Is it the case that the left abandoned its revolutionary spirit when it shifted away from the syndicalist vision of decentralized ownership, local virtue, and yes, the family (gasp!), in favor of a politics of consumption, growth, and a capitulation to the wage system? Christopher Lasch paints a convincing picture that this is in fact what happened in the early twentieth century.

Several chapters in Lasch’s The True and Only Heaven recount how state-centered socialist movements quickly overcame the working class tradition of syndicalism. As Lash argues, the state socialists quickly realized that the only way to win the class war was to fight for better wages rather than the democratized ownership of production, as the syndicalists stubbornly insisted. Marxists, state socialists and liberals all rejected the claim to widespread ownership and local responsibility on the grounds that it was pre-scientific. They denounced it as petty-bourgeois and worst of all, utopian rather than evolutionary. The iron laws of historical motion had been set in place and any attempt to undue or question this law was regarded as hopelessly romantic or nostalgic. Growth and progress were the name of the game.

The Marxists and statists went on to advocate for “a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work,” with wage growth opportunities and better access to consumer goods soon becoming the hallmark of future progressive movements. The syndicalists, by marked contrast, attacked the entire notion of the wage system itself and resisted proletarianization in all its forms. They wanted to eliminate the distinction between capital and labor altogether. As such, artisans, yeoman farmers and other working class radicals look far more radical than their Marxists counterparts. Lasch provides a telling quote from Craig Calhoun’s The Question of Class Struggle: “the most potentially revolutionary claims were those which demanded that industrial capitalism be resisted in order to protect craft communities and traditional values” (210).

Lasch goes on to clarify what’s at stake in any historical recounting of syndicalist movement once it bumps up against the inexorable rhetoric of progress:

For those committed to the dogma of progress, the syndicalist sociology of virtue was deplorably regressive and “utopian,” and it found most of its adherents as they never tired of pointing out, in “backward” countries like France and Italy. They could not deny, however, that its adherents displayed an intensity or revolutionary conviction unmatched by any other social movement. Herein lay the scandal of syndicalism: it was retrograde but obviously revolutionary and therefore difficult for people on the left to dismiss. Its existence was particularly embarrassing to revolutionary socialists, because its radicalism made Marxism look tame by comparison and serve to reveal many points of agreement between Marxism and the “new liberalism” (335).

Is Lasch correct? Did he give the Marxist social vision a fair hearing? With the benefit of 20 years of hindsight following the publication of The True and Only Heaven, it seems clear that  Lash was onto something about “the narrowing of political debate” related to the wage system, consumption, and growth. In a telling footnote that appears more true today than ever before, Lash writes,

The growing acceptance of wage labor is only one indication of the narrowing of political debate in the twentieth century. Another indication is the narrowing of the kind of questions asked about work. In the nineteenth century, people asked whether the work was good for the worker. Today we ask whether the workers are satisfied with their jobs (208).

The only downside to Lasch’s reading is that he neglected the early Christian Socialist movement. Ludlow, Maurice, Kingsley, others, did not organize workers for the sake of greater profit sharing or rising wages; rather, they looked to control the enterprise from the bottom up. Like the syndicalist movement, the Christian Socialists rejected mechanical efficiency and centralization in favor of widespread ownership. This put them in the unfortunate position, in the eyes of critics like Sidney Webb, of having to place their trust in the working class along with their religious ideals. This also meant the much more difficult and painstaking task of working for a cultural as well as an economic revolution.