The old “folded arms” theory of syndicalism is the belief workers could topple capitalism without violence and merely by folding their arms and stopping work. This theory sprung forth in the period just after the Paris Commune when the workers were still recuperating from the slaughter. It was also a response to the growing accommodation that the workers parties developed with the status quo. Syndicalism represented an extreme reaction against reformist, parliamentary socialism which can be viewed as the father of syndicalism.The restiveness of the working class is constantly working out new forms of struggle under changing circumstances that invariably lead towards the question of some sort of workers control over production.
Those who call for a politicalised socialist trade union should understand that a union needs to recruit all workers to be able to put up resistance to the bosses. Can it possibly wait for all the workers to become socialists before inviting them to organise themselves or before admitting them into the organisation. Any fusion between the socialist and union movement ends either by rendering the union helpless and powerless to obtain improvements or result in the socialist party committing its socialist principles to empty paper promises of reform. Socialists must work for socialist ends and not engage in the horse-trading of the labour market although, naturally, socialists within the unions will strive to ensure that they remain open to all workers of whatever opinion or party on the sole condition that there is solidarity in the struggle against the employers. They will argue against the unions becoming the tools of the politicians. Socialists are minded that the workers’ organisation is not the end but just one of the means, however important, of preparing the way for the achievement of socialism. It is the system and not our remuneration or the “boss” which must be changed. Socialism is not achieved through public (state) ownership or workshop committees or trade union representation on this or that management board, but through a fundamental change in class relations. It is necessary to have a clear understanding as to what differentiates syndicalist theory from the orthodox socialist doctrine.
The essence of syndicalism is social revolution by means of the trade unions while the essence of socialism is the revolution by voting. The syndicalists recognises but one “field” of working class activity — the economic; only one kind of social question — the economic. To solve these economic questions it uses, in all cases, direct action tactics alone. It forces the state to pass laws in the same manner as it forces a private employer to raise wages, or to better working conditions — by strikes and other forms of industrial action. And not only does syndicalism feel perfectly sure of its ability to force the state and private employers to grant concessions by its direct action tactics, but it also intends to overthrow the whole capitalist edifice by the supreme, ultimate application of direct action, i.e., the general strike. It makes absolutely no provision for the conquest of the political power by the political party via the ballot box. Syndicalism bases the whole workers movement upon economic action, not political actions. It sees in the immediate struggle of the unions a preparation for the revolutionary strike that will overthrow capitalism; and it organises the working class in a way that provides the means of assuming control of society by building in its organisation the structure that will function as the administration of the new society on the day of the revolution. Even the Left SPD Marxist Karl Kautsky, in an article in the International Socialist Review, April 1901, said:
“The trade unions...will constitute the most energetic factors in surmounting the present mode of production and they will be pillars on which the edifice of the socialist commonwealth will be erected.”
Some in the history of the socialist movement such as the De Leonists have sought a hybrid theory of syndicalism insisting it needs a guardian and helper — a political “shield.” and tries to force the guardianship on the unwilling syndicalists but in doing so creates a situation where two movements cannot exist in harmony as they are intent upon trying to absorb each other. The two movements become competitors for the undivided support of the working class.