There are still further features in this question of trade union politics on aspects of which we need to comment a little more. Every trade union official has a very good job, with high pay, a motor car, generous allowances, a position of prestige and authority. Hence they live as individuals as the bourgeoisie lives. They live in an environment which is spontaneously generating trade union politics, non-revolutionary politics. There is inevitably a merging of the two – trade union officials with the bourgeoisie. Thus it will be found today that a number of men who became trade union officials from the workshops as good honest workers, genuinely striving after Marxism-Leninism, have become bourgeois and have bourgeois politics. In a few cases they are even actually personally corrupted by the employers. This latter is but an incident of political degeneration. The trade union position, because of an incorrect political approach, was an end in itself. Its maintenance is an end in itself and so the person concerned will go to any lengths to maintain that position. Principles, Marxism-Leninism, the emancipation of the workingclass, take a very secondary place. In fact they become nonexistent in his mind. It requires people of the highest calibre to withstand the corrupting influence of all this. Only the strongest people, strong in Marxism-Leninism, can do so.
The fact today is that the position of the former Communist Party of Australia in the trade unions is actually declining and has now for some years been declining. One may mention losses in the Amalgamated Engineering Union or the position in the Waterside Workers’ Federation after the death of J. Healy, member of the Political Committee of the former Communist Party and for many years, general secretary of that union and the defeat of his proposed Communist successor. Many positions have been lost. And why? Is it because the workers have become more backward? Can the workers be blamed? Is it because the objective conditions are against it? Undoubtedly objective conditions do influence the workers. That is obvious and the decline of the position of the old Communists is in a sense a product of objective conditions in that they have fallen victim themselves to the environment of capitalism. They have become adapted to it, identified with it.
As we have said, “Communists” on the A.C.T.U. Interstate Executive are indistinguishable from the reformists, from the A.L.P. If you had not known as a fact that there were three people on that executive who bore the label of Communist, there would be nothing whatever in life, in experience to show it. Trade unionists increasingly can see little difference between some who bear the label “Communist” and the A.L.P. official. In fact, there is little difference, and indeed no fundamental difference. In that situation, inevitably the position of the old Communists must decline because the workers cannot be deceived for ever. An even more important side of this (and part of it) is that the former Communist Party had the totally incorrect idea of placing Communists in leading positions and then relying on them as leaders of the revolutionary movement with the trade unions as revolutionary organisations. As we have tried to show the trade unions are not revolutionary organisations. Painstaking work amongst the masses, winning them to Communism, seeking eternally new ways to win the masses to Communism, all that is required. Lenin’s Left Wing Communism demonstrates the only correct approach. Official positions are only important for facilitating deep going work among the masses. The exclusive left bloc practised by the former Communist Party actually hinders mass work. Such ideas are in conflict with Lenin’s wise advice in Left Wing Communism.
A still further feature of the work of the former Communist Party in the trade unions was the almost complete preoccupation with winning official trade union positions. Winning of official positions is important, but the real question is winning the workers to Communism. The workers are in the factories. It is there that they must be won to Communism. It is true that the Communist trade union official has access to the workers in the factories and can influence them. But he cannot do amongst the workers the painstaking, detailed, devoted day-to-day revolutionary work that is necessary. That can only be done by Communists in the factories. Those Communists must work amongst different strata of the workers. Some workers are advanced, some are backward, some are in between, some have one interest, others, other interests. There must be Communists amongst each section. The Communists will work as Lenin indicated in Left Wing Communism. The preoccupation with official positions means that the former Communist Party cut off or seriously limited this extremely important day to day Communist work, detailed and apparently unrewarding work. As we have said, the former Communist Party’s ideas really resulted in the formation in a trade union or factory of an exclusive “left bloc.” It failed to ensure contact of the Communists with “every sphere and stratum,” to borrow Lenin’s phrase. The “left bloc” idea cannot give contact with every sphere and stratum. By its very nature it can influence only the most advanced workers. It creates difficulties in assisting other sections of the workers to become advanced.
Preoccupation with official positions is but another side of worship of the trade union official as the ideal of the revolutionary. This, as Lenin said, is quite wrong. The trade union official’s position may assist in the job of winning the masses for Communism. But the preoccupation with official trade union positions is characteristic of trade union politics. It is characteristic of the A.L.P.
What is required really is an all-round approach to this matter so that the official position is seen not as the be-all and end-all of Communist work in the unions, but as part of a very extensive job of winning the workers and working people in every sphere and stratum for revolution.
In the former Communist Party organisation itself a person elected as general secretary or even some other leading trade union position almost automatically became by virtue of that alone a member of the Central Committee and, within the States, a member of the leading Committee in the given State. That is to say they did not become members of those leading Committees by virtue of their grip of revolutionary theory and politics or by virtue of their revolutionary work, but solely by virtue of the fact that they held leading trade union positions. This is not at all to reflect on the individuals concerned, but merely to state the fact. It is a fact also of course that with a few exceptions these people were never Marxist-Leninists and some never aspired to be Marxist-Leninists. There are several conclusions to be drawn from this fact.
It demonstrates the influence of trade union politics in the former Communist Party, i.e. the Communist Party tacitly accepted the trade unions and trade union leaders as decisive of its policy. In that respect it does not essentially differ from the A.L.P., where it is well known that a leading trade union position is a big step forward for a person who wishes to make a career in the A.L.P. The leadership of the A.L.P. is inextricably intertwined with the leadership of the trade unions. Nor of course is it necessarily wrong for a leading trade union official to be a leading member of the Communist Party, nor of its Central Committee, but the criterion of his membership of the Central Committee should be his ability as a Marxist-Leninist and not the mere fact that he holds a leading trade union position.
As we have said, generally speaking the former Communists who are trade union officials have succumbed to trade union politics, bourgeois politics. Of course they bring those politics into the leading bodies of the Communist Party. Thus in the Central Committee of the former Communist Party there is a group of trade union leaders who, without any disrespect to them at all, are not Communists. They do not understand Marxism-Leninism and, more importantly, do not attempt to become Marxist-Leninists. They are steeped in trade union politics. They exude trade union politics. In other words, in the very highest authoritative body of the former Communist Party, apart from all other considerations, there is this extremely strong direct stream of bourgeois politics.
In each case the trade union leader carries with him, as it were, the weight of his organisation, even an intimidatory weight, because if the given trade union leader does not like a particular decision which affects him, he can either directly or by implication suggest that he will leave the Communist Party, with consequent adverse publicity and influence. There is the case of one member of the Central Committee of the former Communist Party who in fact did precisely that. In 1956, when the Communist Party decided that he should not stand as candidate for a particular trade union position, he made overtures to join the Australian labor party, and the Central Committee of the Communist Party could do little about it. In fact, this member of the Central Committee defied the decisions of the Committee of which he was a member. Whether or not the decision on the particular trade union position was correct at the time is not the point. The point is that an individual trade union leader relied upon his trade union position to circumvent a decision of the Communist Party.
In 1961, the same person actually left the Communist Party, resigned from it, in order to force compliance with his own views in an internal dispute in the former Communist Party. Having gained his point, he resumed membership of the former Communist Party and is still a member of that Party and its Central Committee. Nor is this the only such dramatic case. The central fact is that the trade union leader has a certain kingdom, sphere of his own, which because of the weakness of the former Communist Party in Marxism-Leninism, he really wields at all times and, if need be, against the former Communist Party. This is a position precisely similar to that of the A.L.P., where the trade union leader uses the weight of his union to pursue his own career. Again the matters of predominant importance, even the only matters put forward as of decisive importance by former Communists of this character, are trade union matters. Their politics do not extend outside the trade unions and when this is put forward by people in a powerful position then it assumes a vast importance in the former Communist Party. Trade unions are vastly important as Lenin said, but only as part of politics as a whole. What the former Communists have done in this respect is to put trade union politics ahead of any question of revolutionary politics.
Though we have said that the trade union officials either directly or by implication carry with them the weight of their trade union position, in turn they have a dependence on the former Communist Party. This renders the need for reconciliation of any conflicts, as they see it, all the more obligatory. Just as the withdrawal of a leading Communist trade union official from the former Communist Party is a serious matter to the former Communist Party, so the withdrawal of the support of the former Communist Party from a leading trade union official is a serious matter. Thus it is a question of inter-relationships. Though in theory the former Communist Party is supreme in the circumstances contemplated, in actual life the picture is one of a Communist Party by its very environment heavily influenced by trade union politics with the added weight (expressive of the environment) of leading trade union officials automatically becoming members of leading committees and feeding the already strong trade union political influences.
Hence, in 1962, when the Central Committee of the former Communist Party of Australia departed from its political line of one of general community of views with the Communist Party of China to unequivocal support of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, two aspects of the position of these trade union leaders are worthy of comment.
In the first place, because the line typified by Khrushchov is a bourgeois line it tended to merge with the spontaneous trade union politics, bourgeois politics, of these trade union leaders. In the second place, for them to defy the line officially declared by Sharkey could lead to a conflict that was irreconcilable and thus could jeopardise Communist Party support for their trade union position. Thus Sharkey’s own position on this matter arose partly from his own position as one who reflected trade union politics and hence coincided with the trade union politics that were spontaneously generating from the trade union leaders. Naturally we do not exclude sentiments of loyalty for the former Communist Party from these trade union leaders, nor do we say that consciously they reasoned all this out. We do say that an examination of the situation demonstrates that these were the decisive factors at work. Since that time the spontaneity of trade union politics has been given official sanction by the former Communist Party of Australia. It has abandoned attempts to resist the influence in the working-class of the spontaneous trade union politics that emanate from the trade unions and is abandoning itself to what Lenin called, in this connection, the line of least resistance.
What is demanded is not less attention to trade unions but more and more. It must be based upon a correct appreciation of Marxism-Leninism. Lenin said: “The demand ’to give the economic struggle itself a political character’ most strikingly expresses subservience to spontaneity in the sphere of political activity. Very often the economic struggle spontaneously assumes a political character, that is to say without the injection of the ’revolutionary bacilli of the intelligentsia,’ without the intervention of the class conscious Social Democrats. For example, the economic struggle of the British workers assumed a political character without the intervention of the Socialists. The tasks of the Social Democrats, however, are not exhausted by political agitation on the economic field, their task is to convert trade union politics into the Social Democratic political struggle, to utilise the flashes of political consciousness which gleam in the minds of the workers during their economic struggle for the purpose of raising them to the level of Social Democratic political consciousness.” (Lenin: What is to be Done, 3 Vol. edition, Selected Works, Vol. 3, footnote pp. 184-5). It is absolutely correct to pay enormous attention to the trade unions, but it must be attention aimed to raise trade union consciousness into scientific socialist consciousness, and that in any event sees the trade union struggle as only one of myriad struggles.
Moreover the very term trade union struggle can give rise to misunderstandings. In Australia the trade unions are very carefully tailored by the bourgeoisie. As we have said their apparatus is a legally created and protected institution of capitalism. If the Australian workers are going to break from capitalism they must break from this form of trade unionism. In itself this system has given rise to a whole series of sacred cows or stereotypes. Things must be done in a certain way. Meetings must be conducted in a certain way. Strikes must be conducted in a certain way. Elections must be held in a certain way. All this is part of capitalism’s stranglehold on the workers. If a stereotype is always followed then the ruling class knows exactly what to expect. Yet we are engaged in class warfare. Does a wise general let the enemy know in advance what he is going to do? Of course not. All these old form, old ideas, old sacred cows must be thoroughly examined. Work amongst the trade unionists, which all this really denies, is the key question.