The Trade Unions: Communist Theory and Practice of Trade Unionism, Lance Sharkey. 1961

Part One. The General Objective

Marx and Engels have given us a graphic picture of the birth and mode of development of the trade unions and industrial struggles.

“The proletariat goes through various stages of development. With its birth begins its struggle with the bourgeoisie. At first the contest is carried on by individual labourers, then by the work people of a factory, then by the operatives of one trade, in one locality, against the individual bourgeois, who directly exploits them. They direct their attacks not against the bourgeois conditions of production, but against the instruments of production themselves, they destroy imported wares that compete with their labour, they smash to pieces machinery, they set factories ablaze, they seek to restore by force the vanished status of the workmen of the Middle Ages. (The Luddites in England, for example. L.S.)

“At this stage the labourers still form an incoherent mass, scattered, over the whole country, and broken up by their mutual competition... But with the development of industry the proletariat not only increases in numbers, it becomes concentrated in greater masses, its strength grows, and it feels that strength more... the collisions between individual workmen and individual bourgeois take more and more the character of collisions between two classes. Thereupon the workers begin to form combinations (trade unions) against the bourgeois; they club together in order to keep up the rate of wages; they found permanent associations in order to make provision beforehand for these occasional revolts. Here and there the contest breaks out into riots.

“Now and then the workers are victorious, but only for a time. The real fruit of their battle lies, not in the immediate results, but in the ever-expanding union of the workers. This union is helped on by the improved means of communication that are created by modern industry, and that places the workers of different localities in contact with one another. It was just this contact that was needed to centralise the numerous local struggles, all of the same character, into one national struggle between classes. But every class struggle is a political struggle.

“This organisation of proletarians into a class, and consequently into a political party, is continually being upset again by the competition between the workers themselves. But it ever rises up again, stronger, firmer, mightier.”

-- Manifesto of the Communist Party, 1848.

But the working class, unaided, cannot raise itself to the level of an understanding of the historical development of society, that is, to a revolutionary, socialist and communist consciousness. Lenin enunciated this proposition in his basic work “What is to be Done?” Lenin did this in the course of his attack upon the theory of “spontaneity”; of reliance upon the spontaneous development of the labour movement lacking a guiding theory, without a well-organised and trained Party to lead it; in his denunciation of “tailism,” of lagging behind the masses. Lenin based this conclusion on the conditions of the working class in capitalist society; lack of education, hard work, lack of leisure, poverty, etc.

The formulation of the theoretical foundation of the labour movement, communism, was made by two great men, namely, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels.

By so doing, by placing themselves at the head of the proletarian movement, Marx and Engels, of course, became the greatest of proletarians.

Lenin wrote of Marx and Engels in this regard as follows:

“We said that there could not yet be social-democratic (communist) consciousness among the workers. This consciousness could only be brought to them from without. The history of all countries shows that the working class, exclusively by its own effort, is able to develop only trade union consciousness, i.e., it may itself realise the necessity for combining in unions, for fighting against the employers and for striving to compel the government to pass necessary labour legislation, etc. The theory of socialism, however, grew out of the philosophic, historical and economic theories that were elaborated by the educated representatives of the propertied classes, the intellectuals. According to their social status, the founders of modern scientific socialism, Marx and Engels themselves belonged to the bourgeois intelligentsia. Similarly, in Russia, the theoretical, doctrine of social-democracy arose quite independently of the spontaneous growth of the labour movement; it arose as a natural and inevitable outcome of the development of ideas among the revolutionary socialist intelligentsia.”

Lenin: “What is to be Done?”

Our Party today has a similar task, to raise the political understanding of the masses to the level of a communist understanding of society and the consequent tasks of the labour movement. Marx and Engels, Lenin and Stalin, have given us an understanding of the historical tasks of the working class in regard to the revolutionary change-over from capitalism to socialism. The advance guard of the proletariat have been able to grasp these theories, to master Marxism-Leninism; it has to be taken to the masses who, unaided are unable to raise themselves to the level of a theoretical understanding, are unable to advance beyond the immediate practical tasks of wages, conditions, strikes.

The trade unions, are the most important mass organisations of the working class and therefore, have a special importance for the revolutionaries. “Without the trade unions a revolution is impossible,” Lenin has written.

What are our tasks in regard to the trade unions?

These tasks fall into two main sections: (1) The raising of the theoretical level, the winning of the workers for a revolutionary objective, and (2) the practical-organisational.

In regard to the first, Marx gave a classical summing up of the trade unions, their tasks, and the need for a revolutionary outlook and objective for the trade unions in “Value, Price and Profit.”

These few hints will suffice to show that the very development of modern industry must progressively turn the scale in favour of the capitalist against the working man, and that consequently the general tendency of capitalistic production is not to raise, but to sink the average standard of wages, or to push the value of labour more or less to its minimum limit. Such being the tendency of things in this system, is this saying that the working class ought to renounce their resistance against the encroachments of capital, and abandon their attempts at making the best of the occasional chances for their temporary improvement? If they did, they would be degraded to one level mass of broken wretches, past salvation. I think I have shown that their struggles for the standard of wages are incidents inseparable from the whole wages system, that in 99 cases out of 100 their efforts at raising wages are only efforts at maintaining the given value of labour and that the necessity of debating their price with the capitalist is inherent to their condition of having to sell themselves as commodities. By cowardly giving way in their everyday conflict with capital, they would certainly disqualify themselves for the initiating of any larger movement.

“At the same time, and quite apart from the general servitude involved in the wages system, the working class ought not to exaggerate to themselves the ultimate working of these everyday struggles. They ought not to forget that they are fighting with effects, but not with the causes of those effects; that they are retarding the downward movement, but not changing its direction; that they are applying palliatives, not curing the malady.

“They ought, therefore, not to be exclusively absorbed in these unavoidable guerrilla fights incessantly springing up from the never-ceasing encroachments of capital or changes of the market. They ought to understand that, with all the miseries it imposes upon them, the present system simultaneously engenders the material conditions and the social forms necessary for an economic reconstruction of society. Instead of the conservative motto: ‘A fair day’s wages for a fair day’s work’, they ought to inscribe on their banner the revolutionary watch word: ‘Abolition of the wages system!'

“After this very long and, I fear, tedious exposition, which I was obliged to enter into to do some justice to the subject matter, I shall conclude by proposing the following:

“Firstly. A general rise in the rate of wages would result in a fall in the general rate of profit, but, broadly speaking, not affect the prices of commodities.

“Secondly. The general tendency of capitalist production is not to raise but to sink the average standard of wages.

“Thirdly. Trade unions work well as centres of resistance against the encroachment of capital. They fail particularly from an injudicious use of their power. They fail generally from limiting themselves to a guerrilla war against the effects of the existing system, instead of simultaneously trying to change it, instead of using their organised forces as a lever for the final emancipation of the working class, that is to say, the ultimate abolition of the wages system.”

The strategical aim of the communists in the trade unions is precisely the one indicated by Marx: to inscribe on their banners the revolutionary watchword, “abolition of the wages system.”

Marx therein gave us an understanding of the role of the “immediate demands”: of the day-to-day struggles without which the workers would be degraded, broken wretches, past salvation. Marx indicates also the role of the partial struggles as preparation for the revolutionary struggle for political power. “By cowardly giving way in their everyday conflict with capital, they would certainly disqualify themselves for the initiating of any larger movement.” Lenin summed up this teaching of Marx on the trade unions when he designated the trade unions as “schools of the class struggle, schools of communism.” Marxism-Leninism thus places a fundamental task for us in regard to the trade unions, the defeat of reformism and their transformation into revolutionary bodies fighting for the proletarian dictatorship.

Stalin: The Party Grows Strong By Winning The Unions

Dealing with the importance of the trade unions as the main source of strength of the workers’ Party and combating the sectarian trends among the communists in the West European and other countries, Comrade Stalin declared:

“In the West there are still certain ‘communists’ who do not understand this and who continue to propagate their anti-proletarian and anti-revolutionary slogan: ‘Leave the trade union!’ It must be said that no one could do the communist movement in the West more harm than these and similar ‘communists.'

“These people think of ‘attacking’ the trade unions from without, regarding them as an enemy camp. They do not understand that, good or bad, the rank and file worker regards the trade unions as his citadels, his strongholds, which help him to maintain his wages, his working day, and so forth. They do not understand that far from facilitating communist penetration among the vast masses, such policy undermines this work.

“The average rank and file worker will say to such a ‘communist, ‘You are attacking my citadel, you wish to destroy the cause which it has taken me decades to build, because, as you say, communism is better than trade unionism. I don’t know. Perhaps you are right in your theoretical discourses on communism; it’s not for me, a simple worker, to judge your theories. But one thing I do know: I have my trade union citadels, they have led me into battle, have defended me, well or ill, against the onslaughts of the capitalists; and he who tries to destroy these citadels is trying to destroy my cause, the cause of the workers. Cease attacking my citadel, come into the trade unions, work in them five years or even more, help us to improve the unions, and to strengthen them, and in the meantime I shall see what sort of a fellow you are. If you really prove to be the right fellow, I, of course, will not hesitate to support you,’ and so on. That, more or less is the attitude of the average rank and file worker of the present day towards the anti-trade unionists. He who fails to understand this characteristic feature in the mentality of the average worker in Europe will understand nothing about the position of the present-day Communist Parties.

“What constitutes the strength of social-democracy in the West? The fact that it has support in the trade unions.

“What constitutes the weakness of our Communist Parties in the West? The fact that they are not yet linked with the trade unions and that certain elements within the Communist Parties do not wish to be linked with them.

“Hence, the main task of the Communist Parties of the West at the present time is to develop the campaign for unity in the trade union movement. and to bring it to its consummation; to see to it that all communists, without exception, join trade unions, there to work systematically and patiently to strengthen the solidarity of the working class in its fight against capital, and thus attain the condition that will enable the Communist Parties to rely upon the trade unions.”

These words were spoken by Stalin many years ago, but they might have been said yesterday, for they still hold force for us.

A Good Union Worker

In order to equip themselves as not only the best theoretical and political leaders of the trade unions, but also as the best practical trade unionists, militants must master the awards, as they cover their industry or factory, they must know the rule book of the union and its organisation, history, customs and practices. Only in this way can they become the best trade unionists.

Some members fail to keep themselves “financial” in their unions, with the consequence that they lose standing and when an opportunity to contest an official position happens along, they are ineligible to stand. Positions are lost that might have been won but for this carelessness.

It is also bad for a militant to drop out of a union whilst in arrears and without notifying the union and complying with the rules covering resignations. This may afterwards be used by the reactionaries to discredit us, and in any case, as the communists must be the best unionists, they must take care to be financial and observe the rules. Members should have a knowledge of the rules of debate in order to prevent a “slick” chairman putting one over them.

Comrades in the unions must study the conditions and problems of union members and draw up programmes of demands, for the union to be able to give a lead, in good time, on all matters affecting the union and strive at all times to unite the union membership and foster good relations with other unions.

Speaking in the union is also an art. We do not want to bore the workers with long and windy speeches, or go over their heads by being too “theoretical.” We must deal with the questions before the meeting in an attractive fashion. This does not mean that we confine ourselves solely to economic questions. “No politics in the union” means bourgeois politics in the union. We must skillfully seize appropriate moments and opportunities to discuss politics and socialism with the workers at union meetings and elsewhere. Our goal is to raise the consciousness of the unionists to the level of a socialist understanding.