First Published: Red Flag, [Organ of the Communist Party of Ceylon] October 13, 1968.
Reprinted: In the Progressive Labor Party [USA] journal, World Revolution, Nol. 2, No. 2, May-July 1969.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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Recently, the Australian Marxist-Leninist weekly Vanguard carried an article wherein it asserted that “the unions as they operate now are part and parcel of capitalism. They are tied to the capitalist system. As they are at present, they help to perpetuate capitalism” and “the trade union structure, the central trade union bodies are a dead weight on the initiative and struggle of the workers.”
Many honest trade unionists might find it hard to accept this assessment. Yet we must endeavor to understand the essential truth contained in this assessment and endeavor to test it in the light of our experience in Ceylon. This is a most vital subject that is particularly important to members of the Ceylon Trade Union Federation in view of the decision taken at its 18th Congress to politicalize all its members. The problem we are dealing with is the role of trade unions in capitalist society.
Trade unions sprang up after the birth of capitalism. They, naturally, first sprang up in England because it was there that capitalism was first born. Trade Unions were an attempt by the workers to combat and lessen the exploitation forced on them by capitalism. At first, workers did not sufficiently understand the real cause of their misery. They thought that it was the new machines and not capitalism that was the cause of their misery. Therefore there was a wave of attempts to smash up the new machinery. Here, we have an example of mistaking the symptoms for the disease.
But, gradually, the workers understood that only through combination could they fight for a better value for their labor power. They learned through sheer experience that only if they unitedly bargained with their employers could they obtain a better price for their labor power which they sold to the employers every day.
Thus arose the Trade Unions. At first, they had to be secret because the employers would not tolerate them. For well over a century, in England, the trade unions met with severe repression. They were banned by law and a few leaders even paid the extreme penalty at the gallows while many were jailed.
But, with the further development of capitalism, the employers gradually began to change their attitude to trade unions. Undoubtedly this was partly due to persistent fight put up by the workers. At the same time, the more far-seeing and crafty employers realized that they could convert the trade union structure into an appendage of capitalism i.e. make it part and parcel of capitalism.
This has, by and large, happened in most of the industrially advanced countries, like the USA, Britain, France, Italy, Australia etc. In these countries, workers constitute a fair section of the population. The trade unions are recognized by the employers and the State despite stage-managed conflicts now and then. Workers pay enormous amounts as union subscriptions. On the basis of the availability of vast union funds there has arisen a trade union bureaucracy which is as interested in the preservation of capitalism as the capitalists themselves. The reason is simple. They have become part of the capitalist structure. If capitalism goes, they also go with it. Most of the officials of the trade unions in these countries are paid salaries which are, in some cases, bigger than that of the employer whom they meet across the bargaining table.
In Ceylon, this development has not progressed very far except in one or two unions, like the Ceylon Workers Congress and the Ceylon Mercantile Union – both of which enjoy the concession of having the union dues of their members deducted from the pay-sheet and sent to them by the employers.
There is another aspect of trade unionism which merits serious consideration, Karl Marx said long ago: “Trade Unions work well as centers of resistance against the encroachments of capital. They fail partially from an injudicious use of their power. They fail generally from limiting themselves to a guerrilla warfare against the effects of the existing system, instead of simultaneously trying to change it, instead of using their organized forces as a lever for the final emancipation of the working class, that is to say, the ultimate abolition of the wages system.”
Marx has here put his finger very correctly on the weak spot of all trade unionism. What every worker must realize is that through trade union struggle we are not fighting the causes which is capitalism but only its symptoms. We are fighting against the effects of the system as Marx points out, and not against the system itself. The capitalists would love to perpetuate this situation. That is why the clever capitalist supports reformist trade unions and enter into all sorts of agreements with them.
When we fight for a demand like a wage increase of Re. 1/– per day, we are merely fighting against the effects of capitalism. Not merely that. We are demanding it from the capitalists. In other words, we envisage the continuation of the capitalist system. What trade union struggles really do is to fight to improve the conditions of the working class within the framework of the capitalist system. They do not challenge capitalism itself. That is why they degenerate to pure and simple reformism and, in the end, bolster up capitalism.
Of course, every wage increase that is won by the workers is immediately offset by the employers by more intensive work, by stricter supervision etc. and by a general price increase. So that, usually the worker is back to from where he started.
What all workers must understand is that their misery is due to exploitation carried on by the capitalist class. Trade unionism merely restricts their struggle to attempts at lessening this exploitation. It does not fight to end exploitation i.e. to end the capitalist system and replace it by socialism. This is the fatal limitation of trade union struggles.
We do not, of course, therefore oppose trade union struggles or refuse to participate in them. 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.
We must take the workers forward and, at some stage, transform the economic struggle into a political struggle for the seizure of power by the working class and its allies. If we do this we would be doing revolutionary work. Otherwise we will sink into the morass of reformism.
In Ceylon, reformist trade unionism has reached a high mark. Particularly, after 1956 with the establishment of Labor Tribunals and more references of disputes for arbitration by Industrial Courts, the workers have been fed on reformism. They have been taught to place their reliance not on themselves and their power to strike but on clever lawyers or able union leaders who can argue their cases before Labor Tribunals and Industrial Courts.
We have also been forced to have recourse to these reformist institutions because of the trade union rivalry and trade union disunity that exists in this country and also because we cannot isolate ourselves from the workers whose political understanding has been dampened by the revisionists and the reformists. Another reason was that, at the beginning, we did not properly assess the reformist influence on the workers by such institutions.
But we must realize the dangers of continuing this course. Certainly, some of our cadres and some of our time must be spent on doing trade union work. That is inevitable in a country where a certain amount of bourgeois democratic rights exist. But, certainly, it should not consume the greater part of our time and energy, or become the pre-occupation of our leading cadres. Our leading cadres and the greater part of our time and energy should be spent on painstakingly preparing the working class and its allies for revolutionary action to overthrow the system of imperialist and capitalist exploitation. Unless we do this, we will easily fall back into the false positions of revisionism and reformism.
At the same time, we must recognize the great contribution made by the CTUF in spearheading the right against modern revisionism and the Keuneman revisionist clique and in defense of the correct principles of Marxism-Leninism. While in most other countries the trade union leadership inside the communist parties was the first to succumb to modern revisionism it is to the credit of the CTUF and its leadership that the reverse happened in Ceylon. Here, it was the trade union leadership inside the Communist Party that led the fight against modern revisionism and succeeding in retaining the CTUF, the biggest mass organization under the leadership of the party, under correct Marxist-Leninist leadership.
In the final analysis, this contribution by the CTUF will out-weigh the economic victories won by the CTUF. But we cannot rest content. We must go further forward in politicalizing the working class.
Trade union work must be considered as a means to an end. It enables us to get into contact with the workers and, by leading their fight for economic demands, to educate them politically. But we should not rest content with this. We should politicalize them sufficiently and prepare them for revolutionary action to overthrow the system of exploitation itself. We must not only teach them how to fight for wage increases. We must go further and lead them to abolish the wage system itself.