Was Kropotkin a revolutionary syndicalist?
Introduction. — Methological considerations
To ask the question: “Was Kropotkin a theorist of revolutionary syndicalism?” requires first defining what revolutionary syndicalism is, and then defining the criteria for attributing this qualification to an author.
This is where a methodological problem arises: either one considers revolutionary syndicalism as a doctrine and a set of well-defined practices, as Ralf Darlington does, for example, or one adopts the minimalist approach of defining as a revolutionary syndicalist any anarchist who joins or suggests joining a trade union, as Michael Schmidt and Lucien van der Walt do.
Ralph Darlington downplays the influence of anarchism on syndicalism and suggests that Marxism was one of its core ideological elements, which doesn’t correspond to facts, or which corresponds very marginally, but in spite of that his definition of syndicalism appears quite correct.
Revolutionary syndicalism cannot simply be defined as a form of radical trade unionism: the central concept of this movement lies in the idea of the “embryo”, i.e. the idea that the trade union, today an organ of struggle for the improvement of the living conditions of the working class, will tomorrow be the embryo of the reorganisation of the emancipated society, an idea which is expressed in a limpid manner in the Charter of Amiens voted during the CGT congress of 1906: “the union, today a resistance group will be, in the future, a group for production and redistribution, the basis of social reorganization.”
This is what fundamentally defines revolutionary syndicalism and it is the acceptance or rejection of this principle that defines a person as a revolutionary syndicalist. Therefore, with regard to the question: was Kropotkin a revolutionary syndicalist, it will be a matter of examining what his views on the matter were. It follows from this precondition that a person who merely calls circumstantially for trade union action cannot be defined as a revolutionary trade unionist. There were indeed many anarchists active in the trade union movement but who did not declare themselves revolutionary syndicalists. Luigi Bertoni, a Swiss activist, is one of the best known examples.
The authors who limit the term “revolutionary syndicalist” to anyone who supports anarchists’ participation in trade union activity avoid defining what revolutionary syndicalism is, or at least allow the most far-fetched definitions. The concept is diluted in an argumentation whose imprecision is increased by the introduction of a new term, that of “syndicalism of revolutionary intent”2, which adds to the confusion. A concept that has some success among South American anarchists. (Cf. René Berthier, Sobre “sindicalismo de intenção revolucionária”, http://monde-nouveau.net/spip.php?article864)
Moreover, this “anarcho-centric” approach to revolutionary syndicalism ignores an entire segment of the history of the formation of this movement: the existence of militants who did not come from the anarchist movement – an observation that some authors try to conceal.
Bakunin’s case is quite simple insofar as he was an anarchist only during the last eight years of his life, during which he developed within the First International a thinking and an activity that can be described as an anticipation of revolutionary syndicalism3. It would be more accurate to say that it was an anticipation of anarcho-syndicalism insofar as his conceptions concerning the existence of a mass organisation were accompanied by a reflection on the existence of a restricted organisation of revolutionaries which doubled the mass organisation – the International Alliance for Socialist Democracy – a question that is not raised in revolutionary syndicalism.
Some authors like Gaston Leval refer to Bakunin as the "founder" of revolutionary syndicalism. Despite the obvious similarities between Bakunin’s views in 1870 and the practices of revolutionary syndicalism thirty years later, such an assertion seems to me historically unfounded. (See: Gaston Leval, “Bakounine, fondateur du syndicalisme révolutionnaire”, http://monde-nouveau.net/spip.php?article3)
Kropotkin found himself in a succession of different contexts during his long career: there were many fluctuations in his positions on questions of strategy and organisation and he expressed views that evolved over time. Thus his ideas on “propaganda by deed”, initially inspired by his experience of the Russian narodniki and the Chaikovsky group, evolved into a greater interest in the workers’ movement. There are undoubtedly passages in Kropotkin in which he calls on anarchists to join the trade union movement. The question is whether these calls are sufficient to define him as a “revolutionary syndicalist”, a temptation into which some authors fall.
Kropotkin’s “career” as an anarchist lasted almost fifty years, and he cannot of course be expected to have developed uniform views during that period. Inevitably, he had different positions, evolving with the periods he went through. An examination of his positions shows alternating periods when the trade union movement plays no role in his thinking and others when it does. It should also be noted that syndicalism plays no role in Kropotkin’s major writings, but that its revolutionary form is claimed circumstantially in his correspondence or in addresses to workers.
Less frequently, there are periods in which he attributes to the union, or in general to workers’ organization, a function which goes beyond the simple defence of the immediate interests of the workers. A few passages in his work show that he sometimes subscribed to the central thesis of revolutionary syndicalism, namely the idea that the trade union organization constitutes the embryo of the reconstruction of the society of tomorrow. It is significant that such (unfrequent) positions generally coincided with periods of social conflict in which the labour movement was in the limelight, or when union congresses showed that the revolutionary current was making significant advances.
This alternation of absence and presence of trade unionism in his thought is not sufficient in my opinion, to qualify Kropotkin as a “revolutionary syndicalist”.
It is at the end of his life, at the time of the Russian revolution, that Kropotkin took the clearest position in favour of syndicalism: it is certainly not a coincidence that at that time a significant anarcho-syndicalist movement had developed in Russia while the old revolutionary was in conflict with the “specific” anarchist movement. So the question is whether the specific themes of revolutionary syndicalism, and in particular the idea that the union is not only the organ of daily struggle today, but the embryo of future society, are circumstantial allusions in his work or whether they permeate his thinking to the point of making them a foundational element, as was the case with Bakunin during his (short) anarchist period. It can be assumed that Kropotkin’s flirtations with the revolutionary syndicalist point of view were reactions to external events, and did not constitute the core, the doctrinal basis of his thought.
It will also be necessary to examine to what point the anarchist and syndicalist militants of his time referred to Kropotkin. Kropotkin is a major reference in the French anarchist movement, but curiously, some of the main historians of the French anarchist movement that I interviewed  were very surprised by the idea of a rapprochement between him and revolutionary syndicalism. Perhaps should we then ask ourselves why English-speaking authors (followed by Latin American authors) are so keen to make this connection, whereas in France, which was in a way the birthplace of revolutionary syndicalism, this idea seems incongruous.