Revolutionary Syndicalist critique : circumventing democracy
Though it may seem to have only a historical interest, this critique is still active today, in a different way from 1910 of course. The idea of absorbing politics into the economy, i.e. of having a directly social democracy, is surfacing again in the current utopia of a seizure of local power so generalized that it would take away the substance of central political power (the State), and thus relieve us from the necessity of destroying the State. In Changing the World Without Taking Power (2002), J. Holloway argues that radical transformation is now so embedded in our daily lives that we're gradually transforming the fabric of society, without the need for a potentially dictatorial break. Evolution instead of revolution. The "slow revolutions" notion, recently theorized by A. Bartra, partly inspired by the situation in Mexico and taken up by some radicals, amounts to no revolution.
In the mid-19th century, too, instead of addressing democracy, some hoped to get round it.
Proudhon believed that labour gives the toiling masses a political capacity : let's find a new way of producing goods, let's make the bourgeois unnecessary, the rest will follow, and the workshop will replace government. Democracy was neither accepted nor fought against, but directly achieved by work, without any mediation.
About fifty years later, revolutionary syndicalism had a loathing for parliamentary democracy. The vehicle for change was to come from labour organized in industrial (as opposed to trade) unions, which would unite the whole class, skilled and unskilled. Proudhon had been the ideologist of craftsmen and small industry. Anarcho-syndicalism suited the age of trusts and huge factories, but the principle was similar: a fusion between industry and government. After acting as an egalitarian body fighting the bosses and police, the union would later manage the economy during and after the revolution. Some syndicalists, like De Leon in the US, wanted parallel political and industrial action, but for them politics was clearly outside and against parliament.
Revolutionary syndicalism has been reproached for its elitism. It's true it emphasized the role of active minorities that would spur the less advanced into action. But most revolutionary syndicalists aimed at an active class-conscious mass elite, utterly different from what they saw as the passive mass of sheep-like social-democrat voters. Georges Sorel (1847-1922) thought that the labour union, unlike parliament and party life, bred "a fair and real organized equality", as all members were wage-labourers showing solidarity towards each other. The "new political principle of the proletariat" is "government by vocational groups" self-organized in the work place. "Resistance bodies will finally enlarge their scope and range so much that they will absorb nearly all politics" in a successful "struggle to suck bourgeois political organization dry of all life".
Sorel had a point : " Marx believed that the democratic regime has the advantage that as workers are no longer attracted to fighting the monarchy or the aristocracy, the notion of class becomes easier to grasp. Experience teaches us the opposite; democracy is quite good at preventing the advance of socialism, by diverting workers' minds toward trade-unionism under government protection." (1908)
Sorel, however, scored only a negative point against Marx, because experience was also teaching the opposite of what he was expecting: the union failed as well as the party, and union self-organization was often sucked dry of all life by bourgeois democracy.
"You can't destroy a society by using the organs which are there to preserve it (..) any class which wants to liberate itself must create its own organ", H. Lagardelle wrote in 1908, without realizing that his critique could be applied as much to the unions (including a supposed revolutionary syndicalist French CGT on a fast road to bureaucratization and class collaboration) as to the parties of the Second International. Revolutionary syndicalism discarded the voter and preferred the producer: it forgot that bourgeois society creates and lives off both. Communism will go beyond both.