RCIT-Theses on Revolutionary Trade Union Policy
Resolution of the Revolutionary Communist International Tendency, January 2014, www.thecommunists.net
The following set of theses summarizes the theoretical understanding of the Revolutionary Communist International Tendency (RCIT) regarding trade unions and the tasks of revolutionaries in trade union work. While such theoretical understanding is a necessary precondition for a consistent trade union policy, it cannot replace either the concrete analysis of specific national and local conditions or the accumulated experience of the revolutionary organization and its members involved in a given trade union. In fact, only a fusion of correct theory with the practical experience and understanding of the party and its militant workers can ensure successful revolutionary work in the trade unions.
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Work in the trade unions takes a central place in the activities of revolutionary communists. The reason for this is that the trade unions are one of the most important mass organizations of the working class. The precondition for Bolsheviks to conduct revolutionary work in the trade unions is a correct understanding of the nature of trade unions and their place in the revolutionary strategy.
1. Trade unions are not a goal in themselves but one of several means on the road towards the proletarian revolution. Hence, the work of revolutionaries in the trade unions is subordinated to the winning of workers over to communism, and it is therefore only one of several means to achieve this. (1)
2. The task of communists in their trade union work is to win the unions over to supporting the revolutionary struggle for working class power. (2) Therefore communists fight in the unions for the adoption of a Transitional Program which is focused on the arena of the trade union struggle. (3)
3. For the same reason, revolutionaries fight in the unions against their deep integration into the bourgeois state and their direct or indirect affiliation with bourgeois parties (including reformist ones). They struggle to break the unions away from the agents of the bourgeoisie and win them over to an independent working class policy. This means that the revolutionary party should try – through persuasion and political struggle – to win the unions over to the goals of communism, and to achieve leadership inside the trade unions.
4. An important tactic for this goal can be the call – directed to the trade unions or other workers’ organizations or sections of them – to form a Workers’ Party. Communists should fight for a revolutionary program as a platform of such a Workers’ Party without making it a precondition for participation. Usually new Workers’ Parties are formed by militant minorities and if they are successful – which, of course, can never be guaranteed – may subsequently win over the mass of the workers to join them. But it cannot be expected that the new Workers’ Party will begin as a party of the majority of the working class. (See e.g., the history of the Social Democratic Workers Party in Germany in the late 1860s and early 1870s or of the Brazil PT in the 1980s.) “In countries where no working class party – i.e. not even a reformist one – exist (like e.g. in many semi-colonial countries or the USA), Bolshevik-Communists advocate the formation of an independent workers’ party. A similar tactic might be legitimate in situations where progressive sections of the working class turn away from the established bourgeois workers’ parties and look for a political alternative. We turn to militant trade unions, movements for democracy and social justice, political organisations, and all workers and oppressed people who are looking for an alternative to reformism and call upon them to establish new working class parties.“ (4)
5. At the same time, revolutionaries are fully aware that the trade unions have natural limitations and, therefore, cannot replace the party. They are first and foremost the defenders of the workers as a labor force in the economic sphere. However, capitalism is a societal system composed of various classes and layers, and the interrelations between them based on capitalist exploitation and oppression. The struggle between the classes, therefore, entails not only the economic but also the political and ideological sphere. This is why revolutionary class consciousness does not arise spontaneously out of the economic class struggle but instead arises out of the political experiences of the working class and the conclusions reached by the revolutionary party, which it then transmits to the vanguard workers. (5) This is the reason that revolutionaries fight not only for trade unions but also for other forms of mass organizations of the working class and the oppressed, such as factory committees, youth movements, women movements, soviets, self-defense units, etc. These other forms of mass organizations are no less important than trade unions. However, the highest and most important form of working class organization is the revolutionary party. (6) It is only the Bolshevik party which completely expresses the historical interests of the proletariat and which can lead it – by leading the various mass organizations – to liberation. (7)
6. Trade unions can play a crucial role in mobilizing the working class for the revolutionary class struggle, but only on the condition that they are led by a revolutionary party. This is because the decisive issues in society are decided in the sphere of the political class struggle and not in the sphere of the economic class struggle. Such political issues, in one way or other, touch upon fundamental questions of power in capitalist society, and bring the working class to understand the necessity for taking power. Communists, therefore, reject the economist position which gives a priority to the economic or trade union struggle. While we fully recognize the importance of the economic struggle, we state that the goal is to raise the awareness and combat-readiness of the workers’ vanguard for the political class struggle. As part of the political class struggle, we recognize the struggle for democratic issues. The highest form of the political class struggle, obviously, is the proletarian revolution and the dictatorship of the proletariat.
7. The trade unions have limitations not only because their focus is the economic sphere of defending the conditions of wage labor. They also have limitations for the following reasons:
i) They usually contain only a minority of the working class.
ii) They usually are rooted amongst the upper strata of the working class (more skilled, better paid workers) and in particular the labor aristocracy. (8)
iii) They are usually controlled by the labor bureaucracy which acts as agents of the bourgeoisie in the ranks of the workers’ movement, and which subordinates the unions to the bourgeois state and the capitalist class.
8. These factors have important consequences for the strategy of the revolutionary organization. First, revolutionary organizations consider work in the trade unions as a central but not exclusive area for their efforts to recruit workers. Work amongst political and social movements (or parties) in which militant sectors of the working class are involved, or amongst oppressed sectors of the working class (youth, women, etc.) can be equally important areas of revolutionary work.
9. Revolutionaries struggle for the expulsion of the labor bureaucracy and its agents from the ranks of the workers’ movement. These forces are the biggest obstacle for the working class struggle in the ranks of the workers’ movement. Naturally, this is a long-term task and involves the application of the united front tactic (calls to the rank and file, but also the reformist leaders for joint actions, etc.). But communists should state clearly that the trade unions can only become an authentic instrument of the working class if they are liberated from the bureaucracy and brought under workers control.
10. Revolutionaries have to regularly explain that the trade union bureaucracy and its leaders follow a reformist policy, that they must not be trusted and that they will only betray the workers. They must repeatedly remind workers that the bureaucrats sell out the workers interests to the capitalists, not because they “don’t understand” what are necessary working class politics; nor because they “wrongly believe” in reformist strategies (social democratic, Stalinist, syndicalist, etc.). Rather, the ultimate and most basic reason for their repeated betrayals is their own material interests as bureaucrats. Their reformist ideology is a reflection of their petty-bourgeois social position as mediators between labor and capital (“Social being determines consciousness.”). They constitute – with their numerous privileges and their connections with the bourgeois state and the capitalists – not a proletarian layer, but a petty-bourgeois caste which is bribed by the capitalists. Revolutionaries must emphasize these material roots as the cause for the bureaucrats’ betrayal, and not their erroneous political and ideological convictions. Otherwise, the illusion is created amongst the rank and file workers that it may be possible to convince the leaders of the correct policy, or that one just need simply replace the leaders instead of smashing the bureaucratic caste as such. (9)
11. Such a dialectical materialist analysis ensures that revolutionaries are not blinded by the concrete form of the ideological smokescreen which the bureaucrats use to cover their class-collaborationist policy. (10) It is possible for trade union bureaucrats to hide their narrow-minded defense of their privileged position with the help of “Marxist” slogans, and any oppositional movement of rank and file workers striving for democratic rights in the union or for a more militant union policy might lack such a finely-honed “socialist” consciousness. From history we know that there have been such cases in the Stalinist states (e.g., the uprising of the Polish workers in 1980/81). But, more recently, since 2011, this has also happened during the Arab Revolution; for example in the guise of the “anti-imperialist” and sometimes “Islamic socialist” or “nationalist-socialist” dictatorships of Gaddafi or Assad, the latter of which also contains in its ranks two Stalinist lackey parties. Similarly we saw such a development in South Africa during and after the Marikana miners’ strike 2012, when the trade union bureaucracy of NUM and COSATU (both of which are close to the Communist Party) attacked the militant workers under the guise of “Marxism-Leninism.” For Marxists to assess the objective social meaning of a given class struggle, it is incumbent that, rather than taking at face value the ideological delusions of the participants, we examine the class forces behind the different camps, and the potentials and consequences of the outcome of this struggle for the working class and the oppressed.
12. The labor aristocracy is the most important social basis of the labor bureaucracy. We defend the Leninist definition of the labor aristocracy as “a thin layer at the top of the proletariat, which the capitalists bribe by the extra profits that they derive from the exploitation of the semi-colonial countries and the lower layers of the working class in the metropolises by means of various privileges and which they hope to bind as loyal supporters. It is this layer that defends an attitude like ‘things are still going well,’ against the broad masses of the proletariat – because they themselves actually live relatively ‘good’ and for them the efforts of smashing the system appears too large.” (11) The labor aristocracy usually is disproportional influential inside the trade unions. Marxists must fight against this influence, because the aristocratic workers bring a pacifying, reformist and corrupting spirit into the unions. (12)
13. However, as stated above, the problem of the trade unions is not reduced solely to the labor aristocracy but also contains the unions’ dominance by the more, relatively privileged sectors of the working class. “Moreover, the unions rely to a high degree on the upper, better-paid sections of the proletariat, and in particular on the labour aristocracy. The broad mass of our class and in particular the lower strata, however, are more or less neither organised nor represented by the union.” (13)
14. From the above issues, we derive the following set of strategies for revolutionary communists:
i) Building a rank-and-file movement in opposition to the bureaucracy, one which can fight both for more democratic rights and a militant union policy, and which has the goal of liberating the union from the bureaucracy.
ii) Fighting to change the composition of the unions. This involves driving back the influence of the ‘aristocratic type’ of the upper layer and transforming the unions into an instrument dominated by the ‘mass type’ of the working class, which means the lower and middle strata – i.e. the huge majority – of the proletariat. “The unionization of the lower strata of the working class (especially the migrants, women, precarious workers, etc.) is an indispensable task. These layers must not, therefore, play the role of the infantry in the union, but should play a central role and should also proportionally be represented in the trade union bodies according to their share among the employees.” (14)
iii) Striving to utilize every class struggle to build action committees which organize the militant workers (including the unorganized workers) independent of the bureaucracy. “In every battle and in preparation for this the Bolsheviks-Communists are therefore keen to establish rank and file committees outside the bureaucratic control. They will often bring together the most active and most militant elements in Action Committees.” (15)
15. Bolsheviks reject the concept that revolutionaries should attempt to split the unions in order to create small “revolutionary” unions. This would only isolate the communists and leave the mass of the workers under the reactionary influence of the bureaucracy. “It would be fundamentally wrong to draw the conclusion that one should ignore the existing unions. The Bolsheviks-Communists reject such an ultra-left nonsense. The bureaucracy is not beaten by sectarian standing aside (separate from the union), but by the struggle for democratic, militant trade unions which are independent of state and capital. This struggle must be carried out wherever possible within the unions – regardless of the inevitable attempts by the bureaucracy to pursue the revolutionaries and expel them.” (16)
16. However, we clearly differentiate between unwarranted attempts by small “revolutionary” forces to artificially split a union from the entirely legitimate and necessary rupture of the union by militant sectors of the masses. While it would be criminal to employ self-isolating divisive tactics of a small, politically organized, minority to create ‘pure’ unions, it would be no less criminal for revolutionaries to isolate themselves from militant sectors of the working class by not joining them. “Sharp shocks through the class struggle can both cause new room for manoeuvring and radicalisation in the old trade unions (e.g. the UGTT 2011 in Tunisia) as well as lead to the creation of new unions. Bolshevik-Communists employ a tactical approach to this question but on the basis of a clear principle: seeking the unity of the union as long as possible as it serves the advancing of the struggle for the independence of the working class from the state, capital and bureaucracy; not being afraid of splitting or the formation of new unions if splitting does not lead to self-isolation of the revolutionaries, but allows the organising of large sections of the working class at a higher level of class independence.” (17)
17. In all types of trade unions it is necessary for revolutionaries to organize themselves and their close collaborators in a communist fraction. These fractions – working under the discipline of the party’s leadership – should coordinate the activity of the communists in the unions. Their goal is, we repeat, to win the unions over for a revolutionary program and to transform them, under the leadership of the revolutionary party, into instruments for the advancement of the socialist revolution.
(1) „Trade unions are not ends in themselves; they are but means along the road to proletarian revolution.” (Leon Trotsky: The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International, 1938)
(2) “The trade unions of our time can either serve as secondary instruments of imperialist capitalism for the subordination and disciplining of workers and for obstructing the revolution, or, on the contrary, the trade unions can become the instruments of the revolutionary movement of the proletariat.“ (Leon Trotsky: Trade Unions in the Epoch of Imperialist Decay, 1940)
(3) „The program of transitional demands adopted by the last congress of the Fourth International is not only the program for the activity of the party but in its fundamental features it is the program for the activity of the trade unions.“ (Leon Trotsky: Trade Unions in the Epoch of Imperialist Decay, 1940)
(4) RCIT: The Revolutionary Communist Manifesto (2012), p. 25, http://www.thecommunists.net/rcit-manifesto/the-leadership-we-have-and-the-leadership-we-need/
(5) „Class political consciousness can be brought to the workers only from without, that is, only from outside the economic struggle, from outside the sphere of relations between workers and employers. The sphere from which alone it is possible to obtain this knowledge is the sphere of relationships of all classes and strata to the state and the government, the sphere of the interrelations between all classes. For that reason, the reply to the question as to what must be done to bring political knowledge to the workers cannot be merely the answer with which, in the majority of cases, the practical workers, especially those inclined towards Economism, mostly content themselves, namely: ”To go among the workers.“ To bring political knowledge to the workers the Social Democrats must go among all classes of the population; they must dispatch units of their army in all directions.“ (V. I. Lenin: What Is To Be Done? (1902), in: LCW Vol. 5, p. 422, emphasis in the original)
(6) „…the revolutionary party of the proletariat, the highest form of proletarian class organization“ (V.I. Lenin: ‘Left-Wing’ Communism— An Infantile Disorder, in: LCW Vol. 31, p. 50). The Communist International stated: „The communist party is the chief and primary weapon for the liberation of the working class.“ (Communist International: Theses on the Role of the Communist Party in the Proletarian Revolution adopted by the Second Comintern Congress (1920), in: The Communist International 1919-1943. Documents Selected and Edited by Jane Degras, Vol. I 1919-1922, p. 135)
(7) “If the theoretical structure of the political economy of Marxism rests entirely upon the conception of value as materialised labour, the revolutionary policy of Marxism rests upon the conception of the party as the vanguard of the proletariat. Whatever may be the social sources and political causes of opportunistic mistakes and deviations, they are always reduced ideologically to an erroneous understanding of the revolutionary party, of its relation to other proletarian organisations and to the class as a whole.” (Leon Trotsky: The Mistakes of Rightist Elements of the Communist League on the Trade Union Question. Some Preliminary Remarks (1931), (Emphasis in the original), http://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1931/unions/6-mistakes.htm)
See also: ”Independence from the influence of the bourgeoisie cannot be a passive state. It can express itself only by political acts, that is, by the struggle against the bourgeoisie. This struggle must be inspired by a distinct program which requires organisation and tactics for its application. It is the union of program, organisation, and tactics that constitutes the party. In this way, the real independence of the proletariat from the bourgeois government cannot be realised unless the proletariat conducts its struggle under the leadership of a revolutionary and not an opportunist party.“ (Leon Trotsky: Communism and Syndicalism, 1929)
(8) “Trade unions, even the most powerful, embrace no more than 20 to 25 percent of the working class, and at that, predominantly the more skilled and better paid layers.” (Leon Trotsky: The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International, 1938)
(9) “The bureaucracy of the trade unions is the backbone of British imperialism. It is by means of this bureaucracy that the bourgeoisie exists, not only in the metropolis, but in India, in Egypt, and in the other colonies. One would have to be completely blind to say to the English workers: ‘Be on guard against the conquest of power and always remember that your trade unions are the antidote to the dangers of the state.’ The Marxist will say to the English workers: ‘The trade union bureaucracy is the chief Instrument, for your oppression by the bourgeois state. Power must be wrested from the hands of the bourgeoisie, and for that its principal agent, the trade union bureaucracy, must be overthrown.’” (Leon Trotsky: The Errors in Principle of Syndicalism. To Serve in the Discussion with Monatte and his Friends, (1929), in: Leon Trotsky: The Trade Unions in the Epoch of Imperialist Decay, New York 1990, p. 122, http://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1931/unions/4-errors.htm)
(10) “Neither classes nor parties can be judged by what they say about themselves or by the slogans they raise at a given moment. This fully applies to groupings within a political party as well.” (Leon Trotsky: An Analysis of the Slogans and Differences, in: Leon Trotsky: The Challenge of the Left Opposition 1923-25, New York 1975, p. 390)
(11) RCIT: The Revolutionary Communist Manifesto (2012), p. 29, http://www.thecommunists.net/rcit-manifesto/changes-in-the-working-class/
(12) “Obviously, out of such enormous superprofits (since they are obtained over and above the profits which capitalists squeeze out of the workers of their "own" country) it is possible to bribe the labour leaders and the upper stratum of the labour aristocracy. And that is just what the capitalists of the "advanced" countries are doing: they are bribing them in a thousand different ways, direct and indirect, overt and covert. This stratum of workers-turned-bourgeois, or the labour aristocracy, who are quite philistine in their mode of life, in the size of their earnings and in their entire outlook, is the principal prop of the Second International, and in our days, the principal social (not military) prop of the bourgeoisie. For they are the real agents of the bourgeoisie in the working-class movement, the labour lieutenants of the capitalist class, real vehicles of reformism and chauvinism. In the civil war between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie they inevitably, and in no small numbers. take the side of the bourgeoisie, the "Versaillese" against the "Communards". Unless the economic roots of this phenomenon are understood and its political and social significance is appreciated, not a step can be taken toward the solution of the practical problem of the communist movement and of the impending social revolution.” (W. I. Lenin: Imperialism, The Highest Stage of Capitalism (1916) (emphasis in the original))
„One of the chief causes hampering the revolutionary working-class movement in the developed capitalist countries is the fact that because of their colonial possessions and the super-profits gained by finance capital, etc., the capitalists of these countries have been able to create a relatively larger and more stable labour aristocracy, a section which comprises a small minority of the working class. This minority enjoys better terms of employment and is most-imbued with a narrow-minded craft spirit and with petty-bourgeois and imperialist prejudices. It forms the real social pillar of the Second International, of the reformists and the “Centrists”; at present it might even be called the social mainstay of the bourgeoisie. No preparation of the proletariat for the overthrow of the bourgeoisie is possible, even in the preliminary sense, unless an immediate, systematic, extensive and open struggle is waged against this stratum, which, as experience has already fully shown, will no doubt provide the bourgeois White guards with many a recruit after the victory of the proletariat. All parties affiliated to the Third International must at all costs give effect to the slogans: “Deeper into the thick of the masses”, “Closer links with the masses”—meaning by the masses all those who toil and are exploited by capital, particularly those who are least organised and educated, who are most oppressed and least amenable to organisation.“ (V. I. Lenin: Theses on Fundamental Tasks of The Second Congress Of The Communist International (1920))
(13) RCIT: The Revolutionary Communist Manifesto (2012), p. 27, http://www.thecommunists.net/rcit-manifesto/the-struggle-for-the-unions/
(14) RCIT: The Revolutionary Communist Manifesto (2012), p. 28, http://www.thecommunists.net/rcit-manifesto/the-struggle-for-the-unions/
(15) RCIT: The Revolutionary Communist Manifesto (2012), p. 30, http://www.thecommunists.net/rcit-manifesto/action-comitee-factory-comitees-councils/
See also: “Therefore, the sections of the Fourth International should always strive not only to renew the top leadership of the trade unions, boldly and resolutely in critical moments advancing new militant leaders in place of routine functionaries and careerists, but also to create in all possible instances independent militant organizations corresponding more closely to the tasks of mass struggle against bourgeois society; and, if necessary, not flinching even in the face of a direct break with the conservative apparatus of the trade unions.” (Leon Trotsky: The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International, 1938)
See as well: „The strength and meaning of Bolshevism consists in the fact that it appeals to oppressed and exploited masses and not to the upper strata of the working class.“ (Leon Trotsky: Perspectives and Tasks in the East. Speech on the third anniversary of the Communist University for the Toilers of the East (21. April 1924); in: Leon Trotsky Speaks, Pathfinder 1972, p. 205)
(16) RCIT: The Revolutionary Communist Manifesto (2012), p. 27, http://www.thecommunists.net/rcit-manifesto/the-struggle-for-the-unions/
(17) RCIT: The Revolutionary Communist Manifesto (2012), p. 28, http://www.thecommunists.net/rcit-manifesto/the-struggle-for-the-unions/