The revolutionary movement and the union question after the defeat of the 1920s

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The proletarian currents which escaped from the degeneration of the Communist International (CI) found themselves confronted with the enormous task of resisting the counter-rev­olutionary offensive on all levels -- political, theoretical, and organizational. This resist­ance had to take place in an atmosphere of almost total disorientation, one of the main sources of which was the errors of the CI itself, notably on the parliamentary and union questions. The working class' retreat from revolutionary activity didn't allow the debates on these questions to unfold in a positive manner. The critiques which the Italian, German and Dutch left communists made of the politics of the CI couldn't be really deepened. At the end of the 1920's, with Stalinism triumphant, the debate had to continue in the most difficult and complex conditions. Thus, concerning the union question, the evolution of the various branches of the internationalist communist opposition (the Italian left, council communists, the left opposition animated by Trotsky, etc) took place in a groping, uneven manner. In fact, the revolutionary movement faced a two-pronged problem as far as the evolution of the unions was concerned. On the one hand, it had to pose the union question in relation to the per­iod of decadence. On the other hand, it had to understand the effects of the counter-revolution on this question. It had to draw out all the political implications of the integration of the unions into the bourgeois order, while at the same time elaborating a critique of the CI's tactic of entering into the ‘reformist' unions in order to provoke splits that would lead to the emergence of real class unions controlled and led by revolutionaries.

The orientation within the Communist International

Ever since the formation of the Third Inter­national, the union question had been at the centre of a whole series of discussions and polemics. It was within the German revol­utionary movement that the problem was posed in the most urgent way, and it was the German revolutionaries who understood most clearly the need for a break not only with the trade unions, but also with ‘trade unionism'. At the founding congress of the Communist Party of Germany (KPD), in late December 1918, ie in a pre-revolutionary moment, a majority tendency declared itself to be in favor of leaving the trade unions. Thus Paul Frolich said:

"We say as a matter of principle that the separation of the workers into political organizations and union organizations, once necessary, must now be finished with. For us, there can only be one slogan: ‘Leave the unions!'"

Rosa Luxemburg rejected this slogan, but only for tactical reasons:

"The trade unions are no longer workers' organizations, but the most reliable protectors of the bourgeois state and bourgeois society. It therefore goes without saying that the struggle for socialism inevitably calls for a struggle for the liquidation of the unions. We're all agreed on that point. But I have a different opinion on the way to go forward. I think the Hamburg comrades are wrong to call for the formation of unitary economic-political organizations (einheits-organi­sation), because, in my opinion, the tasks of the unions must be taken up by the workers' and soldiers' councils"(Congress of the Spartacus League, Ed. Spartacus, no.83B).

Unfortunately the leadership of the CI didn't see things so clearly -- on the contrary. While the CI denounced the unions dominated by the Social Democracy, it still had all sorts of illusions about wresting leadership of the unions out of its hands. Despite the critiques of the left -- especially the German left, which split from the KPD to form the Communist Workers Party of Germany (KAPD) -- the CI main­tained its erroneous position. In March 1920, in an ‘Address to the Unions in all Countries', after a summary analysis of the degeneration of the ‘old' reformist unions, the CI expl­ained:

"Will the unions return to the old, worn-out, reformist ie effectively bourgeois-habits? That is the decisive question now being posed to the international workers' movement. We are firmly convin­ced that this won't happen. A current of fresh air is sweeping through the stuffy structures of the old unions. A process of decantation has already begun. In one or two years, the old unions will be unrecognizable. The old bureaucrats of the trade union movement will be like generals without an army. The new epoch will produce a new generation of proletarian leaders in the renovated trade unions".

In the same Address, which was in fact aimed against the KAPD and its position of calling on workers to leave the unions and set up unitary factory organizations, Zinoviev made a travesty of the real situation of the trade unions in Europe:

"In a whole number of countries a power­ful process of decantation is going on in the unions. The wheat is being separated from the chaff. In Germany, where the unions are led by Legren and Noske, the main pillars of the bourgeois yellow trade union movement, a large number of trade unions are turning their backs on the yellow social democrats and are going over to the proletarian revolution. ...In Italy, almost without exception, the unions stand for soviet power. In the Scandinavian trade unions, the prol­etarian revolutionary current gets bigger every day. In France, Britain, America, Holland and Spain, the mass of trade union members are detaching themselves from the bourgeoisie and demanding new revolutionary methods".

Far from helping the Communist Parties to break from Social Democracy, this orientation, based on the illusion of a real ‘class unionism' actually meant following the same practices as the counter-revolution, albeit from the stand­point of competing with Social Democracy to gain control over the masses.

This orientation was a major obstacle against the possibility of deepening the union question inside the different organizations that made up the CI. The analysis of the nature of trade unions and trade unionism was often confused and contradictory, and this was further complicated by the influence of a number of currents coming out of the tradition of revolutionary syndicalism.

In February 1920, the International Conference in Amsterdam adopted the theses presented by Fraina, secretary of the Communist Party of America and an IWW militant. According to the theses,

"...11) The agitation for the construction of industrial unions will provide an immed­iate and practical way of mobilizing the militant spirit of discontent which is developing in the old unions, of waging the struggle against the corrupt bureau­cracy of the ‘labor aristocracy'. Industrial unionism also makes it possible to issue a call to action to the unqual­ified, unorganized workers, and to lib­erate the unqualified workers who are organized in the trade unions from the tutelage of the reactionary strata of the working class. The struggle for revolu­tionary industrial unionism is a factor in the development of communist under­standing and in the conquest of power."

This analysis took up the ambiguous theory of the ‘labor aristocracy', which was seen to be one of the bases for the conservative chara­cter of trade unionism. This led to the idea that craft unions were the reactionary form of trade unionism, and should be replaced by industrial unions. Although it tried to relate the evolution of the unions to imperialism and the tendency towards state capitalism, and attempted to emphasize the limits of unionism, this orientation ended up opposing one form of unionism without calling unionism itself into question:

".....5) The development of imperialism has definitively integrated the craft unions into capitalism...

".....8) The governmental expression of lab­orism is state capitalism, the fusion into the state of the capitalists, the petty bourgeoisie, and the upper strata of the working class which dominate the trade unions..

".....10) ...The struggle against this form of trade unionism (craft unionism) is therefore a an inseparable phase of the struggle against laborism, through

a) in a general way, the agitation of the communist party to push the unions to act in a more resolute way;

b) the encouragement of any movement in the unions which tends to break the hold of the bureaucracy and give control to the masses through directly mandated and revocable dele­gates;

c) the formation of organizations such as shop stewards' committees, workers' committees, workers' economic councils and the direct organizations of the communist party in the workshops, factories and mines - organizations which will not only push the masses and the unions towards more revolut­ionary forms of action, but which will also, at a moment of crisis, develop into soviets;

d) the attempt to transform craft unions into industrial unions, ie a form of unionism which corresponds to the economic integration of modern capitalism and inspired by the spirit of struggle for political power and economic domination". (ibid).

Some of these ideas were very close to the positions held by the German and Dutch left. They attempted to criticize and go beyond economism, reformism, and ‘apolitical' unio­nism, but they remained on the level of the form of organization. It wasn't understood that you could no longer create new, mass unitary organizations of a permanent char­acter. The idea was that you had to find organizational forms that would preserve the independence of the class and prepare the way for the formation of workers' councils. But such a view could by no means guarantee the proletariat's independence from the bourgeoisie, since it reduced the break with trade unionism to a question of forms of organization.

It was perhaps the Italian revolutionary Gramsci who -- in the name of criticizing trade unionism -- went furthest in developing an erroneous political line that would greatly contribute to disorientating the Italian working class in the 1920's. In an article published in his paper L'Ordine Nuovo, November 1919, Gramsci seems to develop a promising critique of trade unionism:

" The syndicalist theory has failed completely in the concrete experience of the proletarian revolutions. The unions have shown their organic inability to em­body the dictatorship of the proletariat. The normal development of the unions has been to move away from the revolutionary spirit of the masses...The spirit of conquest has weakened or completely disappeared, the vital élan has been broken, the ‘bread and butter' practices of opportunism have replaced the old heroic intransigence....Trade unionism can only be called revolutionary because there is the grammatical possibility of putting the two expressions together. Trade unionism has shown itself to be none other than a form of capitalist society and not a potential form for socialist society."

But behind this critique lay an inability to draw the lessons of the Russian revolution and understand the basis for the emergence of workers' councils. Far from seeing it as an organ of political power, a place where the working class could develop its consciousness, Gramsci considered the workers' council to be an organ of economic management. It was on these foundations that he erected his critique of the trade unions, and this critique wasn't deep enough to allow the workers to develop a real understanding of the function of the unions.

"The craft or industrial union, by group­ing together those in a particular craft or industry who use the same instruments or transform the same raw materials, helps to reinforce this psychology, to further prevent the workers from seeing them­selves as producers." (Ordine Nuovo 8/11/19).

This analysis of Gramsci ignored the question of the destruction of the bourgeois state and turned the factory and the proletariat into purely economic categories:

"The place where one works, where the producers live and work together, will tomorrow be the centers of the social organism and will replace the directing organs of contemporary society." (Ordine Nuovo, 13/9/19).

By remaining on the terrain of production and economic management, Gramsci's propaganda ended up by calling on the workers to safe­guard the economy, and thus to defend capit­alism:

"The workers want to put an end to this situation of disorder, of chaos, and ind­ustrial waste. The national economy is going to rack and ruin, the rate of exchange is soaring, production is decl­ining, the whole national apparatus of industrial and agricultural production is moving towards paralysis.... If the industrialists are no longer capable of administering the productive apparatus and making it produce at maximum output (and every day shows more and more clearly that they're not capable of doing this), then, to save society from bankruptcy and ruin, the workers will assume this task, conscious of the grave responsibility they are assuming; and they will explain this with their communist methods and systems, through their production councils." (L'Avanti, 21/11/19).

The fraction animated by Bordiga denounced this analysis:

"It's a grave error to believe that, by introducing into the contemporary prol­etarian milieu, among capitalism's wage-earners, formal structures which are thought to be the basis for communist management, you are developing forces that are intrinsically revolutionary. This was the error of the syndicalists and it's also the error of the over-zealous enthusiasts for the factory councils." (I1 Soviet, 1 February 1920, quoted in Programme Communiste, no.72)

However, the Italian left didn't explain why the new forms of unitary class organization had arisen in opposition to trade unions and trade unionism. Their correct criticism of solutions that restricted themselves to forms of organization left the door open to the Bordigist error, caricatured today by the PCI (Programme  Communiste), which sees all forms of class organization as one and the same and insists only on the dominant role of the party. Thus, in Il Soviet 21/9/19 it was claimed that "the soviets of tomorrow must have their source in the local sections of the communist party" (cited in Programme Communiste no.74, p.64). Against ouvrierism and factoryism, you had a party-fetishism which failed to make a materialist analysis of the declining phase of capitalism and its effects on the mode of class organization. Only such an analysis would have made it possible to understand the failure of the unions as proletarian organs and to see why the content of the ‘classical' trade unionism of the ascendant period had become obsolete in the epoch of "wars and revolutions", ie in the period of capitalist decadence.

In the years that followed, the debate which had unfolded in all the sections of the CI got bogged down. The general retreat of the working class in Europe, the defeats suffered by the German proletariat, the isolation of Russia, the crystallization of the CI's errors, its accelerating degeneration -- all this would add weight to the theory of defending the proletarian bastion, which led to com­promises and stifled the voice of the commun­ist left. Then, open opportunism gave way to a period which saw the direct liquidation of every revolutionary position and the death of the CI as an international proletarian organization. The unions controlled by the CI were the first forces used by the Stalinists in Europe to isolate those communists who had remained faithful to internationalism and the revolution, and to drag the working class back into submission to the capitalist state and nation.

Contradictions and limits of the analysis of the revolutionary milieu

Although he was expelled from the Bolshevik party by the Stalinist clique and exiled from Russia, Trotsky himself had a heavy respons­ibility for the orientations of the CI and the policies adopted by the Russian state, notably the repression of the Kronstadt strikes. Trotsky had supported Lenin against the "infantile disorder" of left communism. Faced with the degeneration of the CI and the counter-revolutionary policies of the Russian state, Trotsky didn't question the basis of the CI's policies. He didn't connect his struggle to the struggle of the left communists. This attitude expressed all the limits of Trotsky's opposition to the counter-revolutionary Stalinism. The whole orientation of the left opposition which gyrated around his personality was marked by the same weakness, ie an inability to under­stand and recognize the counter-revolutionary process in Russia itself.

1. Trotsky

Paradoxically, Trotsky approached the union question on two levels. In the early 1920's within the Bolshevik party in power, Trotsky defended the idea that the unions had to be integrated into the state, in contrast to Lenin who insisted that "our present State is such that the whole organized proletariat must defend itself against it. We must use these workers' organizations for defending the workers against their state".

What a clear confession by Lenin about the conservative character of the transitional state and about the need for the working class to preserve its independence vis-a-vis the state: But Lenin's position, like that of Kollantai's workers Opposition which called for a strengthening of the trade unions, was an illusory one and couldn't lead to a real understanding of the nature of the unions. The ultra-statist position was more ‘logical'. For Trotsky, the trade union was a state instrument par excellence and there he wasn't mistaken: Trotsky's error was on the question of the ‘proletarian' character of the state:

Concerning the intervention of revolutionaries in the unions, Trotsky defended the ‘official' analyses within the CI:

"The importance of the trade unions consists in the fact that they are mainly composed of elements who are not yet under the influence of the party. But it's obvious that there are different layers in the unions: layers that are quite conscious, layers that are conscious but retain various prejudices, layers that are still seeking to form their revolutionary consciousness. Who then is going to assume the task of leadership? ...Yes, we want to subordinate the consciousness of the working class to revolutionary ideas. That is our aim". (Report to the 4th World Congress, December 1922).

Once he was in the opposition and faced with the counter-revolution, Trotsky nuanced his analyses, or rather went beyond the simplistic propaganda of the early years of the CI. In a text written in September 1933, Trotsky put forward a much more lucid position on the union question:

"The trade unions appeared in the period of growing, ascendant capitalism. Their task was to raise the material and cult­ural level of the proletariat and extend its political rights. This work, which has been going on in Britain for over a century, has given the trade unions an immense authority within the proletariat. The decadence of British capitalism, in the context of the decline of the world capitalist system, has undermined the very basis for the reformist work of the trade unions... The role of the unions, as we said above, is no longer a progressive role but a reactionary one." (Trotsky, Oeuvres, T.11 EDI, p.178).

However, Trotsky stuck to the illusion that it was possible and necessary to work in these organs:

"It's precisely in the present period, when the reformist bureaucracy of the proletariat has been transformed into the economic police force of capital, that revolutionary work in the unions, carried out with intelligence and perseverance, can give decisive results in a relatively  short span of time." (ibid, our emphasis)

But at the same time, Trotsky advanced the perspective of a break with the unions:

"It is absolutely necessary right away to prepare the advanced workers with the idea of creating workshop committees and workers' councils at a moment of sudden crisis." (ibid).

But this vision remained abstract and didn't correspond to the experience of the workers' movement. In fact Trotsky reduced the question of the appearance of real organs of proletarian struggle to a simple matter of tactics, to be decided upon by the organization of revolut­ionaries. Trotsky's voluntarism hardly concealed a lack of confidence in the capac­ities of the class. Certainly, these capac­ities had begun to diminish by the end of the 1920's, but, just as with the question of the defense of Russia, Trotsky like many other revolutionaries was unable to see that the class had been defeated and the draw the necessary conclusions, both on the theoreti­cal and the organizational level.

2. The Italian Left: Bilan

The fraction of the Italian left grouped around the review Bilan put forward a very different perspective:

"To affirm that you're aiming to found new parties on the basis of the first four Congresses of the CI, is to tell history to march backwards for ten years; it will prevent you from understanding the events that took place after these Congresses; it means trying to place these new parties in a narrow historic framework that isn't their own. The framework for the new parties is already molded by the experience that has come from the exercise of proletarian power and by the whole experience of the world communist movement. In this work the first four Congresses are an element for study which must be subjected to the most intense critique." (Bilan, no.1, November 1933).

Understanding that the proletariat had suffered a political defeat, the Italian left envisaged the problem of the presence of revolutionaries in the trade unions solely from the standpoint of the defensive struggle. Since they considered that, for a whole period, there was no possibility of the emergence of revolutionary class organs of the council-type, Bilan saw that there was no room for the kind of activity that counted on such developments. Similarly, the collapse of the CI excluded the possibility of the reconstruct­ion of the international class party in the short term. For Bilan, therefore, it wasn't a question of elaborating a union strategy that would continue the orientation of ‘Lenin's' Comintern, but of preserving the capacity of the class to defend itself. But Bilan retained many illusions about the historic continuity of the unions:

"Even in the hands of the reformists, the unions remain, for us, the place where the workers must gather together, the soil for the upsurge of proletarian consciousness that will sweep aside the current rotten­ness.... If movements take place outside the unions, they must obviously be supp­orted." (Bilan, no.25, Nov-Dec. 1935)[1].

The Italian left, like Trotsky, remained prisoners of the erroneous analysis of the CI, and above all of a period in which it was difficult to draw all the conclusions from a revolutionary wave that had not reached its goals and had not clarified with sufficient sharpness the issue of breaking from trade unionism. Moreover, the triumph of the fascist, democratic and Stalinist counter­revolution didn't favor the development of theories based on the spontaneous capacity of the working class to organize itself, as shown by the appearance of workers' councils. The period served mainly to give evidence of the insufficiencies of revolutionaries, both in Germany during the revolutionary wave and in Russia where the proletariat had taken power. The decisive question of the party, its nature and function, was discussed much more and acted as a sort of screen which prevented the revolutionary fractions from taking a step back and having a more global view of what the revolutionary process had meant from the standpoint of the activity and consciousness of the proletariat as a whole. Without this overall view of how the class movement had begun to confront a decadent capitalism, it wasn't possible to clarify the union question.

3. The Council Communists

The council communists came up against the same barriers in their critique of trade unionism. This current, partly descended from the German and Dutch left, developed a scathing critique of ‘Leninism' which ended up questioning the class nature of the Russian revolution and calling it bourgeois. In fact, the councilist current returned to a series of ‘anti-party' prejudices borrowed from the anarchist and revolutionary syndic­alist tradition. Against parties and unions, the councilists advocated the power of the workers' councils, the only form of organization that could enable the class to acquire, by itself, a consciousness of its historic tasks and the capacity to carry them out. The critique of trade unionism thus consisted essentially of a critique of the union struct­ures, which didn't allow the working class to have a real life and autonomous activity:

"The unions grew as capitalism and heavy industry developed, becoming gigantic organizations with thousands of members throughout entire countries, with bran­ches in every town and factory. Function­aries were nominated... these functionaries are the leaders of the unions. These are the ones who conduct negotiations with the capitalists, a task in which they've become past masters... such an organization is no longer just an assembly of workers; it is an organized body with a political outlook, a character, a mentality, traditions and functions of its own. It's interests are different from those of the working class and it will not hesitate to defend those interests." (A. Pannekoek, International Council Corr­espondence, January 1936).

All these criticisms were correct and still form an important part of the revolutionary position on the trade unions. But it's not enough to see the bureaucraticism, the retro­grade mentality of the unions, their inability to combat capitalism. This bureaucratic character appeared relatively quickly at the end of the 19th Century, and for a long time Marxism had pointed out the ‘narrow' character of trade unionism. In Wages, Price and Profit (1866) Marx defined these limits very clearly:

"Trade Unions work well as centers of res­istance against the encroachments of capital. They fail partially from an injudicious use of their power. They fail generally from limiting themselves to a guerilla war against the effects of the existing system, instead of simultaneously trying to change it, instead of using their organized forces as a lever for the final emancipation of the working class, that is to say, the ultimate aboli­tion of the wages system."

The Marxist movement had even developed the basis of an analysis of how the unions were ceasing to be the mode of organization of the class. In an article published in the British union paper Labor Standard, May-June 1881, Engels explained:

"More than this, there are plenty of symptoms that the working class of this country is awakening to the conscious­ness that it has for some time been moving in the wrong groove; that the present movements for higher wages and shorter hours exclusively, keep it in a vicious circle out of which there is no issue; that it is not the lowness of wages which forms the fundamental evil, but the wages system itself. This knowledge once gener­ally spread amongst the working class, the position of Trades Unions must change con­siderably. They will no longer enjoy the privilege of being the only organizations of the working class. At the side of, or above, the Unions of special trades there must spring up a general Union, a political organization of the working class as a whole."

The councilists' critique of the unions thus consisted of a revival of certain elements in the Marxist analysis of the unions -- one that was hardly deepened and which tended to look at the unions as if they had always belonged to the bourgeoisie (a position which certain of today's sects, like the PIC, have ended up with). The councilists didn't understand the material basis for the unions' movement into the bourgeois camp, their integration into the state, their counter-revolutionary function. What's more, in a critique of some of Grossmann's ideas about the necessity for the collapse of capitalism, Pannekoek expressed his incompre­hension and rejection of the concept of the decadence of capitalism:

"The impotence of trade union action, an impotence which appeared a long time ago, must not be attributed to any economic collapse but to a displacement of powers within society....Parliamentarism and union tactics didn't wait for the present crisis to prove themselves to be useless - they've already shown this for decades. It's not because of the economic collapse of capitalism, but because of the monstrous deployment of its power, its extension across the earth, the exacerbation of its political conflicts, the violent reinforce­ment of its internal strength, that the proletariat must resort to mass action, deploying the strength of the whole class." (Pannekoek, June 1934, in no.1 of Rate­korrespondenz, organ of the Group of International Communists in Holland).

This article was aimed at Rosa Luxemburg's theory, schematized by Grossmann. It was easy to criticize Grossmann's mechanistic approach to economics, but Pannekoek didn't respond to the basic question: had trade unionism always been useless, or hadn't the possibility of gaining economic and political reforms in the ascendant period been the basis of parliamentarism and trade unionism? It wasn't enough to understand the pernicious effects that this reality had had on the workers' movement (reformism, economism, opportunism within Social Democracy); it was also necessary to understand that this particular phase in the activity of the class was over once and for all; that Stalinism, for example, was not a ‘neo-reformist' or ‘neo-opportunist' deviation of the workers' movement, but an expression of decadent capitalism. To recognize that world capitalism had entered its period of decadence, of historic decline, didn't mean taking on a fatalistic, wait-and-see attitude to history. It meant a class ruptures with the old social democratic theories, with the polit­ical and organizational methods that had been appropriate to the ascendant phase of capit­alism.

The councilists had a vision of the need for this rupture, but it remained a partial one. On the one hand, this current was far from being homogenous (cf our articles on the Dutch left in IR 16, 17, and 21). On the other hand, the councilists looked for the causes of defeat solely in the politics of the CI and the Bolshevik party. This led them to underestimate the activity of commun­ists and to abandon the idea that it was necessary to prepare for the revolution through the reconstitution of the party. Pannekoek more and more gave up defending the need for the party and restricted himself to a role of pleading in favor of class autonomy.

But although these weaknesses led the counc­ilist current into profound errors on the question of the party, it would be a grave mistake to forget that the councilists really deepened the whole question of the self-organization of the class and thus raised a problem that was crucial to the period of decadence. From the moment that trade unions and trade unionism were seen to be opposed to the revolutionary activity of the working class, it was necessary to point out the new forms that the workers' struggle was adopting. Pannekoek dealt with this question in his text on the workers councils, written during World War II:

"Direct action means action of the workers themselves without the intermediary of trade union officials. Such a strike is called a wildcat as contrasted to the strike proclaimed by the union according to the rules and regulations... They are the harbingers of future greater fights, when great social emergencies, with heav­ier pressure and deeper distress, drive the masses into stronger action." (Pannekoek, The Workers Councils)

Pannekoek insisted on the ability of the workers to conduct their struggles themselves, to experience their own potential and coll­ective force, without falling into a crude ‘spontaneosm' or into a schematic, linear vision of the process of working class self-organization:

"The self-determination of the workers over their fighting action is not e demand put up by theory, by arguments of practibility, but the statement of a fact evolving from practice. Often in great social movements it occurred -- and doubtless will occur again -- that the actions did not comply with the decisions. Sometimes central committees made an appeal for a universal strike, and only small groups here and there followed; elsewhere the committees weighed scrupulously, without venturing a decision, and the workers broke loose in mass struggle. It may be possible even that the same workers who enthusiastically resolved to strike shrink back when standing before the deed. Or, conversely, that prudent hesitation governs the decisions and yet, driven by inner forces, a non-resolved strike irresistibly breaks out. Whereas in their conscious thinking old watchwords and theories play a role and determine arguments and opinions, at the moment of decision on which weal and woe depend, strong intuition of real condit­ions breaks forth, determining the actions. This does not mean that such intuition always guides right...

Thus the two forms of organization and fight stand in contrast, the old one of trade unions and the regulated strike, the new one of the spontaneous strike and workers' councils. This does not mean that the former at some time will be simply substituted by the latter as the only alternative. Intermediate forms may be conceived, attempts to correct the evils and weaknesses of trade unionism and preserve its right principles..." (ibid).

Pannekoek's defense of the autonomy of the proletariat in its struggles certainly contains ambiguities and weaknesses, but these were, in a more profound sense expressions of the general condition of the revolutionary milieu in a period of counter-revolution, a period in which the horrors of World War II had come along to make the activity of the class and of revolutionaries even more difficult. What was important and decisive in this text, as in those of other internationalist proletarian currents, was its confidence in the working class as a revolutionary force.

This is why it would be a mistake to pose the trajectory of the Italian left against that of the council communists and to see either one or the other of these currents as the ‘pure' expression of Marxist continuity. Neither is it a question of making an eclectic synthesis of the political positions developed by these currents in the 1930's or the imm­ediate post-war period. The merit of the Gauche Communiste de France, which published Internationalisme, was precisely its ability to avoid making a fetish out of ‘tradition', to reject the apologetic glorification of one current against the others -- a road that was unfortunately followed by a part of the Italian left, contrary to the whole spirit of Bilan. In order to do this, the Bordigists had to throw Bilan into the dustbin and allow Bordiga to start theoretical work from scratch -- which in fact meant a return to the old Leninist errors and a rejection of the gains made by the Italian left, notably on the national question and on the question of decadence.


[1] Very few texts in Bilan dealt with the union question directly, but although there was a sort of official position which remained attached to the Leninist viewpoint, the recognition of the decadence of capitalism led a tendency within Bilan to re-evaluate the union question.