Trade Unions and Revolutionary Oppositions

by Tom O'Lincoln
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Trade unions and revolutionary oppositions

A survey of classic Marxist writings by Tom O’Lincoln

Marx and Engels had an extremely optimistic view of the potential of trade unionism. Not that they saw a great future in the purely economic struggle -- in fact they probably underestimated the long term ability of workers to improve their living standards and the role unions could play in making this possible. For Engels in 1845, the history of the economic struggle was "a long series of defeats of the working-men, interrupted by a few isolated victories", while for Marx two decades later, "in its purely economic action capital is the stronger side." (Quoted in Richard Hyman, Marxism and the Sociology of Trade Unionism, London, 1975, p. 52. What both saw as the real value of trade unionism was spelt out in the Communist Manifesto:

"But with the development of industry, the proletariat not only increases in number; it becomes concentrated in greater masses, its strength grows, and it feels that strength more…

"Now and then the workers are victorious, but only for a time. The real fruit of their battles lie not in the immediate result, but in the ever expanding union of the workers. This union is helped on by the improved means of communication that are created by Modern Industry, and that place the workers of different localities in contact with one another. It was just this contact that was needed to centralize the numerous local struggles, all of the same character, into one national struggle between classes. But every class struggle is a political struggle…

"This organization of the proletarians into a class, and, consequently, into a political party, is continually being upset again by the competition between the workers themselves. But it ever rises up again, stronger, firmer, mightier."

This process, arising out of the centralising tendencies of capitalism itself, and giving rise to the organisation of the proletarians as a class ("and consequently into a political party") overcomes competition between the labourers. But as this competition is essential to the system of wage labour, trade unionism must be a deadly threat to the system. "What the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, is its own gravediggers. Its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable." (Ibid 7-8)

Marx and Engels’ optimistic prognosis was of course mistaken and, at least as far as Britain was concern, it was proven mistaken in their own lifetimes. A British trade union movement arose that was anything but revolutionary in inspiration or direction, as both of them recognised. But they never reformulated their original ideas in any systematic way, preferring to treat the development of conservative and bureaucratic trade unions as a temporary deviation.

They blamed this deviation on the fact that the unions embraced only a privileged minority, a factor that would be removed by organising the unorganised. Or they blamed it on treacherous leaders, without any serious attempt to understand why the workers kept following those leaders. Ultimately they blamed it on the supposed "embourgeoisement" of the British working class as a whole, as a consequence of Britain’s industrial monopoly. This latter development could only be temporary, they thought, for as Britain faced increasing competition from other capitalist nations, the privileged position of British workers would necessarily erode.

As to the flow-over of trade union into political organisation, it was true that the working class movement produced political parties across Europe. But they took on finished form as reformist parties, trapped within the logic of capitalism just as the unions were. This tendency, too, was clear in Marx and Engels’ day. Yet they responded to it, again, in a purely pragmatic manner and did not develop a serious analysis of reformism.

It fell to a new generation of revolutionary Marxists, in the early Twentieth Century, to come to grips with the limitations of trade unionism and official socialism.

Lenin and Trotsky: The primacy of politics

Lenin’s most controversial statement is probably his dictum that "class political consciousness can be brought to the workers only from without, that is, from outside the economic struggle". This constitutes a radical revision of the perspective advanced by Marx and Engels; it reflects Lenin’s understanding that trade unions operate within the confines of the capitalist wages system and that their organisations and forms of struggle reflect that fact.

Even when the unions enter politics, as in the eight-hour day struggle (which Marx had called a victory for the "political economy of the working class" – Quoted in Hyman, p. 13-14) Lenin argued that they were only engaging in capitalist politics. Hence he opposed what the "Economists" called "lending the economic struggle a political character" as a fundamental strategy, arguing that "trade unionist politics of the working class is precisely bourgeois politics of the working class." ("What is to be Done?", Selected Works, Moscow 1970, p. 186)

Lenin later cautioned against a too literal and dogmatic reading of these passages, which appear in What is to be Done? After experiencing mass working class struggle in the revolution of 1905, he put forward a much more balanced formulation:

"The working class is instinctively, spontaneously Social-Democratic, and more than ten years of work put in by Social-Democracy has done a great deal to transform this spontaneity into consciousness." (Collected Works, Vol 10, p. 32.)

This passage seems to capture the two key features of revolutionary industrial work in Russia, allowing due importance both to the spontaneity of a new labour movement lacking reformist traditions, and to the role of conscious revolutionaries. If applied to conditions in the west, however, it would be misleading. Most workers in the west, then as now, were not in any sense spontaneously socialist. On the contrary, there has been a powerful tendency to integration of working class consciousness and institutions into the capitalist mainstream. Lenin’s attempts to analyse this phenomenon were not a great success.

They were associated with the concept of the "labour aristocracy". Marx and Engels had previously suggested there was a privileged layer among the workers, and that Britain’s special economic position could even place the entire British proletariat in the "privileged" category for a short time. Lenin’s own analysis was that the fruits of imperialism had been used to corrupt a certain layer:

"The receipt of high monopoly profits by the capitalists … makes it economically possible for them to bribe certain sections of the workers, and for a time a fairly considerable minority of them, and win them to the side of the bourgeoisie.

"This stratum of workers-turned-bourgeois, or the labour aristocracy … is the principle prop of the Second International, and in our days, the principle social … prop of the bourgeoisie. For they are the real agents of the bourgeoisie in the working class movement, the labour lieutenants of the capitalist class." (Quoted in Tony Cliff, Lenin, vol 4, London 1979, p. 51)

This analysis is open to a number of objections. Firstly it seems to suggest that the imperialist bourgeoisie has consciously decided to offer bribes to a section of the working class. That is, it seems to be a conspiracy, and a rather improbable one at that. Secondly, it is a commonplace of industrial relations that wage gains and other concessions granted to one section of the class tend to flow on to others, which would negate any tendency to elevate one section into an "aristocracy". Thirdly, it is an easily demonstrable fact that wage differentials tend to be less in more advanced capitalist societies. Most importantly, however, the focus on bribery as the cause of reformist consciousness diverts attention from the social analysis needed to identify the real, and very deep roots of that consciousness. (To my knowledge, Tony Cliff made most of these criticisms for the first time in his "Economic Roots of Reformism", reprinted in his Neither Washington nor Moscow, London 1982.

The strength of Lenin’s theory of trade unionism obviously lay in its political rather than its social aspect. The same is largely true of the later work of Leon Trotsky, who was after all the product of similar Russian experiences. It is true that Trotsky’s most important contribution to the theory of trade unionism, written about 1940, centred on the structural assimilation of unions into capitalism and specifically into the state:

"There is one common feature in the development, or more correctly the degeneration, of modern trade union organisations in the entire world: it is their drawing closely to and growing together with the state power." ("Trade Unions in the Epoch of Imperialist Decay", in Leon Trotsky on the Trade Unions, New York, 1969, p. 68).

Yet even here, Trotsky stressed the element of conscious political strategy on the part of the bourgeoisie, and conscious treachery by the bureaucracy and "labour aristocracy":

"Monopoly capitalism is less and less willing to reconcile itself to the independence of trade unions. It demands of the reformist bureaucracy and the labour aristocracy who pick the crumbs from its banquet table, that they become transformed into its political police before the eyes of the working class. If that is not achieved, the labour bureaucracy is driven away and replaced by the fascists." (Ibid p. 72)

There is of course some truth in this analysis, yet it remains rather one-dimensional. Why do the workers follow such leaders, not for a day or a month, but year in and year out? And it is well known that Trotsky’s basic perspective at this time remained fixed on wrestling for workers’ allegiance in purely political terms: counterposing the program of the Fourth International to that of other leaderships, in ultimatistic terms. Insisting that the "historical crisis of mankind is reduced to the crisis of revolutionary leadership", he summed up the situation as follows: "The orientation of the masses is determined first by the objective conditions of decaying capitalism, and second by the treacherous politics of the old workers’ organisations. Of these factors, the first is the decisive one …" This sounds as if Trotsky is giving due regard to economic and social factors, but not for long:

"Of these factors, the first of course is the decisive one: the laws of history are far stronger than the bureaucratic apparatus. No matter how the methods of the social betrayers differ … they will never succeed in breaking the revolutionary will of the proletariat. As time goes on, their desperate efforts to hold back the wheel of history will demonstrate more clearly to the masses that the crisis of the proletarian leadership, having become the crisis in mankind’s culture, can be resolved only by the Fourth International."

The Fourth International had no mass base, but it could win the masses because it could "offer a program based on international experience [and] a spotless banner". (Leon Trotsky, The Transitional Program for Socialist Revolution, New York, 1973, p. 73, 74 and 111.) Clearly, Trotsky touched on "objective conditions" only in order to show how they could open the way for the Fourth International to find a short-cut to leadership. Whatever the merits of such a perspective in 1938, it is not hard to see the limitations in it. It can, and too often has provided a rationale for sectarian trade union practice, in which latter day Trotskyists have abstained from work around the real, immediate concerns of workers in favour of abstract propaganda around abstract programs. And such practice is invariably tied to a purely political approach, which sees union bureaucrats as rotten betrayers with the wrong program, and ignores the social roots of reformism. But this is hardly a tendency limited to Trotskyists; rather it arises out of a mechanical application of the entire Bolshevik tradition.

Luxemburg and Gramsci: Trade unions and capitalism

In The Mass Strike, ( Luxemburg isolates some of the factors which led to the bureaucratisation of the German movement and its integration into capitalism. Like Lenin she had been impressed by the spontaneous struggles of the Russian revolution of 1905, and she could not miss the dramatic contrast they provided to the plodding style of German trade unionism. She was spurred to write a critique of the latter. She argued that the very successes of the German unions contained the roots of the problem:

"The rapid growth of the trade union movement in Germany in the course of the last fifteen years, especially in the period of great economic prosperity from 1895 to 1900 has brought with it a great independence of the trade unions, a specialising of their methods of struggle, and finally the introduction of a regular trade-union officialdom. All these phenomena are quite understandable ... They are ... without doubt a historically necessary evil. But ... these necessary means of promoting trade union growth become, on the contrary, obstacles to its further development ...

"The specialisation of professional activity as trade-union leaders, as well as the naturally restricted horizon which is bound up with disconnected economic struggles in a peaceful period, leads only too easily, amongst trade-union officials, to bureaucratism and a certain narrowness of outlook. Both, however, express themselves in a whole series of tendencies which may be fateful in the highest degree for the future of the trade-union movement. There is first of all the overvaluation of the organisation, which from a means has gradually been changed into an end in itself, a precious thing, to which the interests of the struggles should be subordinated. From this also comes that openly admitted need for peace which shrinks from great risks and presumed dangers to the stability of the trade-unions, and further, the overvaluation of the trade-union method of struggle itself, its prospects and its successes."

Here Luxemburg provides something which is missing in Lenin. She analyses the trade union bureaucracy, not merely an ill-defined "aristocracy", and shows how this bureaucracy’s social position leads to its politics. These politics are characterised, she writes, not only by "hostility to every theoretical criticism" but also by the search for "a new theory which would open up an illimitable vista of economic progress to the trade union struggle within the capitalist system". That is, the social position of the bureaucracy gives rise to its political stance as a protagonist of reformist activity within the system.

Antonio Gramsci, writing in the newspaper Ordine Nuovo in 1919-20, developed an analysis along similar lines. (The quotes below are from Soviets in Italy, Nottingham, n.d., p. 9-11 and 17.) He advanced a ruthless critique of the trade union structures of his time:

"The workers feel that the complex of ‘their’ organisation, the trade union, has become such an enormous apparatus that it now obeys laws internal to its structure and its complicated functions, but foreign to the masses who have acquired a consciousness of their historical mission ... They feel that even in their own home, in the house they have built tenaciously, with patient effort, cementing it with their blood and tears, the machine crushes man and bureaucracy sterilises the creative spirit."

This passage is strikingly reminiscent of Marx’s own description of the alienation of capitalist society. "As in religion, man is governed by the products of his own brain, so in capitalist production he is governed by the products of his own hand." (Capital, vol I, Moscow 1965 p. 621). Nor is the resemblance accidental, for Gramsci like Lenin and Luxemburg proceeds from the understanding that unions are institutions trapped within the logic of capitalism:

"[Under capitalism], when individuals are only valued as owners of commodities, which they trade as property, the workers too are forced to obey the iron laws of general necessity; they become traders in their sole property -- their labour power and professional skills. More exposed to the risks of competition, the workers have accumulated their property in ever broader and more comprehensive ‘firms’, they have created these enormous apparatuses for the concentration of work energy, they have imposed prices and hours and disciplined the market. They have hired from outside or produced from inside a trusted administrative staff expert in this kind of speculation, able to dominate market conditions, to lay down contracts, to evaluate commercial risks and to initiate profitable economic operations."

The union reproduces the structures of the basic capitalist unit, the firm. Its officers, the union bureaucracy, quite logically emerge as protagonists of capitalist politics and defenders of the capitalist system:

"...the union bureaucrat conceives industrial legality as a permanent state of affairs. He too often defends it from the same point of view as the proprietor. He sees only chaos and wilfulness in everything that emerges from the working masses. He does not understand the worker’s act of rebellion against capitalist discipline; he perceives only the physical act, which may in itself and for itself be trivial ... in these conditions union discipline can only be a service to capital."

Towards a synthesis: the Comintern and the Minority Movement

It is a commonplace that neither Gramsci nor Luxemburg, at the time they produced their studies of trade unionism, had grasped the central element for transcending it: a party of the Bolshevik type. Each in their own way was primarily influenced by comparatively "spontaneous" and class-wide phenomena – the Russian mass strikes, and the Turin factory councils.

Lenin, for his part, lacked as we have seen a "sociology" of trade unionism and therefore never developed a concept of rank and file organisation, or even rank and file rebellion in the terms we know today. What was needed was a synthesis of these two strands. The early Communist International laid some of the basis for that.

The Comintern proceeded from the concept of the united front:

"Since the working class had not yet lost their belief in the reformists, the Communists could only build a mass party by proving their superior devotion to working class interests as they were conceived by the workers themselves. Communists were to attempt to botain the widest support for ‘concrete transitional demands’ and to form ‘a united front’ with the Socialists against the capitalist offensive wherever possible.""(J. Degas, quoted in Ken Appleby, "The Rank and File Movement Yesterday and Today", International Socialism 1:83, November 1975, p. 53.)

In the key continental countries, this meant an orientation to the reformist parties. However in Britain, and by extension in Australia, Communists tried a somewhat different application of the concept. In Britain, where trade unionism was strong and socialist party organisation extremely weak, the small Communist Party devoted much of its energy to united front work in industry.

Encouraged by the Comintern, the CPGB attempted to learn from the powerful shop stewards’ movement that had grown up towards the end of the First World War. The movement had declined but formal continuity remained through the National Administrative Council, which declared support for the Third International and allied itself with the CP. In 1922, Losovksy spelled out the future tactics for the British party at the Fourth Comintern Congress, as aiming to build a new movement in the same tradition, but under the wing of the revolutionary party:

"As far as Britain is concerned, we see clearly that it would be disastrous if the Party were content to organise its forces only within its little Party nuclei. The aim here, must be to create a more numerous opposition trade union movement … and the Communist Party will itself grow concurrently with the growth of the opposition." (Quoted in ibid.)

The basic reasoning was compelling, and in the course of the twenties it led to considerable success. In each major industry, the Communists and those close to them raised industry programs within the unions around specific demands. Rank and file organisations were set up, called "Minority Movements" around the common phrase "minority of troublemakers". After the Miners’ MM held a successful national conference in early 1924, the CP decided the time had come to found a national organisation. In August of that year, 270 delegates assembled to take the plunge.

In 1925 the annual conference attracted delegates from 547 organisations, and in the run-up to the 1926 General Strike, the MM claimed to represent 900,000 workers.

Yet at the same time there were problems, both theoretical and practical. The theory was unfinished and contradictory, perhaps inevitably so in what was seen as a transitional vehicle between trade unionism and the revolutionary party. The historians of this experience have written that at various times "at least six distinct definitions were given of the Movement’s purpose":

"Its function was to co-ordinate rank-and-file opposition movements within the unions; to co-ordinate industrial militancy, involving those leaders who were prepared to fight; to campaign for the organisational restructuring of the trade-union movement, and in particular the TUC; to pursue a programme of transitional demands; to provide a nursery and recruiting ground for potential CP members; or to build revolutionary trade unionism." (James Hinton and Richard Hyman, Trade Unions and Revolution: The Industrial Politics of the Early British Communist Party, London 1975, p. 53.)

In particular, it was never quite clear whether the movement was conceived as a militant reform movement, uniting the Communists with other workers around a program of immediate demands; or whether it was part of the revolutionary movement.

In addition, the MM suffered from the rightward evolution of the CP in the mid-twenties. Like the CP itself, it began to subordinate uncompromising militancy to the needs of Soviet foreign policy, and displayed a certain preparedness to compromise with union officials who had once been seen as opponents. This latter tendency was epitomised in the slogan "All power to the General Council", which seemed to suggest that a strong central TUC leadership could point the way forward.

Whatever the faults, however, this was a serious, mass working class movement. Revolutionaries in the industrialised countries could not hope to lead anything like it today. It remains invaluable as a theoretical guide to the far more modest initiatives we can take within the labour movement in our own time.

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