As capitalism in Australia has developed, the Australian trade unions have continued to develop in membership and strength right up to the present time.
The Australian trade union movement reflects the development of capitalism in Australia. The decisive position of the Australian Workers’ Union, largely an agricultural workers’ union, some sixty-odd years ago was a reflection of the primarily agrarian character of Australia’s economy up till World War I. By 1927, the trade unions covering the industrial workers had constituted the Australian Council of Trade Unions, to which the A.W.U. was not affiliated until 1967. Each maintained a separate existence. The 1967 A.C.T.U.-A.W.U. marriage is a reflection of Australia’s economic development and the crisis of reformist trade union politics. The leaders of these two bodies need each other’s support to hold back workingclass struggle.
In the period after World War II, further changes in the nature of the economy are reflected in the emergence of the Australian Council of Salaried and Professional Associations and the High Council of Public Servants, organising the skilled technicians and white collar workers. These latter bodies have been called into being by the increasing mechanisation and automation of industry and the growth in the public service. All of this requires analysis and a proper working out of correct Marxist-Leninist policy. The central fact is that the great majority of Australian workers are organised in trade unions.
And what does that mean? It means that the field of competition for the minds of the workers is eternally expanding. With the expansion of the trade unions, so the tendencies to spontaneous generation of trade union politics are strengthened. On the other hand, the fact of organisation and the very degree of consciousness that leads to organisation, together with Marxism-Leninism increasing its hold on the workers, expands the field for the Marxist-Leninists. Left to themselves the trade unions will generate only trade union consciousness which involves acceptance of the existing social order.
Bourgeois politics, reformist politics will flow into the workingclass from the trade unions. Given a correct approach the workingclass provides an inexhaustible reservoir for revolutionary Marxism-Leninism. Without a revolutionary party extending leadership to all spheres and strata of the community, including the trade unions, the trade unions provide a veritable sea of bourgeois ideas, all the time being generated, all the time exercising an influence against revolutionary ideas, exercising a conservative influence, an influence for the acceptance of capitalism. All this is exploited by the bourgeoisie. On the other hand, with correct Marxism-Leninism and given a Marxist-Leninist political party exercising its leadership correctly the bounds of trade union politics can be overcome. The workingclass in those circumstances is not then confined to mere questions of trade unions and trade union interests. From its very position as the most revolutionary class the workingclass must take up all the questions of society (not only the immediate economic interests of the workers). It must become imbued with revolutionary consciousness. Marx and Engels said:
Of all the classes that stand face to face with the bourgeoisie today, the proletariat alone is a revolutionary class. The other classes decay and finally disappear in the face of modern industry; the proletariat is its special and essential product. The lower middle class, the small manufacturer, the shopkeeper, the artisan, the peasant, all these fight against the bourgeoisie, to save from extinction their existence as fractions of the middle class. They are therefore not revolutionary, but conservative. Nay more, they are reactionary, for they try to roll back the wheel of history. If by chance they are revolutionary, they are so only in view of their impending transfer into the proletariat; they thus defend not their present, but their future interests; they desert their own standpoint to place themselves at that of the proletariat (Communist Manifesto, 1848).
Hence the tendencies go both ways but, as Lenin said, it requires determination, resolute struggle, to ensure the victory of breaking away from the limitations of trade union politics, i.e. “the common striving of all workers to secure from the government measures for alleviating the distress to which their condition gives rise, but which do not abolish that condition – which do not remove the subjection of labour to capital” (Lenin, op. cit. 159.)
We must pause here to quote Lenin a little more. He said: “Workingclass consciousness cannot be genuine political consciousness unless the workers are trained to respond to all cases of tyranny, oppression, violence, and abuse, no matter what class is affected – unless they are trained, moreover, to respond from a Social Democratic (read Communist) point of view and no other. The consciousness of the workingclass cannot be genuine class-consciousness, unless the workers learn from concrete, and above all from topical, political facts and events to observe every other social class in all the manifestations of its intellectual, ethical and political life; unless they learn to apply in practice the materialist analysis and the materialist estimate of all aspects of the life and activity of all classes, strata and groups of the population. Those who concentrate the attention, observation and consciousness of the workingclass exclusively, or even mainly, upon itself alone are not Social Democrats (read Communists), for the self knowledge of the workingclass is indissolubly bound up, not solely with a fully clear theoretical understanding – or rather not so much with the theoretical, as with the practical understanding – of the relationships between all the various classes of modern society, acquired through the experience of political life. For this reason the conception of the economic struggle as the most widely applicable means of drawing the masses into the political movement, which our Economists preach, is so extremely harmful and reactionary in its practical significance. In order to become a Social Democrat (read Communist) the worker must have a clear picture in his mind of the economic nature and the social and political features of the landlord and the priest, the high state official and the peasant, the student and the vagabond; he must know their strong and weak points; he must grasp the meaning of all the catchwords and sophisms by which each class and each stratum camouflages its selfish strivings and its real ’inner workings’; he must understand what interests are reflected by certain institutions and certain laws and how they are reflected. But this ’clear picture’ cannot be obtained from any book. It can be obtained only from living examples and from exposures that follow close upon what is going on about us at a given moment; upon what is being discussed, in whispers perhaps, by each one in his own way; upon what rinds expression in such and such events, in such and such statistics, in such and such court sentences, etc., etc. These comprehensive political exposures are an essential and fundamental condition for training the masses in revolutionary activity.” (Lenin: What is to be Done, 3 Volume Edition, Selected Works, Vol. 3, pp. 181-2, emphasis partly mine.–E.F.H.)
Enough experience has accumulated in the Australian trade union movement to enable us to examine some aspects of its politics from the time of the 1917 Russian Revolution.
We choose that time because it was then that the struggle for the ideas of revolutionary socialism was really joined in Australia. We propose to examine the work of raising the consciousness of the workers to Marxist-Leninist socialist consciousness and to test it by the classical tests set out by Lenin.
In our country, good trade union leaders, leaders who are prepared to fight, justifiably command the respect of the workers. A trade union leader who leads his members in strike and other struggles and wins gains for his members, earns their respect and support and quite correctly so. The job of a trade union leader is to devote himself selflessly to the interests of his members. In Australian conditions he must be a good mass leader, he must be familiar with the laws and awards that govern the industry, he must be a good advocate. But none of that makes him a revolutionary socialist. By doing his trade union duties he is giving expression to trade union politics and demonstrating once again that by its own efforts alone the workingclass can generate only trade union consciousness. A trade union leader emerges from amongst the workers in the factories.
Usually he has demonstrated his capacity for leadership in many struggles on the job. He carries with him all the influences of trade union consciousness arising from the factory conditions in which the essence of the struggle spontaneously developing all the time is to get a better deal from the employer. The political affiliations of such a person may be Australian labor party, Communist or he may belong to no party. Whatever party he belongs to he will most likely bring with him the heavy imprint of trade union politics precisely because of his immediate environment in the factory and because of the very strength of the organisation of trade unions in Australia. But the criterion of a good revolutionary socialist, Marxist-Leninist, Communist, goes far beyond the mere capacity (praiseworthy and necessary that that is) to be a good trade union leader. A militant trade union leader is not, merely by virtue of his militancy, a revolutionary. Nonetheless a trade union leader may also be a good Marxist-Leninist, just as anyone else may be. In Australia there are trade union leaders who are revolutionaries.
Sometimes it is answered that the trade union leaders not uncommonly are good politicians, that they give the economic struggle a political character. That is a common assertion of the modern day Australian revisionists. This was well answered by Lenin over 60 years ago. He said: “The economic struggle is the collective struggle of the workers against their employers for better terms in the sale of their labour power, for better living and working conditions. This struggle is necessarily a trade union struggle, because working conditions differ greatly in different trades, and, consequently, the struggle to improve them can only be conducted on the basis of trade organisations (in the western countries, through trade unions) . . . Lending ’the economic struggle itself a political character’ means, therefore, striving to secure satisfaction of these trade demands, the improvement of working conditions in each separate trade by means of ’legislative and administrative measures’.
This is precisely what all workers’ trade unions do and always have done. Read the words of the soundly scientific (and ’soundly’ opportunist) Mr. and Mrs. Webb and you will see that the British trade unions long ago recognised, and have long been carrying out, the task of ’lending the economic struggle itself a political character’; they have long been fighting for the right to strike, for the removal of all legal hindrances to the co-operative and trade union movements, for laws to protect women and children, for the improvement of labour conditions by means of health and factory legislation, etc.
Thus, the pompous phrase about lending the economic struggle itself a political character, which sounds so ’terrifically’ profound and revolutionary, serves as a screen to conceal what is in fact the traditional striving to degrade Social Democratic (read Communist) politics to the level of trade union politics.
We may, and the workers may, respect, and rightly so, a trade union leader for his capacity to perform his job as a trade union leader, but that must not blind us to the fact that that capacity, that ability to carry out the tasks of the trade unions does not make that person a workingclass leader who seeks the end of capitalism. On the contrary, such a person can well (maybe unconsciously) serve the capitalist class by operating always on the basis of the maintenance of capitalism.
Something much more must be expected and demanded by the workers. Of course, the workers will fight to defend and strengthen their trade unions and demand of their trade union leaders selfless attention to their trade union duties. But as we have said, for the emancipation of the working-class, something much more is required.
“Revolutionary Social Democracy (read Communism) has always included the struggle for reforms as part of its activities.” (Lenin: What is to be Done, 3 Vol. Edition, Selected Works, Vol. 3, p. 175.) Communists must always play a full part in the struggle for reforms. “But,” said Lenin, “it (Communism) utilises ’economic’ agitation for the purpose of presenting to the government, not only demands for all sorts of measures, but also (and primarily) the demand that it cease to be an autocratic government.” (He was speaking of Russian Czarism.) “Moreover it considers it its duty to present this demand to the government on the basis, not of the economic struggle alone but of all manifestations in general of public and political life. In a word, it subordinates the struggle for reforms, as the part to the whole, to the revolutionary struggle for socialism.”
And later Lenin said: “’Economic’ concessions (or pseudo-concessions) are, of course, the cheapest and most advantageous from the government’s point of view, because by these means it hopes to win the confidence of the working masses. For this very reason, we Social Democrats (read Communists) must not under any circumstances or in any way whatever create grounds for the belief (or the misunderstanding) that we attach greater value to economic reforms, or that we regard them as being particularly important.”
Hence we return – to whom should the workers look as leaders? Because of the trade union traditions in Australia, because of the strength of the trade unions in Australia the trade union secretary is frequently the ideal to whom the workers respond. As we have said, as the quotations from Lenin indicate, that is not nearly enough. Speaking of the revolutionary circles in Russia (and we maintain it applies in Australia with equal force), Lenin said:
In fact, the ideal leader, as the majority of the members of such circles picture him, is something far more in the nature of a trade union secretary than a socialist political leader. For the secretary of any, say English, trade union always helps the workers to carry on the economic struggle, he helps them to expose factory abuses, explains the injustice of the law and measures that hamper the freedom to strike and to picket (i.e. to warn all and sundry that a strike is proceeding at a certain factory), explains the partiality of arbitration court judges who belong to the bourgeois classes, etc., etc. In a word, every trade union secretary conducts and helps to conduct ’the economic struggle against the employers and the government.’ It cannot be too strongly maintained that this is still not Social Democracy (read Communism), that the Social Democrats’ ideal should not be the trade union secretary but the tribune of the people, who is able to react to every manifestation of tyranny and oppression, no matter where it appears, no matter what stratum or class of the people it affects; who is able to generalise all these manifestations and produce a single picture of police violence and capitalist exploitation; who is able to take advantage of every event, however small, in order to set forth before all his socialist convictions and his democratic demands, in order to clarify for all and everyone the world historic significance of the struggle for the emancipation of the proletariat.
The leadership of the revolutionary movement belongs not to the trade unions or trade union leaders however militant they may be, but to the Marxist-Leninist Party. The Marxist-Leninist Party is organised on a scientific basis, with a guiding political science to give leadership to every sphere and stratum of society, to win the workers to a revolutionary position.
Thus those who seek emancipation, those who are Marxist-Leninists, those who accept Marxism-Leninism, must not see the purely trade union leader (i.e. the trade union leader who performs only trade union tasks) as the ideal. A given trade union leader may be, to use Lenin’s term, “a tribune of the people,” a Marxist-Leninist, but he is not that by virtue of his trade union position. If he is a good Marxist-Leninist his trade union position will give him greater influence as a tribune of the people, but continually there will act upon him trade union influences that drag him away from being a tribune of the people. If he is a sound Marxist-Leninist, he will resist those. If he is not but belongs to a Marxist-Leninist organisation, he will take his trade union politics into that organisation, and if that organisation is not vigilant, those ideas will exercise very great influence and help to turn the organisation away from Marxism-Leninism.
Thus we have set out some general considerations, and now let us look at what has happened in Australia.