We present the translation of this article that indirectly addresses our theses on the union question and the critical comments on our theses offered by the International Group of the Communist Left. We understood our original theses on the union question to be transitionary for the political development of our organization, and have come around to agreeing with IGCL’s critique that our theses were confused, self-contradictory, and even weakens a revolutionary understanding of unions. Therefore, we post this translation as being a point of reference, along with the criticism by the International Group of the Communist Left, for Gulf Coast Communist Fraction to reorient our positions on trade unions.
Gulf Coast Communist Fraction
Trade Unionists or Revolutionaries?
In Spain, in Mexico, in Argentina… in Iran, everywhere we are seeing what superficially looks like a rebirth of “grassroots” unionism, accompanying the resurgence of class struggles and strikes. Many times, not always, dressed as a return to “revolutionary unionism” or anarcho-syndicalism. What does it mean? Where does it go?
The trade unions are the monopolistic sellers of labor force in the epoch of state capitalism, our epoch. Like all specialized sellers of a particular commodity, their interest is to sell it “as best as possible”: more expensive where possible, in bulk contracts, etc. But above all, like any other monopoly – from steel to telecommunications – its main interest is the preservation of the system that gives them meaning. That is why they crush us with the fact that without profits there are no more salaries, that our needs must be subordinated to the results of capital. A fundamental part of the state mechanism for fixing the prices of our work, the unions can negotiate certain more or less temporary increases and early retirements in the reconversions… as long as they bury the combativity and nobody protests in the moor that the capitalist crisis leaves in its wake. No one has fought the workers’ struggles more fiercely and effectively during the last century. It is not a question of leaders, it is their interests as a structure. The unions have no more possibilities of “reconquering” than the Ministry of Labor or the electric companies.
The unions are wholesalers of labor force. Their interest is to sell it “as best as possible” but above all to keep the system that gives them meaning. No one has fought the workers’ struggles more fiercely and effectively in the last century.
Against this experience, which has been present in all generations of workers for more than a century, small groups of workers appear again and again, who realize that in order to meet collective needs they cannot count on a state structure. They are groups advanced in the workplace that realize that participating in that union parliamentarianism that is the “union elections” and their “works councils” is a trap and that it is necessary to “unify the struggles of the workers in order to win. That is to say, they intuit that there is no other perspective than the mass strike organized not in the union way but through assemblies and committees elected and revocable by it. Among other things because most of them are precarious and have fresh union assemblies, which always or almost always leave out temporary, subcontracted and irregular. It is these kinds of groups that we have seen lead the mass movements in Matamoros and Iran.
They are not trade unions because they do not behave as such and their actions are not approached from the trade union logic. But if they define themselves and understand themselves in this way, when the struggles loosen up, everything will push them to sustain themselves by entering the business of “representation”, that is to say, to be part of the management of the work force… and to integrate into the union monopoly. It happened a thousand times in the 70s, 80s and 90s with the “grassroots unions. Some ended up as corporate unions, others as screaming or postmodern versions of the majority unions. The case of anarcho-syndicalism in Spain is illuminating. From the outbreak of the CNT at its congress in Valencia in 1980, the day labour unionism and the “autonomous” movements inspired from Italy we have, decades later, a well-integrated trade union centre in the works councils, another that enters through the back door, a nationalist party, several corporate unions and a postmodern union more interested in spreading feminist identity than in organising the struggles. No, it was not the way forward and there is no room for complacency: there is no union that has managed to resist… being a union.
This is not a new phenomenon at all. In fact, it began with the first world carnage that marks the moment when capitalism becomes a scourge for Humanity. The unions then take sides in the war, in which they serve as recruiters and organizers of militarized production. They are decisive when it comes to dragging the social-democratic parties into “national union” with “their” bourgeoisies and the vanguard of reaction against the revolution. No, Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebcknecht and the Berlin insurgent workers were not massacred by some “fascists” who did not yet exist, as leftwingism tells us; they were massacred by the paramilitary bodies organized by the unions under the orders of a social democratic government that was the first in the world to give the vote to all women.
In the middle of the war, when the voice of the internationalists is being fiercely repressed, “factory committees” appear, small militant groups in Great Britain and France that organize the struggle against the war from the workshops: the “shop stewards” movement and the revolutionary trade unionist groups of Monatte and Rosmer. In 1920 both movements participated in the second congress of the Communist International. The British are represented by Tanner, the Frenchman Rosmer who summarizes the debates in his indispensable memoirs of that journey: “For a number of delegates, it was the question of the political party itself that was raised in the first place: until now they had never belonged to a political party and all their activity was carried out within the workers’ organizations. This is what Jack Tanner said from the rostrum. He explained how, during the war, the Show Stewards Committees had developed, the new importance they had acquired by opposing the policy of the tradeunionist leaders who were deeply committed to the warmongering policy of the British government. The hard battle they had fought, not without risk, during the war, had naturally led them to give the factory committees a revolutionary program and to adhere, from its inception, to the October Revolution and the Third International. But their action had always taken place outside the party, and to a large extent against the party, of which certain leaders were the same men against whom they fought in the trade union struggles. Their own experience of the past few years had only strengthened their trade union convictions: the most conscious and capable minority of the working class was the only one who could guide and guide the mass of workers in the daily struggle for their demands as well as in revolutionary battles. It was Lenin who responded to Jack Tanner, saying in essence: “Your conscious minority of the working class, this active minority that must guide your action, is none other than the party; it is what we call the party. The working class is not homogeneous; between the top layer, this minority that has reached full consciousness, and the category that we find at the bottom, that which has no notion at all, that in which the bosses recruit the scabs, the strike breakers, there is the great mass of workers who must be able to drag and convince if we want to win. But for that the minority must organize itself, create a solid organization, impose a discipline based on the principles of democratic centralism; then we have the party.”“
Trade Unionists or Revolutionaries?
Jack Tanner opted for unionism… and ended up recruiting and organizing war production in the next world carnage. Rosmer embraced party militancy and was a valuable militant in the fight against the Stalinist counterrevolution and a loyal comrade to the end. There is no middle way. The militant organizations that we see emerging at this time in the workplaces will have no choice but to be accendrarse. The reason lies in the very essence of the class, its universal character, its centralism, so different from the centralism of the state and the bourgeoisie.
In our time there can be no difference between “immediate struggles” and revolution. As Lenin himself said, “under every strike hides the hydra of the revolution”. And precisely for this reason it is not possible to pretend to “specialize” in a moment of class struggles when what we see, today, in Matamoros or Iran, is that the struggle of the workers of a company, city or sector cannot triumph without extending, without becoming an affirmation of the class as a political subject, and that this affirmation goes nowhere if not precisely from there, from the organization that can only emerge from the fusion of assemblies of struggles.