First Published: As an editorial in The Worker, No. 35, September 13, 1979.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Sam Richards and Paul Saba
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“IN THE THEORY of Marxism no true place has been found for organised labour, the trade unions, in being the main force for revolution.” So states the CPB (ML) document on The Party and the Trade Unions which is one of the fruits of the Fifth Party Congress held last Easter.
There are historical reasons why this should have been the case. In Russia, the country of the first proletarian revolution, there were two social conditions relevant to working class organisation differing considerably from Britain which, as the birthplace of the proletariat, was always Marx’s model. The polarisation of Russian society into “two great classes directly facing each other: Bourgeoisie and Proletariat,” or capitalists and workers, had not proceeded nearly so far and the trade unions had not developed into nation-wide organisations of the labour movement which in Britain as early as 1868 had been reflected in the first Trades Union Congress. The soviets were quite different organisations, resembling more in composition and in relation to factory base what we would call trade councils.
It was the first of these conditions which made it seem, even to Lenin, that the organised working class in Russia was not sufficiently well developed to generate revolutionary theory out of its own daily experience of class struggle. As Lenin put it: “Class political consciousness can be brought to the workers only from without, that is, only from outside the economic struggle, from outside the sphere of relations between workers and employer.” This distinction between economic and political struggle in reference to the specific conditions in Russia at the time differed from Marx’s dictum in the Communist Manifesto that “every class struggle is a political struggle”.
And yet when Lenin came to define the democratic centralism which was to be the main political feature of the Party of a New Type the best analogy he could think of was trade union industrial action. “Before a decision has been taken by the centre on a strike, it is permissible to agitate for and against it, but after a decision in favour of a strike (with the additional decision to conceal this from the enemy) to carryon agitation against the strike is strike-breaking.”
The Mensheviks were scandalised by this analogy and complained that Lenin seemed to look on the party as a “huge factory”. To which Lenin retorted that they betrayed “the mentality of the bourgeois intellectual unfamiliar with either the practice or theory of proletarian organisation. For the factory, which to some seems a bogey, represents the highest form of capitalist co-operation which has united and disciplined the proletariat, taught it to organise, and placed it at the head of all other sections of the toiling and exploited population.”
Ironically, the very ideas Lenin developed in applying Marxism to a situation different from that of capitalism’s home, Britain, have often been imported back into Britain as the only way forward to revolution. Since the day-to-day class struggle was assumed to be “economist”, without political significance, would-be Marxist theoreticians have called (trade union activity “spontaneous”. Thinking of themselves as bringing Marxism to the workers from outside the class struggle between workers and capitalists they have said of such struggle, “since it is not what I think, since my thoughts, my plans for progress are not adopted, then it is without thought, that is ’spontaneous’”. These ’theoreticians’ have even wanted to write off altogether the trade unions developed by the working class over many decades as a defence to minimise the degree of exploitation and replace them with “red unions” of their own devising.
Mao Tsetung quite frankly stated that in applying Marxism to China he was dealing with entirely different conditions than those in Britain. He described the two-stage theory of revolution as “a feature peculiar to the revolution in colonial and semi-colonial countries and not to be found in the revolutionary history of any capitalist country”
As the CPB (ML) document on the Party and the Trade Unions states: “There is an acceptance that the working class is the revolutionary force. There must be an unqualified acceptance that the class struggle is waged most effectively, solely so, through the trade unions who are the most advanced section of their class...class struggle, which within capitalism goes on daily and continuously, is not synonymous with revolution, which is the accumulation of all forces within the contradictions gathered by the class in one fell blow to seize power and rule: but it need not and must not be separate. “The problem of the relationship between the two which is also the problem of the relationship between the trade unions and the communist party has never been solved because “no capitalist country has achieved a revolution.”
It is to this problem that the CPB (ML) has mainly addressed itself at its Fifth Congress. It is not a mere personal nor historical accident that the founder of our Party, presently attending the TUC conference as a member of the General Council, is an industrial worker and life-long trade unionist. So much for any idea that in Britain today revolutionary theory must or could “come from outside the economic struggle.”
And of the trade unions the CPB (ML) document concludes:
Do not despise these hard-wrought organisations. In the course of the class struggle such organs have twice been the force to destroy governments – the Labour Government over “In Place of Strife” and the Tory over the Industrial Relations Act. Then there is no limit to the proper application of this force for revolution, through a revolutionary Party, our Party, of the working class.”