Firm Points of Trade Union Action
from Il Programma Comunista, issue no 19, 1962
For the hard vicissitudes of world proletarian battles only Marxist offensive theory is the inflexible directive that binds the great traditions to a tomorrow of powerful rescue.
Dwelling on the intense activity carried out in the early post‑ WW1 period by the Il Soviet group in workers’ economic organizations and in the heat of fierce class battles, the speaker on History of the Communist Left (see the last issue of Il Programma) bridged a direct connection with the theme of the Party’s trade union action.
In June 1920, at the conference of the Abstentionist Fraction, this action was outlined as follows: “The Party conducts its activity and propaganda among the proletarian masses and works to polarise them around it, particularly at those times when they are set in motion in reaction against the conditions capitalism imposes upon them, and especially within organisations formed by proletarians to defend their immediate interests. Communists therefore penetrate proletarian cooperatives, unions, factory councils, and form groups of communist workers within them. They strive to win a majority and posts of leadership so that the mass of proletarians mobilised by these associations subordinate their action to the highest political and revolutionary ends of the struggle for communism”. Alien to any improvisation, with strict continuity of program that’s at the same time continuity of action, we move today – apart from the limitations of a situation far removed from the heated 1919‑ 20 – in the same track, which is the very one of the Communist Manifesto of 1848 and the General Statutes of the First International Workingmen’s Association of 1864.
When it came, certainly not to inaugurate a “new” activity, but to give an initial beginning of coordination to an activity which the Party had always claimed as its own, even if the general external situation imposed on it narrow and occasional limits, our groups and sections were reminded of the classical Marxist formulations of the process by which proletarians are impelled by the economic struggle and its imperious demands to overcome the artificial barriers of interest and category created by the capitalist regime of production and to give themselves a general unitary organization, which historically finds its first expression in the trade leagues, the immediate form of the “growing (but always threatened with corrosion by competition among workers) solidarity of the workers”, and its ultimate crowning achievement in the political party; that “independent political party, opposed to all other parties constituted by the propertied classes”, in which and only in which “the proletariat can act as a class”.
This process is not the consequence of consciousness; it’s a real and physical fact, which has as its scene not the “brains” of men considered individually or collectively, but the clash between classes, which originates from material economic determinations and continually surpasses them; and has for its historical content the making and refinement of weapons of battle, of instruments of open struggle against bourgeois society; as appears most clearly to anyone who looks not just at the tamed organizations of today, nor, conversely, at those born or to be born in the fire of the great revolutionary battles, but even only at the struggles and organisms of proletarian economic struggle in the early days of the workers’ movement, when Marx could call workers’ trade unions “schools of civil war” and Engels smiled at the astonishment of bourgeois economists at the sight of workers sacrificing weeks and weeks of wages to defend in the streets and in clashes with the police and the army the bodies created to defend the level reached by the wage and, if possible, raise it; when, in short, the immediate organizations had, even in normal times, what today would be called a gigantic “revolutionary charge”, and this was not – as it will never be even in phases of high social tension – the product of the acquisition of a consciousness of the ultimate aims and objectives of proletarian motion, but of the immediate material necessities of its unfolding.
This applies to the class as well as to the individual; the relation is not consciousness first and action later, but rather economic drive first, action later, consciousness finally, and consciousness that is realized not in the individual, but in the party, which the militants, however few they may be (and they will always be a minority of the working class) join not because they have previously acquired a complete consciousness of the program but by a selection process that took place in the struggle and through the struggle, and only in the course of their party militia will they be able, again not as individuals but as an organized body, to “overthrow praxis” and make revolutionary theory the sine qua non in revolutionary action.
Just as the process of organizing the proletariat as a class is not, on the other hand, a gradual evolutionary fact, a slow and progressive maturing; it’s a tumultuous succession of qualitative leaps corresponding to violent and often bloody clashes between classes, through which the proletariat of the destitute overcomes in a single stroke the more coarse and immediate forms of organization, divided by locality and sector, discontinuous in time and space, breaks through the narrow limits of the parochial and company, subordinates the personal, local and corporate interests of individuals and groups to ever broader interests and aims, until in the political party every boundary of group, category, nation is obliterated and every act obeys the imperatives of the ultimate and general aims of the class.
A dialectical process that has nothing to do with the idealistic interpretation of history, whereby each stage is annulled by the next and, having reached the summit of “consciousness”, humanity enters once and for all the “reign of reason”.
The party, itself a product of material determinations, is a battle order, which, possessing superior theoretical and organizational weapons, is called upon not only to defend them against the converging attacks of capitalist society and even against the nagging of those material determinations to which it owes its life, but to carry them as instruments of decisive action within the immediate organizations into which they continually flow, driven by the pressure of the facts of capitalist society and the motion of incessant proletarianization of the middle classes, new levers of wage‑ earners; the party is therefore called to radiate therein what, in periods of reflux of class struggle, may be only the “light” of the historic revolutionary program but which is destined to become, in fiery periods of social conflict, the great “magnetic field” of polarization of all the subversive forces unleashed from the underground of the bourgeois social and political order.
The party is neither the Spirit hovering above the waters of biblical mythology, watching from on high the confused moving and stirring of a humanity imprisoned in the fetters of the flesh, nor the Demiurge who, at the X hour, descends into the arena and single-handedly changes the face of the world: it’s a material force whose decisive action in the great unfoldings of history is possible on the sole condition of meeting with the gigantic thrust that comes “from below”, raw and “uncultivated” as a natural and physical phenomenon, not directed and not determined by conscious ideologies or distinct concepts (Engels 1890: “it will be the non‑ socialists who will make the socialist revolution”), but led irresistibly to move on the terrain of the program which, even in its darkest hours, the party will have been able to proclaim and defend against all and in spite of all, in the ranks and organizations of the wage‑ earners struggling against capital.
There’s no contradiction (except for those who have understood nothing of the materialist dialectic) between the superb proclamation of the theses of the Third International on the role of the communist party in the proletarian revolution: “The Communist Party differs from the whole working class because it has an overall view of the whole historical road of the working class in its totality and because at every turn in this road it strives to defend not just the interests of a single group or a single trade, but the interests of the working class in its totality”, and the task which the same theses assign to it of working within the proletarian economic organizations (and they specify: “The task of communism does not lie in accommodating to these backward parts of the working class, but in raising the whole of the working class to the level of the communist vanguard”), since “Every class struggle is a political struggle. The aim of this struggle, which inevitably turns into civil war, is the conquest of political power. Political power can only be seized, organized and led by a political party, and in no other way”. Or, in other words, “The class struggle of the proletariat demands a concerted agitation that illuminates the different stages of the struggle from a uniform point of view and at every given moment directs the attention of the proletariat towards specific tasks common to the whole class. That cannot be done without a centralized political apparatus, that is to say outside of a political party”.
Practical tasks of the movement
The connection between economic struggle and political struggle, between wage‑ earning masses moving under the impetus of immediate interests and the party fighting for the ultimate goals of communist revolution, and, as a logical corollary, our active presence in trade union organizations and workers’ agitations, is thus a matter of principle; and in reaffirming it we merely reiterate one of our “characteristic theses”, enunciated at the Florence meeting in December 1951: "The Party recognises without any reserve that not only the situation which precedes insurrectional struggle but also all phases of substantial growth of Party influence amongst the masses cannot arise without the expansion between the Party and the working class of a series of organisations with short term economic objectives and with a large number of participants. Within such organisations the party will set a network of communist cells and groups, as well as a communist fraction in the union. (...) Although it could never be free of all enemy influence and has often acted as the vehicle of deep deviations; although it is not specifically a revolutionary instrument, the union cannot remain indifferent to the party, who never gives up willingly to work there, in this distinguishing itself clearly from all other political groups”.
If thus today we seek to extend and better coordinate this work, it’s not because some “new and original idea” has passed through the head of anyone, but because the general situation, the development, albeit disorganized, of class struggles, and the process of consolidation of the party network required us to translate, into as continuous and systematic action as possible, a task recognized as permanent even when “events, and not the desire or the decision of militants” limited it (as they still partly limit it) “to a small part of its activity”. It was the necessary response to questions that came to us, on the periphery as well as in the center of the party, from the ongoing agitations; a response we could give on a larger scale than in the past precisely because, in the long and not yet completed phase of “re‑ establishment of the theory of Marxist communism”, which occupied the last decade of our organizational life, the relations between our ideologically strengthened network and albeit slender strata of proletarians, were widening and strengthening. Not a “turning point”, then, but the strengthening of a work that never stopped even when external circumstances, beyond the will or desires of even the most combative and enthusiastic militant, limited its range.
The infamous policy of fragmenting the struggles of such militant categories as metalworkers or agricultural wage workers re‑ proposed and re‑ proposes to the revolutionary party the imperative of reaffirming – before, during and after agitations that not infrequently reach the level of open and direct clashes between proletarians and the forces of law and order backed by union piecards – the fundamental principles of class struggle. To remind workers that no economic victory is lasting and doesn’t serve the general interests of the class if it doesn’t result in growing solidarity among the exploited; that therefore, the abandonment of the general strike without time limits and without distinction of factory, sector and category, while it doesn’t even serve to wrest immediate economic gains, crumbles and destroys the future and general chances of the proletarian attack on the capitalist regime of exploitation; that the “tactics” of articulate bargaining, of demanding additional qualifications by category, of productivity bonuses and company incentives, of striking for ridicolously short times, increases instead of lessening the competition among workers and their isolation from each other; that the theory of the “apoliticism of the union” actually conceals the union’s abandonment of class politics in favor of a policy of backing up central bourgeois power; and that there are no “particular"”issues to which a solution can be found outside the general vision of the historical interests of the working class.
For this answer to be (now, and increasingly more in the future) given by the whole party to the entire array of forces of opportunism, it became necessary to add to the central party organ, Il Programma Comunista, a supplement of a central bulletin of programmatic and battle character, Spartaco, while in various groups and sections the long work of connecting to proletarians in struggle bore positive fruit and made it urgent to coordinate the general Party activity according to clear and uniform directives.
This coordination did not and does not set itself goals that the situation not only in Italy but (and especially) internationally forbids: it does not set itself to achieve rapid and radical shifts in the direction that a forty‑ year period of super-opportunism has inevitably imprinted on the albeit lively struggles of entire sectors of the industrial and agricultural proletariat; it does not dream of short‑ term possibilities of liberating the trade union from the tutelage of counter-revolutionary parties, even if, locally and for a short time, it doesn’t exclude (as has in fact occurred) that the leadership of agitations and even of workers’ economic bodies be taken and kept by our comrades. It aims to weave and strengthen our network of physical connection with the proletariat by making use of a slowly recovering situation, but in the full knowledge that the fruits of this methodical and, as is our custom, stubborn work can and must be reaped only at an advanced and certainly not soon-to-be stage of the workers’ movement.
At the meeting in Rome, April 1, 1951, it was reaffirmed, “The correct Marxist praxis asserts that the consciousness of both the individual and the mass follow action; and that action follows the thrust of economic interest. Only within the class party does consciousness, and, in given circumstances, the decision to act, precede class conflict; but this possibility is organically inseparable from the molecular interplay of the initial physical and economic impulses. (...) According to all the traditions of Marxism and of the Italian and International Left working and struggling inside the proletarian economic organizations is one of the indispensable conditions for successful revolutionary struggle; along with the pressure of the productive forces on production relations, and with the correct theoretical, organizational and tactical continuity of the political party”.
To separate these three inseparable terms, to isolate the possibilities for success that the theoretical and organizational strengthening of the party on the one hand, and the work and struggle in economic associations on the other, offer us from the objective reality of the maturing process of internal contradictions in capitalist society, would be to undermine precisely that theoretical, organizational and tactical continuity that the party has painstakingly reconstructed in recent years. As therefore must be fought with the utmost energy any attitude of aristocratic disinterest in struggles for economic demands, any claim – even if inspired by a healthy fear of taking opportunist paths – that the party merely proclaims and defends “general” postulates while refusing to go down to the examination of “particular” questions (as if there were “particular” questions that could be isolated from the “general” questions of the proletarian movement, or vice versa, and as if the separation of its “areas” were not precisely the dominant characteristic of opportunism), so must the opposite claim be vigorously combated, even when inspired by generous enthusiasm, to assign to the party tasks that the actual development of class struggles prevents it from fulfilling, or to set itself goals that can only take shape and substance thanks to events of international relevance (by which the very development of the international revolutionary party is conditioned).
Let’s then take care to carry out our work of penetration and proselytizing among the proletarian masses serenely, methodically, continuously, without allowing ourselves to be caught up either in discouragement over failures that we must foresee and discount in advance, or in the hysterics of “action for the sake of action”, and above all without indulging in the illusion that the “times” of revolutionary recovery can be accelerated by means of tactical recipes or organizational expedients that isolate the work conventionally labeled as “trade union work” from the general and political work of the movement.
It’s a responsibility we are proud to have finally been able to take upon ourselves, and which we must carry forward in the knowledge that we are fulfilling not a national but an international task, and that we are working for the future of a proletarian movement and a class party that have and recognize no time limits or State borders.