All trade unions are against the struggle of the working class

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A reader who recently took part in an online public meeting of the ICC has raised questions about our position on the trade unions, the Russian revolution and other vital questions. Here we publish part of the correspondence dealing with the question of the trade unions.

Letter from R:

“The historical justification from left-communists not participating in trade unions was solely based on the conditions of Germany at the time. The SPD and Unions had started to become reactionary and support the status quo. However, theoreticians like Pannekoek didn't argue we shouldn't participate in trade unions, one of the best tools the proletariat have to win short term economic gains, but we can't rely on them as a socialist organisation. I don't understand why in the 'basic positions' you hold that we shouldn't participate in trade unions. “ 

ICC reply: 

Dear comrade

The position of the communist left on the trade unions is not limited to a particular time and place as you argue, but is based on the historic passage of world capitalism from the ascendant to the decadent period, clearly marked by the outbreak of World War One. The opportunists of social democracy, followed by the majority of trade unions, made clear their allegiance to the capitalist camp by helping to recruit the working class for the war, a phenomenon which was by no means limited to Germany. The gradual bureaucratisation of the unions which had already been underway for decades now moved onto a qualitatively new stage, in which the unions ceased being defensive instruments of the class and became state organs charged with controlling the working class. Pannekoek, in World Revolution and Communist Tactics (1920) saw that, like the capitalist state as a whole, the working class would have to destroy the trade unions; and again, he was not only talking about Germany, but about the needs of the world revolution:

“Marx’ and Lenin’s insistence that the way in which the state is organised precludes its use as an instrument of proletarian revolution, notwithstanding its democratic forms, must therefore also apply to the trade-union organisations. Their counterrevolutionary potential cannot be destroyed or diminished by a change of personnel, by the substitution of radical or ‘revolutionary’ leaders for reactionary ones. It is the form of the organisation that renders the masses all but impotent and prevents them making the trade union an organ of their will. The revolution can only be successful by destroying this organisation, that is to say so completely revolutionising its organisational structure that it becomes something completely different”[1]

This was a position he never abandoned. A text written in 1936 defines the unions as instruments of the ruling class, recruiting sergeants for war, and fundamentally opposed to communism:

“Trade unions, however, in war must stand upon the side of the capitalist. Its interests are bound up with national capitalism, the victory of which it must wish with all its heart. Hence it assists in arousing strong national feelings and national hatred. It helps the capitalist class to drive the workers into war and to beat down all opposition.

Trade unionism abhors communism. Communism takes away the very basis of its existence. In communism, in the absence of capitalist employers, there is no room for the trade union and labour leaders. It is true that in countries with a strong socialist movement, where the bulk of the workers are socialists, the labour leaders must be socialists too, by origin as well as by environment. But then they are right-wing socialists; and their socialism is restricted to the idea of a commonwealth where instead of greedy capitalists honest labour leaders will manage industrial production.

Trade unionism hates revolution. Revolution upsets all the ordinary relations between capitalists and workers. In its violent clashings, all those careful tariff regulations are swept away; in the strife of its gigantic forces the modest skill of the bargaining labour leaders loses its value. With all its power, trade unionism opposes the ideas of revolution and communism”.[2]

And the capitalist function of the unions was not only evident in moments of war and revolution. Having begun as organisations for the daily struggle against exploitation, in the new period they become tools of the ruling class for sabotaging workers’ struggles and imposing the bourgeoisie’s attacks on working class living standards:

It was the task and the function of trade unionism, by their joint united fight to raise the workers out of their helpless misery, and to gain for them an acknowledged place in capitalist society. It had to defend the workers against the ever-increasing exploitation of capital. Now that big capital consolidates more than ever into a monopolistic power of banks and industrial concerns, this former function of trade unionism is finished. Its power falls short compared to the formidable power of capital. The unions are now giant organizations, with their acknowledged place in society; their position is regulated by law, and their tariff [Court Award] agreements are given legally binding force for the entire industry. Their leaders aspire at forming part of the power ruling industrial conditions. They are the apparatus by means of which monopolistic capital imposes its conditions upon the entire working class. To this now all-powerful capital it is, normally, far more preferable to disguise its rule in democratic and constitutional forms than to show it in the naked brutality of dictatorship. The working conditions which it thinks suitable to the workers will be accepted and obeyed much more easily in the form of agreements concluded by the unions than in the form of dictates arrogantly imposed. Firstly, because to the workers the illusion is left that they are masters of their own interests. Secondly, because all the bonds of attachment, which as their own creation, the creation of their sacrifices, their fight, their elation, render the unions dear to the workers, now are subservient to the masters. Thus under modern conditions trade unions more than ever are turned into organs of the domination of monopolist capital over the working class”.[3]

This passage is from the 1947 pamphlet Workers’ Councils, where Pannekoek develops a theme he had already begun to elaborate prior to the First World War – the necessity for the working class to create new organs for its struggle against capital, both in its defensive and its offensive phases. Organs like mass assemblies and elected, revocable strike committees, precursors of the councils.

In our view, the role of revolutionaries in every struggle is to push for the workers to take control of their movement and spread it to other workers, outside and against the trade union machinery which divides them into a myriad of categories and sectors, and subjects them to the repressive laws of the ruling class (strike votes by ballots rather than mass assemblies, limits on numbers of pickets, ban on secondary picketing etc), exactly as we are seeing in the current struggles in the UK. As we show in our current international leaflet[4], these struggles are extremely important despite being generally controlled by the unions; but revolutionaries have to defend a perspective for the struggle to go forward, and this can only mean a confrontation with the unions around their attempts to limit and divide the class movement. We don’t think putting forward such a perspective is compatible with working inside the unions (eg, by accepting the role of shop stewards, campaigning for a more radical leadership, etc).

Our general position on the unions is explained in our pamphlet, which is available in print but can also be read online[5].


Very fraternally

Alf for the ICC.