Alfred Rosmer 1949

Problems of Yesterday and Today

Toward Anti-Stalinist Union Unity in France

Source: New International, Vol.15 No.3, May-June 1950, pp.180-183;
First published: in Confrontation, September 1949;
Translated: by R. Walker;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford;
Marked up: by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The problems which occupy the labor movement today are not at all new. There had already been one world war prior to 1939 which made deep rifts in the trade unions. In the years that followed there were splits, then unity again and once more splits. During this troubled period, we can state without contradiction that, side by side, there was an almost general movement, in all countries, towards the old trade unions and parallel to it the search for new forms of organizations. Someone will object, no doubt, that the present situation is different. I am not unacquainted with that. I even believe that the difference between the two epochs is more important than is usually thought to be the case, since after pointing it out, they do not seek to define its character or draw conclusions from it.

Just the same let us begin by recalling what happened in the trade union movement during the first world war. The working class never before had at its command such diverse and rich experiences, nor had it ever proved to be so unwilling or so incapable of profiting by them.

In all the warring countries, the leading bodies of the trade union centers immediately became part of the war policy of their own governments. As for the international federation of trade unions, we cannot even tell if it yielded its principles or betrayed them. Its program was so cautious and the bonds which united its members so tenuous, that we could not expect from it a slogan for international action against war. It had always refused even to discuss methods of international action against war, and had not, unlike the socialist international, adopted solemn resolutions at its congresses. The German, the English, the French, would best adapt themselves to the war, would unite very firmly with their governments.

Opposition groups rose everywhere, and the first question posed was to decide if it was proper to vote in trade unions where attitude and activity were basically nationalist and warlike. We cannot continue, it was often said among unionists who had passed into the opposition, to pay dues and support the propaganda of the leaders who are betraying us. This current, which supported a split from the unions, was for a time quite strong in France, but it was almost completely blocked up. The men who were leading the minority opposition had been compelled to discuss this question before 1914 and had taken a clear position for struggle within the unions and the reformist international. They had to stay where the workers were. What is more, this minority, very soon to become important, grouped around the Metal Workers Federation. It assumed great importance and acted with the assurance that once the war was over and the majority would no longer benefit from favors given by the government, it would have to give an accounting for its abdication to those who returned from the front. The great majority of the workers would join them. Its calculations were correct. In 1921 it became the majority. Then Jouhaux and his war followers provoked the first split in the ranks of the CGT (General Confederation of Labor).

So as to omit nothing, I will mention that side by side with the minority, an independent trade union organization was formed with the pretentious name of Federation of the Workers of the World – after the Industrial Workers of the World in America. But in contrast to the latter, it never had more than a very small membership, activity on the same level, and a transitory existence. The contrast between its pretentious goal and reality gave it the character of a Marseillaise joke. Before it passed from the scene, it sent a delegate to the Red International of Labor Unions.

The tendency to leave the unions and create distinct and different bodies was strongest in Germany. There the question, unlike in France, was not to bring a trade union federation back to revolutionary positions abandoned in 1914. Karl Legien, Sassenbach and the other union leaders had always been known reformists who took pleasure in repeating the aphorism coined by one of them: the general strike is general stupidity. They dwelt within their corporate abode, sending for their “policy” to the Social Democratic Party to which they belonged and sometimes imposing their own “policy” on it. Consequently, in their case, no minority nucleus was organized to struggle against them and to win the majority. (In Germany there were unionists with their own organization and newspaper, but with only a few members and no power to attract; they did not grow during the war or after.)

The tendency to split from the unions was clearest within the Spartacus movement and had a serious development. At the first Congress of the Communist Party in Heidelberg, February, 1920, the first great debates took place. A large number of the delegates, probably the majority, now defended participation in the elections and a split from the unions. They clung so stubbornly to their positions that they preferred to be expelled rather than yield their point of view. Then they formed, alongside the Communist Party, the Workers Communist Party of Germany (KAPD). This tendency found its theoretician in the Dutch Marxist, Hermann Goerter. According to him, a new era was opening in which Parliament had no meaning, an era in which, in opposition to the old unions, new organizations wide open to workers would arise, broad mass unions which would be the basic organizations for revolutionary actions. It was not confined to Germany. It found its followers in Holland, England, Austria, Hungary; in Italy, Bordiga and his group affiliated to it only because of its policy of abstentionism.

When the Communist International was formed, between the first Congress (March, 1919) and the second (June, 1920), this tendency had become so important that Lenin considered it necessary to attack it fundamentally. He attacked remorselessly, as was his wont, wherever he thought that communism was threatened. Not only was it out of the question for communists to leave the unions under the pretext that the leaders were reformists, but they had to fight to stay when they were threatened with expulsion. His criticisms were gathered in the books which he published in May, 1920, Left-Wing Communism, an Infantile Disorder.

In the months which preceded the Congress, considering the progress made by “leftism,” he believed for a moment that this tendency would be strong enough at the Congress to provoke a split in the ranks of the CI. But it did not take place. The KAPD, almost alone, clung to its position on the two questions considered fundamental. Nevertheless, the Congress decided to keep it in the International as a sympathizing member. The Red Trade Union International was prepared by setting up a provisional International Council of Red Unions whose task was to unite and help revolutionary minorities everywhere in fighting against the reformist leaders. In this way, the breaking up of the union movement was avoided. If two trade union centers existed in France from 1922, the responsibility was entirely that of Jouhaux and his associates.

Why is the present period characterized by an entirely opposite movement – by a continually increasing dispersion, by a breaking up of trade union centers, with each political tendency seeming eager to have its own center; with “autonomous” and “independent” unions which, by their very nature, produce other autonomous and other independent unions?

The split – as it is called today – of the CGT was provoked by the great strikes of 1947. Since its cause was so clear, so manifest, why did it not bring the reply dictated by the situation, the formation of a union center, gathering together all whom Stalinist strategy, finally unmasked, had just set in action against the CGT? It is here that the characteristics of the present situation come into play.

To determine them exactly, we must go back to the “liberation.” At that time the French began with some extravagant ideas which still have a great influence on the general situation in France today. Hardest to believe is the declaration of “a policy of grandeur.” Although the formula was General de Gaulle’s, all his friends and collaborators adopted it as their own. Frachon made it part of the program of the CGT and he, too, demanded a strong army.

The “resistance” contributed its share in maintaining and adding to the confusion. Part of its members sincerely believed that it would be the starting point for a new regime. Besides its vague program it had all the defects of the Popular Front, aggravated by the fact that in the resistance movement were to be found all political opinions and all social groups. As the Stalinists had been the only ones to profit from the Popular Front, so the liberation movement allowed them to get the greatest benefit from the resistance – although they joined the resistance movement late and for their own reasons.

Among the trade unions, the resistance and the liberation led to a re-birth of unity. The betrayal of 1989 was completely forgotten, although it had played an important role in unleashing the war and greatly facilitated Hitler’s victory. Deserter and resistant embraced in a “sacred union” compared to which that of 1914 was pale. The three great parties became part of the new regime. Each contributed his share, but the Stalinists were better prepared than the others, more cynical and devoid of any scruples. They played the major role. They were in the ministry and in the CGT, prepared to impose their authority. A real Stalinist terror ruled for a short time; criticism was not tolerated, especially when Russian policy was discussed.

However, when the Russian empire spread its tentacles everywhere, when its relations with its war-time partners progressively deteriorated, when those who had given much realized that Stalin was taking still more, a new situation developed. America, which at first had hardly any interest in Europe, especially in the France of General de Gaulle, was compelled to change its plans. It is now in Europe, intent on setting up a barrier to Russian expansion. Such a situation is not yet war, but presages and prepares for it. The action of the Stalinists in the unions reflects every phase of it. Strikes are not called to support workers’ demands, they are only a pretext that we can sometimes do without. They are only actions to help Russia in some diplomatic negotiations. The so-called demonstrations for peace are in the same class. When they say they will never fight against Russia, and daily denounce the warlike policy of America, they are not strengthening peace but preparing for war.

In France, the Stalinists have at their command varied means for action, but their principal arm, by far the most important, is the CGT. We see that, although there have been numerous defections, their control of the union movement is still firm. The dispersion of its opponents serves it. In contrast, it forms a bloc and keeps its prestige among the workers.

The unionists who left the CGT in different periods and formed new organizations in opposition to it, are too easily deceived into believing they have protected themselves against its disastrous policy. They only gain greater freedom of movement for limited actions. The scatteredness of the union movement has a supplementary danger: it risks favoring the development of the narrowest form of corporatism, especially under the present system of rewards, bonuses, gifts and indemnities of every kind. Somebody can be led to believe that he is more qualified than another in getting some favor.

For all these general and specific reasons, it is clear that the dispersion of the non-Stalinist unions is a heavy handicap for the French working class movement. A fusion of all union organizations which have developed outside of the CGT is patently impossible. But it is possible and urgent to create the conditions for a rapprochement by means of bold actions carried out together, drawing in the greatest number of organizations possible. In this way we could move in stages towards the formation of a powerful union organization which would appear before the workers for what it is, allowing them to tear off the Stalinist camouflage. There are, of course, many difficulties to overcome, obstacles to conquer. That is why it is of vital importance to begin.