1. THE ENGLISH TRADITION
In looking at the perspectives of Marxists for their work in Britain, and the English-speaking world in general, it can only be understood from the historical point of view. Issues that are discussed today are nothing new but have been hotly debated for a century and more. Modern capitalism developed in Britain first and following from that it was the first to develop that other expression – opportunism. The proletariat in Britain was the first to produce a workers party (Chartism) and was the first one to be corrupted, in a determined and conscious way by the bourgeoisie.
Every so-called civilised form of society in history has rested upon the exploitation and control of the labour of a "lower order" of some kind. The maintenance of society has always been central to those classes which owned and controlled the means of production. This ranged from the enforcing of exploitation, whether for slaves, serfs, journeyman or industrial workers, to the ideological expressions of that society. This was done consciously by the organised expression of those exploiting the labour of others, the ruling class and its State, in an organised and systematic way in order to defend and advance their own interests
In 1383 the Corporation of the City of London prohibited all «congregations, covins, and conspiracies of workmen». Four years later the «serving men of the London cord-wainers» are reported to be aiming at making a permanent fraternity. More specifically, in 1417 the tailors’ serving men and Journeymen in London «have to be forbidden to dwell apart from their masters as they hold assemblies and have formed some kind of Association» (Webb’s History of Trade Unionism). Thus the guild system evolved in such a way as to prevent the workmen from forming themselves as a class! Guild socialists – please note!
The invention and introduction of industrial machinery for production in factories, etc., led to a new class – which needed to be brought together in large numbers – the industrial proletariat. The old guild system broke down and was replaced by new social relations and new ways of organising at the governmental level of society. To counter-act the already existing forms of proletarian organisation, democracy was slowly but steadily introduced to establish control over these new and troublesome expressions of the working class. At a banquet in Liverpool on October 8th, 1838, Lord John Russell declared: «It is not from free discussion, it is not from the unchecked declaration of public opinion that governments have anything to fear. There was fear when men were driven by force to secret combinations. There was the fear, there was the danger, and not in free discussions». As the bourgeoisie was able to establish its control over the proletariat so the democratic institutions were developed to maintain this control. The traditional weaknesses of the British working class, i.e., their bent for empiricism, for fragmentary views and half-measures, can in large part be traced to the ideological imprisonment imposed by the bourgeoisie.
Origins of Marxism
In a short article by Lenin entitled "Three Sources and Three Component Parts of Marxism" he pointed out that Marxism comes from German philosophy, French socialism and English economics. We should say a little more on the English component as it requires more than just the works of Smith, Ricardo, etc. Capitalism developed in England first and it was specifically this, and the resulting class struggle, which resolved problems raised by German philosophy, gave substance to the French ideas of Socialism and so resulted in the international outlook of the proletariat. We must really lay down the law on the following point: Marxism has also specifically English origins! The carefully woven illusion that Marxism is some sort of Continental disorder that could never gain ground in England without being modified, made more “realistic”, adapted to “English conditions” is the delicious myth spread by the bourgeois falsification industry. We must also make the following point, unfortunately: England is also the home of opportunism!
There is no such thing as Marxist ideology (which is a contradiction in terms) and no separate categories like Marxist economics, Marxist philosophy, etc., in that Marxism is the theoretical outlook of a class, that is the proletariat, and its role is in the preparing of the proletariat for prosecuting the class struggle through to the abolition of capitalism. Without the perspective of the organising of the proletariat as a class and preparation for power, Marxism ceases to play its role and the ideas and groups involved became ossified and end up as mere sects-barriers to the class struggle and new enemies of the working class.
Marxism records the fact that the industrial proletariat is a revolutionary class, and this is after capitalism itself which, in its earlier phases, had also played a revolutionary role. It is the internal nature of the capitalist economy, which periodically throws society into profound crisis, which tends to make the proletariat revolutionary – it is this fact alone and not just that workers are exploited. As Marx pointed out to the English workers,
so-called Revolutions of 1848 were but poor incidents – small
fractures and fissures in the dry crust of European society. However,
they denounced the abyss. Beneath the apparently solid surface, they
betrayed oceans of liquid matter, only needing expansion to rend into
fragments of hard rock. Noisily and confusedly they proclaimed the
emancipation of the proletarian, i.e., the secret of the nineteenth
century, and of the revolution of that century.
«That social revolution, it is true, was no novelty invented in 1848. Steam, electricity, and the self-acting mule were revolutionists of a rather more dangerous character than even Barbes, Raspail and Blanqui. But, although the atmosphere in which we live, weighs upon everyone with a 20,000 lbs of force, do you feel it? No more than European society before 1848 felt the revolutionary atmosphere enveloping and pressing it from all sides.
«There is one great fact, characteristic of this our nineteenth century, a fact which no party dares deny. On the one hand, there have started into life industrial and scientific forces, which no epoch of the former human history had ever expected, On the other hand, there existed symptoms of decay, far surpassing the horrors recorded of the latter times of the Roman Empire» (Speech by Karl Marx at the Anniversary of the "People’s Paper", delivered in London April 14, 1856 - Marx and Engels, Articles on Britain, p. 260).
At this anniversary meeting of the journal of the English workers movement, Marx was there as the representative of the Continental workers, much to the dismay of other “exiles”. It is paradoxical that the isolation of Marx and Engels from the workers throughout Western Europe, since the dissolution of the Communist League, was the period of the greatest influence of Marxism on the English workers – though the situation was to reverse itself as the century went on.
The links of Marx and Engels with the English workers movement was already of at least ten years standing at this time. During his youth, Engels went to England also to learn from the struggles of the working class. He was active in and around the Chartist movement, and knew many of its leaders. Towards the end of the 1840s Engels was also an emissary for the revolutionary Chartist leaders. From being a student of the class struggle, Engels (together with Marx) were to became teachers of the English workers.
Defeats and reorganisation
We will give here only a brief outline (our work Origins and History of the English Yorkers Movement will deal in more detail) of the developments of the proletarian movement. The year of 1848 was generally speaking a period of defeat. The Chartists suffered a defeat in that same year (they shared the same fate as their fellow workers on the Continent) but did not experience the bloodbath as in other countries. This was because the commercial crises of these years emanated from England and also strengthened England’s position. The Chartist demonstration was defeated without a shot being fired and one leader who was calling for proletarian organisation (Ernest Jones’s famous expression for the workers to go on "organising, organising, organising... and the rest will follow" was an indication of this) was put in gaol.
These defeats, and the lessons of them, led to the constitution of a definite revolutionary tendency under the leadership of Julian Harney and Ernest Jones, during 1849-50. The discussions in the Communist League spilled over into the members in exile and the resulting splits were on an international level, with Harney lining up with the Willich-Schapper faction and Jones supporting Marx and Engels. So much for national insularity! (It is worthwhile recalling here that Marx and Engels were instrumental in assisting the development of the revolutionary tendency. When Jones started off “Notes to the People” as the publication of this tendency, Marx actually ended up editing a couple of the issues as well as supervising, theoretically speaking, Jones’s diatribe against the Cooperative Movement).
The movement was reorganised and although it had the same name, National Chartist Association, it was a different organisation. It had a properly constituted Executive Committee, centralised structure, a defined and committed membership, and a newspaper as an organiser – maybe Bolshevism has English origins! Also it was independent of and hostile to other classes, particularly the industrial bourgeoisie.
Although this movement was numerically small, and it was a struggle to keep the “People’s Paper” in existence, it turned towards all aspects of the class struggle. The strikes in Preston in 1853/4 was an event where they actively intervened. It was during this strike – a lock-out that lasted 8 months – that a Labour Parliament was called in Manchester. England had two Parliaments in 1654, one of the workers and another of the capitalists. All this was an expression of the acute crisis of over-production in the cotton industry, spreading out into other areas of commercial and financial crisis.
By 1855 the Crimean War had broken out. There were many lessons to be learnt from this experience. Here we had a revolutionary class, the proletariat, confronted with a “progressive” war against reactionary Czarist Russia and giving support for the liberation of nations without subordination itself to the government conducting the war. Social issues were being fought out at the same time and London saw numerous demonstrations leading to violence. This was a classic example on how to handle this situation, of an expanding progressive system without making concessions to national patriotism or giving support to the ruling class.
During these years the bourgeoisie was trying to establish its hegemony over the proletariat and could only do this by beheading the Chartist workers movement. The bourgeois Reform Movement underestimated the fighting and tactical capacity of the Chartists to retaliate. The attempt to use the name of the Chartists as giving them support, led to the bourgeois Reformists ending up with their fingers burnt good style, Chartists invaded their opponents meetings, moving amendments and getting them carried with overwhelming support, leading to the bourgeoisie holding their meetings in private. So paranoid were the Reformists that anyone wearing workmen’s clothing was ejected from their meetings, whether invited or not.
Finally there was established between 1855-9 an International Association and although it provided a link between the Communist League and vthe First International, it proved to be premature.
The above points show that the working class in Britain had a definite revolutionary tradition, buried and obscured deliberately by the bourgeoisie and its supporters, who are scared of this tradition. It is a precondition in establishing their control over the working class that the employers rob it not only of its future, prevent it from organising as a class by atomising it and tying it to a multitude of political and economic structures that seek to offer workers what appears to be a stake in this society, but also of its past, with revisionism and opportunism playing a vital role in all this.
The re-organised Chartist movement declined, and exhausted itself by 1858. It was defeated by the expansion of capitalism itself, with many going over to supporting the Liberal Party. This trend found its reflection in the defection of the Chartist leader, Ernest Jones, who proposed an alliance with the middle class. The workers were shocked by this (Popular Frontists, please note!) and scandalised by this idea. There is a deep-seated hostility in the working class for the ruling class which still exists, no matter how residually today, and waits only to reappear as a consequence at each renewal of the class struggle,
The period of 1848 to 1858 was a period of defeat and retreat, but it was a fighting retreat in which ground was not easily given. It took time for the bourgeoisie to establish its influence over the working class, in reality the trade union bureaucrats which Engels was to later call the aristocracy of labour, The crisis of 1858 was a watershed for the English workers in which the old movement died, as Engels commented:
«After this affair one is really almost driven to believe that the English proletarian movement in its old traditional Chartist form must perish completely before it can develop in a new, viable form. And yet one cannot foresee what this form will look like. It seems to me moreover that Jones’ new move, together with the former more or less successful attempts at such an alliance, are indeed connected with the fact that the English proletariat is actually becoming more and more bourgeois, so that this most bourgeois of all nations is apparently aiming ultimately at the possession of a bourgeois aristocracy and a bourgeois proletariat alongside the bourgeoisie. For a nation which exploits the whole world this is of course to a certain extent justifiable. The only thing that would help here would be a few thoroughly bad years» (Engels to Marx, October 7th, 1858).
The disappearance of Chartism meant the end of mass involvement of the English workers on the political level for quite a long time. All that was left was the trade union level which at that time only represented the skilled workers and artisans, at best a rather conservative layer carrying over many of the attitudes from the guild form of organisation. This small layer could easily be bribed by better pay and conditions, in practice a clique which constituted its leadership, but should the mass of workers demand the same conditions, they would be faced with abuse, police truncheons and military bayonets. Bourgeoisification could only be extended to a minority of the working class otherwise the economy would be in danger of collapsing. While the capitalist class of Britain may well have exploited the world, the capitalist economy was always prone to crisis and collapse which led to increased exploitation and confrontation. Six months after Engels’s letter to Marx quoted above, Marx was writing to Lassalle about an improvement in the class struggle and lamenting over not having an English journal to write in.
The working class in Britain has always been able to build economic organisations, and consequently been led by the nose by the bourgeoisie politically speaking, precisely because they have been unable to assimilate on the political and theoretical level the lessons of the class struggle. It has been precisely because of the ideological and social weight of the bourgeoisie that the proletariat has been denied the theoretical and political level of understanding and has had thrust upon them the endemic disorder of empiricism, which raises to an art form the practice of stumbling around in the dark. The critique of all aspects of the existing social system inevitably means a criticism of all levels of the political and ideological reflections of the bourgeois relationships which emanate from the exploitation of the working class. It cannot fail to dig up by the roots all the beloved nonsense so prized by the bourgeois academics, namely all the latest ideas creeping out of the universities and colleges, breeding grounds of ideological diseases waiting to be launched on the world.
The First International
The industrial disputes of 1859-60 (particularly the builders’ strike), which showed a capacity to defend economic organisations along with the struggle to prevent British intervention in the American civil war, helped to lay the basis for the First International. In the Inaugural Address of the International Working Men’s Association, Marx pointed out:
the failure of the revolutions of 1848, all party organizations and
party journals of the working class were, on the Continent, crushed
by the iron hand of force, the most advanced sons of labour fled in
despair to the transatlantic republic, and the short-lived dreams of
emancipation vanished before an epoch of industrial fever, moral
marasmus, and political reaction. The defeat, of the continental
working class, partly owed to the diplomacy of the English
government, acting then as now in fraternal solidarity with the
cabinet of St. Petersburg, soon spread its contagious effects to this
side of the Channel. While the rout of their continental brethren
unmanned the English working classes, and broke their faith in their
own cause, it restored to their landlord and the money-lord their
somewhat shaken confidence. They insolently withdrew concessions
already advertised. The discoveries of new goldlands led to an
immense exodus, leaving an irreparable void in the ranks of the
British proletariat. Others of its formerly active members were
caught by the temporary bribe of greater work and wages, and turned
into “political blacks”. All the efforts made at keeping up, or
remodelling, the Chartist movement, failed signally: the press organs
of the working class died one by one of the apathy of the masses,
and in point of fact never before seeded the English working class
so thoroughly reconciled to a state of political nullity. If, then,
there had been no solidarity of action between the British and the
continental working classes, there was, at all events, a solidarity
«And yet the period passed since the revolutions of 1848 has not been without its compensating features. We shall here only point to two great facts.
«After a thirty years’ (1) struggle, fought with most admirable perseverence, the English working classes, improving a momentous split between landlords and money-lords, succeeded in carrying the Ten Hours Bill. The immense physical, moral, and intellectual benefits hence accruing to the factory operatives, half-yearly chronicled in the reports of the inspectors of factories, are now acknowledges on all sides... Hence the Ten hours Bill was not only a great practical success; it was the victory of a principle; it was the first time that in broad daylight the political economy of the middle class succumbed to the political economy of the wording class.
«But there was in store a still greater victory of the political economy of labour over the political economy of property. We speak of the cooperative movement, especially the cooperative factories raised by the unassisted efforts of a few bold “hands”. The value of these great social experiments cannot be overrrated. By deed, instead of by argument, they have shown that production on a large scale, and in accord with the behests of modern science, may be carried on without the existence of a class of masters employing a class of hands».
On this last point Marx was showing how much of a diplomat he could be when trying to weld together disparate elements of the British workers movement.
«At the same time, the experience of the period from 1848, to 1864 has proved beyond doubt (what the most intelligent leaders of the English working class already maintained in 1851-2, regarding the cooperative movement (1)) that, however useful in practice, cooperative labour, if kept within the narrow circle of the casual efforts of private workmen, will never be able to arrest the growth in geomentrical progression of monopoly, to free the masses, nor even to perceptibly lighten the burden of their miseries (...) To conquer political power therefore become the great duty of the working classes. They seem to have comprehended this, for in England, Germany, Italy and France there have taken place simultaneous revivals, and simultaneous efforts are being made at the political reorganization of the working men’s party. One element of success they possess – numbers; but numbers weigh only in the balance, if united by combination and led by knowledge».
This fundamental position can not be emphasised enough!
«Past experience has shown disregard of that bond of brotherhood which ought to exist between the workmen of different countries, and incite them to stand firmly – by each other in all their struggles for emancipation, will be chastised by the common discomfiture of their incoherent efforts. This thought prompted the working men of different countries assembled on 28 September 1864, in public meeting at St Martin’s Hall, to found the International Association».
one expression of the working class in Britain that had consistently
survived, the trade unions, was drawn into the First International.
The struggle for Reform was taken into and up by the trade unions in
a spirit so different today. In formulating a policy and perspective
for the work of the trade unions, Marx wrote the following,
"Instructions for Delegates to the Geneva Congress" in
1866. In section 6. we have the following:
Unions. Their Past. Present and Future
«(a) Their Past
«Capital is concentrated social force, while the workmen has only to dispose of his working force. The contract between capital and labour can therefore never be struck on equitable terms, equitable even in the sense of a society which places the ownership of the material means of life and labour on one side and the vital productive energies on the opposite side. The only social power of the workmen is their number. The force of numbers, however, is broken by disunion. The disunion of the workmen is created and perpetuated by their unavoidable competition amongst themselves.
«Trade unions originally sprang up from the spontaneous attempts of workmen at removing or at least checking that competition, in order to conquer such terms of contract as might raise them at least above the conditions of mere slaves, The immediate object of trade unions was therefore confined to everyday necessities, to expediencies for the obstruction of the incessant encroachments of capital, in one word, to questions of wages and time of labour. This activity of the trade unions is not only legitimate, it is necessary. It cannot be dispensed with so long as the present system of production lasts. On the contrary, it must be generalised by the formation and the combination of trade unions throughout all countries. On the other hand, unconsciously to themselves, the trade unions were forming centres of organization of the working class, as the medieval municipalities and communes did for the middle class, they are still more important as organised agencies for superseding the very system of wage labour and capital rule,
«(b) Their Present
«Too exclusively bent upon the local and immediate struggles with capital, the trade unions have not yet fully understood their power of acting against the system of wage slavery itself. They kept too much aloof from general social and political movements. Of late, however, they seem to awaken to some sense of their general historical mission, as appears, for instance, from their participation, in England, in recent political movement».
We have seen plenty of evidence of keeping aloof from politics on the part of trade union leaders, to be replaced by the support for bourgeois politics, participating in bourgeois wars, etc. What was held up as the best example at the time (of 1866): the Trade Union Congress, has ended up the most corrupt and nationalistic. It is worth recalling that from being an instrument of the defence of the working class, it actively participated in two world wars and at the end of the last war, reorganised the trade unions in Germany on behalf of American Imperialism.
«Apart from their original purposes, they must now learn to act deliberately as organising centres of the working class in the broad interest of its complete emancipation. They must aid every social and political movement in that direction. Considering themselves and acting as the champions and representatives of the working class, they cannot fail to enlist the non-society men into their ranks. They must look carefully after the interests of the worst paid trades, such as the agricultural labourers, rendered powerless by exceptional circumstances. They must convince the world at large that their efforts, far from being narrow and selfish, aim at the emancipation of the downtrodden millions».
While not underestimating the opportunistic tendencies in the trade unions, a consequence of the working class being driven from the political plane, we cannot just turn our backs on the trade unions in periods of struggle. Either they must aid those in struggle, or they lose their purpose for existence. The trade unions in Britain are based upon different trades, industries or in a couple of cases, general unions. Given these different unions, there is little choice in which union a worker joins. In fact it is most frowned upon to transfer between unions. This is forbidden by the "Bridlington Agreement", named after the town in which the agreement was made. This prevents the "poaching" of members of one union by another, and by implication the polarisation of workers within the various unions. The same goes for the famous "closed-shop" whereby everyone is required to be a member of a trade union affiliated to the T.U.C. This closed-shop also has the function in keeping the more militant workers in line. In these organised places, to be expelled from the union can also lead to those workers losing their jobs.
It is worth recalling that the militant reputation of the dockworkers in Britain can be traced to the extension of the "Blue" union (the National Association of Stevedores and Dockers), so-called because of the colour of the union card, from London to the Northern ports in defiance of the attitudes of the T.U.C. The Stevedores union was a relatively old union which became the vehicle of the more militant workers and recruited many workers from the "White" union, the Transport and General Workers Union. As a consequence of this the Stevedores union was expelled from the T.U.C. The ending of the closed-shop on the docks aided rather than hindered the organisation of minorities of militant workers. It was only as the T&GWU reasserted its control, along with the closed-shop, that saw the collaboration for the run down of the docks by making it more profitable, with thousands being made redundant. Another example would be that of the Glassworkers and General Union, a breakaway from the General and Municipal Workers Union, which arose out of a strike of glassworkers in St. Helens during 1970. After the break from the existing union, it turned to encouraging other workers to join it. It was a threat to the existing unions, and would not be allowed to join the T.U.C. and quietly died. Trade Union unity today represents the strangulation of any struggles that threaten to break out of their present sectional imprisonment.
Trade Union Bureaucrats’ Defection
We have already pointed out that in the First International’s section in England, the struggle for Reform (that is political questions) were placed in the centre of the strategy for the work in the unions. With the passing of the Reform Act of 1867, which gave the vote to a small section of the working class, there was a stampede of the trade union bureaucrats into supporting bourgeois parties, particularly the Liberal Party. The Reform League, which had been under the influence of the International, passed over to the possession of bourgeois politicians. Marx was to denounce all these traitors at the Hague Congress of the First International of 1872, by saying that it was an honour not to be called an English trade union leader. A little later Marx wrote to Sorge on April 4 1874, saying the following:
«As to the urban workers here (in England), it is a pity that the whole pack of the leaders did not get into Parliament. This would be the surest way of getting rid of the whole lot» (Quoted in Lenin’s article "Imperialism and the Split in Socialism", Autumn 1916).
The agitation of the International’s section in England was replaced by those in "The Land and Labour League" who took up the task of extending the agitation to the unorganised proletarians. These were not only the semi-skilled and labourers, like the dockworkers (this approach bore fruit years later in the famous dockers strike of 1889), but also to the unemployed as well. Here we see the tactic of by-passing the conservative elements of craft unions by bringing onto the scene fresh layers of unorganised proletarians to try to overturn the situation. However, as far as the First International was concerned, the tide of class struggle at that time was ebbing away. No matter how many desperate efforts at rear-guard actions could be fought, the International was facing either death or by being taken over by forces hostile to the proletariat as a class. The struggles against the anarchists are well documented, while the fight in England against bourgeois penetration was less publicised. England, the only country ripe for a proletarian revolution, in the sense that the proletariat was strong enough to hold power as a separate class and the bourgeois economy was so well developed (it dominated the world market) that such a revolution would have a profound effect on other countries; on the economic level it was mature but on the political level, it was abysmal. In a statement "From The General Council to the Federal Council of French Switzerland" Marx took up the question of whether there should be a separate national section in England distinct from the General Council. In section Four he states:
«Whilst the revolutionary initiative comes probably from France, England alone can serve as a lever for a serious economic revolution. It is the only country where there are no more peasants and where real estate is concentrated in a few hands. It is the only country where the capitalist form – i.e., labour combined on a large scale under capitalistic masters – has taken over almost all production. It is the only country where the large majority of the population consists of wage-labourers. It is the only country where the class struggle and the organisation of the working class by the Trades Unions have acquired a certain maturity and universality. It is the only country where each revolution in economic matters would, because of its domination of the world market, immediately affect the whole world. If landlordism and capitalism have their classical headquarters in this country, as a repercussion the material conditions for their destruction are the most ripe. Therefore the General Council is now in the fortunate position of having a hand directly on the great lever of the proletarian revolution, what folly, we would almost say what a crime to let it fall into entirely English hands!».
We consider it appropriate to add, what a greater folly, what a greater crime it would have been to let the International fall into English (bourgeois) hands!
«The English have all the material prerequisites for the social revolution. What they lack is a spirit for generalisation and revolutionary fervour. It is only the General Council that can supply it, thus accelerating the truly revolutionary movement in this country and consequently everywhere. The great success which we have already had in this respect is witnessed by those newspapers which are the most intelligent and most enjoy the confidence of the ruling class (...) They publicly accuse us of having poisoned and almost extinguished the English spirit of the working class and of having pushed it towards revolutionary socialism».
No doubt the trade union bureaucrats would be in complete agreement, that it is the influence from outside that stirs the workers into disputes, that creates troubles, which goes against that very special English attitude of peaceful development, of compromise, of respect for the aristocracy and monarchy, of national accord. The trade union bureaucrats have become the best defenders of the bourgeoisie. They see their future as inseparable from that of capitalism, realising that the abolition of wage slavery will also mean their disappearance as a privileged layer.
could present a long list of events and quotations to show the
trajectory of the trade union bureaucracy into the bourgeois camp. We
will limit ourselves to just three examples. In 1872, from being
feared antagonists linked to the First International, the Trades
Union Congress held in Nottingham was feted by local officials and
important wealthy citizens. During the 1880s many trade union leaders
were being invited on to various Government Boards and Enquiries,
their opinions being solicited, requests for them to attend Royal
occasions, and one General Secretary of a trade union stepped
directly over to a Government post, in what became known as the
Ministry of Labour. By 1895 the trade union leaders, particularly
those dominating the T.U.C. were in sufficient control so as to be
able to exclude representatives of the local trades councils from any
involvement in the Congress meetings, thereby preventing all
influences from the mass of the members from having any influence
within the proceedings. From that point onwards the T.U.C. had become
the affair of a handful of paid officials, in practice accountable to
nobody but themselves. One can well believe that this last move was
as a consequence of the bureaucrats at the Newcastle Trades Union
Congress in 1891, opposing the new unionism, which led Engels to
comment «the bourgeois papers recognise the defeat of the bourgeois
The programme of the T.U.C. had become bourgeois and a defender of
(to be continued)
Within the successive great historical cycles that have followed the victorious assertion of the bourgeoisie after the 1789 revolution, the proletariat’s economic forms of association have undergone considerable vicissitudes, passing from their open negation on the part of the bourgeois State, to their legal recognition and the attempt to conquer them from the inside, and on to the one State union, restricted and compulsory.
The unfolding of this dynamic of union forms has led to diverse and sometimes contradictory results depending on the era, thus, the same organizations which in 1914 were utilized by the bourgeoisie to lead the proletariat to war, would afterwards serve the proletariat itself in its anti-capitalist mobilization, becoming in many cases veritable red citadels.
The history of the union movement must therefore be read in a dynamic and non-formalist way, because the succession of diverse forms of workers’ organizations cannot be attributed to a ’spontaneous evolution’ in any way whatsoever.
It is the outcome of class struggle, favourable or otherwise, which has caused one or another type of union framework to prevail, the latter being only one aspect of the struggle between proletariat and bourgeoisie. The bourgeoisie in the period after the First World War, managed to impose its own forms of union organization linked to national solidarity, but only after the defeat of the revolutionary assault in the west, the destruction of the glorious worker’s associations and the degeneration of the 3rd International.
According to our traditional scheme, we study the succession, in the
great geopolitical areas, of historical cycles – which allow for no
return to the past, in which the confrontation between classes
itself into lines and tendencies which are determined by the productive
forces, by the outcome of the preceding battles and of the fore
between the two classes.
1848-1871. Liberal phase: prohibition
With national wars completed in western Europe, the proletariat, formerly involved in the bourgeois anti-feudal front, shows itself for the first time as an autonomous class, distinct from both the bourgeoisie and the petit-bourgeoisie, with its own demands and its own organizations. It is the liberal epoch where the bourgeoisie, still divided between its diverse components – Landed proprietors, industrial and financial bourgeoisie – resolves its internal antagonisms in parliament, this still being the essential organ for the functioning of the State machine.
Strikes and worker’s organizations are forbidden by law, and this gives to economic struggles an immediate political character, for it is impossible to defend one’s bread without coming face to face with the apparatus of the bourgeois State. For the same reason, the rise of the worker’s economic organisms goes hand in hand with the development of the class party – the first International – with a thousand ties between one and the other. The end of this cycle is the repression of the Parisian proletariat, the work of both the French and Prussian Bourgeoisie, marking the end in Western Europe of national wars. After the Paris Commune, there will be also the definitive separation of the Anarchist tendency from the Marxist one the both of which, up until then, had coexisted in the 1st International, and also, the separation of the latter from the powerful English Trade Unions which already show a tendency towards a rigid corporative system and subordination to bourgeois conservative politics.
The cycle of events is completed with a definitively established
for the European proletariat: the economic movement and organization of
the workers appears henceforth unavoidable even to the bourgeoisie
which tries henceforth not to destroy them, but to influence them and
separate them from their revolutionary aim.
1871-1914. Period of expansion: subjugation
This is the period of "peaceful" development of the bourgeoisie and of the extension of the capitalist mode of production on a world scale. The economic expansion involves the numerical growth, and the ever greater concentration of the proletariat, whose organizations extend and gather strength. The development of worker’s organizations is accompanied by the growth of the class party – the Second International – which encourages and strengthens them. In Italy in particular, this process is retarded compared with other countries, and the birth of the proletarian leagues at the beginning of the 20th century is closely linked to the development of the Socialist Party with which they maintain ever closer ties.
The bourgeoisie cannot henceforth attempt to physically destroy proletarian organizations, and is constrained to admit their existence, thereby contradicting its own liberal doctrine. It creates nevertheless its own white and yellow unions in opposition to the red unions, which are linked to the party. At the same time it attempts to influence workers organizations from within through the subterfuge of reformist and revisionist tendencies.
These tendencies find their material base in the strata of the workers aristocracy which capitalism created thanks to the colonial conquests and the bestial exploitation of the proletariat and the peasants of Asia, Africa and Latin America. With a few scraps derived from the revenues of this exploitation, capital has been able to corrupt vast layers of the European proletariat, reinforcing pacifist, legalitarian and revisionist tendencies. A long period of increasing economic expansion appears to have postponed for ever the economic and social catastrophe, endorsing the theses of the revisers and deniers of the Marxist doctrine.
In the midst of the unions, such tendencies become evident through the demand for union neutrality that is, independence in relation to the class party, and the so called autonomy of union organizations – meaning nothing other than removing themselves from the influence of the party in order to yield to the orders of the bourgeoisie.
The revisionist and reformist tendencies – fought always by revolutionary Marxism – develop progressively, until they become finally, on the eve of the war, dominant in all the parties of the 2nd International.
The outbreak of the war precipitates the situation: all over Europe,
the parties of the 2nd International – excepting the Socialist Party
of Italy, which maintains the ambiguous formula of "neither support or
sabotage" – pass directly into the bourgeois camp, and it is only
to their help that the bourgeoisie manages to draw the proletariat of
countries into massacring each other on the war fronts. With the total
"guardianship" of the central unions by the respective national
and with their utilization for the patriotic mobilization of the
things have now gone a full circle. It is a great victory for the
1914-1926. The arc of revolution: the transmission belt
Only tiny minorities inside the Socialist parties remain true to coherent revolutionary positions. In all countries, the first two years of the war are characterized by the absence of proletarian struggles. But the conditions of life created by the war, the suffering, the massacres and the privations, bring the proletariat back into the foreground. There are the first demonstrations against the war – behind the lines just as much as at the front – calling for peace and for bread. The pressure of economic conditions reunites with the energy of a recent tradition of class struggle, which the betrayal of Social-Democracy has been able only to tarnish but not obliterate.
Russia’s 1917 reinforces and enormously stimulates the struggles of the proletariat in Western Europe, whilst giving new life to the revolutionary wings inside the old parties. At the end of the war and in its latter days, the impetus of the European proletariat is enormous, and the struggles are not restricted to economic defence, but arrive at a point which will culminate in organization and armed struggle against the State. After the October Revolution, the various bourgeoisies are forced to conclude a hasty peace to avoid the revolutionary wave extending and following the Russian example. In Germany, at the end of the war, the Soviet movement and the insurrections succeed one another, yet they fail to find a party with coherent revolutionary politics, and are crushed in January 1919 in a bloody defeat.
After the end of the war in 1919-20, the repression of the proletarian masses attains its maximum intensity throughout the whole of Europe. In the economic crisis which follows the war years in all countries, the workers respond immediately by struggle. Formidable strikes follow one after the other in all sectors. To conduct this struggle for the defence of material existence, the old unions show that they are still useful, even if their orientation is still in the hands of reformists. In Italy, the membership of the CGL grows considerably, increasing between 1918 and 1920 from 249,039 to 2,150,000, whilst at the same time, the factory councils are born out of the necessities of the immediate struggle. The entry of these enormous numbers into the old unions which still maintain a worker’s perspective, give them a tremendous injection of class enthusiasm, of healthy hatred against the bosses and their institutions, transforming them in many cases into real red citadels once again. The ever watchful bourgeoisie, relies on the work of the reformists whilst the petty-bourgeoisie is frightened and leans slightly in the direction of the proletariat: It is indicative that during the strikes, the shopkeepers bring the keys of their shops to the worker’s associations and give unlimited credit to the strikers as long as the strikes last. Force is on the side of the workers and thus the "support of public opinion" is in abundance: it is a lesson that shouldn’t be forgotten.
Meanwhile a fierce battle ensues inside the unions against their opportunist orientation and the opportunist leaders who try and find every means, to limit the possibilities open to the union organizations, and who break strikes so as to keep them within the limits of bourgeois order.
The Communists have their role in this battle; to the proletariat, they denounce as defeatist the work of the leaders of the confederation and mount an assault on the leadership of the unions in order to get rid of the traitorous chiefs.
In 1920, at the 2nd congress of the Communist International, the
"On the Unions and Factory Councils" are read, in which two distorted
1) The Kapdist negation of the union, according to which the revolutionary workers must detach themselves and organize separately from the great majority of the proletariat, and
2) Councilism, which sees in the factory councils, contingent instruments of struggle, the finally discovered form which is to substitute for the old unions.
The theses establish that Communists have the duty to go inside worker’s organizations so as to be able to take over the leadership in order to demonstrate that the practical directives of the party are the most effective method of fighting for bread and becoming transmission belts between the party and the proletarian masses for revolutionary directives.
Throughout Western Europe, Marxist revolutionaries break forever from social democrats. Communist parties arise as sections of the 3rd International, often feeble and with deficiencies, but with a widespread influence on the proletariat. To the yellow union centrale of Amsterdam, is opposed the Red Unions International of Moscow, which declares war on the rich classes and calls the proletariat of all countries to an uncompromising class struggle.
To the revolutionary tide of the period after the First World War, the capitalism of Italy and Germany reply with fascist reaction and betrayal by the reformist leaders, meanwhile fascist gangs and the regular forces of the State attack the Chambres du Travail and persecute the most determined proletarians, coming across effective resistance only in the worker’s militias organized by the Communist Party of Italy; meanwhile the leaders of the PSI and the CGL disarm the proletarians preventing them from reacting by breaking strikes and trying to bring them onto the terrain of national solidarity and away from that of the class struggle. Without this act of betrayal by the Social-democrats, the fascist gangs would never have had the power to attack the red organizations and the workers, who even semi disarmed, rise up and inflict memorable lessons. The Communist Party alone put all its energies into the defence of the class organizations which, even if led by agents of the bourgeoisie, are still a valid instrument for the proletarian masses. The last episode of the class reaction takes place with the general strike of 1922, set in motion by the Alleanza del Lavoro (the latter arisen thanks to the Communist initiative, would have to constitute a front of proletarian forces against the bourgeoisie). The strike was sabotaged by the reformist leaders, and the anarchist leaders of the USI (the anarchist union federation) who, at the height of the action, give the order to retreat. After this defeat, the bourgeois forces more or less have a clear road, and gain the upper hand, but not without being fought at all times by the forces of the Communist Party who would try and salvage the salvageable, not conceding an inch of terrain without a fight. However, there will be a chance for the traitors to deal the proletariat another blow: In 1926, the leaders of the CGL will declare its dissolution, demoralizing those proletarians who still fought within the red unions.
Meanwhile, in the International, following the defeat of the
in the West, it is the forces of the counter-revolution who gain the
hand, i.e. stalinism. Starting with deviations on the tactical level
the hope of reversing the henceforth unfavourable balance), it precedes
to cast doubt on the principles and the finality of the World Communist
party, which ends up as an instrument of the Russian State. Only the
Left and the Russian opposition guided by Trotsky will oppose the
degeneration. The same process takes place in all countries, with all
so-called Communist parties linked to Moscow remaining apparently the
but passing over to the enemy camp, abandoning the revolutionary
to put themselves at the service of various national interests.
Period of State totalitarianism: State unions
a) 1926-1945: the fascist period
The crisis of 1929 takes place without the occurrence of a revolutionary wave, and the bourgeoisie is able to resolve its contradictions with the Second World War, massacring millions of proletarians, who witness the glorious ex-soviet republic allying itself at first with German imperialism and then with American imperialism in the name of democracy.
The attitude of genuine Communists in the first world conflict had been entirely different: war on war, no to national solidarity, transformation of the imperialist war into a revolutionary class war!
With the passing of the revolutionary tide, and with the Communist Party destroyed, the bourgeoisie was able, unobstructed, to realise its scheme of a union framework for the workers: The latter no longer have their party, and no longer consider themselves as a class with international dimensions, opposed to all other classes, but as a ’factor of production’, a constituent part of ’the people’, of the nation, which, with capital, contributes to the well-being and prosperity of the country. In the fascist conception, wages should be defended but not if it is harmful to the national economy; conflicts can exist, but over and above them prevails the imperative of the national economy. Unified in its fascist party, the bourgeoisie will attempt to realise in deeds its reformist programme.
The entire proletariat sees itself compulsorily dragooned into unions which are all genuine State-organs: the bourgeoisie cannot tolerate the existence of free unions any more, even under non-revolutionary leadership. The Chamber of Corporations reunites the representatives of the various "factors of production" [like ACAS in England, ed.]: with industrialists and so-called workers representatives, settling potential disputes under the supervision of the State.
Parallel to this, the State imposes from on high a series of relief and providential measures, conceived in order to discipline the exploitation of the labourer, to guarantee production and to prevent class activity: these measures are nothing other than reforms – the Trojan horse of social-democracy.
At the same time, the State evolves in a totalitarian way. The bourgeoisie no longer requires parliament and eliminates the forms of elective democracy, perfecting its State machine which asserts itself ever more as a gigantic administrative/bureaucratic/military apparatus exerting its hold over all sectors of society, including the legislature and the judiciary: maximum centralization, one party, absolute domination of the executive, and attempted planning and regimentation of all areas of social and economic life.
This process corresponds to the evolution of the economy in a monopolist sense. The conflict between the various bourgeois factions has been resolved in a definitive way for a long time in favour of finance capital which, nowadays, dominates in an uncontested fashion. The whole economy is in the hands of huge financial holdings which, in all areas of production, work within the regime of monopoly. The State itself intervenes to a massive degree in the economy, and, in Italy in particular, is the strongest capitalist of all.
The iron-master of the nineteenth century progressively gives way to the bureaucratized president – employee de-luxe – to the financier, and to the anonymous joint stock company.
Monopolist capital needs a rigid control of the labour market, uniform conditions throughout the national territory and national work contracts which are valid and respected everywhere. Why? Because it has to bury class unionism and organize the wage-earning labourers in State unions.
This process is brought about peacefully in some of the stronger capitalist countries like France, England, and the U.S.A. where there has never been a strong revolutionary party, and the bourgeoisie is able to keep the forms of elective democracy and unions with a formally free and voluntary membership. The same process therefore occurs: concentration of the State machine, and submission of the proletariat to national solidarity – without which it must have recourse to open dictatorship. All political forces submit themselves spontaneously to the State; the working class, corrupted by assistance measures of the American New Deal variety (revived again, from fascism) lets itself be led tranquilly to war, during which the tradition of a unionism that is disposed to sacrifice all to the defence of the regime’s institutions proves itself, subscribing to an eternal peace between capital and labour as in Switzerland. It is masked fascist syndicalism which will assert itself in Italy, as in Germany, in the second postwar period and which our party will define as: "tricolore unionism" or "nationalist unionism".
b) 1945. Post fascist period: Nationalist unionism
The war won, the allies – after having dragged the working class into massacring itself in the name of democracy and "liberty" against the fascist dictatorship – impose on defeated Italy and Germany the re-establishment of democratic forms, i.e. free elections and parliament. On a par with the unions, the parties, already united previously in the committee of national liberation, constitute from above a central union called the Italian General Confederation of Labour (CGIL). But the tendencies which had induced the affirmation of fascism as a method of government of the bourgeois State machine not only persist, but become ever more accentuated, i.e., huge financial empires, massive interventions by the State and attempts to plan the economy, reinforcement of the apparatus of State repression, and absolute domination of the executive over the legislature. Parliament is henceforth reduced to being an elaborate booby-trap: it serves only in having the workers believe that the State is still their State as long as they are free to elect their own representatives. It is today’s opportunists themselves who implicitly confirm these facts when they lament the almost exclusive resource to laws of decree, the permanence of the fascist laws, etc.
The so-called anti-fascist parties are in reality one party only, as long as they are all in submission to the State which, appropriately enough, finances them these days. The unions that are formally free, formed in the second post-war period, are the continuation of the fascist State unions, and are "cut from the same cloth" as Mussolini’s. Their function is in point of fact to keep the working class tied to national solidarity, to prevent them moving onto a class terrain, to make it such that the workers don’t feel they are a separate class, but rather just a "component of the nation". This is the unionism which the party has called "nationalist" characterized by an ineluctable tendency towards being openly incorporated into the State apparatus. The law of the State provides de facto juridical recognition of the unions, that is, for their institutionalization, and they have progressed a long way down this path, for instance: the institution of delegation, i.e. the method of stifling demands for money, by the intermediary of bosses and State services [again, ACAS -ed.] (the way of an organization which has carried the social peace into effect and has definitively renounced the class struggle) and practice increasingly governed by resolution of conflicts around the conference table under the exalted patronage of the State, setting out not from the demands of the workers but from those of the national economy. Thanks to the nationalist unions, the Italian bourgeoisie could reconstruct on the shoulders of the proletariat its productive apparatus that had been destroyed in the war, get itself back into the world market thereby realising immense profits, and enriching itself to an incredible degree through bestial exploitation of labour. What had the working class got out of it all? Ten years of crumbs, of ephemeral well-being, and – with the crisis – fresh unemployment, hunger and sacrifices.
The nationalist unions are forced into leading strikes under pressure from the workers, but they are of such a type that they manifest as simple demonstrations, of formalised protests and never as genuine class battles. They sabotage every demand, every struggle which puts the capitalist order in danger. Like the fascist unions, they march along playing patriotic variations of the national theme, their specific function being to "snatch from the future revolutionary movements of the class the solid foundation of a truly autonomous union framework".
In 1921, the General Confederation of Labour, even led by reformists was first and foremost, an anti-capitalist workers union that had emerged out of struggle and which the proletariat could use for its own defence against the employers and against the traitorous leaders themselves. In the statutes one can read:
«Art. 1: The General Confederation of Labour constitutes itself in Italy in order to organize and discipline the struggle of the labouring class against the capitalist regime of production and work (....)Article 3 establishes the functions of the Confederation:
«Art. 2: The Confederation is constituted: a) of all the national federations of industries and trades which have a function of resistance, and which are on positions of class struggle (...); b) of all workers associations that conform to the general and unifying duties that are positions of class struggle (....)».
«(....) The general direction of the proletarian movement, industrial and peasant, above all political distinction (....) so as to resolve all partial disagreement between capital and labour in the way most favourable to the labouring class, and in order that all general movements, determined by the sharpening of the class struggle, be directed towards practical results».In the fascist "Work Charter" one can read:
«The welfare of the State has to be put before that of the isolated individuals or of the groups of individuals which make up the Italian State. This rule must govern not only the work charter, but all fascist politics (....)Article 1. of the Statutes of the Italian General Confederation of Labour affirms that:
«The professional or union organization is free. But only a union which is legally recognized and in submission to the State has the right to legally represent the entire category of employers or workers for which it is constituted; to represent, opposite the State and other professional associations, its interests; to negotiate collective work, obligatory for all members of the category, to impose its prescriptions such as make them pay, by law, the fees due and to exercise, towards them the function of delegates of the public interest (....)
«In the collective work contract, the solidarity between the various factors of production finds its concrete expression, thanks to the reconciliation of opposed interests between employers and workers, and thanks to their subordination to the higher interests of production. This disposition eliminates all reason for hatred between workers and owners, whom, in their relations, don’t consider themselves as enemies any more but as cordial collaborators with the common intention of improving production».
«The Italian General Confederation of Labour (CGIL) is a national organisation of workers. It organizes those workers who – independently of all political opinion, ideological conviction, or religious faith, and belonging to no matter what ethnic group – accept and put into practice the principles of the statutes, considering faithfulness to liberty and democracy as the permanent foundations of union activity (....)And in the State Constitution one reads accordingly:
«The CGIL bases its programme and its action on the Constitution of the Italian Republic and works towards its complete application, particularly as regards the rights which are therein proclaimed and the economic and social reforms which are there dictated».
«39. The union organization is free. Obligations other than their registration together with local and central authorities in the standard legal way, cannot be imposed on unions. In order to be registered, the statutes of the unions must subscribe to an internal functioning that is ordered on a democratic basis. Unions so registered are legal entities. They can, represented unitarily by their members, negotiate collective work contracts with obligatory application for all members of the categories to which the contract refers.Thus, nationalist unionism and the politics of fascist unionism are indistinguishable.
«40. The right to strike is to be exercised within the framework of the laws which govern this right».
The unions of the second post war period are not however organs of the State, whilst having an inevitable tendency to become so, and in this respect they have already made the first steps, namely the introduction of delegation.
In 1945, the re-establishment of formally free and voluntary membership in the unions, meant that the bourgeoisie, thanks to the PCI and the PSI, could bind the exploited masses without the necessity of having recourse to the restraints of the State union.
Drawing support from a usurped tradition and the corruption of a large worker’s aristocracy, the opportunists succeeded in linking the exploited masses to the cart of the bourgeois economy, and today after ten ’boom’ years, it is in the process of pushing them anew into the same misery as the period after the First World War.
But, in the same way that the tendency of the bourgeoisie is to imprison workers in State unions, similarly the crisis is irreversible which will result in the ruin of the capitalist economy, and along with it, all of the conquests which some thought eternal, of the democratic lies and pacifist illusions.
There will remain to the exploited masses nothing else but the struggle for the defence of their own conditions of existence. In this struggle, which will oppose itself to all the principal nationalist unions, to all parties, to the entire State apparatus, the class union is bound to rise again.
Nationalist union and class union are two antithetical terms; the one excludes the other, the workers must smash the apparatus that today links their conditions of existence to the smooth running of the economy of profit, in order to assert by force their right to live and to work, even when the profits of the businesses diminish.
This is why the rebirth of the class union will come into being opposed to the politics and the structure of present day unions, against national solidarity and for solidarity amongst all the exploited against the dominant classes.
[from "Comunismo", n.1, 1989].
The recent succession of union struggles compels us to reaffirm our positions with regard to the COBAS and to the nationalist unions (those which defend the national, as opposed to working class interests), with the aim of dispelling a confusion which, outside the confines of the Party, reigns supreme.
Communists can only look favorably on the resumption of a class struggle which leaps beyond the confining structures set up by the opportunism of the official unions. One of the characteristics which distinguish the Party from all other organizations, including those which profess to appeal to the Communist Left tradition, is precisely the recognition of the need for the resurgence of the proletariat’s organisms of immediate economic defense, without which any revolutionary perspective would be impossible. Our Party has long polemicized with those, like the German Communists of the K.A.P.D. and the Dutch Tribunists, who supported the creation of unions made up of Communists and sympathizers alone, through the abandonment by revolutionary workers of unions controlled by opportunists. These apparently radical postures are completely alien to the Marxist perspective based on dialectical and historical materialism, and spring from idealist conception according to which the proletariat should be driven to struggle by the desire to realize the Communist ideal: the cart of consciousness is thus put before the horse of physiological necessity. By way of proof we needn’t bother Marx; the Enlightenment thinker Diderot will suffice: “If people are happy under their form of government they will conserve it. If they are unhappy, it will neither be my opinions, nor yours, but the impossibility of suffering further and longer which will induce them to change it”.
The party has always said that class struggles are born from the need to satisfy the immediate necessities of life and that class consciousness – without which we cannot really speak of class – lies at the end of the revolutionary process and not at the beginning. It’s only in the Party that the inversion of praxis is found, and where we accordingly find consciousness at the origin of action.
The proletarian militants in the Party remained in the C.G.I.L.(1) from the immediate post-war period until 1975, not because they considered the G.G.I.L. a class union, but because it was considered as such by the near-totality of combative workers who belonged to it. In reality it had ceased to be a class union and was led by opportunists, as had been the case with the C.G.L. (2) in the first quarter of the century, and was just a national and patriotic union, a consequence of the division of the world between a Western empire centered in Washington and an Eastern empire centered in Moscow, both parts of the world empire of capital and of profit. Communists could not avoid working in that union given the unchanging Communist position, which tends to avoid the division among proletarian union organisms, and to work in any union, even if it is reactionary – given that there are combative proletarians in it and that it is possible to organize within it as a union fraction, and propagandize the positions of the Party amongst all the workers, who in the heat of the struggle are well able to choose between these positions and others.
If the party militants left the C.G.I.L. in 1975 it’s because by then it was so close to becoming a state union, as would become ever more manifest in the following years, that the most significant proletarian struggles were forced to develop and organize outside its structures and against their openly blackleg discipline. The function of the C.G.I.L., C.I.S.L.(3) and U.I.L. (4) nationalist unions since their reconstitution, is no different from that of the fascist unions, that is, to control the explosions of rage of the proletarians, and to channel it into limits of compatibility with the “national economy” of yesterday’s fascist fatherland and today’s democratic fatherland, i.e. compatibility with the capitalists’ rate of profit. The “split” of 1914 between reformists and fascists was effectively patched up again in 1949, as even bourgeois historians are coming to recognize, in their own way.
Class struggles however, precisely because they arise from the need to defend the proletariat’s conditions of existence, are – menaced by a capitalism ever more ravenous for being in greater difficulty – destined to be revived, and if this is not possible inside the nationalist unions they will rise again outside them. What the Party has been saying for years has been verified point by point recently with the organization of the proletariat in a way autonomous from the traditional union centers, as is the case for the today notorious COBAS (5).
The militants of the Party work in the COBAS’s that advance class demands, however confused they are and however much they defend one category of workers alone. Communists cannot assume “purist” attitudes and cold-shoulder a workers’ organism solely because its watch-words don’t coincide with the more general and resolute ones. The function of the Party is moreover organically different from that of the union, and fusion will only occur in the insurrectional melting-pot.
Nor can we snub a union group merely because its dominated by self-styled revolutionary politicizing elements, leftovers perhaps from 1968, even if working in such an organism would certainly be more difficult.
Concerning the COBAS we must speak with extreme clarity, as we customarily do. The Party works in those organisms made up of workers alone, with voluntary membership and without Party or ideological conditions, which advance immediate defensive claims, to be obtained with the tools of direct struggles. Our Communist formula remains: “On the side of the humblest groups of the exploited, asking for a crust of bread and defending it from the bosses’ insatiable greed, but against the mechanism of present institutions and against anyone who places himself on their terrain”.
Much confusion is wrought by the professionals of institutional unionism with the accusation of corporativism: the original fascist meaning of class convergence in the national interest, is today turned into an insult against those making demands in opposition to, or heedless of the general bourgeois interest. In short, corporative means the uncastrated class struggle. The engine-drivers are supposedly corporative because they demand “too much”, as far as the interests of capitalist enterprises are concerned, of course.
Alternatively the struggles of professional or qualified workers are branded corporative, especially if those concerned are not directly engaged in material production or are not the absolutely worst paid. To these its easy to demagogically contrast the manual workers (but in Poland aren’t metalworkers the corporative ones?). The fact is that the class struggle develops according to its own laws of growth and according to the relations of force: starting historically from the struggle of one person, to a group, to a trade, to a profession, from a committee, to the association, to the union, to the federation. Today, general class struggle and class unions do not exist: unfortunately, in many respects, (not all), the class is starting from nothing. Poland and South Africa show the way.
The Party has the task of overcoming in the whole proletarian army any group narrowness and any partiality for the presently overwhelming compartmentalization. It aims to go beyond this by generalizing the struggles and by unifying the organisms of defensive struggle among professions, as among localities and among various nations, in a process in which even the demands and the general economic strike are not points of arrival but phases to pass beyond.
Thus Communists should work in those COBAS’s which don’t impede the organization and action of a Communist union fraction, the task being to contribute to the “ionization” of the proletarian molecules around the class programme, superseding the initial trade-based demands. At the same time, they should always firmly denounce any contrast to other workers, as a failure to do so could mean disqualification in the eyes of proletarians today, and in the future, of the whole action of the Party.
For this reason Communists, who today contribute their forces to the railway and school COBAS’s, don’t work inside the so-called “Guild” of professors, not because they ask too much, or too much more for too few, but because it was born as a split from the school COBAS with the one flaunted goal of closing itself to the class struggle and opposing the parallel growth of an already vital organization.
The difficulties of union work must not lead militants to be overwhelmed by it, as may happen in such demanding work if they lose sight of the various levels on which the union and Party operate. The Party stands at the summit of the pyramid of functions which include, beside it, the intermediate forms of organization like the union, and therefore the class itself.
As far as the patriotic unions are concerned, Party militants are often asked: but you, what do you say to workers belonging to these unions? We don’t say to them, and we never have said, throw away your membership card, because such a gesture in the present situation would be of little and unclear significance. However we have advised workers to ask for membership in the union while rejecting the payment of dues, by proxy, into the hands of the boss, a condition which right from its introduction twenty years ago often put Communist workers outside the unions.
To proletarians, we disclose the conditions for reborn proletarian strength in the resurgence of class defensive organizations, a course which we cannot provoke, but to which we can make our contribution of consciousness and of forces. The groups which are organizing outside of the official unions will understand that they will have to turn, for struggle purposes, to all other proletarians, members of any union or no union at all: it will be the struggle itself, in its development, which will destroy the illusion – unfortunately dominant today – of being able to recuperate the nationalist union in defense of proletarian interests. The disappearance of this illusion – for such it has always been – will unfortunately cost the proletariat dear, so that it will feel every stage of this process in its own flesh. However there are no short cuts, as we have previously noted, since class consciousness is at the end of the process and not at the beginning.
Today, with recession at the door, from now on, the bourgeoisie is preparing itself to play in every field, and it doesn’t surprise us if some sectors of it espouse the cause of the “professional” COBAS, nor would it if the nationalist unions – in order not to lose face completely, and so as to continue to carry out their function of class collaboration – were constrained in certain difficult situations not to block the forward movement of the class, and therefore to agree to quite unwanted struggles. All this, in part, is already happening.
Curiously, but not very, the opportunists of the “extreme left”, who in their impatience have discovered new situations and new revolutionary subjects, are just now keeping silent, preparing to enter into the patriotic sacred union, into which even the “Red Brigades” have been led recently. The Party, which for over 40 years has repeated that the unfavorable historical situation was destined to last for a long time, now has before it the prospect of new but not unexpected interventions, which confirm its analysis. The tunnel constituted by the unfavorable historical situation is certainly not at an end, since democratic and patriotic illusions are unfortunately still firmly rooted among proletarians all over the world, but the specter of Communism of which Marx spoke approaches again, and the Party has before it the hardest and most difficult struggle in its history from 1848 to the present.
Il Partito e i Cobas, "Il Partito
Comunista", No. 165, May 1988].
‘MODERNIZATION’ OF THE LABOUR
OR THE EMPEROR’S NEW CLOTHES
Spring is here, the sap is rising and one’s thoughts turn to courtship. Can this be why the British Labour Party is casting off its shabby old image for a brand spanking new one? If it plasters on a bit of make-up, will its newly rejuvenated image lure back a few of those who have deserted its ranks?
Through the media, the proletariat is invited to express ’opinions’ on the performance of this seedy old mannequin, as it struts about grotesquely in borrowed plumage. And what is this new suit of clothes that conceals the embarrassing nudity of opportunist politics? It is the Labour party policy review!
So, as the Tory government cuts bite deeper, homelessness increases and society regresses to nineteenth century levels, what does this ’new look’ Labour party, red roses and all, propose to do?
To find out, let us consult the grandiosely entitled leaflet: ‘Social justice, and economic efficiency – A productive and competitive economy’. This scimpy 4-page document is part of ’phase 1’ of ’the review’, and was brought to us courtesy of ’the Productive and Competitive Policy Review group’. In the appendix, we are informed that this august body ’was established to consider:
‘the democratic socialist approach to enterprise and ownership, markets, Industrial (Including science and technology) policy, trade, energy, employment and training strategies, including the international dimensions’.
Sounds pretty important, huh? So, after dipping our toes in the water, let us now immerse ourselves further in the alluring depths of ‘the review’ and see what lies below the surface.
The first paragraph is entitled ’THE CHALLENGE OF THE 1990s’, Let us then gird our loins. But what is the challenge? It is the following: ’in the 1990s (...) the European and world economy In which we must earn our living will have become sharply more competitive as other advanced economies harness the new technologies – and as the newly industrialising countries undercut our established industries. The competition of the EEC internal market will add to the competitive pressures [our underlining].
Oh dear! What are we supposed to do about it then? In paragraph 2 we are told: ’Economic success in the 1990s requires a new approach to the central question of how best to help the companies, the entrepreneurs and risk-takers, the managers and workers, and the scientists, technologists and trainers, who will meet the challenges of the next decade’. Well, the workers will be flattered to know that they will have their part to play – on an equal footing with all those other clever people!
So apparently ’we’ need a new approach, we’ve got that far, now what? Well, ’Britain will not increase its share or even hold its own in the home, European and international markets if present policies continue. The complete failure of the current mix of monetary targeting and laissez-faire is evident in the fact that manfacturlng investment has still not returned to its 1979 level, and in Britain’s growing balance-of-payments problem. Correcting these failings requires a macro-economic policy of steady expansion, competitive exchange rates and low inflation’.
But hold on a minute. What’s all this garbage got to do with the working class? Our writer decides for one brief moment to dispense with bourgeois economists jargon and talk plain English to us: for the aim of all these economic strategies is none other than: ’to improve competitiveness in foreign and domestic markets’. Phew! at last! First of all tries to baffle us with high faluting language and make us think that ’economy’ can only be understood by the ’experts’. Then, after having impressed upon his readers their mental inferiority he deigns to throw a sentence their way that they can understand. In fact we can understand more from this sentence about the labour party’s policies than all the rest of their ’theoretical’ outpourings put together. We can understand that the labour party is purely and simply a party for capital.
But let us stop a moment and look at what is involved in this concept of ’economic success’ and all the mumbo-jumbo recipes to achieve this aim. It is important because it is an old ploy of capitalism to try and get the proletariat to link itself to capitalist nationalist interests so that ’more jobs can be created’. Every day on ’the news’ we are updated on new jobs that have been created or jobs that have been lost. At the trade union and Labour conferences, over and over again a reactionary policy can be pushed through under the cover of this simple formula ’it will create jobs’. It is though this is the final word, the final touchstone for all reformists and opportunists of various hues.
It is a clever ploy on the part of the capitalists because it strikes home at peoples basic survival instincts. But here already we have an unsaid assumption – that survival involves the individual against all other individuals, and the individual nation against all other nations. This is the real Trojan horse that has been launched in our midst, for such are the basic assumptions of capitalism (and indeed all class societies) for this is the ideological template from which all the rest of its ideologies and culture are made.
But here we must be circumspect. We must neither reject nor accept capitalist contentions about jobs and their availability or otherwise, for who can deny that we need money to survive? In this system we are wage earners and we work in this factory or that factory, this institution or that. If we find that jobs will became available in our area we may be pleased if we have been unemployed for a long time, but that it is a different kettle of fish altogether to sacrifice the interests of the working class as a whole to a few new factories.
And another thing, how often does the quality of the work get raised as an issue in the ’important’ debates discussed between our ’professors of labour’? Most of these new jobs we hear about are, not to put too fine a point on it, absolute crap, and mindlessly boring into the bargain!
What about the workers?
The working class is an international class and it will only achieve its aims internationally. The miners’ strike for instance was broken partly through Polish coal being imported. Perhaps Polish workers thought it was a nice little boom, jobs were ’being created’, but where are they now, now that the little ’hiccup’ of success is over and the halycon days of a few extra consumer goods is long gone?
It won’t be easy for the working class to operate as a world class sacrificing immediate and individual interests to the wider ones, and nobody would ask for gratuitous displays of abstract martyrdom. But the working class will have to find a way whereby it isn’t constantly drawn into situations, often out of apparent necessity, where it has to cut off its nose to spite its face, where different sectors of the International working class cancel out each other’s efforts in the daily effort for survival. This will only become realistic in the context of organization at an international level and to be organized at the international level means to have an international class party.
At this point, all the cabalistic economic incantations that have been designed to baffle and confuse the working class will be seen as so much rubbish. For the working class under capitalism has no economy and after it has taken power it will have no economy. Before the revolution this is because the working class has nothing, but afterwards it is because it has everything and has destroyed all classes leaving only the human community with no oppressing and oppressed classes, with economy resolved into the rational management of production.
Let us then return then to dip in the stagnant waters of this labour party document and see how this vision of the collectivity is distorted under capitalism: ‘Industry has an important role to play’...’It is essential that government agencies and local authorities work in partnership with firms, trade unions, the CBI [Confederation of British Industry – the bosses union] trade associations and the chambers of commerce. Note that again we can see this implied sense of a partnership in the creation of jobs. A halcycon image of everyone having their place. Hark! We can hear the old refrain from the hymn to capital ’all things bright and beautiful’.
rich man in his mansion The poor man at
To each God gives a station and orders his estate’
In addition, various propositions are put forward for modernising and redistributing new industries in the regions. But standing out in high relief as true opportunism, is a really pathetic attempt to find a halfway house between privatisation and nationalisation in the public utilities: ’We therefore need to protect the consumer’s interests by obtaining guarantees that monopoly suppliers do not abuse their position’. Strong medicine indeed! But for fear this feeble ’ticking off’ might hurt the poor monopolies feelings, this statement is retracted in the next sentence!: ’In any case, we have to recognise that these monopoly enterprises have another role as providers of essential services to the economy and the community in general, and that we need to some degree to Insulate them from the short-term pressures of the market’. Protecting momopolies from the market! It’s incredible isn’t it?
If all this is the best the labour party ’Image makers’ can do ’to attract new members’, then they may as well give up, but how odd in any case, shouldn’t they rather be moving to the left to win the hand of the working class?
No: this task, Intentionally or otherwise, is left to the ’Militant Tendency’, This group, leading a clandestine – but everyone knows – existence within the party, have taken it upon themselves to weld the labour party into – don’t laugh – a revolutionary party! These misled individuals tend to do most of the actual work when election time comes around, but when the party is preparing for power, there is one of the famous ’witch-hunts’ and they are promptly dropped like a brick. After this, they fire off a few salvoes from their press, before slipping back grudgingly into the fold. There is no doubt however that this fraction serves a useful function as it keeps alive the notion that the labour party could ’be retrieved’ and become a Marxist party even if it isn’t the case at the moment. But it all provides a bit of fireworks and Injects a bit of interest into a party which specializes in ’razzamatazz’ to disguise its ideological bankruptcy. It can organise rock concerts, its leaders can mingle with show-biz, it can throw out radical anti-capitalist slogans, but it daren’t and never will, put forward a clear, unambiguous, consistent class programme.
As a postscipt, we cite some passages from an article in the ’Guardian’ which paint a lurid picture of the cobwebby apathy that dominates at a local level. The writer goes to a branch meeting wryly commenting that he never expects ’labour party branch meetings to resemble an assault on the Winter palace’. His surmise Is correct, for here he immediately finds the atmosphere ’miserable and unwelcoming, with about fifteen unenthusiastic looking people sitting in rows. People who’d sat in that room once a month for five years barely acknowledged each other. The fraternal comrades don’t like each other much. There was a short, dull talk on the E.E.C. At the end, when questions were asked for, no one spoke. Later, when people were to be elected to posts, the comrades were reluctant to offer themselves (sic). later in the evening, the chair talked of how tired the party seemed, of what little energy people were prepared to put into it’.
And the above example is by no means an isolated example of the average labour party meeting. In fact it gives a good picture of the overwhelming majority of the local organizations. The labour party, despite some still maintaining that it is the famous ’mass party of the working class’, has in fact relatively few members who have joined as individuals (as distinct from the block memberships derived from affiliated trades unions). In fact it is an empty shell, with little to fill the vacuum apart from the substantial rumps of the ’right-wing realists’, the new ’moderate’ realists, and a few trotskyist entryists ’working for the masses’. All defend capitalism including the trotskyists who take it upon themselves to defend the latest trendy forms of capitalism – giving the Japanese basses something to have a good chuckle about.
For anyone who has had enough of capitalism and wants to ’try and do something’, be warned, there are many tired, disillusioned people who thought changing the world would be as easy as joining their local labour party branch.
Don’t fall for it, you’d be wasting your time.
“In China, as well as in other backward countries in Africa and Asia, the two world wars have sharpened the contradiction between the development of the productive forces and the old relations of production, which had been passed on from the patriarchal regime. For a long time national revolts and agrarian rebellions have succeeded each other, confirming the predictions made by Marxism since the beginning of the century. Thus despite the repeated defeats of the proletariat in the European industrial centers, the upsurge of the national movements in the East have shown the revolutionary force in the antagonisms accumulated by the capitalist system. But, as it has been proved today by the increasing retardation of the backward countries in relation to the economic development of their old industrialised centers, these contradictions could not be solved within a national framework or in the form of bourgeois “progress”. They are the product of world capitalism, its uneven development, of the accumulation of all the riches by a handful of superindustrialised states...”And further on we pointed out that the Indian delegate Roy had dedicated the theses of the Second Congress of the Communist International especially to China and India, with the aim of detaching the proletariat and the poorest peasants from the «national» bourgeoisie:
“In the oppressed countries there exist two movements, that separate from each other more and more every day: the first one is the bourgeois, national democratic movement, whose programme is political independence and bourgeois order; the other one is the movement of the poor and ignorant peasants as well as the workers, who fight for their own liberation from any kind of exploitation. The first movement attempts frequently with success to control the other. But the Communist International and its adherent parties must fight this attempt and try to develop independent class consciousness among the working masses in the colonies.”This was the original position of the Comintern with regards to the poor labouring masses in the colonies and oppressed nations, and in due course it became ours. The movement for national independence and liberation has largely been completed: the proletarian revolution still waits to be accomplished.
“Foreign domination prevents the free development of economic forces. Therefore its destruction must be the first step of the revolution in the colonies and therefore the aid to the destruction of the foreign domination in the colonies is not, in fact, an aid to the nationalist movement of the local bourgeoisie, but a preparation of the way for the liberation of the proletariat in the colonies [...] In its first phase the revolution in the colonies can not be a communist revolution, but if a communist vanguard takes the lead from the beginning, the revolutionary masses will not be led astray and their revolutionary experience will continuously grow during the different phases of the movement.”The present events in China merely restates that without proletarian revolution, with the advancement towards communism, society must continue to go through all the barbarities that capitalism had in store for it. Today we are continuing to pay a heavy price for the failure of the revolutionary wave of 1917-23, the gradual abandonment of revolutionary positions by the Comintern and the final involution of the revolution in Russia. All this left the proletariat at the mercy of the bourgeoisie and its damned wars, crises and slumps. with revolutionary positions being defended by the small minority which constituted the Communist Left. We have continued to defend the proletarian perspective against all comers in the ensuing decades, against all the falsifiers and advocates of “alternative” and “new” road.