In the nineteenth century, the period of capitalism’s greatest prosperity, the working class - often through bitter and bloody struggles - built up permanent trade organisations whose role was to defend its economic interests: the trade unions. These organs played an essential role in the struggle for reforms and for the substantial improvements in the workers’ living conditions which the system could then afford. They also constituted a focus for the regroupment of the class, for the development of its solidarity and consciousness, so that revolutionaries could intervene within them and help make them serve as ‘schools for communism’. Although the existence of these organs was indissolubly linked to the existence of wage labour, and although even in this period they were often substantially bureaucratised, the unions were nevertheless authentic organs of the class to the extent that the abolition of wage labour was not yet on the historical agenda.
As capitalism entered its decadent phase it was no longer able to accord reforms and improvements in living conditions to the working class. Having lost all possibility of fulfilling their initial function of defending working class interests, and confronted with an historic situation in which only the abolition of wage labour and with it, the disappearance of trade unions, was on the agenda, the trade unions became true defenders of capitalism, agencies of the bourgeois state within the working class. This is the only way they could survive in the new period. This evolution was aided by the bureaucratisation of the unions prior to decadence and by the relentless tendency within decadence for the state to absorb all the structures of social life.
The anti-working class role of the unions was decisively demonstrated for the first time during World War I when alongside the Social Democratic parties they helped to mobilise the workers for the imperialist slaughter. In the revolutionary wave which followed the war, the unions did everything in their power to smother the proletariat’s attempts to destroy capitalism. Since then they have been kept alive not by the working class, but the capitalist state for which they fulfil a number of important functions:
- actively participating in the efforts of the state to rationalise the economy, regulate the sale of labour power, and intensify exploitation;
- sabotaging the class struggle from within either by derailing strikes and revolts into sectional dead-ends, or by confronting autonomous movements with open repression.
Because the unions have lost their proletarian character, they cannot be ‘reconquered by the working class’, nor can they constitute a field of activity for revolutionaries. For over half a century the workers have shown less and less interest in participating in the activities of these organs which have become an integral part of the bourgeois state. The workers’ struggles to resist the constant deterioration of their living conditions have tended to take the forms of wildcat strikes outside of and against the unions. Directed by general assemblies of strikers and, in cases where they generalise, co-ordinated by committees of delegates elected and revocable by these assemblies, these strikes have immediately placed themselves on a political terrain in that they have been forced to confront the state in the form of its representatives inside the factory: the trade unions. Only the generalisation and radicalisation of these struggles can enable the class to move from the defensive terrain to the open and frontal assault on the capitalist state; and the destruction of the bourgeois state power necessarily involves the destruction of the trade unions.
The anti-proletarian character of the old trade unions is not simply a result of the fact they are organised in a particular way (by trade, by industry), or that they had ‘bad leaders’; it is a result of the fact that in the present period the class cannot maintain permanent organisations for the defence of its economic interests. Consequently, the capitalist function of these organs also applies to all those ‘new’ organisations which play a similar role, no matter what their initial intentions. This is the case with the ‘revolutionary unions’ and ‘shop stewards’ as well as those organs (workers’ committees, worker’s commissions…) which stay in existence after a struggle - even in opposition to the unions - and try to set themselves up as ‘authentic’ poles for the defence of the workers’ immediate interests. On this basis, these organisations cannot escape from being integrated into the apparatus of the bourgeois state even in an unofficial or illegal manner.
All political strategies aimed at ‘using’, ‘regenerating’. or ‘reconquering’ trade union type organisations serve only the interests of capitalism, in that they seek to vitalise capitalist institutions which the workers have often already deserted. After more than fifty years of experience of the anti-working class character of these organisations, any position advocating such strategies is fundamentally non-proletarian.