While reading the history of the South-Russian anarcho-syndicalists Group (hereinafter JUGAS; 1906-1908) , written by one of its creators, Yakov Novomirsky (Kirillovsky), I cannot help thinking that here in front of me is a completely different story from an unknown civilization. But the action takes place in the city of Odessa just a century ago. And Odessa was already a major port, an industrial capitalist city, and Russians, Ukrainians and Jews lived there, so one cannot say that it was some totally different and incomprehensible social order or an unknown people...
Revolutionary syndicalism emerged in the late 19th – early 20th centuries in France, Italy, America as a result of the interaction of spontaneous worker’s protests against poor working conditions with small groups of political activists: anarchists and left-wing socialists. Contrary to the interpretation of some contemporary publicists, it had almost nothing to do with that which in the modern world is called unions. Revolutionary syndicalism was a result of the protests of the radical wing of the labor movement against the dominance of moderate union officials who concentrated all major decisions about the workers' struggle in their hands.
In the late 19th century French workers who belonged to different factories and different unions began holding meetings, sometimes in the open air (such gatherings were called "bourses") in order to share useful information about job offers and the situation of workers at various enterprises, as well as for preparing strikes together without the permission of union tops. This activity was attended by active supporters of anti-authoritarian socialism (anarchism, stateless self-governing society) like Fernand Pelloutier. Moreover, it was supported by radical leftist intellectuals such as Georges Sorel. The result was the formation of revolutionary syndicates – voluntary autonomous associations of workers’ bourses and other workers' organizations which considered direct action as the main method of struggle for better life. In other words, their strikes were not coordinated with the authorities (whether moderate trade union bosses or factory bosses) nor with the current legislation which did not allow the workers to achieve all their goals. Decisions about the course of the strikes and their demands were taken by meetings of workers, not leaders. Direct action is direct democracy.
Quite often these strikes involved violence against businessmen. Georges Sorel wrote in 1906: "Among the most striking (to the workers themselves) phenomena of the last few years, I note the timidity of police and army in the face of riots: magistrates do not use the right to call on the army until the last moment and the police tolerate insults and beatings with unprecedented patience. Experience consistently shows that worker’s violence during strikes has amazing efficacy: prefects are afraid of the necessity to apply force against the rebels’ violence and put pressure on the owners to make them back down."
Apart from radical strikes for wages, revolutionary syndicalists put forward global objectives as well: taking plants and factories into self-government of labor collectives during general strikes; elimination of capitalism and the state, creation of socialism based on general self-government. Individual strikes were to become "revolutionary gymnastics", i.e. to prepare workers for the future revolution, giving them the skills to fight with business and government, as well as their own organization, revolutionary unions.
Novomirsky became Russian Sorel (or rather, Russian Pelloutier) in the same years. Having returned with several companions from a forced political exile in America, inspired by the experience of growing American revolutionary labor movement, he tried to create an organization of revolutionary syndicalists in Odessa. Here he was joined by a local group of Socialist Revolutionaries-Maximalists (a Socialist Revolutionary movement close to anarchism). Thus the nucleus of the anarcho –syndicalist organization was formed . Some researchers believe that the term "anarcho-syndicalism" first appeared in Russia . If they are right, then perhaps Novomirsky should be considered the author of this term.
In future as well, the organization of anarcho-syndicalists was formed not of individuals but of groups. Whole district organizations of various revolutionary parties (Socialist Revolutionaries and Social Democrats) joined, accepting the ideological platform of anarcho-syndicalism. But the main achievement of the JUGAS was the joining of labor collectives of port workers and sailors (Odessa was one of the main ports of the Russian Empire). In addition to the working class people, anarcho- syndicalists spread their activity among the peasantry: they created some 50 peasant organizations in the southern regions of Ukraine. JUGAS already had 5000 people, but the influence of the organization spread to an even larger number of people. However, some sources estimate the number of anarcho-syndicalists in Odessa more modestly (a thousand people).
When it comes to tactics, we see that it had nothing to do with the activity of modern unions, including those that call themselves anarchist or syndicalist. Radical currents of anarchism accuse unionists and anarcho-syndicalists that trade unions do not have the slightest relation to the struggle for social revolution and a new society. In fact, modern unions, even the anarchist ones, operate legally, are guided by the existing legislation , widely use lawsuits and litigation with business in order to achieve economic goals. Such activities have led to the habit of relying on state laws and using the latter as an arbitrator in the course of labor disputes; naturally it bears no relation to direct action and preparation for revolution . But these criticisms cannot be addressed to the historical revolutionary syndicalism in the epoch of Novomirsky and Sorel .
Anarcho-syndicalists of Odessa created an illegal organization of workers and could not create anything else, since along with the strike activities they organize armed struggle against the most stubborn businessmen and strike-breakers. For example, the shipping company leadership tried to break the strike using workers, the members of the nationalist Black-Hundred organization (Union of the Russian People), as a scabs. In response, anarcho-syndicalists blew up one of the steamers. There were many other similar operations. It is interesting that Novomirsky himself criticized some factions of anarchists for excessive violence, considering violence not as a major means but only as one of the methods of mass struggle preparing future revolution . At the same time, when Novomirskiy and his companions talked about "militant strikes" that was concrete and literal. One can criticize such activities, but, in any case, it is impossible to accuse their members of the absence of revolutionary aims and methods.
The organization's activity peaked in 1907, then, with the fading of revolutionary spirit in the country, it was destroyed by repressions. Details on Odessa anarcho-syndicalists can be found in the compilation entitled "To Mikhail Bakunin – 1876-1926", which is available online .