Party letters on the trade union question
Today’s trade union situation is different from that of 1921 not only because of the lack of a strong Communist party, but because of the progressive elimination of the content of trade union action, with bureaucratic functions having substituted rank-and-file action: assemblies, elections, fractions of parties in trade unions, and professional officials in place of elected leaders, etc. This elimination, defended by the capitalist class on its advantage, sees on the same historical line the factors: CLN-style corporatism, Di Vittorio or Pastore type trade unionism.
This process cannot be declared irreversible. If the capitalist offensive is confronted by a strong communist party, if one wrests the proletariat from the CLN tradeuninist tactics in the face of that offensive, if one wrests it from the influence of current Russian policy, at X moment or in X country, either brand new class-based unions rise, or the existing ones are conquered, even if after a sound beating. This isn’t to be historically ruled out. Certainly those unions would form in a situation of advance or conquest of power.
The differences between the two situations make the one between the D’Aragona leadership, which didn’t exclude our fraction action in the CGL, and the Di Vittorio leadership secondary.
Given the party’s meager strength at the moment, and until it’s much greater, which we can’t know whether this will happen before or after the resurgence of non-political class organizations with large membership, the party cannot and should neither proclaim boycotts of company trade unions and workers’ agitations; nor proclaim the presence always and everywhere at factory elections of unions etc. with lists of their own; nor, where it’s locally in the majority of forces, use in open agitations the word of boycott, by calling not to vote, not to join the union, not to strike or the like.
In a positive sense: in most cases practical abstention and not boycott.
In special cases, where there’s a good interplay of forces, never the watchword of boycott, possible decision either for withdrawing from submitting lists or for submission, depending on the foreseeable practical consequences, in each case accompanied by work spreading our principles by means of the factory group of members emanating from the party, and subordinate to it.
It’s necessary to carry out the propaganda of trade union history, especially explaining the tactics of the Communist International and the Communist Party of Italy in the favorable phase after the First World War, Moscow and Rome theses, etc, etc, the history of the Communist trade union fraction of the CGL, the railway workers’ union, etc. Principle: without intermediate workers’ bodies between party and class there’s no revolutionary possibility; the party doesn’t abandon such bodies merely because it’s in the minority there. Even less does it submit its principles or directives to the will of those majorities with the pretext that they’re “workers”. This also applies to the Soviets (see Lenin, Zinoviev, etc.).
There is, more or less openly, a line which states that there’s no longer any possibility of useful work for the revolutionary Marxist party in the trade unions in factory bodies and the like: therefore it’s necessary for it to become disinterested in participation in trade unions and related committee and office elections, as well as in factory councils and internal commissions. Agitations called either with economic content or for opportunist political demands by existing unions should not be participated in.
Such a line if it’s meant to express a historical situation and an irrevocable method is undeniably simplistic and wrong.
What can be said concretely (...): today in Italy, with a small party as ours, it’s not possible to give watchwords of conquest of those organs and participation everywhere in those elections; but neither can or must general watchwords of boycott be given. Nine times out of ten and perhaps ninety-nine times out of a hundred the numerical ratio of forces is such that the problem doesn’t even arise: where it does arise we can think of participation campaigns in some cases with lists and generally without accepting the eventual seats, always disseminating our criticism and propaganda. The basis of such work are the groups in companies and other agglomerations of party members: in them we move from the party to the workplace, not vice versa; they are not rank-and-file cells but instruments of the party, organized by territorial branches (1926 Left).
The Italian Communist Left has never considered similar the very different parliamentary and union questions: in the latter it has always been participatory and neither for a boycott or for a split. Regarding factory councils, it has always denied that the nonexistent anti-opportunist recipe was found in them and that they are less permeable to bourgeois influence than unions. Indeed in one respect the factory council is more minimalist, particularist and far from class universality than the trade union.
This problem is fundamental, however, since in updating the entire framework to the present day, pure negativism would be not only insufficient but also incapable of answering this: what to substitute for these fundamental theses of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Zinoviev and the Italian Communist Left so often asserted against reformists, anarchists, syndicalists, ordinovists: the party comprises only a part of the working class; the party leads the working class not only by propaganda of doctrines and proselytizing for its own organization and preparation for armed action, but by participation in workers’ bodies larger than the party and accessible to all members of the class. One must, that is, (and most evidently on the eve of advances) have three layers:
The Party, not plethoric as far as the Left is concerned;
Proletarian bodies where only workers enter by constitution, but independently of ideology;
The class itself, which embraces everyone, even the unorganized.
The insertion of different connections in other bodies where “constitutionally” are not only proletarians but also other classes (parliaments etc. etc.) is a DIFFERENT question, of pure maneuvering. The first, now set, is a central question, and there’s neither revolutionary class nor class party, before after and during the revolution, without solving it.
Participating in democratic parliaments, elections, yesterday and today, even governments, affects the Marxist left more and more [negatively] the more the situation is expansive, the revolution close and its victory possible.
The two questions and the tactical solution historically stand in inverse reason, generally.
Like the question not of tactics but of principle: all communists would like to save or remake unions, demolish parliaments. What does that mean? Here’s the point.
Leaving for now the parliamentary question, it’s understood that Onorato treats in a series of writings for the newspaper and magazine the trade union question.
To discuss that the party in its recent past past has got it wrong shouldn’t be posed as an issue, nor should to deal with the mistakes of committees or men or lost opportunities. These are always useless, sometimes tendentious discussions. It must deal with:
The economic point. With the development of reformism, apart from the general class strategy that moved it, the exchange relationship between labor power and wages has technically changed: in addition to the handful of money for a given duration of work, an exchange that’s totally burnt through with the immediate consumption of that little money for subsistence’s sake without further rights to “reserves”, you have now many other insurance and welfare relations. It should be shown how these are worth (for the bourgeoisie) a certain quantitative socialization of capital, and at the same time don’t cancel the increased exploitation of the class, with the social gap deepening. However, the determinist effect where the proletarians who have a certain “reserve” in reformist laws are removed from the revolutionary line- up and opportunism has better play on them, the “reserve” playing a similar role to the petty bourgeois’ minimum possessions like the small shop etc, is not to be missed.
The historical point. The union at first is outlawed because it wants to fight against the molecularity of isolated exchange by trying to oppose monopoly to monopoly; reserve to reserve (strike funds etc.). In a second stage it’s tolerated as the principle that the pure wage earner with no income has a reserve is legalized, but under the control of capital and its State. In the third stage the union is absorbed into the State and thus prohibits agitations, replaced by bureaucratic practice etc. The lack of revolutionary determination is paralleled by the revolutionary party being deprived of its vital atmosphere.
The political point: how the workers’ parties reacted in these various stages: apolitical opportunisms, class collaborationist opportunisms, recruitment to the bourgeois class. Opportunism of the masses, of the parties, of the leaders. Italian and international controversies with reformists, Sorelian syndicalists etc.
Such a coverage must clarify the points of the capitalist economy’s changed characteristics, catching the play from individual to general economic relationship, as a relationship: between boss and boss, boss and worker, worker and worker. It has to respond to Ottorino’s approach, for example, by giving the transition between the quantitative question of the rate of surplus value in a single performance and the qualitative question of class antagonism at the scale of even the world, showing that Marx’s theories of growing social antagonism and surplus value remain fully valid; but one does not automatically go from the facts of productive technique to antagonism without passing through the worker, the workers, the party, and on this road is at a certain point the labor movement. It’s a matter of explaining the secret of praxis.
Here are the points that conform to a rather ruthless analysis I have here of Tarsia’s papers from the Florence congress (...)
False that today’s capitalism is a different thing from yesterday’s and that it was in an ascending phase, while today the phase is descending.
False that the proletariat is destroyed as a class, once the economic fact of the struggle raised by antagonistic class interests is ceased.
False that no demands for improvement are possible but only defense of living standards and “conquests”.
False that political struggle for general ends that transcend place, time and category or company cannot be grafted onto demands.
False that trade unions can be said to be organs of the bourgeois State when one wants to define both the new bourgeois legislation on trade unions and the new political situation of parties doing trade union work and their methods.
The core of the Left’s position is not that since 1939 economic struggles have been impossible, but that since 1871 struggles to help the bourgeoisie against feudalism and its restoration, that is, struggles that have interclassist ends and through interclassist alliances are inadmissible.
I had the extended report of 1926 from which I draw the final passage of my speech on the matter of trade unions. I note that then in Italy we were in the midst of totalitarianism, and that today for example in England, France and America no law or major bourgeois campaign has changed how those unions function: Trade Unions, AFL, CGT...
“Two formulas are proposed in Italy... According to the Central factory organization under the
name of Committees of Agitation that would also group non-union workers, Committees that would exist
permanently outside the union cadres... The Left finds that this tactic leads to splits and suffers from
Ordinovist deviations that pose shop floor committees as opposed to unions (I summarize for brevity) and
proposes the formula of the Shop Floor Trade Union Section that also groups workers from unions headed
by reformists”. “Even in situations of fascist oppression the watchwords of the red trade unions and the
General Confederation of Labor have great force and must be agitated by the party”. “The danger is that
when proletarian action can be enlarged we will close ourselves off in minority organs and the
opportunists will have the opportunity to reorganize the GGT and the Chambers of Labor outside the
factories attracting the bulk of the proletariat”. Of course the danger I indicated happened, but not because
capitalism had changed and class struggle was over, but because the traitors with the CLN’s interclass
policy gave away, to the bourgeoisie, the word of the red union.
Regarding trade unions I’ve come to this conclusion: the organ of association of interests as a connective between the party’s vital centre and the peripheral class muscles cannot be missing without making revolution impossible: it must resurrect independently, out of the influence of the ruling class, in a new form.
I would be for Onorato’s formula of the release of the trade union movement from bourgeois oppression, against, however, its propensity to rely on company organs for this purpose and not on organs of “external” economic association. The trade union is made of voluntary unconstitutional memberships: the bourgeoisie tends to destroy this form. But, you cry, it has destroyed it: well then, sure, I say, and for the moment it has fucked us. A moment that may last generations (...)