The Party and the Trade Union Question
(«communist program»; No. 8; February 2022)
The following theses appeared in 1972 in the context of an energetic attempt to set the party’s action in economic struggles in the existing trade union organizations in Italy and France back on the right track, after the so-called «Florentine Crisis». They represent a reaction to the ruinous attempts then being made by the comrades of Florence (Italy) in charge to lead the Party union work, to mobilize the masses with slogans such as «rebuild class trade unions» or «defend the red Italian general union federation». These attempts were based on the false assumption that a microscopic organization still surrounded on all sides by the prevailing Stalinist counter-revolution had the strength to mobilize the masses or undertake a large scale initiative.
Their erroneous conception consisted in a mechanical transfer of slogans that corresponded to a period of social high tension, such as the time after the First World War, to a completely different phase, which had begun with the victory of Stalinism and continued with the Second World War and the post-war reconstruction, all under the banner of class collaboration, democratic cretinism and reformism. It was quite apparent what phase we were in. But they overlooked the fact that this counterrevolutionary cycle, with the complete destruction of revolutionary communism, had also led to the paralysis of the proletariat’s wage struggles and union activity, thereby opening the way for imperialist capitalism to realize one of its most important tendencies: the integration of the trade unions into the apparatus and mechanisms of the bourgeois state. The large union federations had thus lost all traces of autonomy, and under no circumstances merited the name «red unions». This also meant that the renaissance of class unions or other class organizations could not be the point of departure for a real mobilization of the working masses, but that instead such a mobilization would be its prerequisite. This means a renewal of wage struggles on a general scale and a general resistance to capital, on the one hand, and on the other hand, a growing real influence of the revolutionary party on the masses.
The process of the integration of the unions into the state apparatus is a component of the imperialist development of capitalism, and therefore irreversible.
However, the evolution of capitalism leads not only to imperialism, with all its hideous tendencies, but also to a sharpening of contradictions and the class struggle.Thus the process which has led, through a series of military and political defeats, to a rigid control over the proletariat by its opportunist leadership is reversible. The preconditions for this reversal consist on the one hand in the unavoidable material pressures which will force the proletariat to renew its economic struggles more intensively and extensively, and on the other hand – precisely because of the enormous material weight of opportunism – in the intervention (and consequently also the reconstitution) of the class party, i.e., in the ability of this party both to defend and advance its general political program without lapse, and to intervene in the daily struggles that break out only sporadically today, in order to counteract the braking effect of the opportunist union leadership and parties. These currents long ago became one with capitalism, and do their utmost to save the «national economy» from crises (especially social crises), while the outbreak of crises will necessarily force the proletariat to resist and to fight the opportunist leadership in an unconscious mutiny.
The object of the theses is to emphasize the necessity of active, systematic intervention in the daily struggles and union organizations, in fact, in all mass organizations which, for the sake of accuracy, we prefer to call intermediate organizations, because they lie between the broad masses and the party, and can function as a link or transmission belt. Obviously such work, especially in trade unions, is today necessarily underground work in many cases, and it should thus be noted that it is important this party work be purged of demagogy, of any presumption that the relationship of forces can be reversed with mere gestures, and of any concession to the prevailing illusion that the revolution can be accomplished without a lengthy, patient, rigorous, consciously materialist revolutionary preparation.
The theses therefore outline some basic principles, explain the relevance of these principles to the trade union question, but do not pretend to constitute or replace a detailed plan of action. Such a plan does not fall from thin air, but is the result of the party’s continuous intervention in the working masses (no matter how limited its influence) combined with the resumption of the class struggle or at least a revival of a real combativeness among the working class.
Furthermore, the 1972 theses must be seen as a nodal point in the modest but essential task of restoring the revolutionary doctrine undertaken by our party, and should be understood as a continuation of the work begun by the Theses of the Second Communist International Congress on the Trade Union Movement, Factory Committees and the Third International (1920) and extended by «The Inversion of Praxis in Marxist Theory (1951)» and «Revolutionary Party and Economic Action (1951)».
* * *
I. Points of Principle
1. «The correct Marxist praxis teaches that individual, or similarly, mass consciousness necessarily follows action, and that action follows the impulse generated by economic interests. It is only in the party that consciousness, and in certain phases, the decision to take action, precede the class conflict. But this possibility is organically inseparable from the molecular interaction of initial physical and economic impulses». (Inversion of Praxis in Marxist Theory)
Inverting the idealist schema for the interpretation of human events, Marxism sees in history the arena of struggles between classes whose needs and material interests impel them to act on antagonistic fronts. It is only afterwards, in response to the experience of these same struggles, that they acquire consciousness of the direction in which they are moving.
The Manifesto of the Communist Party outlined the entire ascending scale from the first instinctive reactions against capitalist exploitation up to the organization of the proletariat as a class, and therefore into a political party, and the organization of the class into the ruling class through the seizure of power and the exercise of its dictatorship. Not only does this ascending scale have its necessary roots in elementary economic determinations, which in turn are a reflection of the pressure of the productive forces on the restrictive envelope of productive relations, but it is also continuously being nourished by these elementary thrusts. It is true that one does not create revolutions; one leads them. It is equally true however, that one cannot lead revolutions until the vast proletarian masses are compelled to make them, and this is not determined by a consciousness or an explicit will on their part, or even by the fact that this consciousness and this will have been transmitted to them in their totality by the Party.
2. «The dialectical interpretation of the formation of class consciousness and of the unitary organization of the class party» implies that the party «transports a vanguard of the proletariat from the terrain of spontaneous and partial movements determined by the interests of groups to that of generalized proletarian action» although the party» does not achieve this by rejecting those elemental movements, but accomplishes their integration and transcendence through living experiences, by pushing for their realization, taking active part in them, and following them attentively throughout their development» (Rome Theses III, 11).
From this it follows:
a) that propaganda work and proselytism on the one hand, and the party’s numerical size and real influence on more or less large layers of the proletariat, on the other hand, are «inseparable from the reality of the proletariat’s activity and movement in all its myriad forms», and b) that it is a «banal error to regard participation in struggles for contingent and limited objectives as being in contradiction with the final and general revolutionary struggle».
A fundamental thesis of Marxism – and therefore of our current – states that this link, which is sometimes broad and deep, sometimes limited and episodic, depending on objective circumstance, can never be obtained by means of tactical expedients detached from principles, but instead, in all circumstances, represents one of the party’s fundamental tasks. Conversely, only as a result of this link is the proletarian struggle able to raise itself above the trade unionist level - the highest it can attain by its own efforts according to Lenin - to reach the level of a struggle of all the exploited class against all the exploiting class and, when the necessary objective conditions permit, the level of a revolutionary struggle for the overthrow of the concentrated and dictatorial state power of capitalism and for the establishment of centralized and dictatorial proletarian power.
3. For these same reasons of principle, the party’s participation, through the intermediary of its groups, in the life of all the forms of proletarian economic associations open to workers (and only to workers) of all political affiliations is an integral part of this task, since, according to the Manifesto and the texts of Marxism, these economic associations are the necessary product of these struggles.
The following affirmations count among the party’s fundamental positions:
a) the workers’ union is never revolutionary in itself; nor is any other form of immediate organization, even those not exclusively economic. On the contrary, because of its immediate nature and the presence of groups with differing immediate interests, it tends to confine itself within the petty and corporatist limits of minimalist and reformist action. The trade union can, however, become a vital instrument of the revolution, and initially of the revolutionary preparation of the proletariat to the extent that the party has conquered a considerable influence within it, i.e. among the organized masses.
b) for the complete fulfillment of this task, and finally for the revolution itself, which presupposes among other things a centralization of workers’ forces, it is desirable that it be unitary, that it comprise all workers placed in a specific economic situation. The corollary of this thesis is that one cannot remedy the tendency of economic organizations to degenerate, nor their continued degeneration, by creating immediate organizations of a different form, and certainly not by creating local organizations or ones limited to the factory. The appearance of such organizations is indeed a necessary aspect of the development of social conflicts, and it is sometimes a symptom of the masses’ disgust with the counter-revolutionary practices of the national union.
In certain instances, the party can utilize such organizations by centralizing them, but taken in themselves they reproduce in organizational form the shortcomings, limitations and weaknesses of partial economic struggles.
4. In conformity with Marxist tradition, the Communist Left has therefore always considered the conditions of its existence as an active factor in the preparation of the proletariat for the revolutionary assault and its victory.
a) the appearance of economic struggles on a vast scale and in a non-episodic form, and the intense participation of the party in these struggles for the reasons indicated above.
b) the existence of a system of intermediate organs, which must not be episodic or ephemeral, between the party and the class, and the intervention of the party in these organizations to conquer not necessarily the majority and therefore the leadership, but enough influence to be able to utilize these organs as a transmission belt for its program among the mass of organized workers and to impregnate the program at least in most combative layers of workers.
It is contrary to Marxism to demand that the trade unions be free from all counter-revolutionary influences as a precondition for membership and party revolutionary political work in them, or to replace the unions led by so-called workers’ parties with associations composed only of communists. This position is obviously even idealist in origin, because immediate organizations can never attain any such purity, the party itself being by definition subject to counter-revolutionary influences as well.
« The workers’ union is made up of individual workers who belong to different parties or to no party; communists neither propose nor provoke splits in unions because of the fact that the leading organs are conquered and held by other parties, but they proclaim openly that the unions cannot fulfil their function completely until the proletarian class party leads these economic organizations. » (1945 Political Platform of the Internationalist Communist Party of Italy).
This also applies to the struggle for immediate economic improvements, and not only to the final revolutionary struggle in which the unions and other intermediate organs are in danger of playing a counterrevolutionary role if they are not led or at least influenced by the party. On the other hand, the role of immediate organizations may be positive, but cannot be sufficient or decisive. The party in itself is not sufficient to achieve victory, but when conditions are favorable its role is certainly decisive.
The party considers – and it counsels the workers to consider – immediate demands not as ends in themselves but as necessary means for the preparation, training and organization of the proletariat for its final objectives. If they were to become ends in themselves they could only perpetuate wage slavery, instead of leading to its destruction. Likewise, the party considers – and this it openly declares – the immediate forms of proletarian organization not as the goal of the workers’ emancipation struggle, but as an instrument which the party can and must use to attain the supreme goal of communism. In the party’s view they are no more a sacred and intangible fetish than any other form of organization.
II. Historical Evolution and Perspectives of the Immediate Organs of the Working Class
1. The above considerations establish the points of principle without which it is impossible even to give precise, practical directives. They would remain incomplete without an analysis of the historical course that workers’ associationism has followed from the victory of the capitalist mode of production up to its senile, imperialist phase, and which our party has characterized with precision in its basic texts from the period after the Second World War.
In an initial phase the victorious bourgeoisie prohibited and forcibly dispersed the first associations of workers’ resistance, pushing them in consequence onto the terrain of open and violent political struggle. This is why the First International could be born in part as a regroupment of economic associations led by the General Council around a program seeking to prepare the revolutionary assault against the political power of the ruling classes, the bulwark of their economic power.
In the ensuing phase, by contrast, the bourgeoisie deemed it more opportune, indeed necessary for the stability of its rule, to tolerate and give legal status to the coalitions of wage laborers, while endeavouring to attract them into its political orbit by virtue of its relations and compromises with reformist union leaders and by supporting itself on a worker aristocracy interested in maintaining a political and social order which gave it privileges that were more or less illusory, but nevertheless disastrous for the consciousness and combativity of the class.
This experience provoked reactions within the unions on the part of the left socialist currents. Above all in Italy, France and the United States, it fed the anarcho-syndicalist illusion that it was possible to avoid opportunist minimalism by opposing the existing economic organizations with other «congenitally» revolutionary ones. During the First World War, in most countries this resulted in class collaboration parallel to the Union sacrée among political parties, and in a small minority of countries, into a timorous neutrality, and very few union leaders or anarcho-syndicalists escaped the general collapse.
2. The aftermath of the First World War saw the large national trade unions aligned in the social-democratic front (along with the parliamentary groups, they constituted its principal pillars), i.e., in a front for social conservation. Thus the German unions collaborated with the social-democratic governments in repressing the proletarian movement, and the American trade unions sabotaged strikes and defended the established order in keeping with the interests of the privileged skilled labor sector. In Italy the pacifist and minimalist unions moved more or less covertly into line with the institutions of bourgeois parliamentary democracy.
The extraordinary class vitality, the persistence of a tradition of union struggle, the influx into traditional organizations of huge masses thrust into action by the terrible post-war crisis and composed above all of unskilled laborers – all these factors combined to make opportunism, which through the union leaderships played the role of a transmission belt for bourgeois ideologies and therefore bourgeois practices within workers’ organizations, powerless to prevent the unions from experiencing an intense re-vitalization, even politically. In certain countries the rank and file was in perpetual turmoil, inflamed to differing degrees by Russia’s Red October and thus accessible to the revolutionary propaganda of communists. Even though opportunism did reflect the objective tendencies of the imperialist phase, it was unable to play the role it plays today as the agent of the direct subordination of the unions to the bourgeois state.
This is why the International, reconstructed on the basis of fully restored Marxist doctrine, not only emphasized the necessity that communists do revolutionary work in the unions, «even the most reactionary ones», by all legal and illegal means, but could not exclude their conquest by the party, except in cases such as that of the American Federation of Labor, which was closed not only to revolutionary propaganda but also to the great mass of wage laborers. The manner in which this conquest should or could be accomplished would depend on each specific case, but as a rule the conquest itself could only result from violent battles against opportunism entrenched both in the leaderships and in vast strata of workers, i.e. at the base of existing organizations. At the same time, the Communist International issued its members the directive to support the organizations which had been formed in opposition to the official unions; in response to the disgust which the practice of the bureaucrats inspired in combative workers, and their will to fight on the terrain of open and direct class struggle. The CI hoped to assist them thereby in freeing themselves from their anarcho-syndicalist prejudices, and did not hesitate, when objective conditions imposed the need, to encourage the splitting of old, completely corrupted economic organizations on a general scale (cf. Theses of the 2nd Congress on the trade union movement and factory committees, 1920).
3. The situation in Italy was particularly clear in this respect. We mention it because it assists us, more than any other example in this period, in understanding the changes that came about later under the double influence of the victory of fascism and the fierce counter-revolutionary wave of Stalinism.
The three organizations which could justifiably be called red – the CGL (General Confederation of Labour), the USI (Italian Syndical Union) and SF (Union of Railway Workers) – were opposed to the organizations which were clearly initiated by the bosses, referred to as «yellow» and «white». The red unions, initiated by openly working class currents and parties, advocated the methods of class struggle and direct action against the bosses, and to the extent that these methods were compatible with the opportunist tendencies of their leaders, they were applied. They tended toward autonomy in relation to the state and administration, and they could never have sacrificed this autonomy. The tradition behind them was no abstract formula or set of statutes; it was embodied simultaneously in the combative masses and in a structured, compact network of leagues and union halls where all categories of workers assembled and associated together completely naturally. These labour halls were often the location of a workers’ circle and sometimes even the party seat. In all cases, they were fortresses forbidden to priest and state bureaucrat, or what amounts to the same thing, to the police, and if necessary they were defended by arms against the combined forces of democratic order and fascist gangs. The influence of this real and material tradition was exercised not only from the outside, but to a degree which is unimaginable today, within the union organizations themselves. This is what imposed precise limits on the opportunist leaders. Open to all wage workers of every political and religious persuasion, and hence also open to the influence of the Marxist revolutionary party, the organizations were, in spite of their opportunist leaderships, class unions. The proof of their organic nature as red unions is provided by two series of facts: on the one hand, the bourgeois class, which sought desperately to re-assemble its «scattered members» into a centralized and centralizing organization, had to take the locals of the unions, leagues and labor halls by force, and after having conquered them, to destroy the network of traditional organizations in order to construct a new network for its own use. On the other hand, in the final phase of the confrontation with the fascists, the Left issued the slogan for defense of the traditional red unions and of the necessity of rebuilding them once they had been destroyed, by sabotaging openly the corporatist state unions. (cf. Lyon Theses III,11) (1). This did not imply issuing a proletarian licence to the reformist union leaders of the time, but it was necessary to «provide the facts useful in understanding the development of the capitalist regime and of the reactions of the workers’ movement which, in its organizational forms and tendencies, cannot help but feel the effects of this development» (Union Splits in Italy, 1949).
It must be understood that in the years 1921-23 the problem faced by the party led by the Italian Marxist Left, i.e. that of working in the unions to establish a link with the masses, win them to communism and overthrow the opportunist leaderships (the propaganda for the unification of the two autonomous unions with the CGL had no other objective) actually resolved itself: social relations and conflicts, forms of organization and struggle, all aspects of the reality of the time corresponded in an obvious and natural way to these principled positions.
4. After the Second World War, without changing any of our principled positions, and in fact reaffirming them clearly and trenchantly in the face of the dismantling of both the communist movement and the workers’ movement in general throughout the world, the party constantly denied that the phase opened by the end of the conflict might be interpreted as a mechanical reproduction of the social situation after the first world war.
In reality, in the twenty years between 1926 and 1945 the relatioship of forces between the classes had been overturned by the combined action of the Stalinist devastation and the reorganization of the capitalist world along totalitarian, centralized and to speak clearly, even fascist lines, especially in places where the hypocrisy of democratic consultations and civil liberties was maintained.
In spite of the rift in the Union sacrée and the support which opportunism offered to the politics of national defense in most countries, the First World War did not succeed in breaking the programmatic and tactical continuity which Marxism regards as the condition and even the guarantee of a class resurgence. In spite of the proletariat’s stinging political defeat, this continuity was everywhere embodied in communist opposition groups, many quite small, which participated in founding the Communist International.
On the other hand, by physically destroying the CI (before dissolving it formally), by practicing a popular front policy, by dragging the USSR into the League of Nations, Stalinism has placed the prestige of Russian pseudo-socialism at the service of the total submission of the workers’ political and union movement to the ruling class, finally delivering the proletariat to imperialist massacre, either as a disarmed victim, or worse yet, as voluntary cannon fodder.
This terrible work of destruction was incomparably graver, in its lasting consequences, than any physical defeat on the battlefield. Thanks to this defeat capitalist evolution toward centralization and discipline has been able to make giant strides. The full impact of this phenomenon can be measured if fascism and Nazism, which were only acute manifestations, are not given exclusive attention, and one considers developments in the USA under Roosevelt, in France during the popular front, in classic Swiss democracy, in «socialist» democracy in the Scandinavian countries and later in «Welfare» England. In all these countries a distinctly totalitarian practice was adopted, consisting in drawing the workers’ union into the state apparatus, disciplining them with a system of legal measures in various forms (e.g. Swiss «labor peace» and the regulation of the right to strike in Scandinavia, America and Britain), and in depriving it of a considerable part of its role of assistance, protection and negotiation in favor or specialized state bodies, necessarily set up under the aegis of a progressive democracy (e.g. France under Blum), and which were resurrected by anti-fascism with the Kremlin’s blessings.
In all these countries a long tradition of reformism existed whose tarnished emblem Stalinism has polished anew by adding its own colors. This tradition has enabled a painless and almost imperceptible passage to the most modern forms of centralized administration (and direct economic management) of capitalist rule. It is no coincidence that in Italy and Germany, countries where the threat of proletarian revolution had been most imminent, this task was entrusted instead to fascism, in which the Marxist Italian Left recognized from the very beginning not only the necessary culmination, but the full and complete historical realization of social reformism. In both cases the result was identical: destruction of the workers’ movement’s last vestige of autonomy where it had not already been drowned in blood, and the possibility for the ruling class to «manoeuvre and control by the most varied means both the constitutional interclassist organs of democracy and organizations containing only proletarians», this possibility deriving directly from «strict control and even total absorption» of these organizations, «with the result that all their traditional technical, union, economic and political functions were increasingly exercised by the organs and offices of the official state apparatus», (cf. Analysis of Objective Factors Weighing on the Resurgence of the Proletarian Movement, 1950).
Under the banner of totalitarian rule by the monstrous states that emerged victorious from the «anti-fascist crusade» of the Second World War - states which had actually been defeated politically and socially, since they acted in perfect continuity with fascism - the GGL in Italy and the three «historical» unions were reconstructed in a France occupied by Nazism a short time before (Actually this reconstruction applies formally only to two of the three, since L.O. was formed in April,1948).
The CGIL was born on a terrain from which Stalinism had swept all class union traditions and where state social assistance and insurance organizations inherited from fascism abounded under a benevolent compromise «not between three mass proletarian parties, which did not exist, but between three groups of leaderships, of non-proletarian cliques, each claiming to be the legitimate heir to the fascist regime». From 1944 on, our party declared that such a solution had to be cornbatted «by urging the workers to overthrow this opportunist apparatus of professional counter-revolutionaries». The CGIL was thus born as the projection into the union sphere of the CLN (Committees of National Liberation) of the new counter-revolutionary alliance installed under the banner of democracy, and as an instrument – which proved to be totally effective – of economic reconstruction at the cost of the sweat, and if necessary the blood, of the workers. The French national union, which divided in April 1948, was controlled by the same forces, allied with the government, and with the same objectives. Since then no further red confederation has existed, even under reformist control; only a tricolor confederation has existed, and the party recognized that this reality was not changed by the 1948 splits in France or the 1949 splits in Italy, which took place for reasons totally alien to any class delimitation, being connected instead with ruptures in the former war alliances of the imperialist powers.
In the absence of minimal conditions which might have permitted the existing economic organizations to enjoy a certain class autonomy, two other factors came into play: a) the almost total subordination of the proletariat to the forces of opportunism, which has been aggravated by the material weight of Russia and its political agents as much as by the allied occupation forces, resulting in the absorption by the proletariat of petty-bourgeois and even bourgeois ideologies; b) a «change in relations between employer and wage worker» which, by dint of an entire «series of reformist assistance and welfare measures», provides the worker with a «small patrimonial guarantee... and therefore something to risk, which makes the worker hesitant and even opportunist at the time of a union struggle... and above all at the moment of striking and revolt» (cf. Revolutionary Party and Economic Action, 1951).
We have never concluded from this – and we will never be tempted to do so – as Marcuse has, that the working class is definitively bourgeoisified, and therefore that its objective historical mission has ended. However, it is certain that this fact has constituted a brake on the resurgence not only of revolutionary action, but even on economic struggle, although it may be transformed into a supplementary factor of instability under the conditions of total insecurity in which the wage laborer will find himself when the crisis breaks out anew in full force. Similarly, this is why opportunism appears today a thousand times more virulent than in any other epoch in the history of social conflict: it penetrates by a thousand channels into the relatively mobile and self-contained layer of the labor aristocracy and into a proletariat already «infected to the core by petty-bourgeois democratism». (cf. Considerations on the Party’s Organic Activity When the Situation is Unfavourable, 1965)
After the war the world situation of workers’ associationism appeared as follows: either trade unions inserted directly into the cogs of the state apparatus, as in the capitalist East bloc, or trade unions intimately connected with the state machinery by links all the more effective the more hypocritically they are concealed, as in the capitalist West bloc, not to mention the unions which the new bourgeoisies in the former colonies have formed, which, being directly dependent upon the state, are only instruments of mobilization and discipline of the workforce. The fact that in some countries separate unions still exist does not detract from this fact, which has been repeatedly indicated in the party’s fundamental texts. Nor do preparations in Italy for a reunification which will be no more than a return to the Committees of National Liberation, whose ideology the unions have never abandoned. The reunification is only an open avowal of the fact that in spite of appearances they remain the same as they were before, i.e. they form a single counter-revolutionary bloc, a transmission belt for bourgeois ideologies, slogans and programs.
5. In 1949 we stated, and we repeat today, that this process is just as irreversible as the totalitarian and centralized evolution of imperialist capitalism, both in economics and in politics, and that this is what provides «the key to the evolution of the trade unions in all the large capitalist countries». But we have a scientific certainty the process that has separated the class from its party for more than thirty years and has made the class consider communism as improbable or even impossible is itself reversible; and we have a scientific certainty that if the dynamic of the imperialist phase implies «a more and more complete subordination of the unions to the bourgeois state», it also implies the unleashing on a global scale of the economic crisis and the explosion of a general resurgence of the class struggle, however distant it may appear today. The real, lasting and fundamental conquest of such a resurgence will be the return of the rigorously selected and centralized organization of the party as an active factor on the stage of history, but it will necessarily be accompanied by the renaissance of mass organizations as intermediaries between the broad mass of the class and its political organ. These organizations need not necessarily be the unions. In the perspective of an abrupt turn toward a revolutionary assault they will not be the unions. In the Russian revolution, it was not the unions but the Soviets which, in a situation of virtual dual power, constituted the intermediary link between the party and the class. But on the world scale there are countries where the revolution will mature slowly and painfully instead of exploding with incendiary speed, and where the reappearance of economic organizations in the strict sense of the word cannot be excluded. In these countries the apparent calm of the «democratic» period of capitalism will give way to a political high tension (more intense than even after the First World War) which is characteristic of great historical turning points, since the aggravation of all antagonisms will necessarily elicit, within the working class itself, profound ruptures and heated conflicts between the vanguard of the class and its more hesitant and reticent rearguard.
In any case the problem is not one of the forms (2) which the resurgence of the class struggle will assume and the modes of organization which it will tend to adopt: what is important is the process which will engender these forms and modes, and which will be more tumultuous and fertile in proportion as the contradictions and paroxysms characteristic of the bourgeois mode of production have accumulated in the course of its highest phase, imperialism. If this process culminates in the seizure of power by the proletariat and the institution of its revolutionary dictatorship, the trade union form will not disappear. Not only must it be reborn wherever it has been supplanted by other intermediate bodies more in conformity with the needs of revolutionary struggle, but for the first time in history it will then form a link capable of welding the class to the party, as its structure enables it to centrally organize the entire class. Because the road that leads from capitalism to communism can only be long, difficult and tormented, sown with gigantic struggles on the world scale, such a link will be of vital importance, for even where political victory has been secured it will not be possible to vanquish the inertia of mercantile forms or uproot them overnight.
All these reasons of principle are engraved in our fundamental texts, and this perspective is inseparable from the very foundations of Marxism. This is why it is also true that we have nothing to defend in the unions of today, and that we must affirm against them the permanent principle of workers’ associationism which is a factor in the development of class struggles, while emphasizing that it is also a product of these struggles, and that the realization of this principle is conditioned by the development of the struggles themselves.
IlI. Directives for Practical Action
1. The paradox of the present historical cycle (which is only superficial in the light of the factors described above) is that in the face of the accumulation of the contradictions and ruptures of world capitalism, the working class has fallen to an even lower level than that considered in Lenin’s What is to be Done? . The problem then was to import political consciousness, socialism, into the class; we now face the difficult task of welding the political intervention of the party onto an economic activity that spontaneously does not even attain the level of what Lenin called trade union consciousness, and which, except in rare cases, retains a sporadic, corporatist, sectoral and we will say even an intranecine competitive character.
The party certainly cannot elicit the class struggle, but its task is to recall constantly the elementary and indispensable conditions of struggle in the course of even the most sporadic and partial economic battles, by defending the methods and general slogans which tend to unite the workers of all factories, all categories, all localities: extension of strikes, denunciation of rotating strikes, demanding the greatest increase of wages for the most poorly paid categories, massive reduction in the length of the working day; abolition of bonuses, material stimuli and piece-work, full wages to the unemployed.
The party must therefore denounce the work of sabotage and division of the unions which – and this is no coincidence – reject these demands, without renouncing for an instant agitation and propaganda for the supreme objectives of the proletarian movement. It must devote itself to showing the working class how facts confirm the Marxist position, asserting that even if a vigorously-waged economic struggle should yield a temporary improvement for the workers and attenuate the most odious forms of capitalist exploitation, it can never emancipate the proletariat from its condition as an exploited and oppressed class. The party, always presenting the final objective to the working class, must likewise demonstrate the necessity of political organization, as well as the necessity of an intermediate system of class organizations under the party’s influence for the coordinated development of economic struggles.
2. The party must clearly understand and have the courage to proclaim that the proletarian class resurgence, in order to emerge from the abyss of the counter-revolution, will necessarily pass through painful experiences, abrupt setbacks, harsh deceptions, confused attempts on the part of the class to shake off the crushing yoke of a half century of ignoble opportunist practice,. The party cannot condemn episodes of wildcat strikes, formation of strike, rank-and-file, or «base» committees, etc. – phenomena which recur periodically in the history of the workers’ movement – independently from the names they have taken. The party cannot ignore them under the pretext that they have no place in the harmonious schema of a centrally organized combat waged on all fronts.
On the contrary, the party recognizes that these phenomena are symptoms of an instinctive reaction by the proletariat against the impotence to which the unions condemn its struggles and demands. It must profit from them in order to inculcate in even a thin layer of the exploited a consciousness that their efforts, no matter how generous, are condemned to remain sterile if the class does not find within itself the strength to accomplish a total political re-alignment, i.e. to orient itself toward the direct and general assault on capitalist power.
In 1920 the attitude of the Abstentionist Faction, which founded the Communist Party of Italy, was no different when it was presented with episodes such as the factory occupations or the large scale strikes in open opposition to the Central union leadership, because, though it regarded these movements as sterile in regard to the objectives being sought, it considered them fertile in political lessons thanks to the party’s determined activity.
Similarly, even though our influence will generally remain limited, the party’s militants do not refuse to share responsibility on committees and other organs of a temporary nature, provided they are not manoeuvred from the start by political forces alien to class tradition, and they express a real workers’ combativity. However, these militants do not neglect any opportunity to recall the necessity of transcending the limits of factory or locality, and of using the energy of the class to reinforce the revolutionary party and to contribute to the rebirth of intermediary class organizations which only a vigorous proletarian resurgence will make possible. They must never succumb to the error of theorizing or admitting that local or temporary organs can be theorized as a model of the future economic or intermediary association in general.
3. No matter what union our militants might belong to in any country (this is a contingent problem), it must be clear that the party does not confer a «class» label on any union, because none on Earth merits this distinction today. (3)
In Italy and France, where several trade unions exist, our militants and communist groups must penetrate the CGIL and CGT. This is not because the party considers them «class» unions, nor because they contain the greatest number of workers, since the other unions comprise large percentages of pure wage workers also. It is because they constitute the specific field of activity of the worst agent of the bourgeoisie in the ranks of the proletariat. This Stalinist ultra-opportunism, which, having completed its work of destroying the workers’ movement, has become a direct pillar of social conservation by adopting and practicing principles worthy of Mussolini’s Labor Charter or the pontifical encyclical Rerum Novarum. Because this ultra-opportunism pawns off a counter-revolutionary program and methods in the name of the Russian revolution, we must oppose it polemically with the class tradition of the old unitary union federations, i.e. with a past of which the unions cannot boast because they are of openly corporatist origin.
Representing, not a fraction of the workers’ movement (which would imply that a class nature can be recognized at least in part in the union organization itself), but the only proletarian political current, communist militants and groups develop the party program in the unions at every possible opportunity. They assemble a circle, however small, of organized workers around them, and, to the extent they can count on the support of these workers, participate in assemblies and meetings and intervene in them, even when they have been formally excluded from them, as in Italy, for not agreeing to collection of union dues (the delega) (4) by the employer, or for any other reason. They always base their direct interventions on an objective assessment of the relationship of forces, made by the section, group, or if necessary the centre. When such interventions are prohibited in practice, as is now the case in France, and where the torpor of the organized masses allows no concrete possibility of clandestine penetration, individual membership of militants in less central trade unions may be tolerated,
In Italy, the unification now underway will doubtless make our work difficult, – since all political currents will probably be prohibited from the new organization. But the critique of this re-unification must be based on the demonstration of the hypocritical character of the CGIL’s every claim to be a class union, not just on the inverse thesis that through this merger with the other two organizations the so-called red union would repudiate its principles and lose its character. Moreover, to the extent that a unification would produce a partisan CLN-type situation at a more advanced stage of capitalist production, it might even have a positive influence – in the same way that the maintenance of the 1945 political alliance would have caused Stalinism to lose its proletarian appearance in the organizations it controlled – and furnish a polemical argument useful for our propaganda.
In other countries the objective situation could give rise to other problems and impose other solutions, and it will be incumbent on the party, wherever it is implanted, to decide on a practical course without noisy voluntarism or blind fatalism.
4. As this has already occured in Italy, the functions to which our militants may be called directly by the workers (e.g. shop stewards) can provide a useful test of the weld between political and union action in the narrow sense, despite the danger, to which union work is always exposed, of becoming enclosed in a purely minimalist and corporatist practice, these functions can constitute one of the cases anticipated by the Fundamental Theses of the Party (1951), where comrades assume these duties on the basis of a favorable relationship of forces. When «the organization in question does not exclude in its statutes and a priori the possibility of conducting an autonomous class activity», our penetration, even in peripheral economic organizations, is desirable in the framework of a rigorous political and programmatic orientation. Comrades therefore endeavour to promote frequent workers’ assemblies, initiatives to extend struggles and surpass all time limits, forms of proselytism, even at the individual level, open denunciation of the practice of mixed commissions or studies on work tempo, etc., and corporatist manoeuvres endorsed by the tricolor unions. When the union apparatus reserves the predictable reward of expulsion for rebel delegates, they never submit passively, but appeal the expulsion to the only authority our militants recognise: the proletarians who elected them and whose interests they have defended as every party militant is determined to do in all circumstances.
5. To develop all forms of practical activity thoroughly and methodically, our press (as Lenin pointed out in What is to be Done?) must act as collective organizer for the class and for party militants, and, above all, to regularly and trenchantly defend the principles enumerated in the first section of these Theses, and which are better expounded in other texts (cf. Revolutionary Party and Economic Action) It must denounce the futile and counter-revolutionary forms of struggle and objectives proposed by existing unions, even toward solely economic ends. It must show the limits of activities centered on immediate demands and the need to go beyond them in the general revolutionary struggle. It must combat tendencies to limit itself to the factory, enterprise or locality, such as are manifested repeatedly by the proletariat itself, and it must condemn the obscene practice encouraged by opportunism which consists of imploring the paternal intervention of the state or of a duly sensitized «public opinion». It must proclaim the impossibility of politically neutral trade unionism and demand class associations open to the decisive influence of the revolutionary Marxist party and susceptible to conquest by it. It must emphasize the vital importance of international unification of struggles and economic organizations, and more generally or in a later phase, of intermediary organizations. Finally, while reminding the workers of the great stages of their class movement, of its glorious victories and defeats so rich in lessons, it must follow the present development of proletarian struggles in the world attentively, strictly subordinating its combat and slogans to its program.
(1) Similarly, in its 1944 political platform, the Internationalist Communist Party of Italy (the nucleus of today’s ICP) demanded the «reconstruction of the unitary union confederation, autonomous in relation to the state administration, acting according to the methods of class struggle and direct action against the bosses, from local and category based demands to general class demands». This reconstruction presupposed at least a partial resurgence of class struggles in the post-second world war period (Thirty years later it is obvious that this resurgence has not manifested itself yet). However, the party formulated the most explicit doubts about the possibility of such a resurgence any time soon, but it could not presume to exclude it, and for this reason demanded this reconstruction wherever possible.
(2) It is no coincidence if one of the party’s fundamental texts, recalling that in the revolutionary perspective it is «organically indispensable to have between the masses of workers and the minority assembled in the party another layer of organisations which are constitutionally open to only workers», asserts that the essentials of this perspective do not exclude that there may be the most varied evolution in the modification, dissolution and reconstruction of trade union type organisations from the point of view of all the associations existing in different countries today.» (Rome Meeting, April 1951)
(3) This directly concerns the Euro-American region, the epicentre of imperialism. The situation in peripheral areas such as Asia and Africa will merit a separate study.
(4) «the delega», is the delegation of the right to collect trade union dues to the employers - through deduction from the pay packet - which was proposed by the three Italian central unions and of course accepted.
«programme communiste», n°53-54, october 1971 - March 1972
International Communist party