Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

E. F. Hill

Looking Backward: Looking Forward


Within the framework of trade union politics, these members of the former Communist Party pursue an altogether peaceful course. They fall in with the proposals of the reformists without any trouble at all. They reach full agreement, or if they do not reach formal agreement they reach actual agreement. There are many examples of this.

Two matters of great importance to the trade unions have already been commented on – the introduction of government ballots in the trade unions and the virtual prohibition of the right to strike through the system of bans clauses in awards and then punishment for contempt when the unions go on strike. Even within the framework of capitalism, of trade union politics, it would have been possible to defeat these measures. The reformists refused to campaign against them because they had really sponsored them and the Communists failed even from a trade union standpoint to make clear that they stood for a powerful united campaign against them.

Therefore, though not in formal agreement with the reformists, the former Communists reached actual agreement with them. The consequence was that the Seamen’s Union, the Waterside Workers’ Union and various others were allowed to be picked off one by one without real protection. The futility of leading proclaimed Communists as trade union officials was demonstrated in innumerable ways. Mass struggle was paralysed. By the very fact that such people were suggesting their “leadership” as the ideal form of trade union activity they denied the masses any real role. Instead of the Communists being of and with the masses a quite false picture of Communists was given. Even in the extremely limited field open to such Communist officials the opportunities of doing some good were never fully used. Such people, for example, had ready access to the capitalist press, to say nothing of the trade union and Communist press. Yet they did not use even these limited opportunities to explain the role of the workers, the need for united campaigning and action. The whole thing was a complete misconception. It demonstrated that the attempt to do things from on top while really ignoring the masses is doomed to failure. Of course these people gave lip service to the role of the masses. But in fact and in action they denied the masses any role. Nor did they use the situation to lift the consciousness of the workers to scientific, socialist consciousness nor to strengthen the position of the former Communist Party politically, ideologically and organisationally. They facilitated, by their silence if you like, the process of making the trade unions instruments of the State.

The former Communist Party as such failed to develop any real criticism of the reformists who at all times serve capitalism, of why the reformists would not lead campaigns even within capitalism because they have the same outlook as the capitalist class. The reformists will make such concessions as are necessary to maintain their hold over the workers and will prevent their complete isolation from the workers. They will only wage campaigns which are very strictly within the bounds of capitalism and only when there is no other alternative. Though the former Communist Party may protest that this is not so, an examination of and reflection upon its position shows clearly that it is party to this, part and parcel of it.

The arbitration system is fully supported by the A.L.P. and the reformist trade union leaders and it is nominally opposed by the former Communist Party. The role of the arbitration system is to achieve “industrial peace.” It is constituted under the Commonwealth Constitution under the power which enables the parliament to pass laws “for the peace, order and good government of the Commonwealth with respect to conciliation and arbitration for the prevention and settlement of industrial disputes extending beyond the limits of any one State.” The actual existence of a dispute has been largely replaced by the fiction of a paper dispute, i.e. the union makes a claim well in excess of what it knows the employer will grant or the employer makes demands on the union well beyond what he knows the union will concede. Then the matter goes to the court and is adjudicated. The court hands down an award which fixes the wages and conditions of an industry. (It is backed by all sorts of compulsory powers and penalties as we have already indicated.) Almost all the unions in Australia are registered in the court, i.e. they become corporate bodies and are subject to the court’s jurisdiction. The Act does register and give legal effect to certain concessions (including the recognition of their existence) that the unions historically have won. One of the main jobs of the union secretary is to get a “good” award from the court.

Arbitration legislation, both Federal and State, sets up tribunals (varying a little from case to case) which do “justice” between the worker and the employer. It is not necessary to reflect upon the administrators of this justice personally to see that the very idea is absolutely impossible. Under the conditions of capitalism the level of wages is determined primarily by the social laws which Marx discovered and expounded, namely in this case that the value of labour power is determined in the same way as the value of all other commodities, i.e. by the amount of socially necessary labour time used in its production. That is to say the value of the worker’s labour power is determined in the first place by what it costs to feed, clothe, house him, etc., and to produce children who will take his place as a worker. That determines the primary level of his wage and nothing else, and no tribunal can alter that social law even if it wanted to. The very function of the tribunal is to keep wages as near to that very subsistence level as possible. The trade union struggle has been to raise it above the bare subsistence level, but even when it is raised considerably above that level, still the basic determinant is the amount of socially necessary labour time used in its production.

Again, the level of wages may be influenced by supply and demand. In the ups and downs of capitalism sometimes there is a shortage of workers. Then wages tend to go above the bare subsistence level. In times of unemployment they go even below a bare subsistence level and the unemployed person has no wages at all. Whatever the position of supply and demand and whatever social increment is squeezed from the capitalists by the strength of the trade unions, the fact is that the level of wages is determined by this law and not by any tribunal or any employer. It is fixed by the laws of capitalism. These are social laws that exist independently of the will of man.

The capitalist makes his profits because labour power has one distinction from all other commodities. It has the capacity to produce value in excess of its own value. “The value of labour power and the value which that labour power produces in the labour process are two entirely different magnitudes,” said Marx (Capital: Vol. 1, pp 215-216, Kerr edition). The difference between those magnitudes is profit. Those are social laws which operate throughout capitalism. In the very beginning the arbitration tribunals in Australia, without knowing the scientific basis on which they did it, set out to ascertain the minimum amount of money it would take to keep a family unit “in frugal comfort.” They investigated the amount of rent, amount spent on food, clothes, education, medicine, etc., needed to maintain a worker and fixed a “fair” wage accordingly. For long there was what was called the needs basic wage, i.e. a frank recognition that wages were no more than what was needed to maintain the worker fit as a workman. Nowadays various formulas are used, such as the capacity of industry to pay or the capacity of the community to pay. Notwithstanding this new terminology the laws of capitalism continue to exist. We mention this at some length because the arbitration tribunals really operate within limits determined by this social law and they cannot do anything else. Any conception of justice is just nonsense. In any event, justice under capitalism is always capitalist justice. Justice is a social term and its content is fixed by the given society. Justice in the case of decisions under arbitration legislation cannot help but give effect to capitalism, operate according to capitalism.

The arbitration tribunals intervene between the direct confrontation of workers and employers. Instead of the worker meeting face to face with the exploiter, the exploiter is able to refer the worker to the arbitration tribunal’s decision – the award. There, the exploiter maintains, the evidence has been heard, all that the worker has to say has been heard, the employer has been heard, the tribunal has investigated all sides of the matter and then justice has been done. If there is an existing dispute the employer will tell the worker to go to the arbitration tribunal because it will give him justice. If the worker disobeys an award by going on strike or taking some other action, it is said, and a great hue and cry is raised about it, that he refuses to obey the decision of the umpire. But all this is absolute deception and people within the workingclass who support it or fail to explain it systematically and fully are party to that deception. It is shackling the workingclass to the capitalist system. To speak of an umpire or justice in such circumstances is ridiculous. An umpire at a cricket match or a football match can give an impartial decision because the contending parties are on an equal footing. In litigation between two commercial concerns a judge can give an impartial decision because the parties are on an equal footing. To import the concepts “umpire,” “justice” into the determination of disputes between workers and employers, i.e. into the class struggle itself, is absolute rubbish and the sheerest deception which must be eternally explained.

The reformist trade union leaders accept all this deception and the old Communists in leading trade union positions have become adapted to it. Indeed they even speak of “wage justice.” The organ of the former Communist Party of Australia, “Tribune,” carries headlines which demand “wage justice.” An accidental or passing use of such a term may be excusable. But as a concept, as an approach, it is actually accepting all this bourgeois rubbish and underwriting the arbitration system. It is giving expression to trade union politics because trade union politics see only the alleviation or improvement of conditions under capitalism, i.e. seek “justice” for the worker. The reality is that the worker requires justice with a different content, his own justice, the justice of the workingclass state.

It is absolutely correct that a trade union official, Communist or otherwise, be well versed in the procedure of arbitration tribunals.

It is often said, and correctly said, that the arbitration tribunals, insofar as they grant higher wages or better conditions, only register that which the workers have already won in struggle or are about to win anyway. That is perfectly true and an examination of awards will show that those unions which have gained most from arbitration have been those which have waged militant struggle. Conversely those which have been submissive have fared worst. It is plain to all that if there is militant struggle, arbitration will act quickly. If there is a passive attitude on the part of a union there is endless delay. All, however, that that is saying is that the trade union struggle is the more successful the more vigorously it is waged. In itself it has nothing to do with the lifting of the scientific socialist consciousness of the workers. To put it forward as some panacea for all social ills, as the complete answer, or as the justification of Communism, as is done by the former Communist leaders, is only again to give expression to trade union politics, bourgeois politics, non-revolutionary politics.

Nowhere does such an idea in itself rise above bourgeois politics. It is quite correct to wage militant struggle, although even in that the former Communist Party is falling down, but it is not correct for a Communist to fail to show (and not merely by making speeches and writing articles) to the workers ideologically, politically and organisationally that such a struggle is subordinate to or part of the struggle for revolutionary consciousness. This task the modern-day Australian revisionists who call themselves Communists are failing to carry out.