The need for workers' economic organisations
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The need for workers' economic organisations

The need for workers' economic organisations
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The International Communist Party's position on the trade unions is based on the material fact that capitalism obliges proletarians to form associations for economic defence and - that as long as the proletariat exists as a class this will remain the case. Such organisations form part of the pyramidal structure - class, unions, party - which was described in the 2nd Congress of the Communist International; a structure which only becomes «class, unions, soviets, party» on the eve of taking power.

This is a key tenet of our doctrine, and is why we have always seen our main task as in taking the fight into the workers' economic organisations, rather than to other «left-wing» currents. In fact the Communist Party of Italy - which our current led at that time - was the first section in the International to propose, and then energetically put into action, the Trade-Union United Front by proposing to the three then existing workers organisations, the C.G.L (controlled by democratic socialists), the U.S.I (syndicalist union) and the Railwaymen's union, to merge, and by steering the struggles towards the fusion of all sectional disputes into a common platform of demands and the one method of action of the general Strike.

Organisations formed around the immediate economic concerns of workers have proved themselves to be indispensable in revolutionary struggle. In the Russian revolution, both unions and factory-shop committees played a significant part and were organised, separately, and on a national scale, and in addition to the Soviets; in fact, the rise of the Soviets had as its premise, the existence, and the efficiency of the unions.

Workers' economic organisations during revolutionary periods are very different from the trade-unions we are used to today; we look forward to forms of economic organisations which tend to unite the various sectoral and local struggles into one generalised struggle. We use three phrases interchangeably - workers' economic organisations: Class Union: Red Unions - because we have no intention of wasting our time trying to form unions composed only of communists and their sympathisers, a tactic which has the effect of separating communists and the masses, and which received Lenin's condemnation in «Leftwing Communism - an Infantile Disorder».

Such a workers economic organisation must be open to workers, because they are workers, because of their economic position in society, and to them alone. It is therefore politically neutral, open to workers of all political persuasions, allowing communists to form sections within it, and thus enabling workers to compare the actions of the Left with other currents. But communists are not only separated from the trade-union rank-and-file membership just by misguided attempts to form «pure» unions composed just of communists and their sympathisers, as theorised by the Dutch tribunists and German Kaapedists. They are equally separated from workers by being excluded from forming separate fractions, not standing for posts within the unions.

The potential for power to slip away from the official union leaders to classist fractions, is something the former will ever seek to protect themselves against. In Italy, the revolutionary wave of the twenties and the parallel development of union confederations anchored on class positions, was stamped out by fascism, which substituted the unions with official state controlled unions.

In Britain, the same process of increasing links with the State had already taken place, the subservience to the ruling class was accomplished before the First World War. By this time workers were being excluded from influence within the union structures, through the union branches and Trades Councils being emasculated. This led to the emergence of syndicalism through the struggles led by Larkin, Connolly and Mann. The strategy we seek is one whereby the existing economic organisation(s) are opened out towards all other workers, embracing all aspects of the class struggle. It is not just a question of supplanting one leadership with another - it is the fashioning of the union-form into an instrument of the class struggle.

From the start the Communist Party of Great Britain had a policy of influencing the unions by working on the existing leadership, seeking to encourage the «left-wing» leaders, supporting them in elections. Far from being a strategy that would threaten the ruling class, it did worry some of the bureaucrats, especially those who would not get the support of the Stalinists, not until Moscow's abrupt rightward turns.

Thus in the early history of the General and Municipal Boilermakers, now one of the big two general unions, the executive of the GMWU, as it then was, would become extremely worried at the CPGB's initiative, which got underway in 1924, to form the National Minority Movement. This tactic, whose avowed intention was to take over the old unions, included setting up a general Workers section within the GMWU. The union bosses of the GMWU responded quickly, and in 1927 they declared in Conference that the policies of the Communist Party and the Minority Movement were «inconsistent with loyal attachment to the Union» and «an avowal of loyalty to the union» was required from London officers who had recently attended a Minority Movement conference. Those who disobeyed this injunction soon found themselves, indeed entire branches, expelled from the union. Soon all district council members would be required to sign a document denying membership of the CPGB and the Minority Movement.

Along with these moves and the denunciation of Communism, the GMWU leaders took steps to consolidate their power, and at one of their biennial conferences in 1926 they denounced the Minority movement for entering their candidates in elections for union posts. A Scottish official even condemned the very process of biennial elections as «Democracy run mad and a farce», and he obviously spoke for the majority since an amendment was introduced giving officers permanent tenure once elected.

This witchhunt against the CPGB, and the installation of a dictatorship of union bureaucrats in the GLWU followed hot on the heels of The General Strike of 1926 - and it reflected by and large what was happening in the other big general union, the forebear of the Transport and General Workers union. Thus the mass of the British low-paid workers concentrated in the General unions were targeted for «whipping into shape». These reactionary measures of the union mandarins, aimed at communists and the loopholes in a union structure vulnerable to communist penetration, show that even if many workers find the idea of a class union difficult to grasp, the union bureaucrats certainly know what a class union is and how to stamp it out!

The 1935 Trade Union Conference marked something of a watershed for militant workers precisely because of the formal acceptance by the TUC that the exclusion of communists from the unions, in general, was to be desired. At this conference two circulars, known collectively as «The Black Circular» were issued by the General Council advising unions to exclude Communists from any office and made the exclusion of delegates who were communist, or who had any association with communists, obligatory on trades councils wishing to retain formal affiliation to the T.U.C.

Such a policy, though clearly directed against Stalinism in particular, was aimed against communism in general.

Thus, in 1935, Walter Citrine and Arthur Pugh, secretary and chairman of the TUC, was ushered into the inner sanctums of the ruling class with knighthoods, and though a motion would be submitted at the 1935 TUC Congress objecting to the trade-union leaders accepting honours «at the hands of a government which is not established in the interests of the workers», it would be rejected, even if by a slim majority. Years later in 1964, Citrine (by now presumably of almost divine status) reminisced about his «rebellious» youth as follows:

«What had been the result of 1926? We had been regarded as revolutionaries. There was no doubt in my mind that considerable damage had been done to the Labour movement because of this. People did in fact suspect we were aiming at destroying the constitution, despite our disclaimers [...] We now had the position that the man who had been the chairman of the TUC at that time (Pugh) was a knight. The acting secretary had received similar recognition at the hands of the State [he says as a modest aside]. In effect, through us, our movement had been proclaimed, both by King and Government [vomit, vomit], as one whose members were citizens deserving of one of the highest honours that the State could convey. How could this fail to affect the minds of the thousands who knew little about trade unionism, and to enhance its status and prestige».

This sickening display of psychophancy and grovelling plumbs depths of subservience which must have disgusted even Citrine's bourgeois paymasters!

Citrine had received his honour for his dedicated work of masterminding a capitalist fifth column amongst the workers ranks. Following the 1926. General Strike, an event that obviously sent shivers down his spine as late as 1964, he would proclaim (as secretary of the TUC in 1927) that «the approach to a new industrial order is not by way of a social explosion», and by 1928 his collaborationist ideas became known later as «Mondism». In that year, «discussions» took place between the General Council of the TUC and a group of twenty big employees headed by Sir Alfred Mond, founder-chairman of Imperial Chemical Industries. The General Council and the employers' groups held that the tendency to rationalisation and trustification in industry «should be welcomed and encouraged». Trade unions as monopolists of labour supply could enter into partnership with the monopolists of capital, the aim. being «a concerted effort to raise industry to its highest efficiency».

The leader of the TGWU, Ernest Bevin, was equally convinced of the value of «rationalisation» and in his own «industrial bargaining» preferred to deal with «one or two big companies which could afford to take long views». Thus, like Citrine, he merely record the tendency of capitalism to concentrate itself in its imperialist phase, and passively usher through all the cuts and redundancies that are part and parcel of the «rationalisation process». Bevin went on to distinguish himself as witch-hunter General of unofficial unions, and amongst the trophies in the Bevin display cabinet, we find the shrunken head of the unofficial Rank and File Movement in the London buses, which had dared to organise unofficial strikes on his patch during the thirties; what Bevin would dub «an internal breakaway». He too found his services rewarded when offered the post of Minister of Labour during the 2nd World War. In a revealing quotation, Bevin summed up his perception of his, and other trade-unionists role: «We look upon ourselves as the labour side of management». In other words, management's police force.

* * *

Thus far we have outlined certain tenets our current holds with regard to unions, and indicated some brief episodes in the increasing integration of English unions into the state apparatus. But to what extent can we apply the historical experience of the Italian Left in Great Britain?

In Italy the party's strategy within the unions has been largely formed by the prior existence there of an actual class union, the «Confederazione Generale di Lavoro», the CGL, and its strategy has been derived from the actual experience of working in that union. How far it defended class struggle we can see merely from reading article one of its constitution:

«The General confederation of Labour constitutes itself in Italy in order to organise and discipline the struggle of the labouring class against the capitalist regime of production and work (...)»

After the 2nd World War, the party worked in the CGIL (the additional «I» standing for «Italian») where combative workers were still managing to propel the union into action, considering it to be the direct descendant of the old CGL. The Party's agitation as a result focussed around the call for a return to the class union tradition of the CGL, at the same time not hiding from workers the fact that it considered the CGIL as a direct descendant of the fascist corporatist unions. The party didn't work in the UIL and CISL, the other union federations formed specifically to break the CGIL as splits respectively by the Christian Democrats, and the Republican and Right-wing socialists.

When we come to considering our best method of linking up class politics to workers economic struggles in Great Britain, clearly we cannot directly translate the strategy in Italy to England because we neither have three large trade union federations nor a tradition of a class union to which we can appeal. But do these factors really affect the main lines of strategy, or do they leave them largely untouched?

Up until it left the CGIL in 1975, the party held out two broad possibilities for the future: either it would be possible to take over the old unions «magari a legnate», («knocking it into line») or it might prove necessary to construct new organisations «ex-novo». Let us look briefly first at why the second strategy was finally adopted in Italy rather than the former, and then see where we can draw parallels.

In the early seventies, after the big struggles of '68-'69, party comrades in the CGIL started to find that it was no longer possible to work within the CGIL. A process which had been underway for a long time - the union's increasing integration into the state machinery - came to a particular head during the anti-delega campaign (which was in order to protest about the bosses deducting union dues from pay-packets). Either party comrades accepted this method or not, and by not accepting it, they placed themselves outside the union. Also, the party's «Comitati di Difesa del Sindicato di Classe», which it had formed in the union, now found itself in the position where there were no longer any classist elements inside the union, and the committees became reduced in size until they were composed only of party members.

The old union was becoming ever more integrated into the State and we would have ever more reason to predict that the class union could rise again only outside it. Therefore, the party inclines towards preferring its members not to join the CGIL. This position however is not of principal, but reflects the sheer impossibility of working within the CGIL which is now entirely impenetrable to any workers' fractions organised on a class basis. Moreover, there is now no longer any internal life to speak of which would permit a work of penetration amongst the rank and file. In such conditions, apart from the fact that militants would be personally funding these unions, agitating amongst workers who aren't members of the unions becomes just as valid as agitating amongst those who are. However, precisely because our position on this matter is decided ultimately by practical considerations rather than of policy, we can admit that, especially in small firms, not being a member of the union might cause us to be perceived as adopting an anti-union position per se, which could compromise the work of militants in the workplace. In such cases, it might well be best for our members to join.

We can also see that working amongst the base and factory organisations where delegates are directly elected by workers is likely to be far more fruitful than engaging in arcane disputes about amendments to sub-sections, of clauses, of paragraphs in union rulebooks; documents so obscure that only the most determined and literate union member can understand them anyway.

In Italy there are the Base Committees, the «Comitati Unitari di Base» - which arose in the late sixties outside of the union but which were rapidly transformed into branches of the old union - a miraculous transformation which arose simply by the bosses flattering the old unions with their «official status» and refusing to recognise workers representatives in negotiations: unless they were members of the official union. Thus the Cdf - the factory committees - became the official unions form of organisation in all factories and workplaces. Nevertheless, in small and medium workplaces where they can achieve a certain degree of autonomy, there are possibilities for agitation within them.

Despite this stance, of not joining the CGIL, we don't however advocate sabotaging their actions, or asking workers to leave until other organisations have appeared to take their place, and the same goes with regard to the TUC and official unions in Great Britain: we can criticise the policy and actions of the official unions, and hold out the prospect of new organisations, but sabotage and boycotting would give out the most confusing messages.

In Italy, France and Belgium, and on a very modest scale in England, new organisations of economic struggle have begun to appear outside the official unions. Thus, perhaps the most important reason of all for our not working in the old, corrupted workers organisations is that the workers themselves are leaving and setting up new unions! By remaining in the old ones we would appear to be defending reaction against class struggle. Although we will always be loathe to cause splits amongst workers organisations, we now have to face up to a situation where the old unions in Italy are considered by workers merely as prisons, and the thing is to go over the fence as quickly as possible.

In Italy in particular these new workers' organisations have assumed the more or less permanent form of the COBAS's amongst teachers and railway workers, and these organisations are increasingly beginning to link up, even to the extent that alternative Chambers of Labour are being formed with a view to creating territorial networks. Here the slogan «outside and against the old unions» becomes not just negative rejection of the old union but positive affirmation of the new.

These new organisations do not express a perfect class line, otherwise they would be unions composed just of communists (in theory anyway); in fact, we always held that the old CGL was a class union, even when led by opportunists, because the potential still existed within it for classist elements to agitate, form fractions and to struggle to win the leadership. The same goes for the new unions; they are bound to go this way and that as different currents gain the ascendancy, and that is all for the good; workers will be able to see the various tactics and platforms of different political tendencies tried out in the school of practice, and make up their own minds on the strength of what they see. It is stupid and pointless to assume, as some do, that these faltering steps mean that the COBASes are already incorporated into capitalism's grand designs! The way to the class union will be difficult and hard won, and no matter how hard we «reflect» from our armchairs on the perfect way to achieve unity, the process will certainly, not be neat and tidy!

In England however there have not yet been large-scale attempts at setting up new unions except for the highly significant tube-workers organisation, which was forced into organising its own actions in response to the official unions complacency. Combative workers In general are therefore still organised inside the old unions, or else outside them but only in a individual capacity or as informal groupings.

What is likely to alter the picture is that virtually every kind of industrial action, apart from the most harmless and insipid, is now banned. The official unions will find themselves breaking the law (because of actions by workers), or be seen as standing shoulder to shoulder with the bosses every time any kind of struggle takes place. The latter route the unions are almost bound to take, and at that point, the workers «ex-novo» unions might finally get a kick-start. Another possibility is that some unions will take the plunge and put themselves the wrong side of the law, or at least win approval from their membership by finding clever ways around the law.

The essential difference between the Italian and British union structures is that whilst the Italian worker joins a union Confederation, of a «right» or «left» political complexion, and is then put in a section which corresponds to his category of work, the British worker joins a craft, industry, or general union; or else the union he has to join in order to work in a particular place (the closed shops). These unions are almost all affiliated to the TUC, but not all, and the TUC can not make decisions which bind its members in any case. Therefore there is a labyrinthine complexity to British unions which would mean that we cannot pretend that none of them can be turned into a battleground.

As elsewhere, British workers are expressing their discontent with the old unions largely by remaining indifferent to them, perceiving them as irrelevant, or at best, merely as subsidised pension or insurance societies. In England, as in Italy, rank and file organisations have arisen in the past, notably in the seventies, and these groups did express fairly coherent criticisms of the union bureaucracy, even if they often tended to be party cells of left-wing organisations with few external members. Occasionally unofficial and wild-cat strikes gelled around these rank-and-file organisations and they even attained a national level of organisation. They have now pretty much fizzled out though, or become, as in Italy, the official unions form of organisation in the factory; or ways of harmonising the conflicting interest of the many and various unions that may be found under one and the same roof. But we can anticipate a reborn rank and file movement arising in England again, and possibly forming the basis for an organisation of workers which could form a pole of opposition to the Union barons.

The grip of the most powerful unions in Britain though has had the effect of causing profound disillusionment with the union form as such, and whatever we say, that disillusionment is not likely to be dispelled until living evidence of the Class Union appears on these dispirited shores.

* * *

There are in fact three broad positions which are supported in the proletarian economic movement: No trade-unions at all, the parastatal unions, and the class union. To the first group belong those who maintain that the union form is irrelevant, as well as those who advocate not a trade-union, but a.. union of just communists, or factory councils as substitutes for the economic union. To the second group belong the present union leaderships who mystify their own «autonomy» from «parties, Governments, and bosses» only to better chain the workers to the «national economy», in other words, the State and the bourgeoisie. To the third group belong those who fight for the rise of a proletarian economic movement with a classist leadership.

The politics of the first two groups concur in their denial of the class union, both now, when the domination of the patriotic unions is uncontested, and when the Class Union becomes a pressing necessity. The first group refuses to face up to the integration of the unions into the State and seeks for new, incorruptible forms of organisation instead. In a word, it entrusts the overthrowing of the class enemy to forms rather than to forces. As marxists, we will never tire of repeating, that our viewpoint is based on economic determinations rather than ideas, therefore, even though we cannot anticipate exactly what forms the class union might take, it will still be brought into being as a necessity; because workers have been forced to defend themselves against capitalism's attacks; even if their old organisations have been taken over by bourgeois agents.

Whatever organisational structures the new economic organisations might have, it will be shaped by proletarian necessity; the fact that it will have (eventually) to be an organisation of wage earners which extends beyond the limited local horizon of the factory, of sectoralism, and of the locality. We can only go along with the negators of the unions so far: we can agree that the old unions are corrupt, but we cannot agree that this means that all workers economic organisations inevitable must become corrupted, nor that that economic organisations are no longer necessary.

Some negators of the unions have in fact gone so far as to posit nothing at all in their place, except a vague trust that the working class will eventually solve the problem «on its own». This is a fatalist view that is as good as saying that god will solve the whole problem, and is motivated by a profound suspicion of all organisations per se. The position of this current may be summed up in the slogan «all organisations are corruptible, therefore best to have no organisation». It thinks that it has seen this maxim confirmed by the present state of the unions and parties under capitalism, and therefore relapses into a nihilist hopelessness or frantic activism (we can only hope that the present nihilism is as much a precursor to revolution as the Narodniks). Rather than drawing the lesson that all these corrupt organisations are useless to the workers because they are bourgeois organisations, they decide that organisations themselves are to blame.

By denying the need for proletarian organisation, they are merely providing added ideological ammunition for the bourgeoisie against the working class: whose strength precisely lies - in organisation.

Essentially, the main thing, is for communists to make their presence felt in the economic battles of the proletariat whether inside or outside the unions, whether official or unofficial, and constantly fight the official unions tendency to restrict these struggles into the bounds of bourgeois convenience. We must hold out instead the prospect of workers' organisations which stand firm on the fact that that workers and employers interests are fundamentally opposed.

Our party will assess the issue of whether we can work in the old unions or not on the basis of the practical possibilities for agitation and propaganda which exist within them; which is basically wherever combative workers are to be found. Workers are certainly voting with their feet in many unions and leaving in droves. But even if we did decide to try and work inside particular unions and found it to be wasted effort, any amount of failed practical experiment is better than negating the necessity for the eventual genesis of the Class Union in the revolutionary struggle. It is a necessity rejected by all other parties - many of whom, incidentally, have also rejected the working class as necessary revolutionary subject as well, or who even try and tell us that ... the working class has ceased to exist!

The union Mandarins also think the working class has ceased to exist - not only because such an attitude is a comforting illusion to them as they go about their dirty work, but because their branch meetings are now largely composed ... of invisible workers!

Source: «Communist Left» (Review of the International Communist Party), N° 8, p.39-45

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