Lenin and Canada

Appendix: Lenin and Today’s Problems in the Trade Union Movement(1)

Progressive activists in the trade union movement have to look further and further afield today in their search for answers to the many new questions which crop up, literally day by day. Gone are the days when it was enough to be:“Agin collaboration with the bosses.” That is still the starting line, of course, but life and growth, and some progress, are teaching the members in general to ask militants: “What would you do?” This is progress, provided that militants have logical, considered answers.

Rank-and-file members who are interested in their future in the industry and therefore the future of their union, are concerned about the new forms and methods by which killing speed-up is imposed upon workers ruthlessly. Whether the speed-up is intensified within terms of the contract, by means which are marginal, or in open defiance of the spirit of the collective agreement, , its effect on its victims is the same — physical and emotional exhaustion and earlier wearing out of his or her competitive efficiency. It has got to be stopped. It should be made subject to union agreement now, as the first step towards complete union control.

Progressive activists must learn better how to explain properly the relationship that should be established between the new, high, and still rising, rate of increase of productivity, and wage increases. The issue here is more than dollars alone, it is real purchasing power now; and security in the future. This problem is of vital importance to the people of this country as a whole, as well as to the workers whose wage increase is being decided. The rapid increase in productivity per man-hour is the main source of the fabulous growth of the national product as a whole, as well as profits. The more that is produced the more there is to be consumed. The workers, through the trade union movement , must win not only the moral right but the power to decide how the value of their products is to be used to the best advantage of themselves and society. This is one of the reasons why the demands for “A Guaranteed Minimum Annual Wage” and the necessity for adequate pensions at earlier retirement, are both being studied by capitalist economists. They realize that these changes must come. They are working now to learn how to combine them with even bigger profits for the capitalist class.

These are only examples of a number of problems that are developing and which cannot be ducked. Leaderships must not be allowed to try to duck them. Indeed, in the long run, the spirit in which the trade unions meet their challenge will determine whether they continue to command the loyalty of the most advanced sections of the working class.

Almost any one of the tens of thousands of workers who are on strike this Labor Day, or have been on strike this year — in Hamilton, the Soo, Sudbury, British Columbia or wherever — could add a half dozen other immediate problems to these that I have noted. There are some which are of universal significance that I did not include among my examples, such as the necessity to fight for union control over the introduction of automation, the sharpening problem of inflation, etc. The reason is that my assignment in this article is not to try to list all the questions that bug union militants, but to dig a bit deeper into that other question; namely, “How do we equip ourselves to give correct guidance to forward-looking members of the trade union mavement?” This explains our title.

Lenin was one of the first, if not the very first, to study in detail the basis of trade unionism and its essence. His published works include 800 pages dealing with the trade union movement and trade union problems. We couldn’t possibly do justice to all of that in this article. For that one must read him. We shall indicate here some of the features of the trade union movement about which we can learn a lot from him.

Lenin pointed out as far back as 1903 the three following special and basic characteristics of trade unions under capitalism:

(a) They are established and become consolidated as the organizational embodiment of the determination of the workers on a job, in a plant, or an industry, to defend their common interests against the depredations of attempted depredations of their employers.

(b) Their basis is the common self-interest of the workers involved. Their members include workers of all political opinions and all religious faiths. They are, as he pointed out, the basic mass organizations of the working class.

(c) As a result of social development and in spite of the many different political opinions of their members, trade unions and the trade union movement as a whole become a battleground of ideas the ultimate difference of which is: “Acceptance of the capitalist profit system and thereby betrayal of the long-term interests of the working class, versus abolition of the capitalist profit system and, thereby, the rule of the capitalist class.” Lenin emphasized that, fundamentally, this choice has to be made because there is no third way. Thus, the trade union movement is a school, in which life provides the curriculum and the teachers emerge out of the membership. That’s why he wrote that: “The trade unions were a tremendous step forward for the working class...they marked a transition from the workers’ disunity and helplessness to the rudiments of class organization.”

Lenin distinguished between the basis of trade unionism and the motive force which enables it to develop under capitalism. Its motive force is the class struggle. It seems at first that there is a contradiction between this and their non-ideological basis, but that is life. Even those unionists who, personally, would like to exclude themselves from the class struggle or even deny that there is such an animal, are involved in it by their union membership — sometimes very actively, like if they vote to reject an offer from the boss or to do picket duty.

The class struggle is a political struggle. The tremendous distance that our unions in Canada have advanced in the last 40 years is shown, strikingly, in the political level of the demands that are being fought for today as compared with the level of the demands, or defensive actions, which characterized the movement 40 years ago. This is why the present stage of development is such an immediate challenge to militants in the trade union movement.

Lenin always emphasized the necessity “to support and to develop in every way the economic struggle of the workers and their trade unions from the very outset.” But he fought against reformism in the trade union movement as the form in which capitalist ideology sinks its roots in the working class. He pointed out long ago that the need to combine these two forms of activity is one of the greatest problems of militant trade unionism.

Revolutionary workers must be distinguished by the fact that they are always in the front rank of the struggle for needed reforms, be they better toilet facilities of higher pensions. At the same time they must be distinguished by the fact that they tell their fellow workers frankly that reforms alone are not enough. That the evil, dehumanizing, effects of capitalist exploitation can be eliminated only by eliminating capitalist exploitation. Furthermore, militants have to show their fellow workers that to set the sights of their union on the job of abolishing the capitalist ownership of industry will now weaken the union’s fight for wages and other needed reforms; on the contrary, it will strengthen it as nothing else can.

The value of the guidance to be gained by reading Lenin’s writings today increases as the conditions of our struggle mature. This is illustrated by the contrast between the manner in which Lenin studied every crisis as it developed to find the feature of it, or contradiction within it, which could be utilized to open a path for the working-class advance and the despairing pessimism of non-Leninist intellectuals. For example: at the Lake Couchiching Conference a week ago, Professor Thompson of York University told his audience, according to newspaper reports:

“We have reached the end of what we know as civilization. Disaster will be on all fronts — social, moral, political, scientific, ecological.”

I sympathize wholeheartedly with Professor Thompson’s concern for the decay of capitalist civilization, and its crisis. I must say, however, that this doctrine of despair is, objectively, anti-working-class. Forward-looking workers will choose rather to be guided by the judgment of Lenin, as he expressed it in 1921:

...there are now to worlds: the old world of capitalism that is in a state of confusion but which will never surrender voluntarily, and the rising new world, which is still very weak, but which will grow, for it is invincible. (Vol. 33, p. 150)

It is a proud task of union militants to make that spirit of revolutionary confidence the keynote of trade union policy also.

1. Article appearing in Canadian Tribune, Aug. 27, 1969.