Leon Trotsky: Class, Union, and Party

Submitted by AWL on 6 October, 2007 - 12:24 Author: Sean Matgamna and John Bloxam

The trade unions are not only the bedrock of the labour movement.
With the Blairite hijacking of the Labour Party, which had been founded at the beginning of the 20th century by the trade unions and socialist organisations to fight for working class interests, the trade unions are pretty much all that’s left of the labour movement.

Even though the number of trade unionists has fallen from its peak strength in the pre-Thatcher years, 25 years ago, it is still a very powerful movement. There are twice as many trade unionists in Britain now as there were in France in 1968, when the working class seized the factories in a general strike. The work that Solidarity and Workers’ Liberty does in the trade unions is the most important practical work we do.

Politically, we argue that the trade unions must assert themselves against Blair and Blairism within the Labour Party, where they are still a great latent power. We call on them to attempt to take back the Labour Party from the hijackers, and, as this proves impossible, to break with Blair’s party and found a new trade union based mass working class party which takes as its aim the creation of a workers’ government — a government which will serve working-class interests as the Tories and Blairites have served the capitalist class. But how does it all fit together?

The best way into this subject is the following attempt at a systematic presentation of Leon Trotsky’s views on trade unions and politics, the unions in relation to the “working class as a whole”, and the unions and the revolutionary party.

These questions are especially complex in Britain where Marxists such as Solidarity and Workers’ Liberty work to build a revolutionary Marxist party, and also advocate the recreation of a mass working class party, in one way or another, by the trade unions.

The French labour movement, with representatives of which Trotsky discussed these questions, had a number of peculiarities. Before the First World War, the trade union federation, the CGT, grew up separate from the Marxist Socialist Party. The CGT was a select revolutionary layer of the working class, politically conscious but rejecting Parliamentary politics.

They believed that socialist revolution would be made by way of the trade unions eventually seizing control of industry and the whole country.

It was one of a number of anarcho-syndicalist movements that grew up before the First World War in recoil from the one-sided Parliamentarianism which dominated the workers’ movement at that time.

Trotsky later described left wing of the pre-1914 syndicalist movement in France as “a remarkable first draft of communism, which lacked the essential political dimension”.

In 1914 the CGT, like the French Socialist Party, supported their “own” government in the war. Only a small minority, led by Pierre Monatte, opposed the war from the beginning.

After the war the majority of both the SP and CGT gravitated towards the Russian Revolution and the Communist International. But the revolutionary syndicalists retained many of their old ideas.

Trotsky knew the syndicalist leaders Monatte, Alfred Rosmer, and others, well and had a very high regard for them. For two years before his deportation from France at the end of 1916 he had worked with them in Paris, part of a still small anti-war minority.

In the early 1920s, as the CI became bureaucratised and Stalinised, Monatte and his friends reverted to their old limited syndicalist, trade-unionist outlook.

The issues Trotsky discussed with them in 1923 and later go to the heart of the relationship of class, trade unions and party in Marxist theory.


In March 1923 Trotsky discussed with Robert Louzon, a supporter of Pierre Monatte, “the fundamental question of the relations between party and trade union”. He summed up Louzon’s views and the views of the syndicalist leaders in the French Communist Party (CPF), as follows:

“Comrade Louzon defends the complete and unqualified independence of the trade unions. Against what? Obviously against certain attacks. Whose? Against attacks ascribed to the party. Trade union autonomy, an indisputable necessity, is endowed with a certain absolute and almost mystical significance.”

Trotsky continues: “The trade unions, says Louzon, represent the ‘working class as a whole.’ The party, however, is only a party. The working class as a whole cannot be subordinated to the party. There is not even room for equality between them. ‘The working class has its aim in itself.’ The party, however, can only either serve the working class or be subordinated to it. Thus the party cannot ‘annex’ the working class....”

Trotsky points out that it is simply not true that the unions represent the working class as a whole. Look at the proportion of workers organised in trade unions. Nowhere are the unions even a majority of the working class, and in France they are especially weak.

Louzon, says Trotsky: “Is obviously, consciously and determinedly, shutting his eyes to what is actually going on in France. One might think that the article had been written from the star Sirius. How else is it possible to understand the assertion that the trade unions represent the ‘working class as a whole’? Of what country is Louzon talking? If he means France, the trade unions there, so far as we are informed, do not unfortunately, include even half of the working class.”

And the union federations in France are either reformist (the Confederation Generale du Travail, CGT, led by the wartime patriot, Leon Jouhaux), or revolutionary, the Confederation Generale du Travail Unitaire (CGTU), under the leadership of the French Communist Party (CPF):

Trotsky: “Neither of the two trade union confederations embraces more than 300,000 workers. Neither singly nor together are they entitled to identify themselves with the whole of the French proletariat of which they form only a modest part. Moreover, each trade union organisation pursues a different policy... [and] in the [CGTU] Louzon represents but one tendency.”


Louzon had asserted: “that the working class, which he obviously regards as synonymous with the trade union organisation, bears its own aim in itself.”

Trotsky regards this idea as mystification and nonsense. It is meaningless to speak of “the working class as a whole” if one is discussing social movements and politics and how the working class becomes, in Karl Marx’s words, “a class for itself”.

Trotsky asks what is for him the key question: “With whose help, and how, does the French working class express this aim” [which Louzon asserts that it has in itself]? “With the help of Jouhaux’s organisation? [The CGT] Certainly not. With the help of the [CPF-led] CGTU? ... Unfortunately it is not yet the whole working class”.

For Trotsky it is meaningless to cite the mere existence of trade unions, as Louzon does, without reference to the politics of their leaders. He recalls for Louzon and the reader the fact that it was not so long ago that the CGTU was led by a secretly organised group of anti Communist anarcho-syndicalists. For Trotsky the CGTU is, but also is not quite, the same organisation under the different leaderships: one cannot talk of the working class or the trade unions having their “aim” “in themselves” when in fact the different successive leaderships, the anti-communist syndicalists and then the CPF, pursue different aims, and lead the Federation broadly with these aims in mind. Trotsky asks:

“In which of these two periods has the CGTU best represented the interests of the working class”?

How does one assess this? “Who is to judge?”

It cannot but be a matter of political judgement — and then the question is: whose political judgement?

“If we now attempt, with the aid of the international experience of our party, to answer this question, then, in Louzon’s opinion, we commit a mortal sin, for we then demand that the party judge what policy is most beneficial to the working class. That is, we place the party above the working class.”

If such a thing is defined as a “usurpation” of the function of the working class or of the union as the embodiment of the working class, to work out its own ‘aim’, what alternative approach is there? The working class as a whole?

Trotsky: “But if we were to turn to the working class as a whole, we would unfortunately find it divided, impotent, and mute. The different parts of the class organised into different confederations, even different trade unions in the same confederation, and even different groups in the same trade union, would all give us different replies.”

Most workers, not being in trade unions, would play no part in such discussions of policy:

“The overwhelming majority of the proletariat, standing outside both trade union confederations, would, at the present time, give us no reply.

‘The proletariat has its aim within itself.’ If we strip this sentence of its mystical trappings, its obvious meaning is that the historical tasks of the proletariat are determined by its social position as a class and by its role in production, in society, and in the state. This is beyond dispute. But this truth does not help us answer the question with which we are concerned, namely: How is the proletariat to arrive at subjective insight into the historical task posed by its objective position?

Were the proletariat as a whole capable of grasping its historical task immediately, it would need neither party nor trade union. Revolution would be born simultaneously with the proletariat. But in actuality the process by which the proletariat gains an insight into its historic mission is very long and painful, and full of internal contradictions.

It is only in the course of long struggles, severe trials, many vacillations, and extensive experience, that insight as to the right ways and methods dawns upon the minds of the best elements of [emphasis added] the working class, the vanguard of the masses. This applies equally to party and trade union.”


Trotsky: “Where and by whom are these tactics consciously, carefully, and critically prepared? Who suggests them to the working class? Certainly they do not fall from heaven. And the working class as a whole, as a ‘thing in itself,’ does not teach us these tactics either. It seems to us that Comrade Louzon has not faced this question.”

Trotsky notes that in working class history, the trade union too, like the revolutionary party, begins as a small group of active workers. It grows as it learns from experience. Like the revolutionary organisation, whose members are selected not as with the union, by the fact of working for an employer and seeking collective self-protection, but by way of political programme, the union is normally a minority.

So: “While the revolutionary organisations are struggling to gain influence in the working class, the bourgeois ideologists counterpose the ‘working class as a whole’ not only against the party of the working class but against its trade unions, which these ideologists accuse of wanting to ‘annex’ the working class. [The then leading bourgeois newspaper] Le Temps writes this whenever there is a strike.

In other words, the bourgeois ideologists counterpose the working class as object to the working class as conscious subject.

For it is only through its class conscious minority that the working class gradually becomes a factor in history.”

Trotsky rebukes Louzon, who has accused the party of which he is a member, the CPF, of wanting to “annex” the working class: “It is wrong for Louzon to employ the terminology customarily used by our opponents in their fight against the revolution — it is a question of winning the confidence of the proletariat. And it is only possible to do this with correct tactics, tested by experience.”

Trotsky nails down his central point: “For it is only through its class-conscious minority that the working class becomes a factor in history...

The criticism levelled by Comrade Louzon against the ‘unwarranted claims’ of the party applies equally well to the ‘unwarranted claims’ of the trade unions... Above all in France”.

This is why pre-1914 French syndicalist theory “arrived, during its classic period (1905-07), at the theory of the ‘active minority,’ and not at the theory of the ‘collective proletariat.’ For what else is an active minority, held together by the unity of their ideas, if not a party?”

This was unavoidable and inevitable, and a necessary precondition of the working class being able to effectively fight the class struggle. For emphasis and clarity, Trotsky puts it very sharply:

“Would not a trade union mass organisation, not containing a class-conscious active minority, be a purely formal and meaningless organisation?”


The Communists want the unity of the trade union movement, of the reformist CGT and the Communist CGTU, Trotsky insists. Why?

“The main consideration of the Communist International has been the historical task of the working class as a whole, and the enormous independent significance of the trade union organisation for solving the tasks of the proletariat.

In this respect the Communist International has from its very inception defended the real and living independence of the trade unions, in the spirit of Marxism.

The Communists are not afraid of the word ‘party’, for their party has nothing in common, and will have nothing in common, with the other parties. Their party is not one of the political parties of the bourgeois system; it is the active, class-conscious minority of the proletariat, its revolutionary vanguard.”

Trotsky knows, the working class had paid a price for the character which pre-war trade unionism had taken. French syndicalism, by being a party, “but without openly becoming a party ... prevented the trade unions from becoming if not an organisation of the whole working class (which is not possible in a capitalist system), at least of its broad masses.”

“The Communists have no reason, either in their ideology or their organisation, to hide themselves behind the trade unions.

They do not misuse the trade unions for machinations behind the scenes. They do not split the trade unions when they are a minority in them.”

The right wing had split the French union federation in 1920. But the Communist Party wants the broadest possible unity and development of the trade unions:

“They do not in any way disturb the independent development of the trade unions, and they support trade union struggles with all their strength.”


Yet, in doing that, the Party pursues its own goals. It is not defined by the narrower goals of trade unionism, and politically, it is entirely independent of the unions:

“The Communist Party reserves the right of expressing its opinion on all questions in the working-class movement including the trade union question, to criticise trade union tactics, and to make definite proposals to the trade unions, which on their part are at liberty to accept or reject these proposals.”

Trotsky, of course, is not thinking of a passive Communist Party, which “presents” its proposals to the unions, as a waiter presents a menu to a diner. The Communists are an organised combat formation fighting for their policies against other political currents in the unions, and against the trade union bureaucracy:

“The party strives to win the confidence of the working class, above all, of that section organised in the trade unions.”


Robert Louzon, basing himself on opinions of Karl Marx about the British trade unions, has argued that the unions are in their fundamental nature more important than the Communist Party. Trotsky applies the historical method of Marx to what Marx had said decades earlier. He measures the general significance of what Marx had said about the British trade unions against the broad subsequent experience of the working class.

“It is a fact that Marx wrote in 1868 that the workers’ party would emerge from the trade unions...

Historical experience has in general confirmed Marx’s prophecies insofar as England is concerned. The English Labour Party has actually been built up on the foundation of the trade unions.”

According to what Louzon has written that would, logically, make the British Labour Party especially, quintessentially, proletarian.

“But does Comrade Louzon really think that the English Labour Party, as it is today, led by Henderson and Clynes, can be looked upon as representative of the interests of the proletariat as a whole? Most decidedly not. The Labour Party in Great Britain betrays the cause of the proletariat just as the trade union bureaucracy betrays it, although in England the trade unions come closer to comprising the working class as a whole than anywhere else.”

At the time there are perhaps four million trade unionists in Britain. Trotsky has the perspective — which he will outline further in his 1925 book, Where is Britain Going? — that the Communist Party will assume the leading role, replacing the Independent Labour Party in the role it had hitherto played, within the political structures of the British labour movement.

“We cannot doubt but that our Communist influence will grow in this English Labour Party which emerged from the trade unions, and that this will contribute to render more acute the struggle between the masses and leaders within the trade unions until the treacherous bureaucrats are ultimately driven forth and the Labour Party is completely transformed and regenerated.”

It will not happen. The 1925 Liverpool Conference will end the practice of allowing Communist Party members to be trade union delegates at LP Conference. The Stalinist’s “Third Period” ultra-left turn after 1928 will destroy the CP’s influence in both the Labour Party and the trade unions. When, in the mid ‘30s, the CP emerges from its crazed sectarianism, it will be to the right of the right wing leaders of the Labour Party, advocating a Popular Front with Liberals, “progressive Tories” and others.

Trotsky recalled that the history of the labour movement showed that in most countries the Party did not emerge from the unions. In fact in most countries — Russia and Germany, for instance — the unions had been founded by the proletarian party.


Trotsky argues that the independence of the trade unions is no supra-historical goal. It can not be properly assessed except in terms of historical and social context.

“When the English trade unions alternately supported the Conservatives and the Liberals and represented to a certain extent a labour appendage to these parties... Marx demanded the independence of the trade unions from all parties.”

Trotsky’s summary of Marx’s position has perhaps a special relevance for us now, faced with the hijacking of the Labour Party and the consequent historical regression of the party which the unions founded, and still fund, into something akin in class alignment to what the Liberal Party was in the 1890s.

“This formula [trade union independence] was dictated by the desire to counterpose the labour organisations to all bourgeois parties, and to prevent their being too closely bound up with socialist sects. But... Marx... founded the First International... the object of which was to guide the labour movement in all countries, in every respect, and to render it fruitful.

This... International created by Marx was a party. Marx refused to wait until the international party of the working class formed itself in some way out of the trade unions. He did his utmost to strengthen, within the trade unions, the influence of the ideas of scientific socialism…”

Today, in the era of Blair, “independence of the trade unions”, whether or not that should be a slogan for us, is by no means an irrelevant idea when the unions are an appendage of the Blair Party; when their relationship to Blair’s Labour Party, despite their formal but in practice notional weight within its structures, has come to resemble the unions’ relationship with the Liberals 100 and more years ago.

J & S get the relationship of the Party and the trade unions upside down! The central point in this discussion, as also the most important event in British politics for many decades, is that the relationship between the Trade Unions and “their” party has undergone a dialectical change within those elements of the old forms of the LP-TU relationship that have survived the Blair counter-revolution.

“When Marx demanded for the trade unions complete independence from all existing parties and sects, that is, from all the bourgeois and petty bourgeois parties and sects, he did this in order to make it easier for scientific socialism to gain dominance in the trade unions. Marx never saw in the party of scientific socialism one of the existing political parties (parliamentary, democratic, etc.).

For Marx the International was the class-conscious working class, represented at that time by a still very small vanguard.”

Trotsky spells out the logic of Louzon’s position: “If comrade Louzon were consistent in his trade union metaphysic and in his interpretation of Marx, he would say, ‘Let us renounce the Communist Party and wait till this party arises out of the trade unions’.”

And this would mean for the trade unions? “That kind of logic would be fatal, not only for the party but for the union.

Actually, the present French trade unions can only regain their unity and win decisive influence over the masses if their best elements are constituted in the class-conscious revolutionary vanguard of the proletariat, that is, in a Communist Party.

Marx gave no final answer to the question of the relations between party and trade unions, and indeed he could not do so. For these relations are dependent on the varying circumstances in each separate case... The forms of organisation may alter, but the fundamental role of the party remains constant.”


Trotsky ends by spelling out the difference between trade unions and the party of the working class:

“The party, if it be worthy of the name, includes the whole vanguard of the working class and uses its ideological influence for rendering every branch of the labour movement fruitful, especially the trade union movement.

But if the trade unions are worthy of their name, they include an ever growing mass of workers, many backward elements among them. But they can only fulfil their task when consciously guided on firmly established principles. And they can only have this leadership when their best elements are united in the party of proletarian revolution.”


Replying to Trotsky, Robert Louzon adjusted his “position” in order to take into account the realities of relations between the French working class and the unions, admitting that the unions were not ‘the working class as a whole’. Trotsky summed up Louzon’s reply, in an article, The Anarcho-Syndicalist Prejudice Again!, dated May 8, 1923.

[Louzon says that] “the French trade unions are not actually the working class as a whole, but only the active minority of the working class.”

But Louzon still asserts a modified version of the idea that the trade unions are identical with the working class: the unions are not the working class as a whole, but, still, they are more proletarian than the party. Here Louzon harps back to the old distinction between the unions and the pre-war socialist party.

Trotsky: [Thus] “Comrade Louzon acknowledges that the trade unions form a sort of revolutionary party. But this syndicalist party is distinguished by being purely proletarian in its constituents; here lies its tremendous advantage over the Communist Party...

Louzon... systematically ignores that ‘national’ question put to him in our former article: What about the role played by the CGT during the war? The role played by [CGT leader, Leon] Jouhaux was by no means less treacherous and despicable than that played by [Socialist Party Leader, Pierre] Renaudel.”

Trotsky once more restates the importance of the distinction between trade unions and political parties: the union, which strives to unite as much of the proletariat as possible around trade union concerns, should not try to be a political party: the members of a party, as distinct from a union, are selected on the basis of political programme. The union will, if it tries to be a political party, hinder itself as a trade union.


Trotsky poses the question of trade union unity:

“And how is it today? Does Louzon desire the union of the two confederations? We desire it. The International deems it necessary. We should not be alarmed even if the union were to give Jouhaux the majority.”

Jouhaux had been the central leader of the pre-war CGT. The French language uses the same word, “syndicalisme”, both for trade-unionism in general and for the political current which subsumes all working-class politics into trade-unionism. Trotsky here uses “syndicalism” in the same double sense, to mean both the pre-1914 CGT, the quasi-party, the movement that Trotsky insists was a party in fact if not by name, and also to mean trade unionism as distinct from the overt political party.

“Naturally we would not say — as does Comrade Louzon — that syndicalism, although headed by Jouhaux [etc], is the purest form of proletarian organisation, that it embodies ‘the working class as a whole,’ etc., etc. — for such a phrase would be a travesty of the facts.”

But the bigger the trade union, the better it could hope to fulfil its tasks as a trade union:

“We should consider the formation of a larger trade union organisation, that is, the concentration of greater proletarian masses, forming a wider battlefield for the struggle for the ideas and tactics of Communism, to be a greater gain for the cause of revolution.

But for this the first necessity is that the ideas and tactics of Communism do not remain in mid air, but are organised in the form of a party.”

Trotsky too wants to improve the class composition of the CPF, and of its leadership. He thinks it has been greatly improved by the secession of the last of the unteachable pre-war leaders. But that is not the same idea as that of Louzon and his co-thinkers:

“Comrade Louzon does not pursue his thoughts to the end. But his logical conclusion would be the substitution of the trade union organisation of the ‘active minority’ for the party.”

It is plain that Trotsky thinks that, despite all their great merits, Monatte, Louzon and their friends, with their hybrid notion of a union-party, harm both the trade unions and the Communist Party by not properly distinguishing between them.

“The inevitable result of this would be a substitute party and substitute trade union, for those trade unions required by Comrade Louzon are too indefinite for the role of a party, and too small for the role of a trade union.”


In fact the reunification of the two French trade union federations, the revolutionary-led CGTU and the reformist-led CGT of Jouhaux, would never happen in the way Trotsky hoped. The two trade union organisations did unite in the mid-thirties. That is, in Trotsky’s terms, the two trade union “apparatuses” united (see below). But by then the Stalinists had consolidated their hold on the once-revolutionary sections of the French labour movement, and pursued cross-class Popular Front policies.

The trade union organisation would split again after World War Two, when an anti-Stalinist minority split off to form a new federation, Force Ouvrière.

Monatte and his comrades would be early victims of the Zinoviev-Stalin bureaucratic coup in the Communist International. Late in 1924, at the height of the Stalinist bureaucracy’s campaign against Trotsky, most of the leaders of the CPF criticised the Russian leaders for that campaign.

The idea that they thereby sided with Trotsky politically is a myth. Explicitly, they did not. Their attitude might be summed up as a demand for “fair play” for the senior surviving leader of the October revolution. The leaders of the Polish party, who were evolving into supporters of the emerging Bukharin right wing of the Comintern, passed an almost identical pro-Trotsky resolution.

Indeed even the most political of the old syndicalist grouping, Alfred Rosmer, was so disoriented by events in Russia that in 1926 he welcomed Stalin’s victory over his erstwhile partner, Zinoviev.

Making a fetish of trade union unity, the Monatte group disagreed with Trotsky’s condemnation of the Anglo-Russian Trade Union Committee, even after it had helped wreck the 1926 British General Strike.

After their expulsion-break (it was both) from the CPF at the end of 1924, the Monatte syndicalists were a small propaganda group around a monthly magazine, La Revolution Proletarienne, which they would publish for decades. They formed the Syndicalist League, a small quasi-party.

In October, 1929, Trotsky, trying after his deportation from Russia to organise the International Left Opposition, returned to the disputes of 1923. He dealt in systematic thesis form with the points in dispute. His article was published as Communism and Syndicalism.


Trotsky: “The Communist Party is the fundamental weapon of revolutionary action of the proletariat, the combat organisation of its vanguard that must raise itself to the role of leader of the working class in all the spheres of its struggle without exception, and consequently, in the trade union field. (Thesis 1)

Those who, in principle, counterpose trade union autonomy to the leadership of the Communist Party, counterpose thereby — whether they want to or not — the most backward proletarian section to the vanguard of the working class.”

The trade unions, though they are of central importance in the class struggle, are in comparison with the revolutionary Marxist organisation, “backward”. The trade unions have a built-in tendency to limit the concerns of the workers, counterposing: “The struggle for immediate demands to the struggle for the complete liberation of the workers, reformism to Communism, opportunism to revolutionary Marxism.” (Thesis 2)

Working class political independence is not something which, once won, is thereafter a stable condition. The struggle on the front of ideas, politics and organisation is endless. Working class political independence can be won, and then lost. The struggle, on the conscious level, for class-political independence is a prime concern and central role of the revolutionary party.

“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.” (Thesis 8)


The idea that the trade unions, wherein the struggle for working class independence from the bourgeoisie has to be waged, by way of the struggle of political tendencies, are enough for the proletariat, makes no sense.

“The... syndicalis[ts] would have one believe that the trade unions are sufficient by themselves. Theoretically, this means nothing, but in practice it means the dissolution of the revolutionary vanguard into the backward masses, that is, the trade unions.”

Trotsky reiterates the idea that the criteria for the union and the revolutionary working class party, are fundamentally different:

“The larger the mass the trade unions embrace, the better they are able to fulfil their mission. A proletarian party, on the contrary, merits its name only if it is ideologically homogeneous, bound by unity of action and organisation. To represent the trade unions as self-sufficient because the proletariat has already attained its ‘majority’, is to flatter the proletariat.

[It] is to picture it other than it is and can be under capitalism, which keeps enormous masses of workers in ignorance and backwardness, leaving only the vanguard of the proletariat the possibility of breaking through all the difficulties and arriving at a clear comprehension of the tasks of its class as a whole.” (Thesis 9)

But doesn’t that imply substituting the revolutionary party for the unions? Doesn’t the Communist drive for leadership inevitably mean that the Communists must to some extent come into conflict with trade unions as trade unions, and with the proper day-to-day work of the unions? No, insists Trotsky:

“The conquest of the majority by the Communists in the directing organs” [of the trade unions and, implicitly, in Trotsky’s perspective then, of the trade union-based Labour Party in Britain?] “takes place quite in accordance with the principles of autonomy, that is, the self-administration of the trade unions.

On the other hand, no trade union statute can prevent or prohibit the party from electing the general secretary of the Confederation of Labour to its central committee, for here we are entirely in the domain of the autonomy of the party.”


Communist victory in the unions, the victory of communists openly acting as communists, will be a product of working class upsurge and therefore of mass participation. But Trotsky does not contemplate an appeal to the “backward” mere trade union “masses” against the revolutionaries!

“It is clear that the influence of the Communist Party in general, including the trade unions, will grow, the more revolutionary the situation becomes. These conditions permit an appreciation of the degree and the form of the true, real and not the metaphysical autonomy of the trade unions.”

But which discipline do Communists operate under in the trade unions? Are they bound by trade union discipline? Won’t the ‘discipline of the Party’ and the discipline of the trade unions make conflicting demands on the communist militants? Trotsky’s answer is both “yes” and “no”:

“In the trade unions, the Communists, of course, submit to the discipline of the party, no matter what posts they occupy. This does not exclude but presupposes their submission to trade union discipline. In other words, the party does not impose upon them any line of conduct that contradicts the state of mind or the opinions of the majority of the members of trade unions.”

Trotsky knows that there will be times when the Communists put their own Party discipline before the discipline of the union. This will not be a matter of the Party bureaucratically hijacking the trade unions, but of communists being ready to lose union posts if principle demands it:

“In entirely exceptional cases, when the party considers impossible the submission of its members to some reactionary decision of the trade union, it points out openly to its members the consequences that flow from it, that is, removals from the trade union posts, expulsions, and so forth.” (Thesis 11)

There are times when the Party just “goes along” with what the union does, recognising a primary division of labour between union and Marxist party.

“In times of ‘peace,’ when the most militant forms of trade union action are isolated economic strikes, the direct role of the party in trade union action falls back to second place. As a general rule, the party does not make a decision on every isolated strike.”


The Party “helps” the union. How?

“It helps the trade union to decide the question of knowing if the strike is opportune, by means of its political and economic information and by its advice. It serves the strike with its agitation, etc.

First place in the strike belongs, of course to the trade union.”

But first place, even in ‘union affairs’ does not always belong to the union:

“The situation changes radically when the movement rises to the general strike and still more to the direct struggle for power. In these conditions, the leading role of the party becomes entirely direct, open, and immediate.”

The Party exercises open leadership here by influencing some unions, which in this situation “become the organisational apparatus” of the Party — and by engaging in open conflict with others.

“The trade unions — naturally not those that pass over to the other side of the barricades — become the organisational apparatus of the party which, in the presence of the whole class, stands forth as the leader of the revolution, bearing the full responsibility.

In the field, extending between the partial economic strike and the revolutionary class insurrection, are placed all the possible forms of reciprocal relations between the party and the trade unions, the varying degrees of direct and immediate leadership, etc.

But under all conditions, the party seeks to win general leadership by relying upon the real autonomy of the trade unions which, as organisations — it goes without saying — are not “submitted” to it.”(Thesis 13)


For Trotsky there is no such thing as a stable equilibrium of trade union ‘independence’ outside of the class struggle. ‘Independence’ of the unions is an unreachable chimera, a myth.

“Facts show that politically ‘independent’ unions do not exist anywhere. There never have been any. Experience and theory say that there never will be any…

The [Syndicalist] League [of Pierre Monatte, etc] does not act openly in the name of the right and the necessity for the advanced minority to fight to extend its influence over the most backward masses; it presents itself masked by what it calls trade union ‘independence.’ From this point of view, the League approaches [the politics of] the Socialist Party which also realises its leadership under cover of the phrase, ‘independence of the trade union movement.’ The Communist Party, on the contrary, says openly to the working class: here is my program, my tactics and my policy, which I propose to the trade unions.

The workers should have a double and triple distrust toward those pretenders to leadership who act incognito, under a mask who make the proletariat that it has no need of leadership in general.” (Thesis 14)

Trotsky now brands the slogan of “independence of the unions” as not a working class slogan at all, but something alien to the working class:

“The ideology of trade union independence has nothing in common with the ideas and sentiments of the proletariat as a class. If the party, by its direction, is capable of assuring a correct clear-sighted, and firm policy in the trade unions, not a single worker will have the idea of rebelling against the leadership of the party.

It is clear that the abstract slogan of independence can under no condition come from the masses. Trade union bureaucracy is quite another thing. It not only sees professional competition in the party bureaucracy, but it even tends to make itself independent of control by the vanguard of the proletariat.

The slogan of independence is, by its very basis, a bureaucratic and not a class slogan.” (Thesis 17)


What about trade union unity?

“After the fetish of ‘independence’ the Syndicalist League also transforms the question of trade union unity into a fetish.

It goes without saying that the maintenance of the unity of the trade union organisations has enormous advantages, from the point of view of the daily tasks of the proletariat as well as from the point of view of the struggle of the Communist Party to extend its influence over the masses.”

But the revolutionary party works by fighting against other — political and bureaucratic — forces within the trade union too:

“The facts prove that since the first successes of the revolutionary wing in the trade unions, the opportunists have set themselves deliberately on the road of split. Peaceful relations with the bourgeoisie are dearer to them than the unity of the proletariat. That is the indubitable summary of the post war experiences.

We Communists are in every way interested in proving to the workers that the responsibility for the splitting of the trade union organisations falls wholly upon the social democracy. But it does not at all follow that the hollow formula of unity is more important for us than the revolutionary tasks of the working class.” (Thesis 18)

But who will unite?

“In fact the future of the revolution depends not upon the fusion of the two trade union apparatuses, but upon the unification of the majority of the working class around revolutionary slogans and revolutionary methods of struggle.

At present the unification of the working class is only possible by fighting against the class collaborationist (coalitionists) who are found not only in political parties but also in the trade unions.” (Thesis 19)


But isn’t all talk such as Trotsky’s about “the Party” invalidated by the reality of the Stalinised PCF and its destructive ‘Third Period’ antics? At that time, the Trotskyists still considered themselves a faction of the Comintern.

“One may seek to object that all the preceding considerations would be correct only on condition that the Communist Party has a correct policy. But this objection is unfounded.”

It is also to depart from a principled approach to the issues involved.

“The question of the relationships between the party, which represents the proletariat as it should be, and the trade unions, which represent the proletariat as it is, is the most fundamental question of revolutionary Marxism.

It would be veritable suicide to spurn the only possible principled reply to this question solely because the Communist Party... is now conducting a false policy towards the trade unions, as well as in other fields.”

What that undoubted fact imposes on the real communists, the Left Opposition, organised as an expelled faction of the Comintern parties, is that:

“A correct policy must be counterposed to a wrong policy. Towards this end, the Left Opposition has been constituted as a faction. If it is considered that the French Communist Party in its entirety is in a wholly irremediable or hopeless state — which we absolutely do not think — another party must be counterposed to it. But the question of the relation of the party to the class does not change one iota by this fact.”

Then he spells it out clearly:

“The Left Opposition considers that to influence the trade union movement, to help it find its correct orientation, to permeate it with correct slogans, is impossible except through the Communist Party (or a faction for the moment) which, besides its other attributes, is the central ideological laboratory of the working class.” (Thesis 24)


However, the Communists — and the Trotskyist faction — do not aim to win influence in the trade unions at any cost. Trotsky now criticises the Stalinised CPs in terms that have great relevance to those confronted with the antics of kitsch-Trotskyist organisations such as the SWP, and before it the Healyite WRP, acting like political bandits and gangsters for whom anything is permitted so long as it helps “build the party”. What Trotsky condemns here is what many, perhaps most, of the kitsch-Trotskyist groups do and for decades have done.

“If the party buys its influence in the trade unions only at the price of a narrowing down and a factionalising of the latter — converting them into auxiliaries of the party for momentary aims and preventing them from becoming genuine mass organisations — the relations between the party and the class are wrong.”

For all his criticism of Robert Louzon earlier, and repudiation of the idea that the revolutionary Party is necessarily antagonistic to the unions, and even to the working class, Trotsky, drawing to a close, now gives his own version of the idea that the Party cannot behave like a bureaucratic ‘boss’ towards the working class. Again, Trotsky might be commenting on the antics of the kitschified present day “Trotskyists” who believe that “the Party” and its growth is properly the all-defining concern of revolutionary socialists:

“The changeability of the official Communist policy reflects its adventurist tendency to make itself master of the working class in the briefest time, by means of stage-play, inventions, superficial agitation, etc.

The way out of this situation does not, however, lie in counterposing the trade unions to the party (or to the faction) but in the irreconcilable struggle to change the whole policy of the party as well as that of the trade unions.” (Thesis 25)


Trotsky now defines the tasks of the International Left Opposition in relation to the trade unions:

“The Left Opposition must place the questions of the trade union movement in indissoluble connection with the questions of the political struggle of the proletariat. It must give a concrete analysis of the present stage of development of the French labour movement. It must give an evaluation, quantitative as well as qualitative, of the present strike movement and its perspectives in relation to the perspectives of the economic development of France.”

The Opposition criticises the ultra-left Stalintern from the “right” and is habitually denounced as rightist Social-Democratic faint-hearts and traitors by those who, from the mid-30s, will spend decades denouncing “Trotskyites” as “ultra-lefts” and “sectarians.” In doing that, the Opposition, “firmly” and “implacably” acts “against the supposedly revolutionary rantings of the (Stalinist party) bureaucracy, against political hysteria which does not take conditions into account, which confuses today with yesterday or with tomorrow.”

So the Marxists can and should, against the crazed Stalinists, unite with their opponents on the right, with the Social Democratic and trade union bureaucracies, and with backward, but sane, elements of the working class? No!

For Trotsky, the more firmly the Opposition fights the “hysteria”, etc, of the ultra-left Stalinists, then “the more firmly and resolutely must it set itself against the elements of the right that take up its criticism and conceal themselves under it in order to introduce their tendencies into revolutionary Marxism.” (Thesis 26)

Finally Trotsky has a word for those appalled at the splits and divisions between old friends and comrades that Trotsky’s polemic reflects and prosecutes.

The chaos on the ostensibly revolutionary left does not suggest to Trotsky that the Opposition should seek refuge in the broad masses of the working class movement, irrespective of politics. It does not suggest diplomatic “live and let live” arrangements between small “revolutionary” groups. It suggests to him that the Opposition must fight still harder, implacably, irreconcilably, ruthlessly, for its ideas.

“A new definition of boundaries? New polemics? New splits? That will be the lament of the good but tired souls, who would like to transform the Opposition into a calm retreat where one can tranquilly rest from the great tasks, while preserving intact the name of revolutionist “of the left.” No! we say to them, to these tired souls: we are certainly not travelling the same road. Truth has never yet been the sum of small errors. A revolutionary organisation has never yet been composed of small conservative groups, seeking primarily to distinguish themselves from each other. There are epochs when the revolutionary tendency is reduced to a small minority in the labour movement. But these epochs demand not arrangements between the small groups with mutual hiding of sins but on the contrary, a doubly implacable struggle for a correct perspective and an education of the cadres in the spirit of genuine Marxism.

Victory is possible only in this way.”
[Written in 2004]

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