Still the Century of Syndicalism?

by Henry on June 22, 2005

Juan non-Volokh quotes one of his correspondents to rebuke Brian Leiter for not understanding that corporatism means government by corporate entities rather than corporations. Non-Volokh’s correspondent is right in stating that corporate entities don’t equal corporations, although apparently disinclined to address Leiter’s main point, which is that business did indeed play a prominent role in the Fascist state (the extent to which the political was “autonomous” from the economic is the subject of considerable historiographical debate, in the German case at least). Unfortunately he then goes on to give a quite distorted and politically loaded account of what corporatism actually was. He tells us that a “corporate is a production planning board made up of workers, owners, and others involved in production advocated by the syndicalist school of socialism,” and then goes on to try to claim that the modern left has a lot more in common with fascism than the modern right. Now it’s true that Giovanni Gentile was influenced by Georges Sorel, who was the most prominent advocate of syndicalist thought. But the two were very different, both in theory and practice. Corporatism, more than anything else, was an attempt to put the conservative and anti-socialist ideas expressed in Leo XIII’s encyclical, Rerum Novarum ,into practice. Its animating philosophy was the belief that the corporate interests in society – business, workers etc – should work in solidarity to organize economic and political life. It was explicitly conceived as a rejoinder to the twin threats of socialism and democracy. Syndicalism was a very different creature, and argued that politics and economy should be under trade-union control. Philippe Schmitter’s seminal essay, “Still the Century of Corporatism?,” which spurred the revival of the modern study of corporatism (and more particularly of its analogies with post WWII forms of economic organization), discusses the difference between these two social philosophies at length – indeed he predicts tongue-in-cheek that if the twentieth century is the century of corporatism, perhaps the next stage of history will see the rise of syndicalism as a counter-movement. Juan non-Volokh’s correspondent’s spurious historical analogy seems to me to be a rather transparent smear job.

Update: I should make it quite clear that this post is not a broad statement of support for Brian Leiter in his ongoing dispute with Juan non-Volokh. I don’t find his threat to find out who Juan non-Volokh is, and to out him, any more respectable than Donald Luskin’s somewhat similar effort to use a bogus libel suit to find out who Atrios was, when Duncan Black was an anonymously-blogging non-tenured economics professor.

Update 2: Brian Leiter asks me in correspondence to make it clear that he, unlike Luskin, has not threatened Juan non-Volokh with a lawsuit; instead, he’s relying on someone to tell him who non-Volokh is. While I consider this to be quite irrelevant to the matter at hand (the threatened harm is in the outing, not in the methods used to pursue it), I’m happy to state this for the record.

Update 3: It would appear that Brian Leiter has reconsidered. I’m glad to see it.



abb1 06.22.05 at 10:20 am

John Ralston Saul writes:

The corporatist movement was born in the nineteenth century as an alternative to democracy. It proposed the legitimacy of groups that of the individual citizen.

The first almost natural manifestation of this new way of governing came two centuries ago with the arrival of Napoleon Bonaparte. Napoleon did more than invent modem heroic leadership. He invented heroic leadership which fronts for specialist groups and interest groups. Democracy and individual citizen participation were replaced by a direct, emotive relationship between the heroic leader and the population. The new specialist, bureaucratic and business elites were thus left in peace to run things.

Hegel was one of the first to give this approach an intellectual form, as early as 1821, in The Philosophy of Right. The romantic revival of the medieval guilds was then underway in the guise of a “natural link” between civil society and the state.

This early form of corporatism gradually emerged as the only serious alternative to democracy. It was increasingly proposed by the Catholic elites of Europe. They could accept the Industrial Revolution, so long as individualism was replaced by group membership. To the extent that individualism as citizen participation continued to exist, it was subjected to the limitations imposed by group membership. Many of these groups were apparently benign or even beneficial. Workers unions. Industrial owners associations. Professional associations. These corporations were not to function in conflict with each other. Through ongoing negotiations, they were to be non-threatening and non-confrontational bodies.

The left tends to emphasize socio-economic conflicts, not to soothe them.


P ONeill 06.22.05 at 11:51 am

When our local National Public Radio affiliate is running a sponsor spot “Raytheon: Customer Success is our Mission,” I assume that’s the kind of thing that’s more likely to get somone from “the left” annoyed. War is good for corporatism.


Javier 06.22.05 at 12:18 pm

Wow, I just read over the whole exchange and I think Brian Leiter is being a bit of a jerk, even if Juan Non-Volokh misinterpreted his argument.


Javier 06.22.05 at 12:40 pm

To add a bit more to what I said:

(1) Brian Leiter is a tenured professor and Juan Non-Volokh, it seems, is a non-tenured professor, hence the psydonym. In this context, it strikes me as wrong to try to strip Non-Volokh of his anonymity.

(2) I can’t find a single place where Non-Volokh insulted Leiter.

(3) It seems more plausible that Non-Volokh simply made a mistake when reading Leiter’s post. Non-Volok didn’t do it maliciously. Why can’t Leiter just leave it at that?


abb1 06.22.05 at 1:18 pm

Come to think of it, the Soviet system did employ some corporatist mottoes: unbreakable alliance of workers, peasants, and progressive intelligentsia, for example. It does sound kinda fascistic. But you can’t really call the Soviet rulers and ideologists ‘the left’, so, this only confirms the rule.


junius ponds 06.22.05 at 1:33 pm

In answer to the titular question: The failure of state socialist systems to sustain themselves, let alone alleviate worker alientation from work-processes or bring about genuine participatory government, begs reexamination of the council communist, left-libertarian, anarchist, etc. traditions for anyone interested in post-capitalist alternatives.


Jaybird 06.22.05 at 2:30 pm

“But you can’t really call the Soviet rulers and ideologists ‘the left’”

Erm… you can’t?

What *CAN* you really call them?


Ray 06.22.05 at 2:41 pm

You could call them ‘one section of the left, that the left of the rest repudiates’, I suppose. You wouldn’t call the Nazi party ‘the right’, would you?


Jim Harrison 06.22.05 at 3:40 pm

Before Hitler spoiled everything by giving fascism a bad name, lots of intellectuals were attracted to many of its features. They still are, though we haven’t quite arrived at the moment when some Natiional Review guy courageously begins the slow process of rehabilitation…


Anderson 06.22.05 at 7:19 pm

It seems more plausible that Non-Volokh simply made a mistake when reading Leiter’s post. Non-Volok didn’t do it maliciously. Why can’t Leiter just leave it at that?

Prof. Leiter, whatever his virtues, does not appear to believe in non-malicious mistakes, as a perusal of his blog will support ….


ian 06.22.05 at 8:47 pm

Fascist corporatism is something like the evil twin of subsidiarity, the principle from Catholic philosophy alluded to by Henry. They have structurally similar notions of society as internally differentiated, but are based on principles that are utterly opposed. For Leo III (and moreso for Pius XI, whose encyclical Quadragesimo Anno was published when Mussolini was in power) social groups, including trade unions, form spontaneously and organically as a result of men’s tendency (and natural right) to associate with one another. A robust civil society, organized from the bottom up, is a necessary counterweight to the power of the state. In fascist corporatism, the state reorganizes society from the top down, along sectoral lines, largely for its own purposes. From the perspective of Catholic philosophy, that is the essence of tyranny.


Sandals 06.22.05 at 9:44 pm

Sooo…if we’re talking short summaries… is syndicalism ‘rule of the guilds’?


troll 06.22.05 at 9:55 pm

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pb 06.23.05 at 9:01 am

“In fascist corporatism, the state reorganizes society from the top down, along sectoral lines, largely for its own purposes.”

Isn’t that what FDR was trying to do with the NIRA and AAA?


ry 06.23.05 at 1:04 pm

Stop! This is gonna get ugly. Cease and desist the ‘FDR is a fascist’(and by extension leftists) and evil line of reasoning. It goes nowhere. IT’s the same trite stuff as ANSWER or someone released showing that the US is pursuing fascistic practices under the current admin(which B Leiter posted on his site I might add).


Steven 06.27.05 at 3:34 am

I don’t disagree with some of your points. Syndicalism and corporatism were different philosophies. In my defense, there was overlap in some of the thought and proponents.. Especially in fascism and its influences… For instance, the corporatist Constitution of Fiume was mostly written by a syndicalist.. Gentile advocated a “totalitarian state of Corporative Syndicalism”, not a specifically corporative state. Also, I arguably misused the word socialism in the modern American English way of associating it with any planned / controlled economic arrangement that tends to benefit workers, or the public, at the expense of private property rights and use of market mechanisms. We tend to call, what most of the rest of the world calls, socialism ‘communism’ and then use the word socialism in this way. Ergo, a country generally run by social democrats, like Sweden, is called ‘socialist’ in common conversation… It’s worth noting that (left wing) Sweden also has had varying degrees of corporatist policies.. So it’s a valid point on your part. On the other hand, ‘socialism’ is older than Marx and Marxism is not the only school of socialist thought. I don’t think it is unfair (or an attempt to be dishonest) for me to associate syndicalism or corporatism as schools of socialistic thought when they are part of a wider utopian ideology. I think your wrong to imply that the proponents of corporatism (especially fascist) were essentially ‘conservative’ (especially in the American understanding of the word) based on the origins of the term while not examining its later proponents. I guess the important question and a quick way to get to the bottom line: You wouldn’t agree that most proponents of inter war European corporatism considered themselves on the left or had solid ties to left wing thought? To fascists specifically, were men like Gentile or Mussolini identifiable as economic ‘conservatives’? To me, I see utopians that saw themselves as progressive intellectuals and revolutionaries who not only wanted a new economic system, they wanted to change everything and create a ‘new man’… Mussolini spent much of his life as a big S socialist and devout Marxist.. All together, doesn’t sound ‘conservative’ in any way… What about Syndicalism? Sorel, for instance, insisted he was a Marxist… When I go down the list of players, I’m not seeing people I would understand as ‘conservative’ in either camp… and this is no play on words… ideologically and philosophically I’m not seeing a pro free market pro business / capitalist type, I’m seeing business distrusting radicals who wanted to subdue business and to overturn the whole social order to remake it…

Also, I think your still backing away from what I considered my point. A ‘corporate’ is not ‘a business’ and that the fascist council did work under a top down planned economic model. This was not how Leiter presented it and it is how that old Gentile / Mussolini quote is widely misused today to mean something it did not (namely government and business working in partnership… if not collusion). Rather, business was subservient to the state in an [totalitarian] atmosphere that did not encourage a free market. In some ways I can see business and workers both supporting this. Regulated industry protects existing businesses from failure, but it is not something a modern American ‘conservative’ would see as compatible with his philosophy (which is largely inspired by classical liberalism). Now progressives on the other hand… Post WWII Britain and the policies of the labor party come to mind.. Then, just the other day, what was the title of the NYTs editorial supporting the Kelo decision? I think it was “The Limits to Private Property”… Who voted for this decision? Whom against? Also, which US group still cannot get over [even non safety related] airline deregulation? Progressives or ‘Conservatives’?


Steven 06.28.05 at 12:34 am

I just finished this book and it has a lot of overlap on this subject (Mussolini, his collation, and D’Annunzio are discussed along with other non fascist related individuals the author uses to make his case).

The author’s thesis is that romantic notions that violence would be able to lead to utopia (re: the calculated application of ideological violence) were the cause of most of our collective recent problems involving totalitarianism.

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