISBN 0-85967-815-6

*cite journal
last = Westergard-Thorpe
first = Wayne
date = 1978
title = Towards Syndicalist Internationalism: The 1913 London Congress
journal = International Review of Social History
volume = 13
pages = 33–78
issn = 0020-8590
url =

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