On the Trade Unions: A Reply to Mhou

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In 2014 we published an article on the fast food workers’ struggles in the USA, ‘Capitalist astro-turfing finds its way to the trade unions’, () by a comrade in the USA who appeared to share our view of the trade unions as organs of capitalist control. Subsequently the comrade has revised his view of the trade union question and has asked us to debate this with him. The following response, written by a close sympathiser, is an initial contribution to a discussion which we think is a central one for revolutionaries.  

Response to comrade mhou on the pamphlet Class, Bureaucracy and the Union-Form

"The catastrophe of the imperialist war has completely swept away all the conquests of trade union and parliamentary struggles. For this war itself was just as much a product of the internal tendencies of capitalism as were those economic agreements and parliamentary compromises which the war buried in blood and muck.” (Manifesto of the Communist International, 1919)


The following is intended as an initial response to comrade mhou’s text Class, Bureaucracy and the Union-Form (CBUF)[1], with the aim of developing the discussion he has invited on the ICC’s forum.

The comrade directs his text “against the core left communist theories of the class struggle and by extension the trade union question”, and specifically against the position defended by the ICC, among others, that in the current historic period – the period of capitalism’s decadence – the trade unions have become integrated into the capitalist state.[2] Rather than setting out his specific criticisms of these “core left communist theories”, or showing why he thinks they are wrong, instead the comrade offers us his own alternative theory, summarised in a set of theses and illustrated by episodes from the history of the American unions from their origins up to the present day

So what, in essence, is the comrade’s argument?

  1. That trade unionism is simply the organised form of the struggle of the working class in capitalism, representing the permanent tendency within capitalism for workers to combine to resist the attacks of capital against their wages and conditions;
  2. That tendencies for  the trade unions to become bureaucratised or to defend reactionary policies are inherent in the nature of this struggle - but so are tendencies for them to become centres of workers’ resistance against capitalism, even today;
  3. Ultimately, under the leadership of its political party, the working class organised in trade unions will seize and wield state power – which we could summarise in the formula: trade unions + the political party of the class = workers’ state.

But in many ways it is what the comrade does not say in this text that is more revealing. In fact the list of key issues that we might expect to be addressed in a Marxist theory on the trade union question is a long one, including:

  • the significance of the growth of reformism in the 19th century workers’ movement
  • the phenomenon of the mass strike at the start of the 20th century and the appearance of soviets or workers’ councils
  • the betrayal of the trade unions at the start of WW1 and their mobilisation of the workers for global imperialist war
  • the role of the trade unions as the spearhead of the bourgeois counter-revolution, especially in Germany, and the formation by militant workers of organisational alternatives to the trade unions
  • tendencies for workers to take control of their own struggles outside of and against  trade union control through mass assemblies, unofficial strike committees, etc.


The real ‘elephant in the room’ here of course is the concept of capitalist decadence. Against the persistent tendency in the revolutionary milieu today to question or openly reject capitalist decadence, the ICC has many times shown that this concept is simply the concretisation of historical materialism in the analysis of capitalism as a historically transitory mode of production.[3]   It’s therefore indispensable for understanding the historical period we are living in, and how to act as revolutionaries.

When prompted, the comrade has confirmed that his text is “primarily against the political positions derived from the conception of decadence.” While he agrees that the “material basis for socialism and the placement of proletarian revolution on the agenda were signaled by events in the class struggle (exemplified by the Paris Commune and October Revolution…)”, he does not agree with the political positions derived from this by the “contemporary or historic communist left”.[4]

So communism has been on the agenda since at least the October Revolution but the comrade sees no political implications for the class struggle or the trade unions in this momentous change of conditions for the two historic classes; or at least none important enough to mention in his theory.

The basic Marxist position on decadence is quite clear: at a certain stage of their development the productive forces of society come into contradiction with the existing relations of production; from being forms of development, these relations turn into fetters on the forces of production. Then a period of social revolution is opened up, leading either to the transformation of society or to the mutual ruin of the contending classes.

For the “material basis for socialism” to exist, therefore, capitalist relations must have become a definitive fetter on the further development of human productive forces. Since at the same time capitalism is a dynamic system that must continue to extract profit in order to survive, it is forced to reproduce itself through the increasing destruction of the productive forces; either directly through wars, or indirectly through growing waste, debt, attempts to cheat the law of value, etc, and by adopting a series of increasingly drastic palliatives to prolong its life and ensure growing accumulation - palliatives that can only worsen its historic crisis in the longer term.

But capital is above all a social relationship, in which the bourgeoisie is forced to take into account the struggle of the proletariat in everything it does. With the “material basis for socialism” already negating its historically progressive character, and faced with the conscious revolutionary attempts of its gravedigger, above all in the October Revolution, capital must ensure its reproduction through the permanent and conscious suppression of the proletarian threat. We can see this most clearly in the way it was forced to unite across the battlefields of WW1 to crush the revolutionary wave, especially in Russia and Germany, but the lessons it learned from this experience were not lost; they were embedded in the development of state capitalism in the 20th century and especially in those organs charged with dealing with the proletarian threat; the left parties and the trade unions. 

So either the comrade believes that the material basis for socialism exists without capitalist relations having become a definitive fetter - in which case he needs to explain how and why this can be the case from a Marxist perspective - or he accepts that they have become a fetter, in which case he needs to explain the political implications of such a fundamental change for his theory of trade unionism.

Bureaucracy, reformism and state capitalism

Not only does the comrade avoid any mention of decadence in his text, he also avoids any analysis of the underlying tendency towards state capitalism which underpins the betrayal of the trade unions and their integration into the capitalist state apparatus. Instead, he argues that tendencies for the trade unions to become bureaucratised or to defend reactionary policies are inherent in the class struggle in capitalism from its origins. In fact he goes further, arguing that “From the twilight of primitive communism and the bourgeoning stratification of humanity, bureaucracy emerges as the administration of social relationships in societies divided into classes.”

Of course, there is some truth in this at a general level; after all, for Marxists the state itself is a product of the division of society in to classes. But this is next to useless for a historical analysis of changes in the trade unions over the last two centuries of capitalism.

In the 19th century it was absolutely necessary for the working class to fight for reforms like the shorter working day and the right to organise. This inevitably demanded an ever-increasing level of co-ordination in order to combat the organisation of employers and concentration of capital, but it was the very nature of the trade unions as permanent mass organisations within bourgeois society that created bureaucratic tendencies right from the beginning. This went hand in hand with a tendency for union leaderships to become wedded to peaceful, reformist methods of struggle; a tendency the bourgeoisie of course actively encouraged in order to prevent more dangerous class struggles.

The deepening nature of the capitalist crisis and the intensification of imperialist rivalries demanded ever greater sacrifices from the working class, but the Paris Commune clearly showed that it represented a growing revolutionary threat. Increasing state control was necessary not only to organise the national economy to compete in an increasingly saturated world market, but also to more effectively control the working class by incorporating its own organisations into the state apparatus. In return, the working class would receive minimal welfare benefits which would serve to tie it more effectively to national capitalist interests.  

The trade unions themselves - including those set up to defend unskilled workers - were strong supporters of state intervention on the basis that a healthy economy was the precondition for negotiating higher wages.  In an epoch of intensifying imperialist rivalries the logic of this position increasingly led the trade union bureaucracy to become the best defender of the national interest - and an implacable enemy of ‘disruptive’ workers’ struggles. 

Even before the first world war, revolutionaries themselves were able to identify this tendency towards the incorporation of the trade unions into the capitalist state and denounced the growth of oppressive state control disguised as social welfare measures. The outbreak of inter-imperialist warfare in 1914 and the massive increase in state control of society that ensued only confirmed this tendency. In Britain, for example, in 1917 one socialist workers’ leader concluded that:  "the trade union movement is tending to create a sort of organ of oppression within the masters' organ of oppression - the state - and an army of despotic union chiefs who are interested in reconciling, as far as possible, the interests of masters and men".[5]

Today, over 100 years after the first world war spectacularly confirmed the entry of capitalism into what the new Communist International announced in its Platform as “The epoch of the dissolution of capitalism, of its inner disintegration. The epoch of the communist revolution of the proletariat", we need to recognise that the nature of ‘bureaucratisation’ in the trade unions is qualitatively different, as described in the ICC pamphlet Trade Unions Against the Working Class:

What characterises bureaucracy is the fact that the life of the organisation is no longer rooted in the activity of its members but is artificially and formalistically carried on in its ‘bureaux’, in its central organs, and nowhere else. If such a phenomenon is common to all unions under decadent capitalism it is not because of the ‘malevolence’ of the union leaders; nor is bureaucratisation an inexplicable mystery. If bureaucracy has taken hold of the unions it is because the workers no longer support with any life or passion organisations which simply do not belong to them. The indifference the workers show towards trade union life is not, as the leftists think, a proof of the workers’ lack of consciousness. On the contrary it expresses a resigned consciousness within the working class of the unions’ inability to defend its class interests and even a consciousness that the unions belong to the class enemy.” (original emphasis)

The roots of the tendency towards state capitalism lie in the attempts of the system to avert its historic crisis of accumulation, ie. decadence – which may be why the comrade avoids any treatment of it in his text. The above is simply an attempt to briefly sketch out some of the connections between state capitalism, the emergence of a trade union bureaucracy and the nature of the trade unions as permanent mass organisations within bourgeois society; a sketch which hopefully shows up the inadequacies of the comrade’s arguments about ‘bureaucracy’ and the need to develop the discussion in this area.

The intervention of revolutionaries

The stated aim of the comrade in writing this text is to identify “a legitimate socialist practice”. The exact nature of this practice is not spelled out in the text but the comrade’s main argument is that despite the anti-working class policies of the union leaderships the trade unions remain working class organisations (or, at least, he argues that they still have ‘legitimacy’ in the class, in other words, workers still believe them to be their own organisations). It is therefore necessary to wage “a political struggle in the trade unions”.

But a political struggle for what? To win over the union leaderships and turn the unions back into real workers’ organisations? Or to warn the working class against the dangerous role of the trade unions and support all moves towards the generalisation and self-organisation of the workers’ struggles?

Let’s take a concrete example: the mass strikes in Poland in 1980-81, when the workers were organising themselves, extending their struggles, holding assemblies, electing delegates and creating inter-factory committees to co-ordinate and make their actions more effective. One of the first blows against this real class movement was the transformation of the inter-factory committees into a new union, which became Solidarnosc. This is how the ICC drew the lessons at the time:

“The actions of Solidarnosc in 1980 and 1981 demonstrated that, even when formally separated from the capitalist state, new unions, started from scratch, with millions of determined members and enjoying the confidence of the working class, act the same as official, bureaucratic state unions. As with unions everywhere else in the world, Solidarnosc (and the demands for ‘free trade unions’ that preceded its foundation) acted to sabotage struggles, demobilise and discourage workers and divert their discontent into the dead-ends of ‘self-management’, defence of the national economy and defence of the unions rather than workers’ interests.” (‘Poland 1980: Lessons still valid for the struggles of the world proletariat’, https://en.internationalism.org/ir/103_poland80.htm)

What lessons would the comrade draw from this experience for the intervention of revolutionaries in the workers’ struggles? This may seem an abstract question today in the absence of mass strikes and when the working class is still finding great difficulties in responding to the global attacks of capital, but in future waves of struggle it will be vital to warn workers against the sabotage of the trade unions. When asked whether he believes that there will be any need for the working class to break – politically and organisationally - with the existing trade unions at some point in its struggle against capitalism, the comrade responded:

No; but not as a political choice (…) the class struggle exists regardless of the activity or inactivity of the socialist movement, and we can’t alter the fundamental processes of labor’s class struggles under the capitalist social relation but can only understand and then use them to abolish capitalism … ‘We’ can influence labor’s class struggles through to the abolition of the class struggle, but can’t alter the basic content of the class struggle.”

On the contrary, not only is it necessary for revolutionaries today to warn the working class that the trade unions are enemies of their struggles, but, if workers are to take these struggles forward across all boundaries of trade, sector, race, gender and above all nationality, it will be necessary to break from the straightjacket of union control and take the struggle into their own hands. 

It’s not accidental that the comrade appears to be drawing on Bordigist ideas for his theory. We can see this, for example, in his unqualified quote from the Bordigist PCI (Partito) on its attempts to ‘re-conquer’ the unions. The confusions of Bordigism have been  criticised many times by the ICC and others. Very briefly, when the Internationalist Communist Party was formed in Italy in 1943-45 the tendency around Bordiga rejected the position developed by the fraction of the Italian Left in exile that the trade unions had become incorporated into the capitalist state. In effect, the Bordigist current rejected the conclusion that capitalism had entered into its epoch of imperialist decay and that this had major implications for the trade union question, regressing on the union question to the positions of Lenin and the Second Congress of the Third International and continuing to argue that, despite being under reactionary leaders, the unions were still class organisations. 

On the trade union question as with others (for example national liberation), Bordigism therefore defends what we can characterise as opportunist and centrist positions and it would be helpful for the discussion if the comrade could clarify the extent to which he is explicitly defending a Bordigist political orientation.

Soviets and trade unions

Finally, let’s look at the comrade’s vision of revolution, which is based on the idea that ultimately the working class organised in trade unions seizes state power, after which it will exercise its dictatorship through trade unions. As he puts it: “This bureaucracy of the workers state differs in no way from that of the trade unions, in composition, character or function …Proletarian dictatorship is in perfect continuity with classical trade unionism…

There are many issues with this vision – not least whether the working class can identify itself with the state that exists after it has seized power – but is it based on the historical experience of the working class?

If we take the example of the October Revolution - which after all is the only experience of the proletariat seizing political power on a national scale - through a few highly selective quotes the comrade gives the impression that it was the trade unions that made the revolution and formed the dictatorship of the proletariat.

So why in 1917 did Lenin and the Bosheviks take up the slogan “All power to the soviets!” – a slogan that was already being adopted by the most class conscious Russian workers - and not “All power to the trade unions”? And why did the Third International in 1920 affirm that “The authentic soviets of the masses are the historically-elaborated forms of the dictatorship of the proletariat”?[6]

The comrade’s ‘core theory’ is that “trade unionism appears as the content of labor’s class struggles under the capitalist social relation.” His text hardly mentions soviets or workers’ councils and where it does he gives the impression that they are simply a form of trade unionism in a period of revolutionary struggles. But if we examine even briefly the experience of the working class we can see this isn’t true.

The first appearance of soviets - unprepared and unpredicted by revolutionaries at the time – was a practical demonstration that the period of capitalism's ascendency, in which the proletariat had been able to constitute permanent mass organisations (particularly trade unions), to fight for reforms of the system, was nearing its end. The working class itself found the weapons it needed to struggle against capital in the new conditions created by the system’s decline; a struggle not just for immediate demands but ultimately for the destruction of the bourgeois state. These weapons were the mass strike and the formation of soviets or workers’ councils. Unlike the trade unions, soviets regrouped the majority of the workers in struggle, assemblies of delegates mandated by general assemblies of workers;  but above all, they were political organs, forged in the heat of generalised mass struggles, whose fundamental objective was to prepare for the seizure of power.

The problem for the comrade’s theory is that any attempt to seriously address the role of the soviets in history would not only highlight these differences but also the change in the historic conditions for the class struggle at the start of the 20th century which gave rise to these political organs in the first place.

Taking the discussion forward

Having set out to provide an alternative Marxist theory of the nature of trade unionism directed “against the core left communist theories of the class struggle”, and specifically against the position that the trade unions have become integrated into the capitalist state, the comrade has come up with a theoretical approach that studiously avoids addressing the most significant changes in the conditions for the proletariat’s struggle over the last hundred years. 

His attempt to clarify his political differences by developing such an alternative theory is a real sign of seriousness. But at the same time it may have served to exaggerate these differences and highlight the flaws in his basic approach. The political movement we know as ‘left communism’ is after all only the struggle the left of the communist movement – historically always the most intransigent and clear-sighted fraction of the workers’ movement – to defend the revolutionary content of Marxism in the new epoch of capitalist decadence, and in particular to draw out the most important political implications for the workers’ struggles. This struggle was in direct continuity with that of the left in the Second International against opportunism and centrism and in defence of internationalism, and of the Marxist tendency in the First International: the struggle to defend the historical materialist understanding of capitalism as an historically transitory society; the struggle against the rise of reformism in the workers’ movement; the implications of the rise of imperialism and the appearance of the mass strike…  

Any attempt to devise ‘new’ theories without clear reference to all these links in the chain risks throwing throwing the baby out with the bath water and we can see signs of this in the comrade’s text: on reformism, decadence, the mass strike, soviets…

To take this discussion forward, it may be better instead to focus on the comrade’s specific criticisms of the positions of the ICC and their implications for the role and intervention of revolutionaries. After all, the fact that the ICC defends the position that the trade unions have been integrated into the capitalist state does not in any way mean that revolutionaries ignore workers’ struggles that take place under union control, or that our only intervention is to stand up and denounce the unions as bourgeois. The ICC pamphlet on the trade unions includes a whole section on the intervention of revolutionaries that could act as the starting point for a perhaps more fruitful discussion.

MH (this response was contributed by a close sympathiser of the ICC)

[1] https://octoberinappalachia.com/             

[2] The position of the Internationalist Communist Tendency, for example, is that the trade unions “threw in their lot with the capitalist state” at the start of the 20th century and are now openly “a tool to control the class struggle” but stops short of referring to their integration into the capitalist state (https://www.leftcom.org/en/about-us). But the PCInt (Battaglia Comunista), its main constituent group, apparently defends the more explicit position that “In the present period of decadence of capitalist society, the union is called upon to be an essential tool in the politics of conserving capitalism, and therefore to assume the precise functions of a State organ” (this is a quote from a 1947 conference of the PCInt, re-adopted at its 6th Congress in 1997, see Internationalist Communist no. 16, https://www.leftcom.org/en/articles/1997-06-01/communist-work-and-the-trades-unions-today)

[3] See, most recently for example, ‘Once more on decadence: some questions for the ‘deniers’ ‘https://en.internationalism.org/icconline/201510/13467/once-more-decaden...

[4] See the thread on the trade union question started by the comrade on the ICC forum (https://en.internationalism.org/forum/1056/mhou/14054/trade-union-question)

[5]  George Harvey, Industrial unionism and the mining industry, 1917, p.3, cited in Raymond Challinor, The Origins of British Bolshevism, 1977, p.73.  Harvey was 'an outstanding worker-intellectual' (Challinor); a Durham miner's leader and editor of The Socialist, paper of the British Socialist Labour Party.

[6] “Theses on the Conditions under which Workers' Soviets may be Formed”, Minutes of the Second Congress of the Communist International,1920 ( https://www.marxists.org/history/international/comintern/2nd-congress/doc02.htm). 


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