International Communist Party The Union Question

The Trade Union Internationals

(Battaglia Comunista, n.26, 1949)

In the early proletarian movements, the distinction between organizations for the defense of the economic interests of wage earners and the early political circles and parties was not well understood. However already in the inaugural address of the First International, the notion that it’s a World Association of Political Parties is well established. Indeed the address, after recalling the road traveled so far by the working classes in defending their interests against bourgeois exploitation, the ten-hour bill wrested from the British parliament, and the results of the first productive cooperatives, uses such propaganda material in the critical field and emphasizes its rebuttal to the theorists of bourgeois economics who thought production would collapse frighteningly if the extortion of labor from wage earners was reduced by reducing the workday and raising the minimum age of the worker, as it debunks them via the thesis that there can be production without “the existence of a class of masters employing a class of workers” in large proportions according to the precepts of modern science. But soon afterwards the address states that the trade union movement and cooperative labor will never be able to slow down “the growth in geometrical progression of monopoly, to free the masses, nor even to perceptibly lighten the burden of their miseries”. Cooperative work should be done on a national scale and consequently with State means. “Yet the lords of the land and the lords of capital will always use their political privileges for the defense and perpetuation of their economic monopolies”. So the great duty of the working classes is to conquer political power.

The question of political power and the State caused long battles first between Marxist socialists and libertarians, with the split of the First International, then between revolutionary marxists and social-democrats. Lenin gave irrevocable historical proof that “the most characteristic thing about the process of the gradual growth of opportunism that led to the collapse of the Second International in 1914 is the fact that even when these people were squarely faced with this question they tried to evade it or ignored it”. The cornerstones of the Marxist position that Lenin reestablished in “The State and Revolution” as the basis of the doctrine of the Moscow Third Communist International were: violent destruction of the bourgeois State apparatus – revolutionary dictatorship of the armed proletariat for the progressive dismantling of the capitalist social system and the repression of the counter-revolutionary bourgeoisie – workers’ State system without career politicians, but with workers "periodically called to the functions of control and acccounting” revocable at all times and with a workers’ wage – finally, withering away of the new State apparatus as production takes place on a communist basis.

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The coming together of the workers’ unions into a single international body comes late, as even nationally they regroup much later than the propaganda groups that develop into proper parties. At first, federations are formed by trade and then these unite into national confederations.

This network of economic organization is always quite distinct from party political organization, but an exception to this, often causing confusion in international relations, is the British system of the Labour Party, which accepts memberships from both workers’ political groups and parties and economic Trade Unions. The Labor Party is not and does not even claim to be socialist and Marxist; it does, however, adhere to a political International, in whose successive world congresses in a more or less direct way delegations from the trade union confederations of various countries participated.

If the process of opportunism denounced and confronted by Lenin had its political aspect within the Second International with the abandonment of any serious preparation of the proletariat for revolution, the insertion of the proletariat into the parliamentary system, and finally the final betrayal with the support for the war of the national bourgeoisies in open defiance of the decisions of the world socialist congresses of Stuttgart and Basel, opportunism had no less serious consequences in the trade union field. The leaders of the large trade workers’ organizations and trade union confederations became bureaucratized in a practice of relationships and agreements with bosses’ organisations that led them to increasingly reject the direct struggle of the wage-earning masses against the bosses. As industrialists’ unions were placed in front of workers’ organizations, which taught the bourgeoisie to overcome, for class reasons, company autonomy and competition in a dual monopolistic struggle, directed against the consumer on the one hand and against the workers’ union rank-and-file on the other, the trade union bureaucrats constructed the method of economic collaboration whereby workers, rather than fighting in each company and in the larger field against the boss, would instead gain limited benefits from it on condition that they support the productive enterprise by avoiding strikes and move to the plane of mutual interest in the “productivity” and “yield” of industrial labor.

If parliamentary socialists shamefully betrayed the working class by voting for military credits and entering the 1914 war ministries, union leaders sang a tune worthy of that by proclaiming the duty of industrial workers to intensify work to produce war materiel necessary for the salvation of the fatherland, and lured them into compromise by boasting of obtaining exemptions from military service.

The flurry of crisis and bewilderment that passed over the proletarian movement throughout the war suspended the life of the international workers’ offices, the political office in Brussels, the trade union office in Amsterdam. To top it all, the same confederations dissident from the reformist ones, and headed by anarchists or Sorelian syndicalists, hadn’t even all resisted the seductions of social-patriotism; the classic example being France’s Jouhaux fully throwing itself into chauvinist politics and the union sacreé.

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The renegades and social-traitors who had fiercely fought each other under their respective national flags during the war, came together again after it in the yellow internationals, and the international trade union office in Amsterdam established the best relations with the International Labour Organization founded in Geneva alongside the League of Nations.

Leninist communists thoroughly attacked all of these institutions, expressions of world imperialism and the capitalist counterrevolutionary effort desperately arrayed against the rise of the world proletariat, victorious in the Red, October Dictatorship.

However, the line of trade union tactics of the Communists, who founded the Comintern in Moscow in 1919, must be recalled in essential points in order to be clearly understood. No doubt in the fields of proletarian political organization about the need to break definitively not only with the opportunists of social-nationalism but also with the centrists hesitant before the word for struggle against parliamentary democracy, for revolutionary dictatorship in all countries. Thus, as the Brussels International and the grouping then formed and referred to ironically as the Second and a Half International were repudiated, communists in every nation were urged to break with local socialist parties

In the trade union field, while the declaration of war on the yellow servants of capital in Amsterdam and Geneva, direct material emanation of the monopolist bourgeois States and without any connection with the strata of the working class, was no less clear, the problem of local and national organizations was resolved in a consistent but not formally identical manner.

The question gave rise to more than a few debates among the young communist parties. In more than a few of these there was support for the tactic of abandoning the yellow-led unions and moving onto a split in the economic unions, grouping workers disgusted with the opportunism of Social-Democratic officials. It was felt by these groups, German, Dutch and others, that the revolutionary struggle needed not only an autonomous communist party but also an autonomous trade union network linked with the party.

Lenin’s critique proved that such a view implicitly and sometimes explicitly contained a devaluation of the party’s task and thus of revolutionary political necessity, and that it was related to old workerist worries over falling into right-wing errors. Related to it were the tendencies, also represented in Italy, to devalue the trade and industry unions themselves on a national basis in front of the factory bodies formed among the workers, or Company Councils, which were seen not as organs of struggle embedded in a general network, but as local cells of a new productive order that would replace the bourgeois management while allowing the autonomy of the company to subsist under the direction of its workers. This conception led to a non-Marxist view of the revolution, according to which the new economic model would replace the capitalist one cell by cell with a process more important than taking central power and general socialist planning.

The doctrine of the Comintern eliminated all such deviations and specified the importance, in the historical situation of the time, of the economic union in which workers flocked to in all countries in compact masses imposing vast national trade union struggles and setting the stage for political battles. For Marx and Lenin in the deployment of workers’ forces the party is indispensable; if it lacks or loses revolutionary strength, the trade union movement can only be reduced to collaboration with the bourgeois system. But where the situations mature and the proletarian vanguard is strong and decisive, even the trade union moves from an organ to be conquered to an organ of revolutionary battle, and the strategy of the conquest of political power finds its basis in the decisive party influence, possibly even as a minority influence, in the trade union bodies through which the masses can be called to general strikes and major struggles.

The Second Congress of the Comintern in 1920, in its trade union theses, among the most expressive, therefore wanted the communist parties to work in the traditional trade union confederations trying to win them over, but in case they could not wrest their leadership from the opportunists, not to draw from this situation any reason to give the workers the order to abandon them and found new trade unions in the national arena.

This tactic had faithful application in Italy, for example, where the Communists took part in all union struggles and did intense work in the factories in the leagues in the Chambers of Labor, many of which they headed, in the trade federations, some of which they controlled although the General Confederation of Labor was in the hands of the anti-Communist reformists Rigola, d’Aragona, Buozzi and the like.

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In the field of international organization, without prejudice to such tactics in individual countries, the Communists founded the Red International of Labor Unions – Profintern – based in Moscow, which brought together national Headquarters headed by Communists, with the Russian trade unions in the forefront. It was the time of the watchword Moscow versus Amsterdam in the workers’ movement.

After a few years this clear-cut method suffered its first backwards adjustment. Having verified, for the reasons of the general situation in the capitalist world which need not be recalled in full here, the retreats and failures of the revolutionary movement in Europe, a pretext was taken from it in relation to the needs of the Russian State to modify international trade union tactics and suppress the Profintern, going so far as to demand that Russian trade unions be accepted as a national confederation in the Amsterdam Yellow Bureau, and called on communist workers to fight for this goal and protest the predictable refusal of opportunists to accept such membership. It was a first step towards the liquidationist path. The policy of popular fronts and the defense of democracy, parallel to the foreign policy developments of the Soviet State, which had now entered the international chessboard of imperialism and aligned itself on the side of the barricade of imperialism, completed the process of liquidating the political and organizational autonomy of the proletariat, beginning with the party and ending with the trade union and other mass organs, and their transformation into instruments of bourgeois conservation and imperialism.

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The problem of the mixing together the political and trade union organs of proletarian struggle in its approach must take into account historical facts of fundamental importance which have occurred since the end of the First World War. These facts are on the one hand the new attitude of the capitalist States towards the existence of trade unions, and on the other hand the very completion of the Second World War, the monstrous alliance between Russia and the capitalist States, and the contrasts between the victors.

From outlawing economic trade unions – a consistent consequence of the pure doctrine of bourgeois liberalism – to tolerating them, capitalism moved onto its third stage: integrating them into its State and social order. Politically, this dependence had already been achieved in the opportunist and yellow trade unions, and had proven itself during the First World War. But the bourgeoisie, for the defense of its established order, had to go further. Since the first time social wealth and capital were in its hands, it has been concentrating them more and more by continually repressing what was left of the traditional classes of free producers into nothingness. From the liberal revolutions onward, the political and armed power of the State was in its hands, and this reached its apotheosis in the most perfect parliamentary democracies, as Marx and Engels, as well as Lenin, demonstrated. In the hands of its enemy, the proletariat, whose numbers grew as accumulating expropriation grew, was a third resource: organization, association, the overcoming of individualism, the historical and philosophical uniform of the bourgeois regime. The world bourgeoisie wanted to wrest from its enemy even this unique advantage it obtained by developing its own internal class consciousness and organization, made unheard-of efforts to suppress the spikes of economic individualism in its core and give itself proper planning. The State has been, from moment one, its organ of deception and police repression; it has been striving in recent decades to make it, equally in its own service, an organism of economic control and regimentation.

Since the outlawing of trade unions would incentivize the independent class struggle of the proletariat, this method went in the opposite direction. The union must be legally incorporated into the State and become one of its organs. The historical path to this result has many different aspects and also many retreats, but we are in the presence of a consistent and distinctive characteristic of modern capitalism.

In Italy and Germany the totalitarian regimes arrived at it with the direct destruction of traditional red and even yellow trade unions.

The States that defeated the fascist regimes in the war moved in the same direction by different means.

Temporarily in their own and conquered territories they have allowed the self-described free unions to act and have not banned and still don’t ban agitations and strikes.

But everywhere the conclusion of such movements flows into a negotiation in the official arena with the exponents of State political power acting as arbitrators between the economically struggling parties, and it’s obviously the bosses who thus play the part of judge and executioner.

This certainly foreshadows the legal elimination of the strike and trade union independence, which has already de facto taken place in all countries, and naturally creates a new approach to the problems of proletarian action.

International bodies reappear as emanations of constituted State powers. Just as the Second International was reborn with the permission of the victorious powers of its day in the form of tamed bureaus, so we have today bureaus of socialist parties in the orbit of the Western States, and a so-called communist bureau of information in place of the glorious old Third International.

The trade unions band together in congresses and councils which can’t prove to have any connection with the working class, and which palpable evidence shows that they’re puppeteered by this or that government.

The salvation of the working class, its new historical rise after tremendous struggles and hardships, is in none of these bodies. It’s on the path that will know how to bring together the theoretical rearrangement of views on the latest phenomena of the capitalist world and the new organizational approach in all countries on a world scale, which will know how to reach a higher plane than the military contrast of the imperialists, putting the war between classes back in the place of war between States.