International debate: Reply to Battaglia Comunista

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International debate

Bourgeois trade unions, Working class organizations and the intervention of revolutionaries (Reply to "Battaglia Comunista")


After years of silence, Battaglia Comunista[1] has at last resumed its written polemic with the positions of the ICC. Not without difficulty: first BC started discussing with and answering groups in the capitalist periphery (Mexico, India) that knew of, or shared, the ICC's positions; then BC undertook to publish these replies in its press; and now, finally, BC has taken the opportunity, via a reply to a group of our sympathizers in Spain, to engage a direct polemic with the ICC.

Since we have already answered BC elsewhere[2] on the question of the historic course and the evaluation of the present stage of the class struggle, in this article we will deal with "the ICC's abstract positions on the unions and parliament", (Battaglia Comunista no 2, February 1987), concentrating on the question of the unions and revolutionary intervention in workers' struggles. We intend to stick to our method of getting to the roots of the disagreement by taking account of all BC's texts on the question, rather than picking out one or two sentences in a particular article.

Battaglia's article starts from the assumption that, as long as it is merely a matter of "the general theoretical problem (the trade unions' nature and function)", then no great effort is needed to give a clear reply. "The political problem is quite different, and can be posed as follows: given this nature and function of trades unions, how is it possible to "go beyond" them in a revolutionary manner?". And according to BC, the ICC is incapable of answering this question "because of its organic act politically."

In this reply, we intend first and foremost to demonstrate that even at the "genera1 theoretical" level, there are certain points BC would do well to clarify. Then, we will look at Battaglia's specific proposals for the organization of revolutionaries in the struggle: the "internationalist factory groups." Finally, we will analyze the links between the shortcomings in BC's intervention, and their difficulty in recognizing the reality of the class struggle, in particular the as yet confused and embryonic attempts through which the class itself is beginning to pose the problem of tomorrow's unitary organizations.

Precisely these questions were at the heart of the debates during the first series of International Conferences of the Communist Left, broken off in 1980 by Battaglia and the Communist Workers Organization. It is through the renewal of this debate, on a wider and clearer basis, that the whole international proletarian political milieu will best be able to contribute to resolving the problems posed by the class's preparation for its decisive confrontations with capitalism.

The trade unions: Organs of the bourgeois state

On what solid reference points does BC anchor its present-day understanding of the unions? Essentially, there are three of them:

1) "The union is not and never has been an organ of the revolutionary struggle for the proletariat's emancipation";

2) the union "has been led, as an organ of economic  negotiation, to oppose the revolutionary thrust to the abolition of capitalism";

3) "the revolution will be made over the trade union's dead body".

These solid reference points seem rather shaky to us: above all because they do not go to the roots of the problem posed by the Spanish comrades. These comrades want to know why Battaglia still considers it possible today to work within counter-revolutionary organizations like the unions. They will certainly be pleased to hear that the unions are not revolutionary, but this does not take the question forward one jot.

There is no doubt, that even in the 19th century, the unions were not revolutionary organizations, and that their negotiating function always pushed their leaders in a conformist and non-revolutionary direction. However, it is equally true that in the 19th century, marxists fought to the utmost to strengthen the unions. How is it possible, on this identical basis, for the comrades of Battaglia to come to the opposite conclusion that the revolution will have to be made "over the trades unions' dead body"?

Obviously, we will get nowhere like this. It is necessary to put our ideas in order before continuing.

In our opinion, the essential guide lines of the communist position on the unions are the following:

1) the unions were the typical proletarian unitary organization during capitalism's ascendant phase when, since the worldwide proletarian revolution was not yet a possibility, the working-class struggle was essentially in defense of its living conditions and unity within capitalism;

2) with capital's entry into its decadent phase marked by the outbreak of World War I, the proletariat can no longer benefit from the conquest of real reforms; consequently, all the arms created for this struggle (unions, parliamentary parties, etc...) became redundant as far as the proletariat is concerned;

3) the dominant tendency within decadent capitalism is towards state capitalism, one of whose major characteristics is the integration into the state, with an anti-working class function, of organizations that are no longer of any use to the proletariat: the unions have thus become organs of the bourgeois state, to control the workers, and the revolution will destroy them as such.

As we can see, the essential point is that yesterday the unions were working class organizations, while today they belong to the enemy: what is important is what has changed, not what has remained the same.

Since Battaglia says nothing about this in their reply to the Spanish comrades, let us look back at their October 1986 document devoted to the union question ("Il sindacato nel 3 ciclo di accumulazione del capitale"). Here, indeed, we learn that something has changed. But what? and when?

According to BC, what has changed is that, in Marx's day wage increases did indeed decrease the bosses' profits, and the trade union struggle, although limited, was therefore antagonistic to capital. In its monopolistic form, capital has supposedly gained the ability to control the market through monopolies, and therefore to compensate for the effects of wage increases through increased prices; as a result, "with the lessening, or rather the dulling, of the conflict in immediate interests, a whole inter-classist ideology has been able to develop, and strike a chord within the working class itself, especially in the trades unions (...) the institutionalized union is the inevitable conclusion to this process"[3].

In one sentence, BC has turned the world upside down: its decadence no longer means that capitalism has become historically incapable of granting reforms to the working class, but that "the unions are confronted with employers who sometimes even take the lead in conceding wage rises rendered possible, precisely, by the super-profits that a large company can make thanks to its ability to influence the price-fixing process".

Here, Battaglia mistakes effects for the cause: the fact that the bourgeoisie is forced to regulate every stage of the economic cycle (production and market quotas, monetary balance etc...) demonstrates, not that monopoly capital can do what it likes, but on the contrary that ,it is forced to walk on tiptoe through a minefield, because it would collapse into chaos in a matter of months if left to the "free play" of its own laws. And the trades unions, organizations originally formed to negotiate improvements within capitalism, have been integrated into the state because winning lasting reforms has become impossible, not because it has become too easy.

Moreover, if the ease of distributing the crumbs of capital's "super-profits" were really the reason for the unions' integration into the state, then the crisis which, as BC says, has "drastically reduced the possibility (...) of distributing crumbs from these super-profits", should by the same token have eliminated the cause of this integration, and opened the way to the reconstitution of the "glorious red trades unions" in the classic conception of the various Bordigist groups.

The reverse is true, and Battaglia is the first to recognize that with the crisis, the union "has progressively increased its integration into the state apparatus".

There is only one way out of this mesh of contradictions: the recognition that the unions' integration into the bourgeois state has nothing to do with "super-profits", but is based on two complementary historical necessities:

1) capitalism's decadence has made the struggle for lasting reforms impossible,

2) it has also made it vital for capitalism to strengthen its instrument of social cohesion -- the state -- especially by integrating originally working class structures like the trades unions, and transforming them into organs aimed at controlling the working class.

When were the unions integrated into the bourgeois state?

Without this coherence, Battaglia can only flounder in ever more inextricable contradictions, especially when it tries to answer the question: when did the unions pass over to the ruling class?

There should be no room for doubt here: in "Imperialism, the highest stage of capitalism", Lenin, writing in 1916, describes the transition to capital's monopoly form as something that has already taken place. The unions' integration into the bourgeois state, which according to BC depends on this transition, is thus situated at about the period of the First World War. And this is confirmed by the authoritative voice of the Imperial German Government:

"nothing can be done without the union leaders, much less against them; their influence is based on the actions that they have conducted successfully for years to improve the workers' conditions... we could not possibly keep afloat were this not the case"[4].

This definitive integration is only the conclusion of a process begun years before; and it is no accident that the appearance in 1905 of new mass organizations -- the workers' councils of the Russo-Polish revolution, which were later to become the protagonists of the revolutionary wave unleashed by Red October -­coincides with the growing inadequacy of the union form for the needs of the workers' struggle.

Given these basic facts, it comes as a great surprise to read in the pamphlet that today's trades unions are the same "as those of 30 - 40 years ago" (ie, 1947-57), and that "the definitive transition, in Italy at least, occurred during World War II". In other words, the transition occurred about the end of the 1940's -- a leap of more than 30 years. To what do we owe this veritable historical earthquake? Probably, to the fact that, in the discussion that developed during the 1920's, the Italian Left took the same line as the Bolsheviks, in favor of reconquering the trades unions (Rome Theses, 1922), against the German and Butch Lefts, who considered the unions' integration into the state as irreversible. That the Italian Left should make this mistake in the 1920's is perfectly comprehensible; what is incomprehensible, is that today BC should try to rewrite history in order to deny the obvious: that on this question the Dutch and Germans' intuition was swifter and deeper than the Russians' and Italians'[5].

This has nothing to do with the method that the Italian Left has bequeathed us: already during the 1930's, the Italian Left's Fractions abroad, far from taking refuge in the out-and-out defense of the Rome Theses' formulations, were doggedly working to "emphasize the stages of the unions' progressive incorporation into the state"[6]. While some argued that only a new revolutionary situation could make it possible to clarify the question definitively, others considered it already resolved, and fought for an end to all activity within the unions:

"Today, the question is not whether or not it is possible for marxists to develop a healthy activity inside the trades unions; it is one of understanding that these organizations have passed definitively into the enemy camp, and that it is impossible to transform them". (Luciano Stefanini: "Contribute alla discussione sul rapport Verresi", in "I1 Seme Comunista" n° 5 of February 1938, quoted in the ICC's pamphlet "La Gauche Communiste d'Italie)

In fact, the only reason for placing the definitive turning-point at the end of the 1940's is that... it is only after the split with the Bordigists of "Programma Comunista" at the beginning of the 1950's that Battaglia decided to give up definitively any plans to reconquer the unions.

BC's pamphlet tries to mask this fact by reminding us that "all the premises of our later and current position" were already to be found in the Theses on the union question presented at the PCInt's December 1945 Turin Congress. This is true. These Theses, presented by Luciano Stefanini, were clearly anti-union, and from this standpoint fairly close to the positions of the Gauche Communiste de France which we consider as our predecessor; and this is precisely why they were rejected by a large majority of the Congress, which went on to adopt the objective of "conquering the unions' leading organs"!

If the comrades of Battaglia consider it useful to cite episodes of their party's history, they should at least try to be complete....

How did Battaglia change its conception of its "Internationalist Factory Groups"?

Now that we have at last determined the "unions' nature and function", we can consider how revolutionaries should develop their organized intervention.

Although the letter to the Mexican  and Spanish comrades does not talk about it (why not?), we knew that, for Battaglia, revolutionaries organize their intervention through "factory groups". Let's see then, what is the "nature and function" of these factory groups, and how this notion has evolved in time.

1922: the Partito Comunista d'Italia''s Rome Theses assign to the communist factory groups, made up of party militants, the task of reconquering and taking over the political leadership of the unions, seen as transmission belts from party to class.

1952: the perspective of reconquering the unions being abandoned, the groups are kept alive by giving them "two hats, one of the intermediary between party and class, the other of a political organization". In other words, since the trade's union transmission belt no longer exists, the factory groups themselves are to take their place, replacing, one might say, the class' own unitary organizations. It is no accident that these groups are no longer called communist as in 1922, but union factory groups, coordinated in a Union Fraction on the basis of a specific Trade Union Platform.

1977-80: BC limits its reaction to the discussions on this question during the International Conference of the Communist Left, to changing the name to "Internationalist Factory Groups", without touching anything else.

1982: Battaglia's 2nd Congress throws overboard the whole framework of the Union Fraction, Platform and so on... but continues to ascribe to these groups the role of "sole real transmission belt between party and class"[7].

1986: Battaglia's new pamphlet on the unions declares clearly that, while the factory group retains its role as a party organism, "we ran no longer consider it as an intermediary organ" "situated half-way between party and class". Terms like "intermediary organisms" and "transmission belts" are eliminated, as being "worn-out and out-of-date".

The most incredible thing today is that the comrades of Battaglia seem to be unaware how important these last changes are. To grasp this, and above all to make it clear to all the new comrades present on the international scene today, we must go back to the International Conferences held between 1977 and 1980.

At the time, the central discussion was undoubtedly: how should revolutionaries intervene? The debate ended up polarizing around on the one hand, BC and the CWO, defending the factory groups and maintaining that "their role is to act as "transmission belts" or "intermediaries" between party and class"[8], and on the other the ICC, declaring on the contrary that instead of deceiving themselves as to their ability to organize the class' most combative sectors in "their own" groups, communists should be intervening in those organisms that the class movement itself tends to create (today: mass              assemblies, committees, coordinations; tomorrow: the workers' councils). Battaglia Comunista summed up the debate at the 3rd Conference as follows:

"the development of the discussion has made it possible to highlight two opposing positions: 1) the party plays a secondary role in the class struggle, rejecting its "raison d'être" in the organization of the struggle itself; 2) without the party as its leading and organizing organism, the       proletariat cannot carry out its historical task"[9] (our emphasis).

As we can see, for BC the party's organisms must not only provide a political leadership, but also organize the class; whoever rejects this role denies "the party's reason for existing". It was on this basis that BC and the CWO sabotaged the Conferences, declaring that it was impossible to go on talking to the "spontaneists" of the ICC, who maintained that the only correct term was that of "political orientation" or "political leadership", and who proposed a formulation according to which the party is the "indispensable organ for the political orientation of the revolutionary class and its political power, a power taken and held by the whole class organized in Councils". Battaglia, who declared at the Conference that this formulation was "unacceptable, because the Conference must eliminate spontaneism" (ie, the ICC), now calmly declare that "the dialectical unity of class and party is achieved through the Party's political leadership (strategy and tactics of the Revolution) in the proletariat's mass organs (the living force and subject of the Revolution)". The subject of the revolution is thus the class as a whole, regrouped in its mass organizations (the councils), and it is within these organizations that the Party must play its role as a political leadership. Perhaps the comrades of BC would be kind enough to explain to us why these formulations are "completely opposed" to the ICC's "unacceptable" ones? For a decade, whenever we asked how it was possible for the factory groups to be at one and the same time organs of the party, and intermediaries between the party and the class, we were told that we "didn't understand anything about dialectics". And today, Battaglia blithely announces that to have placed these groups "half-way between class and party" was clearly "equivocal" and "ambiguous".

Two things should be clear right from the start. Firstly, that we are perfectly aware that despite this change, BC's positions remain very different from ours; secondly, that despite this we welcome enthusiastically this step forward by Battaglia. But a third thing should also be clear: however big or small this step may be, it will be useless unless it is made coherently. In our opinion, abandoning a position which has been the basis for a decision as important as breaking off the International Conferences, without in the least wondering about the validity of this decision, is neither serious nor coherent.

Can communists work in state organisms like the unions?

BC's reply to the Spanish comrades can be summed up as follows:

1) the ICC comrades, because they go no further than abstract schematism and verbal extremism, limit themselves to being "revolutionaries of declamations and fine gestures, setting their consciences at ease, speaking learnedly to themselves for lack of any possibility of making themselves heard, much less of seeing their "indications" concretized in an organizational class struggle praxis";

2) in reality, what is decisive is not so much where as how one intervenes. In this sense, "the problem of being outside or inside the union is a false one, or rather one that is tied to the concrete possibilities and opportunities offered by the contingent situation";

3) the correctness of BC's position is confirmed by the fact that "the ICC has for some time been developing an intense activity of intervention, and has corrected some of its idealist rigidities by blurring them".

Let's try to set things straight. The ICC is so "abstract" in its principal of anti-unionism that not only does it intervene in any demonstration or mass meeting called by the unions, where there is a real working class presence, it also explicitly allows its militants working in closed shops to join a union. But this legal or quasi-legal obligation, similar to paying taxes, has nothing to do with choosing to join a union in order to carry out anti-union activity. And let us note in passing that already in the 1930's, unlike the Trotskyists, the comrades of the Italian Left ruled out any work inside the fascist unions either in Italy or Germany. The discussion was automatically settled on this point, since it was taken for granted that no communist action was possible inside an organ of the state, and there could be no doubt that the fascist unions were state organs. The comrades of Battaglia affirm, by contrast, that the unions are integrated into the state and that it is nonetheless possible to work within them: they are free to do so, but not to call on the Communist Left to support this affirmation.

Two ways of intervening in the class struggle

Faced with this amusing idea that the ICC has changed position by throwing itself into "an intense activity of intervention" in the struggle, it is necessary to return once again to the discussions in the International Conferences.

The debate was not between those in favor of intervention and those against it. It was a confrontation between on the one hand, the ICC maintaining that revolutionaries should intervene in the struggle, and in the attempts at self-organization that were developing at the time (hospital workers in Italy in 1978, steelworkers in Britain and the Lorraine in 1979, the Rotterdam dockers, etc...), and on the other, Battaglia and the CWO, according to whom revolutionaries should be dedicating themselves to building factory groups, which were to organize the combative sectors of the proletariat, and make real mass movements of the class possible. The ICC proposed a resolution, whose starting point was the recognition of the fact that "the historic recovery of the workers' struggles accompanied by the development within the class of groups, circles, nuclei of proletarians, which although not fully formed and menaced by all kinds of dangers, by activism, workerism„ or new-style trades unionism, are a real sign of life in the class". This resolution therefore emphasized the need to intervene within these organisms, to combat such dangers and so to contribute to the process of the class' coming to consciousness.

Battaglia and the CWO rejected the resolution and were so blinded by the weaknesses of these first attempts that they went so far as to call their class nature into question, seeing them essentially as "maneuvers of one or another political group". Even the 5th Congress' 1982 Theses still insist on this characterization, and when they admit the possible appearance, in the very distant future, of "workers' circles", the only perspective that these are given is to turn into to factory groups, transmission belts between Battaglia and the class.

Today, BC's pamphlet on the unions insists that the organisms formed by the workers' spontaneity (assemblies, coordinations, councils), must be able to find "in the workplace, clearly defined reference points capable of taking on the political leadership of these mass organs". When we insisted, between 1977 and 1980, that the role of communists was to fight to give a class orientation within the organisms that the workers' spontaneity will increasingly generate, we were accused of being "spontaneists" with whom it was impossible to discuss seriously. What should we accuse Battaglia of today?

Two interventions and the test of reality

But abandoning the idea that it is up to communists to create the framework destined to organize the proletariat's most militant sectors does not solve all the problems, nor does it settle all the disagreements between us and BC. Firstly, although BC today recognizes the reality of the process by which autonomous mass organizations are appearing, here and there (mass meetings, strike committees...), it has no position on the tendency towards minority organizations, bringing together small groups of militant workers, and whose purpose is to push the struggle forward, and to analyze its lessons. In the 1992 Theses, these minority organisms are still considered, to all intents and purposes, as "emanations of the class' political organizations". Does BC recognize today, that the tendency towards the formation of such groups is "a real sign of life in the class"? And secondly, understanding the necessity to ensure a political leadership in these mass organizations is one thing, having the ability to do so is another.

And from this point of view, Battaglia's record is hardly positive. In the two recent episodes where mass proletarian organizations have appeared outside the trades unions -- the rail workers' struggle in France and the school workers struggle in Italy - neither the French section of the IBRP linked to Battaglia, nor Battaglia itself intervened in the movement. All that they managed to do was to wait till the end of the struggle to write a text in which they...denounced its limitations! This is especially disconcerting in the case of Battaglia, which has an organized group of militants amongst the teachers, with a long tradition of intervention and which could and should have played the role of a spur and political leadership in the movement. But to lead a movement, one must at least intervene in it, and not limit oneself to "learnedly" expressing one's opinion. Battaglia however, prefers to explain to us that the 1987 rail workers' movement was more corporatist than the steelworkers' in 1979, and that this proves, contrary to what the ICC says, that the class does not learn from its own experience. This kind of affirmation only proves that BC had nothing to do either with the steelworkers in 1979 or with the railwaymen in 1987. In 1979, the French steelworkers' struggle, for all its radicalism and combativity, remained under the control of the Longwy "Intersyndicale", ie a rank-and-file trade union organism. In 1987, the rail workers started and spread their movement outside and against the unions; they formed strike committees based on their own mass assemblies, and began to create regional and national coordinations, which is a considerable step forward. As for the Italian school workers, they were organized nationally outside and against the unions.

Of course, there was corporatism everywhere, rank-and-file unionism even more so; but there was also a maturation within the working class, a greater openness to the intervention of revolutionaries which appeared in the fact, not only that the ICC was able to intervene in the movement, as it had done in 1979, but that its militants encountered a far greater echo, and in the case of the Italian school workers' assemblies, were even elected as delegates to the national coordinations[10].

Certainly, we have made mistakes during these years; we have even paid dearly for some of them. But at least we have learnt by acting in the heart of the workers' struggles. Can Battaglia draw the same conclusion from its famous factory groups, with all their twists and turns?

The renewal of the class struggle has put unfinished discussions back on the agenda

After sabotaging the International Conferences, Battaglia Comunista for years neglected to answer our polemical articles. When we asked the comrades why, they replied that their paper was read in the factories and that the workers were not interested in reading pages of polemics with the ICC, which comes down to saying that the discussions among revolutionaries are just so much hot air, and that the "concrete" workers have got no time for them.

Today, however, BC regularly devotes pages and pages to polemics with the ICC, the OCI, and even with an extra-parliamentary bourgeois group like Lotta Comunista. What has happened? Have BC's working class readers decided to "cultivate" themselves. Or is this not rather the confirmation of what we said when BC decided to interrupt the Conferences: "one thing must be clear: the questions that you are refusing to discuss today will be on the agenda in the struggle tomorrow". And it is indeed the renewal of the international class struggle which is today renewing the debate which up to now had been limited to Europe, and widening it as far as Mexico, Argentina, and India.

To repeat what we said in our 1980 open letter to Battaglia: "if the Conference, are dead, through your action, the idea of the Conferences is not. On the contrary, the renewal of the proletarian struggle will push revolutionaries to emerge from their isolation, and to organize a public discussion on the questions that the class is confronting"[11].

This is the objective that all revolutionaries should aim at, Battaglia included.


[1] Partito Comunista Internazionalista (Battaglia Comunista): CP1753, 20101 Milano, Italy. The PCInt, along with the Communist Workers' Organization (Britain), and comrades in France and India, is part of the International Bureau for the Revolutionary Party (IBRP), which can be contacted at the same address.

[2] See "On the Course of History" in the International Review no. 50, 3rd quarter 1987.

[3] "The trade unions in the 3rd cycle of the accumulation of capital" - available from BC - the different quotes can be found on pages: 9, 8, 11, 13, 3, 10, 15, and 16.

[4] Quoted in "La Sinistra Tedesca" by Barrot, published by La Salamandia.

[5] The fact that this intuition, by its very precocity, was expressed in formulation that were still incomplete and immature, and which still did not bar the way to back-sliding in the form of a radical "revolutionary" unionism, in no way diminishes the merit of the German and Dutch Lefts in being the first to pose the problem of the unions' destruction.

[6] This work has been described in detail in the ICC's pamphlet "La Gauche Communiste Italianne, 1927-1952", especially in Chapter 7.

[7] The Theses of the Trade Unions from BC's 5th Congress are reprinted as an appendix to the 1986 pamphlet.

[8] Preparatory Bulletin no. 2 of Texts for the 3rd Conference of Groups of the Communist Left.

[9] Proceedings of the 3rd Conference of Groups of the Communist Left (May 1980), available from the ICC. The various quotations can be found in Part 7.

[10] A detailed article criticizing BC's absence from the school workers' movement will be published in no. 31 of the ICC's press in Italy: "Rivoluzione Internazionale".

[11] Letter from the ICC to the PCInt (BC) after the 3rd Conference, published as an appendix to the Proceedings.