The unions in decadent capitalism

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With the onset of the twentieth century the conditions which had allowed for capitalism’s extraordinary expansion began to disappear. The creation of the world market was achieved and with this antagonisms already existing between the various capitalist powers for the domination of markets increased, as their need for outlets for their products outstripped the capacity of the world market to absorb them. The very development of capital piled up barriers to its continued expansion. There were ‘too many capitalists’ for the existing markets. The last powerful nation states to enter into competition on the world market (in particular Germany, Italy and Russia) could only open up outlets for their own development at the expense of the old ruling powers. From the beginning of the century, squabbles between the imperialist powers multiplied.

The economic and social life of each nation was more and more thrown into disorder. To cope with rivalries developing over the competition of commodities on the world market, as well as military competition, the whole economy had to be stretched to its maximum limits in order to lower the costs of production and release the necessary resources to develop armies and a military apparatus of the most modern type. The margin of manoeuvre which had once been available to the national capitals and which had allowed the proletariat room to lead a struggle for reforms within bourgeois society shrank rapidly. The piti­less war which the capitalist nations embarked upon led nat­urally enough to an internal war waged by capital against any amelioration in the living conditions of the producing class. The economic and military efficiency of each national capital vis-à-vis other national capitals depended as never before on the capacity of each to extract the maximum surplus value from its exploited class. No national capital could grant concessions to its proletariat without falling behind on the international arena.

The objective economic foundations which had led the proletar­iat to focus its class activity around a struggle for the systematic conquest of reforms had irreversibly fallen apart, laying bare the fundamental class antagonisms between the pro­letariat and bourgeoisie and exacerbating them to their very limits. On the political level, the most powerful sectors of the bourgeoisie in each national capital asserted themselves against the rest of their class and progressively concentrated all power in the hands of the state executive. In the process Parliament became merely a chamber to rubber stamp executive decisions. It was kept in existence solely for the purpose of political mystification.

The era of capitalism’s apogee was over and the era of its historic decline opened up.

This fundamental change totally transformed the conditions within which the proletariat had been struggling. Gone was the time when the proletariat could negotiate within the confines of Parliament for an amelioration in its living conditions; gone was the time when it could take advantage of the divergences existing between different bourgeois factions in ‘order to pursue its own interests; gone was the time when an improvement in its lot could constitute a stimulant to capitalist develop­ment; gone was the epoch when the proletariat could cling to the hope of winning its ‘minimum programme’. From now on the class would be confronted with an ever-more centralised, omnipresent and powerful state which could only offer the proletariat ever-increasing exploitation and enlistment as cannon fodder in inter-imperialist conflicts. From now on, indirect methods of political struggle, the attempt to put pressure on the capitalist state and modify its policies through unions and parliamentary parties, could only collapse in the face of the survival-needs of each national capital. Any programme of reform became an unattainable utopia, and all the methods of struggle that had evolved to suit the conditions of ascen­dant capitalism became fetters on the expression of proletarian interests.

World War I, by definitively marking the entry of capitalism into its decadent phase, violently confronted the proletariat and its organisations with this alternative: ‘War or Revolution’; ‘Socialism or Barbarism. Either the proletariat had to engage in the direct, revolutionary, mass struggle thereby abandoning its old, inappropriate forms of struggle and organisation, or it would submit to capitalist barbarism.

The old union and parliamentary structure of the 2nd Interna­tional, riddled to the core with reformism, scarcely hesitated. It passed lock, stock and barrel into the camp of the bourgeoi­sie, and immediately became capital’s recruiting agent for the imperialist butchery.

During the revolutionary explosion which shook Europe at the end of the war the workers provided themselves with new forms of struggle and organisation: mass struggles organised in councils made their first appearance in the beginning of the century with the struggle of the young Russian proletariat. And there ranged before them, flanking the bourgeoisie and the parliamentary parties, stood the unions.


Since World War I, capitalist decadence has plunged humanity into the barbarity of a recurring cycle of crisis, war, and reconstruction. This cycle reinforces the existing historic conditions, which simultaneously render impossible any defence of proletarian interests through reformist struggles, and force any organisation basing itself on this terrain to become a bourgeois instrument integrated into the state apparatus. These conditions principally boil down to the impossibility of reforms and the development of state totalitarianism.


In order to deal with both international competition exacerbat­ed to unbearable limits, and to cope with the unproductive expenses which keep growing in proportion to the deepening contradictions of the system, the bourgeoisie must use the following mechanisms:

  1. The maintenance of the more and more monstrous adminis­trative and policing apparatus of the state.
  2. Gigantic expenditure on military production (up to 50 per cent of the state budget in countries like Russia or the USA).
  3. State subsidies to a greater and greater number of sectors suffering chronic deficits.
  4. Increase marketing, publicity, and in general the so-called ‘tertiary’ sector costs in an attempt to wring from the system compensation for all the expenses of an economic administration which has become as costly as it is contradictory and absurd.
  5. And finally, capital is permanently forced to increase the exploitation of the proletariat beyond the point of endurance so as to meet all these unproductive expenses which are characteristics of capitalism in decline.

Given this situation, the bourgeoisie even when it is pressurised by the most militant workers’ struggles, cannot afford to grant any real reforms.

It is obvious that during the last fifty years all the struggles for wage increases have ended up with nothing. On the economic terrain, increases in wages have been merely gobbled up by constantly rising prices. The wage increases won in June 1936 at Matignon in France (averaging 12 per cent) evaporated in six months (from September 1936 to January 1937 prices rose an average of 11 per cent). Similarly we all know that one year later nothing was left of the increases granted in June 1968 at Grenella (after the May-June 1968 events in France).

The same phenomenon can be seen with regard to working condi­tions. While during the ascendant period of capitalism the length of the working week effectively fell due to the pressure of workers struggles (from 1850 to 1900 the length of the work­ing week in industry diminished from 72 to 64.5 hours in France, and from 63 to 55.3 hours in the USA), under decadent capital­ism the number of hours has remained the same when it has not actually risen (not to mention the increasing amount of time spent commuting to work). In May-June 1968 the French working class was obliged to win again the ‘victory’ it won in 1936 (the forty-hour week of 1936 had become 44.3 in 1949 and 45.7 in 1962!).

The period of reconstruction, which began in 1945 after the miseries of the crisis and the war, led many to believe that an improvement in living and working conditions was still possible. The relative prosperity enjoyed by capital during the reconstruction period allowed it partially to reabsorb the unemployed and offer a certain amount of security of employment. Everywhere the defenders of the system held out the bright prospect of a spectacular improvement in living standards in the industrialised countries. But what was the reality behind this great ‘improvement’ which led some people to assert that the proletariat had disappeared - diluted supposedly into the so-called ‘consumer society’?


What determines the living conditions of the workers is prim­arily the length of time the workers must work and the degree of intensification of their exploitation. Within these two areas there has been no meaningful improvement in the living condi­tions of the workers under decadent capitalism. The length of working time has officially been shortened but any decrease has been compensated for by compulsory overtime and extended commuting time: “In the strictly economic domain the situation of the working class was never worse than it is today...In many countries the refusal to work overtime is an immediate cause for dis­missal and everywhere the introduction of so-called ‘base rates of pay’ which are deliberately kept low, and rewards and bonuses based on productivity, etc...force the workers to accept ‘of his own accord’ working days of ten to twelve hours…With respect to the most profound aspect of exploitation -productivity per person per hour - the proletariat finds itself forced into a terrible situation. The production that is extracted from him each day increases at an enormous rate. First, technical innovations take away from the worker any creative intervention in his labour, measure his move­ments to the second, and transform him into a living robot subjected to the same rhythm as the machines. Then, time and motion studies, that atrocious and repugnant snare, force people to work over and over with the same tools and during uniform periods of time. Finally, the discipline of each enterprise reduces to a minimum the slightest suspension of work even the lighting of a cigarette or taking a shit The output that is extracted from each person by these means is enormous and so, in the same proportion, is the worker’s physical and psychic exhaustion”, (G. Munis, ‘Unions against the Revolution’, in Internationalism no. 3).


Such an increase, which the idolaters of capitalism have made so much of, is quite simply a fraud. Generally speaking, increased purchasing power means being able to acquire a tele­vision, a car, and the ‘convenience’ of electrical gadgets. But this increase is still only the minimum capital is forced to grant to maintain exploitation under the conditions of modern life. The best example of this is the television set. Apart from being one of the saddest ways of making the worker forget his exhaustion during the three or four hours left to him at the end of a day’s work, television is also an effective ideological weapon and has long been recognised as such. If the workers didn’t want television sets because they cost too much, capital would hand them out free. Cars and other labour-saving devices are ways of getting the most out of the ‘free’ time of the worker in order to allow him to reproduce his labour power under a rhythm of life made more and more exhausting for him by capital. Such devices are just as indispensable for today’s proletariat as paid holidays are necessary to recuper­ate from a year of inhuman labour. All these things portrayed as sheer luxuries are merely the strict minimum required in this modern epoch.

The hollow-sounding assertions made by the defenders of capital cannot hide the reality workers have felt now every day for decades, namely that capitalism must deteriorate their living conditions irreversibly. Faced with this state of affairs and faced with the systematic failure of struggles for real reforms, what role remains for the unions to play? For unions to acknow­ledge the true state of affairs would mean the recognition of their own ineffectiveness and their self-destruction.

In order to survive, therefore, they have had to become the ‘consolers’ of the working class in the same way as the church was centuries back for the serfs. Today, while they don’t promise heaven, they do invent ‘victories’ where there are only defeats. They speak of workers’ conquests when there is nothing but a reinforcement of exploitation, and they transform any workers struggle into a peaceful demonstration. Just like the church in the Middle Ages, the unions act today as the spearhead of the ruling class within the exploited class.

In this era we have seen conflicts develop between capitalists within each nation and between different factions of world capital. Conflicts have also arisen between antagonistic classes. And in a general sense we have seen a worsening in the overall conflict between the development of the productive forces and the social framework they have outgrown. Its own mechanisms lead decadent capitalism to disintegrate in every domain. And, as was the case in decadent periods of slave society and feudalism, the totalitarian power of the state intervening at every level in society - controlling everything - consequen­tly becomes an essential factor in the maintenance of the old decaying social edifice.

If, during the prosperous years of the nineteenth century, ‘free-exchange’ and economic ‘non-interventionism’ were possib­le, in its decadent phase capital has developed a much streng­thened state to co-ordinate and directly control every aspect of social life and above all control social relations between the classes.

Paralleling the increasing role of the state in the economy since World War I, has been the multiplication of laws regulating relations between capital and labour, to create a narrowly defined area of ‘legality’ within which the prolet­arian struggle is circumscribed and reduced to impotency. These laws can assume either the vicious dictatorial forms assoc­iated with Stalinist or fascist regimes, of the more subtle - though no less effective - forms associated with the so-called ‘democratic’ regimes. But under whatever guise they appear these laws form an ideal apparatus for containing the struggles of the working class.

Given the present day historical conditions, any union organisation is forced by the very nature of its function to seek legality. It is permanently subject to pressure. Such pressure tends to transform the union into a conveyor belt for the state playing the only game it can play. The game is making capitalist laws acceptable to the workers. The power of integration possessed by the state apparatus under the totalitarianism of decadent capitalism will only be defeated by direct revolutionary action against the state itself. The unions, which by defini­tion cannot base their activity on this terrain, have no resour­ces to pit against the state.

The integration of the unions into the state frequently mani­fests itself in an overt and direct way. They officially become an integral part of the state apparatus and in many cases the unionisation of the workers is made obligatory by law. This is what happens in most of the countries born out of ‘national liberation struggles’, countries which display the most senile forms of decadent capitalism. This also happens in fascist or so-called ‘socialist’ regimes.

In ‘democratic’ regimes - in particular those where the unions are linked to political opposition parties (or where they must submit to being clandestine) - integration into the state apparatus manifests itself in a less overt fashion. But the very fact that the unions accept the framework of state legal­ity (or attempt to get themselves accepted by it, as is the case for the clandestine unions in Spain) means that in reali­ty they are integrated into the rungs of the state apparatus. Opposition between different factions of the bourgeois political apparatus serves only to give these union organisations a veneer of combativity, at least verbally, which allows them to better appear as ‘workers’ organisations’.

Whether this integration is done crudely, or whether it is done through participation by the unions in the bourgeois political comedy, the unions are inevitably absorbed by the state under decadent capitalism. At the point when the unions could no longer exist as workers’ organisations because of the impossib­ility of fulfilling their original task, decadent capitalism created the need within the state for a number of functions which suited the unions perfectly: containment of the working class, management of the sale of labour power, regularisation and defusing of the conflicts between capital and labour, etc. This is why we saw in the first part of the text that the state often creates unions, defends them and subsidises them, for it is only as rungs in this apparatus, associated with the daily management of capitalist exploitation, that the unions can survive in a world where their original function has become impossible.


It is in the factories and in the face of explosions of class struggle that the unions are so indispensable to the capitalist state. Immersed within the revolutionary class they are the best placed to defuse, demoralise, and divide any revolutionary tendency in the class. In countries where an old trade unionist tradition exists, they have become experts in these matters.

The major weakness of any exploited class is lack of confidence in itself. Everything in a class society is structured so as to inculcate into the minds of the exploited class the idea of the inevitability of their situation and of their impotence to overthrow the status quo. Trade unionism - by offering no other perspective to the class than that of illusory improvements in its exploited condition, by permanently presenting the class struggle as a ‘terrible sacrifice for the workers’, by making negotiation the sole end of the struggle, by singing the praises of the ideal ‘good worker’ who is the father of his family and responsible and serious in his work - is one of the best peddlers of bourgeois ideology within the working class. Unions spread a spirit of demoralisation and self-abnegation, the very oppo­site of the combative spirit of the revolutionary class.

The unions excel in the task of dividing any working class struggle by imprisoning it within completely ineffective forms of struggle (strikes just for a few hours, ‘days of action’, go-slows, etc.) and by compartmentalising any proletarian struggle by shop-floor, by factory and by sector. To prevent at all costs the unification and generalisation of the struggles of the class is the stock in trade of the unions.

Finally, when revolutionary elements in a factory break away from all this by putting the unions and their activities into question, the union bureaucracy is able to play a good policing role, meeting out physical repression when possible and res­orting on other occasions to slander by calling the workers agent provocateurs of the government, CIA agents, etc. each time acting as the faithful watchdogs of the system.

Books and books could be written recounting the many varied methods used by unions to sabotage struggles. Just to relate incidences from the last decades would be enough, but that is not our purpose here. The important point is to understand why the unions act in this way, how to fight against the union prison, and above all what not to do.


If we accept that it was the unions’ incapacity to break away from the framework of reformist struggles that led to their integration into the bourgeois state, then how are we to under­stand the idea that there might be a form of trade unionism which by having revolutionary goals could escape being integr­ated into the state? This is precisely what the anarcho- syndicalists tried to do from the beginning of this century with their revolutionary syndicalism.

Revolutionary syndicalism constituted a reaction against parliamentary degeneration and the reformism of the unions. To begin with it also expressed, at least in a partial way, an authentic current within the workers’ movement. But in order to oppose parliamentarism, revolutionary syndicalism took up again the old anarchist idea, vehemently fought against by Marx, of advocating the rejection of political struggle, seeing in it the source of all reformist degeneration. Through its concern to be ‘apolitical’ it once more joined up with its reformist enemies, who as we have seen defended the apoliticism of the unions, but from a different standpoint. Syndicalism and parliamentarism are part and parcel of a form of struggle that corresponded to a particular historical period. To reject one without the other is to inevitably fall into incoherence which can only lead to a dead-end.

Under decadent capitalism revolutionary struggle cannot take on a trade union form. The revolutionary struggle is a mass, generalised, and direct struggle which cannot revert back into the shell of an organisation built for the purpose of a permanent, and systematic struggle for reforms, still less when reforms themselves are impossible. Revolutionary syndicalism had to adopt either politics in keeping with the union form (and that under decadent capitalism would have condemned it to pass to the camp of capital) or it would have had to dissolve itself as a syndicalist organisation in order to integrate itself into the revolutionary struggle, or else dissolve into general society. In the USA, the IWW disappeared. In France and Spain, in spite of often great resistance, revolutionary syndicalist organisations fell prey in the first instance into participation in the imperialist war and in the second instance into participation in the government of the bourgeois Republic during the Spanish Civil War (see note 1).

In all cases, the experience of revolutionary syndicalism only demonstrated one thing: the impossibility of building revolut­ionary trade unions in decadent capitalism. That is to say the impossibility of building real workers’ unions.


1. The Spanish CNT, the only example of a trade union organisation to have tried several times to realise its maximum programme, the “social revolution” (in 1933 and 1934), only did so after the anarchists of the Iberian Anarchist Federa­tion (FAI) had conducted a bitter struggle inside it. Through­out the dictatorship of Primo de Rivera, the CNT, despite its professed ‘revolutionary apoliticism’, was in contact with all kinds of conspirators, like Macia, the Republican Alliance, and various other oppositional elements.

In July 1927 the FAI was founded. Its members, rejecting any kind of tactical compromise, attempted to win over the CNT in order to realise the social revolution. The FAI became the rallying point for all those who disapproved of the reformist orientation of anarcho-syndicalism.

At the National Congress of 1930 the two tendencies clashed. On the one hand, there were the leaders of the CNT, who stressed above everything else the trade unionism of the CNT, and proposed an alliance with other groups and fractions to facilitate the setting up of the Republic; on the other hand stood the ‘purists’ of the FAI who insisted on the anarchism of the Confederation, rejecting all compromise. The latter carried the day: the old leaders were displaced from their positions, then took their faction out of the CNT. (The ‘trentistes’ organised their own trade unions). It was for this reason that the CNT did not participate in the embryonic Popular Front of 1930.

The CNT, under the influence of the FAI which was also commit­ted to an ‘a-political’ line, tried until 1936 to use the general strike as a preparation for insurrection. Weakened considerably by repression and discouraged by successive failures, the CNT paid the price for believing in the possi­bility of revolutionary unionism. At the 1935 Congress the ‘trentistes’ came back, having meanwhile entered into all kinds of alliances with the bourgeoisie. The attempted right- wing insurrection of 18 July 1936 and the proletarian uprising of the 19th shattered the facade surrounding the organisation. The ‘workers’ forces came to power led by the CNT and the FAI. In Catalonia, its stronghold, the CNT made up part of the Committee of Anti-Fascist Militias - itself on the borders of the ‘Gobierno de la Generalidad’; then it entered the latter, thus giving it the working class prop it needed so badly. Syndicalist apoliticism had triumphed! The ‘purists’ of the FAI did not take long either to accept ministerial posts in the Republic they had fought against for so long.

These ‘anti-authoritarian’ partisans of an ‘a-political social revolution’, who acted in the name of sacrosanct moral principles, never understood the need for the destruction of the state apparatus as a moment in the political struggle of the proletariat against its class enemy, the bourgeoisie.

All the while defending certain revolutionary principles (anti-frontism, anti-parliamentarism) in the name of ideological purity, they attached little importance to the transgression of these principles under the pressure of events, as long as the ideology remained ‘pure’. Thus the CNT allied itself with bourgeois parties, participated in the government of the bour­geois Republic, and allowed the proletariat to be massacred in Barcelona in 1937 in order not to disturb the ‘unity’ of the anti-fascist front. In short they proved what must now seem obvious: that apoliticism, the rejection of class fron­tiers clearly set down as political principles, can only bene­fit the bourgeoisie.

After 1936, the CNT’s policy of anti-fascist unity made it play the role of all other reformist unions: containing the working class in the service of capital. Despite the honesty of its militants, the ‘a-political’ organisation thus joined the ranks of the bourgeoisie.

To have struggled so much and sacrificed so many revolutionary militants, only to end up with a seat in the ministries of the Republic was a sad destiny for ‘revolutionary a-political syndicalism’.

By allying itself with the very forces which showed no hesita­tion in firing upon revolutionary workers (most of whom were its own militants) the CNT buried anarcho-syndicalism in the dustbin of history, alongside the parliamentary parties, the reformist unions, the Trotskyists, and the Stalinists.