Anarcho-syndicalism remains a popular and active school of anarchism today and has many supporters as well as many currently active organizations. Anarcho-syndicalist trade unionists differ on anarchist economic arrangements from a collectivist anarchism type economic system to an anarcho-communist economic system. Historically most anarcho-syndicalists have identified as anarcho-communists (such as Lucy Parsons) or anarcho-collectivists (such as Buenaventura Durruti).
The basic principles of anarcho-syndicalism are workers' solidarity, direct action, and workers' self-management. Workers’ solidarity means that anarcho-syndicalists believe all workers, no matter what their gender or ethnic group, are in a similar situation in regard to their bosses (class consciousness). Furthermore, it means that, in a capitalist system, any gains or losses made by some workers from or to bosses will eventually affect all workers. Therefore, to liberate themselves, all workers must support one another in their class conflict. Anarcho-syndicalists believe that only direct action that is, action concentrated on directly attaining a goal, as opposed to indirect action, such as electing a representative to a government position will allow workers to liberate themselves. Moreover, anarcho-syndicalists believe that workers’ organizations the organizations that struggle against the wage system, and which, in anarcho-syndicalist theory, will eventually form the basis of a new society should be self-managing. They should not have bosses or "business agents"; rather, the workers should be able to make all the decisions that affect them themselves.
Rudolf Rocker was one of the most popular voices in the anarcho-syndicalist movement. He dedicated himself to the organisation of Jewish immigrant workers in London's East End and led the 1912 garment workers strike. He outlined a view of the origins of the movement, what it sought, and why it was important to the future of labour in his 1938 pamphlet Anarcho-Syndicalism.
In his article Anarchism and Anarcho-Syndicalism, Rocker points out that the anarcho-syndicalist union has a dual purpose, "1. To enforce the demands of the producers for the safeguarding and raising of their standard of living; 2. To acquaint the workers with the technical management of production and economic life in general and prepare them to take the socio-economic organism into their own hands and shape it according to socialist principles." In short, laying the foundations of the new society "within the shell of the old." Up to the First World War and the Bolshevik Revolution, anarcho-syndicalist unions and organizations were the dominant actors in the revolutionary left.
Hubert Lagardelle wrote that Pierre-Joseph Proudhon laid out the fundamental theories of anarcho-syndicalism, through his repudiation of both capitalism and the state, his flouting of political government, his idea of free, autonomous economic groups, and his view of struggle, not pacifism, as the core of humanity.
The earliest expressions of anarcho-syndicalist structure and methods were formulated in the International Workingmen's Association or First International, particularly in the Jura federation. The First International, however, split between two main tendencies within the organization over the question of political, parliamentary action; the libertarian wing represented by Mikhail Bakunin and the statist wing represented by Karl Marx. Adherents of the former would go on to influence the development of the labour movement in Spain, France, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Latin America (see anarchism in Brazil and anarchism in Mexico), while orthodox Marxists would form mass-based labour and social democratic parties throughout Europe (initially grouped around the Second International), with major strongholds in Germany and England. Some Marxists, notably Anton Pannekoek, would formulate positions remarkably close to anarcho-syndicalism through council communism (see main article Anarchism and Marxism).
In 1895, the Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT) in France expressed fully the organizational structure and methods of revolutionary syndicalism influencing labour movements the world over. The CGT was modelled on the development of the Bourse de Travail (labour exchange), a workers' central organization which would encourage self-education and mutual aid, and facilitate communication with local workers' syndicates. Through a general strike, workers would take control of industry and services and self-manage society and facilitate production and consumption through the labour exchanges. The Charter of Amiens, adopted by the CGT in 1906, represents a key text in the development of revolutionary syndicalism rejecting parliamentarianism and political action in favour of revolutionary class struggle. The Central Organisation of the Workers of Sweden (SAC) (in Swedish the Sveriges Arbetares Centralorganisation), formed in 1910, are a notable example of an anarcho-syndicalist union influenced by the CGT. Today, the SAC is one the largest anarcho-syndicalist unions in the world in proportion to the population, with some strongholds in the public sector.
The International Workers Association, formed in 1922, is an international anarcho-syndicalist federation of various labour unions from different countries. At its peak, the International Workers Association represented millions of workers and competed directly for the hearts and minds of the working class with social democratic unions and parties. The Spanish Confederación Nacional del Trabajo played and still plays a major role in the Spanish labour movement. It was also an important force in the Spanish Civil War, organizing worker militias and facilitating the collectivization of vast sections of the industrial, logistical, and communications infrastructure, principally in Catalonia. Another Spanish anarcho-syndicalist union, the Confederacion General del Trabajo de España, is now the third largest union in Spain and the largest anarchist union with tens of thousands of members.
The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), although not explicitly anarcho-syndicalist, were informed by developments in the broader revolutionary syndicalist milieu at the turn of the twentieth-century. At its founding congress in 1905, influential members with strong anarchist or anarcho-syndicalist sympathies like Thomas J. Haggerty, William Trautmann, and Lucy Parsons contributed to the union's overall revolutionary syndicalist orientation. Lucy Parsons, in particular, was a veteran anarchist union organizer in Chicago from a previous generation, having participated in the struggle for the 8-hour day in Chicago and subsequent series of events which came to be known as the Haymarket Affair in 1886.
Although the terms anarcho-syndicalism and revolutionary syndicalism are often used interchangeably, the anarcho-syndicalist label was not widely used until the early 1920s (some credit Sam Mainwaring with coining the term). “The term ‘anarcho-syndicalist’ only came into wide use in 1921-1922 when it was applied polemically as a pejorative term by communists to any syndicalists…who opposed increased control of syndicalism by the communist parties.” In fact, the original statement of aims and principles of the International Workers Association (drafted in 1922) refers not to anarcho-syndicalism, but to revolutionary unionism or revolutionary syndicalism, depending on the translation.
The use of the term "anarcho-syndicalist" signifies the increasing gap between proponents of orthodox, political Marxism and unionists who advocated complete independence from political parties following the Russian Revolution, and the shift to a more politically doctrinaire version of syndicalism. As a broad ideological heading, prior to the First World War and the Bolshevik seizure of state power in Russia, revolutionary syndicalism grouped numerous left-wing tendencies together united on a class basis with no official party affiliation, as outlined in the Charter of Amiens.
The anarcho-syndicalist orientation of many early American labour unions arguably played an important role in the formation of the American political spectrum, most significantly of the Industrial Workers of the World. The United States is the only industrialized ("first world") country that does not have a major labour-based political party. This has not always been the case. In 1912, for example, Eugene Debs (a founding member of the IWW) polled 6% of the popular vote as the Socialist Party presidential candidate - a significant portion of the popular vote considering that this was 8 years before the adoption of universal suffrage in the U.S. Some political scientists would, in part, attribute the lack of an American labour party to the single member plurality electoral system, which tends to favour a two-party system. This phenomenon is sometimes referred to as Duverger's law.
Controversially, the Confederación Nacional del Trabajo participated in the Spanish Republican Popular Front government in the Spanish Civil War. In November 1936, four anarchist ministers—Garcia Oliver, Frederica Montseny, Joan Peiró, and Juan López—accepted positions in the government. This move was criticized by rank-and-file groups like the Friends of Durruti.
Syndicalists think that the anarchist and union movements can be fused into one while most other anarchists would disagree. Anarcho-syndicalist Eugene Varlin defended anarcho-syndicalism, arguing "the enormous advantage of making people accustomed to group life and thus preparing them for a more extended social organisation. They accustom people not only to get along with one another and to understand one another, but also to organise themselves, to discuss, and to reason from a collective perspective." and that unions "form the natural elements of the social edifice of the future; it is they who can be easily transformed into producers associations; it is they who can make the social ingredients and the organisation of production work."
Few anarcho-syndicalists deny the need for political organization and many today believe that union activity would lead to federation activity amongst free workers,
"Revolutionary Syndicalism basing itself on the class-war, aims at the union of all manual and intellectual workers in economic fighting organisations struggling for their emancipation from the yoke of wage slavery and from the oppression of the State. Its goal consists in the re-organisation of social life on the basis of free Communism, by means of the revolutionary action of the working-class itself. It considers that the economic organisations of the proletariat are alone capable of realising this aim, and, in consequence, its appeal is addressed to workers in their capacity of producers and creators of social riches, in opposition to the modern political labour parties which can never be considered at all from the points of view of economic re-organisation."
Direct action, being one of the main staples of anarcho-syndicalism, would extend into the political sphere according to its supporters, famous examples being the French French Confederation Generale du Travail (General Confederation of Labour) and the Spanish CNT/FAI (Confederation Nacional de Trabajo/Federacion Anarquista Iberica, the Popular Front Libertarian movements in Spain which included the Mujeres Libres). To them, the labour council is the federation of all workplace branches of all industries in a geographical area "territorial basis of organisation linkage brought all the workers from one area together and fomented working-class solidarity over and before corporate solidarity. Rudolf Rocker argues,
"based on the principles of Federalism, on free combination from below upwards, putting the right of self-determination of every member above everything else and recognising only the organic agreement of all on the basis of like interests and common convictions."
Thus, anarcho-syndicalism is not apolitical but instead sees political and economic activity as being one in the same. And, unlike some critics propose, anarcho-syndicalism is different from reformist union activity in that it aims to completely obliterate capitalism "(Anarcho-syndicalism) has a double aim: with tireless persistence, it must pursue betterment of the working class's current conditions. But, without letting themselves become obsessed with this passing concern, the workers should take care to make possible and imminent the essential act of comprehensive emancipation: the expropriation of capital."
While collectivist and communist anarchists criticize syndicalism as having the potential to exclude the voices of citizens and consumers outside of the union, anarcho-syndicalists argue that labor councils will work outside of the workplace and within the community to encourage community and consumer participation in economic and political activity (even workers and consumers outside of the union or nation) and will work to form and maintain the institutions necessary in any society such as schools, libraries, homes, etc. Murray Bookchin argues "[a]t the same time that syndicalism exerts this unrelenting pressure on capitalism, it tries to build the new social order within the old. The unions and the 'labour councils' are not merely means of struggle and instruments of social revolution; they are also the very structure around which to build a free society. The workers are to be educated [by their own activity within the union] in the job of destroying the old propertied order and in the task of reconstructing a stateless, libertarian society. The two go together."
Mutualist anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon believed that worker-owned cooperatives would replace capitalist workplaces and mutual banks would replace capitalist institutions, and gave fierce support to labor union movements, arguing that "every worker employed in the association [must have] an undivided share in the property of the company". Mutualist William Kline believed that labor union movements and cooperative movements would form federations to allow social groups to interconnect with one another for decision-making for the common good "industries are sisters; they are parts of the same body; one cannot suffer without the others sharing in its suffering. They should therefore federate, not to be absorbed and confused together, but in order to guarantee mutually the conditions of common prosperity . . . Making such an agreement will not detract from their liberty; it will simply give their liberty more security and force."