Leftists and the trade unions

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Within the union world there exists a ‘critical’ wing: the leftists. Crediting themselves with the principal errors of the 3rd International, they today defend tactical participation and support of the trade union - while perpetually criticising the unions’ ‘mistakes’. But the leftists consider the unions to be workers’ organisations, which they have the task of ‘de-bureaucratising’ by reconquering the leadership.


In order to justify their ‘critical’ support of the trade unions, leftist tendencies express the idea that the unions have a dual role: in periods of ‘social calm’ when there are no important struggles, the unions defend the working class against the bosses; in periods of social unrest, they defend the bosses against the working class. The unions are ‘against the revolution’ but not ‘against the working class’. This reasoning is actually nothing but an oblique way of reaffirming faith in the unions while giving the impression of being against them. Trusting the unions but at the same time rejecting them. For example, this was the position of the group Pouvoir Ouvrier in May 1968 in France, who asserted in their political platform that: “In the present epoch, in most capitalist countries, the unions objectively play a dual role: - they defend the immediate interests of the wage-earner against the bosses; they defend capitalist society that they accept in principle, against any class movement which might create difficulties for it”, (Pouvoir Ouvrier, no. 90, May 1968).

This idea is no more profound than the one according to which the police force defends the interests of the workers when saving them from drowning at the beach, and no longer defends them when clubbing them over the head during a strike (there­by serving the interests of the boss).

The class nature of an organisation is not determined by its attitudes in moments of social calm, when the proletariat remains passive, subordinated economically and ideologically to the power of the bourgeoisie. It is when the classes openly confront each other that you must judge the class nature of an organisation.

The role of the unions becomes clear when during any generalised workers’ struggle, they are seen preventing contacts between workers in different factories, falsifying the demands of the workers, using lies and slander to get the workers back to work, telling them that in the other factories in struggle ‘the workers have gone back’ and that they ‘can’t carry on alone’. Quite simply the unions’ role becomes clear when they act as strike-breakers. That is when their class nature appears in broad daylight. The defensive comedy that they daily play in periods of social calm, putting themselves forward as defenders of the class in masquerades of collective bargaining, scrupulous applications for the right to work, and the whole set of rules which govern the exploitation of labour, does not make them representatives of the class against capital, but makes them functionaries of capital responsible for facilitating the normal and daily functioning of exploitation within the working class. The crocodile tears the unions shed over the most flag­rant abuses of capital (‘hour long protest strikes’, preoccup­ation with problems of individual workers in the factory, all the ‘petty tasks’) is the base on which the official myth identifying the unions with the interests of the working class rests. This myth the leftists take up in their ‘critical’ way, but it is actually a necessary pre-condition for union contain­ment of any real outbreak of class struggle.

Just as the police must save drowning people and direct traffic on the roads so as to justify their existence when the time comes to repress workers’ struggles in the name of ‘the public interest’, so the unions must fulfil ‘social welfare’ functions for the workers and act as a safety valve within the class so that at a time of real struggle they will be that much better placed to play their role of containment and repression in the name of the workers’ interests.

Sabotage of workers’ struggle and official representation of workers within the framework of capitalist exploitation are not two differing - still less contradictory - functions of the trade unions under decadent capitalism. Both are but two aspects of one and the same anti-proletarian function.


Another argument taken up time and again by the leftists in order to justify their ‘critical’ support of, and participation in, the unions, is to present the unions as organisations which left to themselves would be valuable forms of organisations for the workers’ struggle, but which have been led astray from their true path as a result of bureaucratisation and ‘bad leadership’. Thus for the leftists the question is to ‘reconquer' the unions by making them more democratic (demands for faction rights) and by changing the ‘corrupt leadership’ by replacing it with real workers’ leaders at the top.

Instead of seeing that bureaucracy and ‘bad’ leaders are inevit­able products of the capitalist nature of the unions, people who hold such illusions present both as the cause of the ‘errors’ and ‘betrayals’ of the unions.

The bureaucratisation of an organisation does not stem from the decision-making power of its central organs. Contrary to what the anarchists think, centralisation is not synonymous with bureaucratisation. On the contrary, in an organisation inspired by the conscious, passionate activity of each of its members, centralisation is the most efficient way of stimulating the participation of each member in the life of the organisation. 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.

The relationship between the workers and the unions is not that of a class to its own class instrument. It most often takes the form of a relationship between an individual with individual problems and a welfare service (‘which knows how to deal with the bosses’). The unions are bureaucratic because there is not and cannot be any proletarian spirit in them.

The leftists who militate within the unions have assigned them­selves the task (among others) of revitalising union life. All they succeed in doing is getting hold of the young trade union militant who begins by believing in the unions, only to become disillusioned and leave, (unless he too becomes a ‘believer’). The only thing the leftists achieve is retarding the awareness of the class of the capitalist nature of these organisations. The Leif-motif spouted by the leftists: “it’s a bad workers’ organisation, but a workers’ organisation all the same” is ultimately the best defence the unions could have in the face of the growing suspicion the workers have about them. The union bureaucrats actually find the ‘fanatics’ committed to ‘constructive criticism’ of the unions their very best allies and touts among those workers who ‘are led astray by anti-unionism’.

As for the tactic of ‘reconquering’ the leadership of the unions in order to turn them into real class organisations, that simply highlights the same myopic point of view, when it is not merely a smoke-screen for crude bureaucratic machinations. The anti-working class actions of the unions are not a matter of good or bad leaders. It’s no accident that for more than fifty years the unions have always had bad leaders.

 It is not because of bad leadership that the unions do not take part in the real struggles of the working class; on the contrary, it is because the unions are as organisations, incapable of serving the needs of the class struggle that their leaders always turn out to be bad. As Pannekoek observed: “What Marx and Lenin said over and over again about the state, that despite the existence of formal democracy it cannot be used as an instrument of proletarian revolution, applies also to the unions. Their counter-revolutionary force can neither be negated nor brought under control by a change of leadership, by replacing reactionary leaders with men of the ‘left’ or with ‘revolutionaries’. It is the very form of the organisation itself which reduces the masses to powerlessness and prevents them from using it as an instrument of their own will”, (Pannekoek).

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