Published: In the Progressive Labor Party [USA] journal, World Revolution, Vol. 2, No. 3, January 1970.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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Vital questions about the role of trade unions under capitalism have been raised by the Communist Party of Australia (Marxist-Leninist) in its publications The Vanguard and The Australian Communist, excerpts of which were reprinted in World Revolution (May-July 1969). They bear directly on the role of communists in trade unions in the United States and are important ones for members of the Progressive Labor Party and all others who attempt to practice Marxism-Leninism.
The Australian comrades make a number of points:
1. In Australia (and presumably in some other capitalist countries) “the large trade union apparatus... continually stimulates the erroneous idea that the unions themselves can force the capitalist class to give way and hand over their factories to the working class,” and “trade union and parliamentary politics generate the idea that social change can be achieved ’constitutionally,’ that is, through peaceful negotiations with the capitalist class.”
2. “Trade unions are necessary for the capitalist class. They are a burden on the backs of the working class... The capitalist class has adapted the trade union apparatus and trade union officials to itself... (and) turned these trade unions from being centers of rebellion into centers of submission.” These unions have “the protection of law” and are “a thoroughgoing instrument for the administration of capitalism.”
3. Even militant communists who become trade union officials inevitably end up as “exponents of capitalist ideology.” This is “scarcely avoidable ... because of the very character of the trade unions at this stage of the history of capitalism. If these leaders promoted revolution they would be promoting themselves out of good comfortable jobs... Their very position depends upon the permanence of capitalism.”
The Australian comrades conclude that “...strengthening trade union organization... only strengthens the hold of the capitalist class over the working class.” They therefore believe that energies should not be diverted into “strengthening trade unions,” but rather into “strengthening revolutionary organization.”
“The job is to smash up the trade union bureaucracy” and begin a “complete rebellion ...against conventional trade unionism.” The Australian comrades say “there is no blueprint, no panacea.” They believe that if communists spread revolutionary truth “to wider and wider sections of the working people” the workers “in struggle will rapidly build their revolutionary organizations.”
This thesis resurrects two old questions: Should (or how) communists work in reactionary-led unions under capitalism; and what of the danger of communists falling into the trap of economism–that is, making trade union activity and the fight for “immediate” demands the end-all of working class struggle? Certainly this was what happened to the CPUSA during the organization of industrial unions 30 years ago.
There is no doubt that because of the reactionary, collaborationist character of its leadership, the U.S. trade union “structure” is virtually controlled by the capitalist class. The Meaney’s, Reuther’s, Livingston’s and Bridges’ all conspire to control the workers and prevent them from achieving their class interests. They work with the bosses’ government to hamstring strikes and militant actions at every turn. And they serve their masters well abroad, too, cooperating with imperialism to force workers into company unions wherever U.S. bosses’ profits are at stake. These flunkies are truly “labor lieutenants of the capitalist class.” It is also true that though U.S. trade unions began as fighting class-struggle organizations in most cases, the ruling class has succeeded, temporarily, in dampening that militancy. But a clear distinction must be made between the goals of the union misleaders and the needs of the workers.
It is wrong to lump the use of unions by the bosses as “instruments for the administration of capitalism” with the need for workers to organize themselves to fight for immediate economic demands. U.S. bosses do not look kindly on the 75 per cent of the working class that is unorganized when it attempts to form unions that will fight in its class interests. If the bosses thought that unionization was such a “burden on the backs of the workers,” why would they use all the power of their state apparatus against workers organizing in the South? The Charleston hospital strike and the Memphis sanitationmen’s strike are but two recent examples. Of course, when rank-and-file workers engage in too militant a class struggle, as in these two battles, the bosses move to cut the battle short. They bring in flunkies like King and Reuther, “allow” a union that will soon reverse the militancy and prevent the rank and file from maintaining their momentum. They fear that such battles for even simple economic demands can get out of hand and leap to higher political levels.
We agree that trade unions are not revolutionary organizations and fight only for limited demands within the system. Furthermore, once rank-and-file workers force the boss to recognize the union (and they must force it; bosses never volunteer to deal with a militant union), the next step for the bosses is to attempt to reverse that workers’ victory.
The bosses attempt this because a strong, militant union will eat into their profits and because such a union will become a vehicle for still greater struggle by the workers. Out of this struggle, given the presence of communists, longer-range, revolutionary ideas and goals can be learned.
The history of U.S. trade unions shows that the bosses have been quite successful in blunting militant union struggle. But it is the absence of communists, Marxist- Leninists, from the ranks of the workers that has permitted this reversal. Communists must move the workers’ struggle for immediate economic demands to a higher stage. They must spread the understanding that the struggle for higher wages, shorter hours, and better working conditions is a treadmill as long as the bosses can undercut such victories through their control of the government and the economic system.
It is not the “strengthening of trade union organization” or “the building of job organization” in and of itself that promotes class collaboration. If that were true the bosses would welcome unionization instead of opposing militant, rank-and-file unionism. (Faced with the latter threat they will bring in racketeer “labor” flunkies through the back door.) Rather it is the lack of communists within the working class that permits union misleaders to develop. Without a long-range, revolutionary understanding of the nature of capitalism, a militant worker elected to trade union leadership will be unable to withstand the onslaught of the bosses. Only communists can expose the class collaborationist, self-defeating nature of such bosses’ tools as arbitration, teach the necessary political lessons and prevent the struggle from going backwards.
For communists to do this, they must be immersed in the struggle with a political base among the workers. Communists must not stand aloof from the workers’ struggles with the excuse that the trade union structure and its misleaders are tied to the capitalist class. The class enemy would love to keep the workers fighting in trade union struggles separated from any revolutionary thought. (This is the main sectarian and adventurist danger that Lenin warned against in “Left-wing Communism, An Infantile Disorder.”) Organizing into unions by militant rank-and-filers gives the workers a greater vehicle for class struggle and sharpens the fight against the ruling class.
Communists must plunge into the fight and win the respect of the workers, leading them to listen to their views about the limited nature of the struggle. In the course of such immersion in trade union struggle, naturally a danger of becoming overwhelmed by it exists. But the opportunity exists also to learn from the experience and from the workers how better to fight the class struggle to the end. Therefore the existence of this danger is not a reason to forego the struggle. Nor is it inevitable that participation in the immediate economic struggles of the workers in a trade union form will lead to sellout, “inhibition,” or “encirclement” by capitalist ideology. If this were true, Marxism-Leninism would be a weak weapon indeed in the battle against capitalism. History has proven otherwise.
It is significant to note that the General Secretary of the Communist Party of Ceylon, N. Sanmugathasan, writing of the Australian position, said that in his country Marxist-Leninists were “the trade union leadership inside the Communist Party (and) led the fight against modern revisionism... succeeding in retaining the Ceylon Trade Union Federation, the biggest mass organization under the leadership of the party, under correct Marxist-Leninist leadership.”
If workers choose to elect a communist to union office, it is not inevitable that he will eventually betray them. If workers know their co-worker is a communist, and if they understand the relationship between that fact and their ability to wage sustained class struggle against the boss, then the election of a communist to union office is a good thing. It will surely force the boss to counterattack–bosses invariably recognize the potential danger of a communist as a leader of workers–and this will offer the communist an opportunity to advance the class struggle to a more radical political level. He can explain why the boss attacks communists and show the limited nature of trade union struggle and the necessity to adopt longer-range, revolutionary goals– the complete overthrow of the system. However, the main role of a communist is not to “get elected” but to be immersed in rank-and-file, class struggle and give leadership to it.
Certainly the bosses will try anything to dislodge communists from leadership, or, failing that, corrupt them. And, of course, murder has never been an unthinkable last resort for bosses. But it is just such a fight that can force a discussion among the workers about the value and role of communists in the working class. This is not something to shy away from for fear of being “encircled,” but should be welcomed as an advanced state of the class struggle.
No doubt the ruling class will not sit idly by and permit workers to put communists into leadership of the trade union movement. It will launch violent attacks against the working class before that stage can be reached. But it will be the communists’ job to prepare the workers for such attacks and make them an opportunity for increased revolutionary activity. Such a struggle transforms the fight for simple economic demands–to which trade unionism confines itself–into a fight for revolutionary goals.
We are not describing a “two-stage” struggle; that is, a communist’s role is not to first participate in a trade union fight and “later” turn it into a revolutionary one. Rather, the struggle for revolutionary ideology must go on all the time, throughout the fight for so-called trade union demands. That is the only guarantee that political turns will be made.
Communists must bring socialist ideology to the working class. To do this they must discuss issues that go far beyond the bounds of the trade union structure: solidarity with workers in other countries (proletarian internationalism); the need to ally with students and revolutionary intellectuals; the need to struggle on fronts other than the factory–communities, schools, on questions of taxes, services, and all the other areas in which the bosses exploit the working class, and ultimately the need for the dictatorship of the proletariat.
In the PLP Trade Union Program (Progressive Labor, August 1969) we offered a strategy for conducting such a struggle within the trade unions and the working class generally. At the heart of it is building a unity of Left and Center forces–a coalition of revolutionary, communist forces along with the mass of workers ready to fight the bosses. The role of communists in this fight includes pointing out the relationship of the smallest fight to the over-all class struggle, to the role of the state as a servant of the bosses, and to the whole capitalist system. A party that guarantees that such tasks are carried out among the workers is one that will prevent, for the most part, betrayals by its members as they begin to win the respect of workers and come into leadership of the working class.
The Australian comrades are also concerned that the trade unions foster the idea of “peaceful takeover of the factories.” But this problem does not exist in the U.S. Here the union hacks are open advocates of the capitalist system. As far as trade union politics generating the idea that social change can grow out of “peaceful negotiations,” the actual facts of the class struggle belie that idea. Though it is true that the union flunkies push this concept, communists working correctly can easily disprove it by using the experiences of the workers themselves in constant battle with the bosses.
Thus we would conclude that trade union struggle is, in Lenin’s phrase, a “school for communism.” It is a limited, non-revolutionary form, but within it the seeds of understanding necessary to final overthrow of the system can take root. Trade unions that have been corrupted by the capitalist class into following a ruling-class ideology–and serve to hold the workers in check–cannot be abandoned to the reactionary union bureaucrats. If workers are still bound by that form, communists must work in them and strive to break these bonds, to make unions into fighting, class struggle organizations.
In the course of this long struggle, the political lessons learned will enable the workers, under the leadership of communists, to break the reformist chains of trade unionism once and for all. As the Ceylonese comrade also pointed out: “It is very essential to organize workers and help them to fight for their day-to-day demands. Because it is only in the course of these fights that the workers learn about the system of capitalist exploitation and the need to abolish it. Trade union struggles are necessary to educate the workers. What is wrong is to stop at that stage, limiting ourselves always to trade union struggles.”
In summary: We work in the trade unions to win workers to revolution; our primary aim is to win workers to the revolutionary party. Only by building the communist party can workers gain the skills and strength to win the dictatorship of the proletariat. The communist party is the revolutionary organ of the working class. This was and is true all over the world and is valid for the United States and Australia. Many of the dangers correctly pointed out by our Australian comrades cannot be avoided by abandoning the workers to union bosses and the bourgeoisie. The best way to avoid errors is to win workers to Marxist-Leninist ideology. The workers are the best judge of who is selling out and who is fighting.
Eventually, workers in the U.S. will have to adopt other fighting forms (like the Red Army, people’s army, etc.). This will signify that workers have moved from the level of trade unionism to the acute struggle for workers’ power. We want to thank our Australian and Ceylonese comrades for posing many vital questions. This is why we printed both articles in our magazine World Revolution. Both articles improved our understanding of the trade union question.
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Walter Linder is a National Committee member of the Progressive Labor Party and is PLP Trade Union Director.