Benjamin Peret on the History of Unions

“Even when trade unionism adopted the principle of class struggle, it never proposed, in its daily struggle, the overthrow of society; on the contrary, it limited itself to grouping the workers together with a view to defending their economic interests within capitalist society. Sometimes, defense takes on the aspect of a fierce struggle, but it never has the purpose, implicit or explicit, of transforming the working class condition through revolution.”

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Introduction

When we published our ‘These on the Union Question’, our close associates from Nuevo Curso pointed out that there was something missing in our theses: a historical explication of how the union-form went from a defensive organ of the working class to an instrument fully integrated into capital. Nuevo Curso rightfully explain that it is difficult to understand the role of unions in the statification and monopolization characteristic of the declining phase of capitalism without understanding their birth in the rising phase of capitalism and subsequent adaptation to existing society. Here, we present a translation of Benjamin Peret’s essay on the history of unions, provided to us by Nuevo Curso. Along with Grandizo Munis and Natalia Sedova Trotsky, Peret was part of the Spanish Left that broke with the Fourth International in 1948. This essay by Peret is the first part of ‘Unions Against Revolution’, which is more widely known in the English-speaking sphere for the second part that includes the entry from Grandizo Munis. We’re pleased to introduce this first English translation of Benjamin Peret’s writings on the union-form to a wider audience.

Gulf Coast Communist Fraction

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Prelude

Societies that have survived to the present day have known internal struggles promoted by the disinherited classes against the classes or castes that kept them under their domination. The struggles could not reach a certain extent until the moment when the oppressed, recognizing their common interest, were able to associate, with the aim of improving their living conditions. Or with a view to the total subversion of society. In the course of the previous centuries, the workers, in the face of the corporations that included bosses or workers of the same trade (where the former did and did at will under the direct protection of the public authorities), the brotherhood associations (“compagnonage”) that grouped together only the workers represented, among other things, the first permanent bodies of the class struggle.

Even before that, around the 10th century, there were fraternities. They were groups that had to enter into the struggle against the upper layers of society, since their dissolution was several times considered. But we do not know of any document that could clarify its constitution or the purpose for which it was proposed.

The aim of the fellowship associations was not, as numerous court rulings systematically condemn them from the 16th to the 19th century, to bring about a transformation of society, which was inconceivable at the time, but to improve the wages of their members, the conditions of learning and thus the standard of living of the entire working class.

Their vitality in spite of all the persecutions they were constantly subjected to, their insurrection, following numerous court rulings, indicate that they corresponded to a pressing need of the workers of those times. At the same time, the fact that its structure seems to have remained unchanged for several centuries indicates that the form and methods of struggle corresponded well to the possibilities of the time. Incidentally, the first strikes that history mentions in the 16th century were at its expense. Then they would also resort to boycotting.

Throughout this period, from the sixteenth century, during which fellowship societies were well established in history (indicating that they must have existed long ago), to the mid-nineteenth century (when large infant industry gave rise to trade unions), such associations made a strong contribution to maintaining the cohesion of workers vis-à-vis their exploiters. We are indebted to them for the formation of a class consciousness that is still rudimentary, but called to acquire full development in the next stage; with the class struggle organisms that will succeed them. The latter – the trade unions – inherited their claiming role from the former, thus reducing fellowship societies to a secondary role that has continued to diminish ever since. It is useless to imagine that they could have existed before. In the following period (that of ascendant capitalism, when the workers still need to be grouped into trades), the trade unions were the extension of the brotherhood organizations, stripped of the secrecy that surrounded them and oriented only to the economic demands. To the defense of the workers, passing other objectives to second place and ending up disappearing.

On the other hand, because of the feudal system that did not grant them the right of existence, the fellowship associations had the character of secret societies, with all the rigging of para-religious rites that such societies entailed, while the later epoch, especially after 1830, when the workers’ societies saw themselves accorded a minimum right of existence, allowed the appearance in full light of the fellowship groups and soon showed their incapacity to practice, against the patronage, the energetic and indispensable struggle. Their restrictive nature (only qualified workers can be part of it) does not allow them to bring together all the workers, or even the majority, an objective that the trade unions have pursued since their creation.

Yet the working class does not pass directly from the fellowship societies to the otherwise forbidden unions, in whatever form, during the first decades of modern capitalism. The working class is intuitively looking for a way forward. The mutual insurance companies, founded shortly before the 1789 Revolution, marked the first step of the congregation of all the workers of the same trade. They wanted to help their sick or unemployed members, but by imposing strikes as the best method of fighting against the bosses, the workers’ mutuals sometimes gave assistance to the strikers, cancelling out any difference between the imposed and the strike.

Such “mutuals”, which were few in number, were almost entirely made up of selected workers. They were, therefore, inadequate to the conditions of the large infant industry that dragged large masses of unskilled workers from the countryside into the factory. This proletariat in formation was in a tragic situation at the time, which required a significant improvement, even if capitalism was to continue to develop.

The “resistance” companies, whose name clearly indicates the objective they were aiming for, then take over from the “mutuals”. They are already combat groups, but conceived in the defensive aspect. They aim to maintain the standard of living of workers by opposing wage cuts that employers might try to impose, and it is usually such cuts that give rise to them. From defense they soon moved on to attack, of course, and the workers’ demand appears. However, even though, after 1840, the first political demands of the working class were made for the spread of socialist ideas, the “Resistances” and the “Workers’ Associations” continued to have the character of a struggle in the economic sphere. Only incidentally, and under the impulse of political elements, do they point to the subversion of the existing order. In fact, its essential objective is purely economic. Then the proletariat becomes aware of its strength, it does not intend to use it except for the satisfaction of immediate demands.

Trade Unions and the Class Struggle

The first Syndicate appeared only in 1864. Any idea of class struggle was alien to it, since it presented itself as proposing, on the contrary, to reconcile the interests of the workers and the bosses. Tolain itself did not assign it another objective. It should also be noted that the trade union movement is not at all initiated by the most exploited means of the working class – the nascent industrial proletariat – but rather by workers in the craft professions. It thus directly reflects the specific needs and ideological tendencies of these working classes.

While the shoemakers and typographers, craftsmen par excellence, set up their trade unions in 1864 and 1867 respectively, the miners, who constitute the most heavily exploited proletariat, did not set up their first trade union until 1876 in the Loire (in 1882 in the North and in Pas-de-Calais), and in textiles, where the working conditions were particularly appalling, did not feel the need for a trade union for the first time but in 1877.

Where did the fermentation of the spirits come from at that time, when socialist ideas (and the anarchist ideas that will only be differentiated later on) were propagated throughout the working class in the big cities, when the most exploited workers were so clearly repulsed by the trade union organization, while those with a better standard of living were looking for it?

First of all, we have to remember is that the first trade unions created by workers in the craft professions are only organizing themselves for conciliation and not for class struggle.

It won’t be until later. On the other hand, they represent the most suitable form of organization for professions which, between multiple workshops, bring together a rather small number of workers of the same trade. It was the best way to bring together the workers of the same trade scattered in the workshops of the same city, to give them a cohesion that the working conditions tended to prevent.

It should also be remembered that the craft nature of a trade often means that employers and workers often work side by side and lead the same kind of life. Even if the economic situation of the employer is far superior to that of the worker, the human contact he often has with the latter prevents the emergence of the pit that separates workers and employers from large industries.

Among employers and craftsmen, there is also a minimum degree of familiarity with the trade, which is completely absent and inconceivable in large industry. All of these reasons were usually more conducive to conciliation than to struggle….

The situation of workers in the textile and mining industries (taking them as an example) was completely different. Among the miners as well as among the textile workers, large masses of workers of various professions were clustered in factories and wells, subjected to inhumane working conditions.

If the workers of the artisanal enterprises are the first to organize themselves to discuss their interests with the bosses, those of the big industries, subjected to the most implacable pressure of capital, are the first to perceive what is irreducibly opposed to the bosses, to rebel against the situation imposed on them, to practice direct action, to claim their right to life, weapons in hand; the first, in short, to orient themselves to the social revolution. The rebellion of the “canuts” of Lyon in 1831, like the strike of the miners in 1844, clearly indicates this. Whereas, between 1830 and 1845, for example, typographers were not once on a list of the occupations that had been the subject of the highest number of convictions, miners were identified three times (the mining industry was then in full development) and textile workers almost every year.

The conclusion that is imposed is that the workers of the big industries did not agree with any interest to a form of organization that proposed the conciliation (perceived as impossible by them) between adverse classes. They do not come to it until later and, so to speak, reluctantly, because of their very situation they are pushed into forms of open struggle with the bosses that the union did not take into consideration, at least at first. In fact, the workers of the big industries do not go to the trade union organization until the moment when it inscribes in the head of its statutes, principles of class struggle. It was they who promoted the most violent struggles between 1880 and 1914. Through this concession to their aspirations, they resigned themselves to joining the union, but for several other reasons. First, because no other form of organization was conceivable at the time. In addition, the perspective of a broad progressive development of capitalism, from which the need to tighten the cohesion of the working class, in order to extract from the bosses more satisfactory conditions of existence, which would allow better preparation of the workers to give the final assault on property, was then ahead of them.

From the very beginning, the union has appeared to the workers of the big industries as a simple matter of getting by. It was, however, acceptable at the time due to the survival of the craft industry. It was a positive solution in that era of continuous development of the capitalist economy accompanied by a steady growth of freedom and culture. Its recognition by the State and, through it, the right of association and the right to the press constituted a considerable acquisition.

However, even when trade unionism adopted the principle of class struggle, it never proposed, in its daily struggle, the overthrow of society; on the contrary, it limited itself to grouping the workers together with a view to defending their economic interests within capitalist society. Sometimes, defense takes on the aspect of a fierce struggle, but it never has the purpose, implicit or explicit, of transforming the working class condition through revolution. None of the struggles of the time, even the most violent, were aimed at such a goal. At most, the union sees, for an indeterminate future, that it acquires since then the significance of the donkey’s thistle, the suppression of the bosses and the salary, and consequently of the capitalist society that generates them. But it will never take any action in that regard.

The trade union, which is the spawn of a reformist tendency within the working class, is the purest expression of the working class. It is impossible to speak of the reformist degeneration of the union; he is a born reformer. It does not at any time oppose capitalist society and the State in order to destroy them, but with the sole aim of conquering a place in their midst and settling there. Its entire history from 1864 to 1914 is that of the definitive rise and victory of the tendency towards integration in the capitalist Left Bank, so much so that at the outbreak of the First World War, the vast majority of the trade union leaders are placed in the most natural way in the world alongside the capitalists, who are joined by new interests arising from the role that the trade unions have assumed, after all, in capitalist society. They are then against the trade unions who wanted to overthrow the system and prevent war, and they will continue to be against it from now on.

In the period before the First World War, the trade union leaders were not the legitimate representatives of the working class, but only to the extent that they had to assume this role in order to increase their credit in the capitalist state. At the decisive moment, when it was necessary to choose between the risk of compromising an acquired situation by calling on the masses to reject war and the regime that generated it, they reinforced their position, chose the second term of the alternative by choosing the regime and put themselves at the service of capitalism. This was not the case only in France, as the trade union leaders of the countries involved in the war adopted the same attitude everywhere. If the union leaders betrayed, was it not because the union’s own structure and its place in society made such betrayal possible from the beginning and inevitable in 1914?

Benjamin Peret

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