Leon Trotsky on Trade unions and the working class

Submitted by AWL on 23 July, 2003 - 12:20

The discussion in Solidarity about the trade union relationship to the Blairite Labour Party raises general questions about the relationship of trade unions to working class politics. As a contribution to the ongoing discussion we reprint an article which Leon Trotsky wrote in 1923 in a discussion about French syndicalist politics.

In France the pre-1911 trade union federation (the CGT) had stayed strictly aloof from the Socialist Party and from politics developing a theory of self-sufficiency of the trade unions for the winning of working class liberation from wage slavery and the establishment of a socialist society. Between the trade unions and the Socialist Party there was a class division — the Socialist Party being heavily petit bourgeois — and to a serious extent a regional division as well as a different attitude to Parliamentary politics.

In 1914 when the Germans invaded France and Belgium the leadership of the revolutionary trade unions turned patriotic no less than the Socialist Party. Only a small minority in the CGT, around Pierre Monatte and Alfred Rosmer, opposed the war.

In the two years before he was deported in late 1916 Trotsky worked closely with these revolutionary syndicalists in Paris. He found in them, he would later write, the best elements in the French labour movement.

After the war the revolutionary syndicalists supported the Communist International "some more readily than others " and the French Communist Party (PCF). They carried with them all their old prejudices against 'politics” and their old theories about the trade unions as the natural and organic instrument of the working class, more important than any mere political party, the PCF included. The Monatte group was expelled - in fact they seem to have wanted to withdraw - in 1924 by the bureaucratised leadership of the Communist International.

Here Trotsky discusses the basic issues dividing the revolutionary syndicalists and Bolshevism. The article has been slightly abridged.

Sean Matgamna

This article was written as a reply to the arguments of Comrade Louzon, immediately after the Fourth World Congress of the Communist International - Comrade Louzon, in a series of articles and personal explanations, represented views with regard to the fundamental question of the relations between party and trade union which differ radically from the opinions of the Communist International and from Marxism… It is necessary therefore, to correct the errors made by him in such an important question.

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 by Louzon. And our comrade here appeals, quite wrongly, to Marx.

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.

The mutual representation of the Communist International and the Red International of Labor Unions, which existed until the last Moscow congresses, signify, according to Louzon, the actual equalization of party and class. This mutual representation has now been abolished.

The party thereby resumes its role of servant again. Comrade Louzon approves of this.

According to him, this was also the standpoint of Marx. The end of the mutual representation of the political and trade union internationals in each other is, to Louzon, the rejection of the errors of Lassalle (!) and of the social democrats (!) and a return to the principles of Marxism.

This is the essence of an article that appeared in the Vie Ouvrière of December 15. The most astonishing thing in this and other similar articles is that the writer 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. The criminal maneuvers of the reformist trade unionists, supported on the left by some few anarchists, have split the French trade union organization. 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 organization pursues a different policy". [One, the CGTU linked to the Communist Party, the other the CGT to the bourgeois and reformist Socialist Party.] What then does he mean by the assertion that the working class, which he obviously regards as synonymous with the trade union organization, bears its own aim in itself?

With whose help, and how, does the French working class express this aim? With the help of [the reformist CGT]? Certainly not. With the help of the [Communist-led] CGTU? The CGTU has already rendered great services. But unfortunately it is not yet the whole working class… At the present time its leaders are syndicalist communists.

In which of these two periods has the CGTU best represented the interests of the working class? Who is to judge? 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. 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 organized 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. But the overwhelming majority of the proletariat, standing outside both trade union confederations, would, at the present time, give us no reply at all.

There is no country in which the trade union organisation embraces the whole working class. But in some countries it at least comprises a very large section of the workers. This is, however, not the case in France. As Louzon opines, the party must not 'annex' the working class (what is this term actually supposed to mean?), then for what reason does Comrade Louzon accord this right to syndicalism? He may reply: "Our trade union organization is still weak. But we do not doubt its future and its final victory." To this we should reply: "Certainly; we too share this conviction. But we have just as little doubt that the party too will win the unqualified confidence of the great majority of the working class."

Neither for the party nor for the trade unions is it a question of 'annexing' the proletariat - 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. 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.

"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 the working class, the vanguard of the masses. This applies equally to party and trade union. The trade union also begins as a small group of active workers and grows gradually as its experience enables it to gain the confidence of the masses. But while the revolutionary organizations 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. 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'. For what else is an active minority, held together by the unity of their ideas, if not a party? And on the other hand, would not a trade union mass organization, not containing a class-conscious active minority, be a purely formal and meaningless organization?"

It [French syndicalism] is a party that attempted to have its members blend into the trade union membership, or at least take cover behind the trade unions. The actual subordination of the trade unions to certain tendencies, factions, and even cliques of syndicalism is thus explained."

The Communist International has most determinedly combated the split in the trade union movement in France, that is, its actual conversion into syndicalist parties. 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 organization 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.

Revolutionary syndicalism, which was in France in many respects the precursor of present-day Communism, has acknowledged the theory of the active minority, that is, of the party, but without openly becoming a party. It has thereby prevented the trade unions from becoming if not an organization of the whole working class (which is not possible in a capitalist system), at least of its broad masses. 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.

Hence the Communists have no reason, either in their ideology or their organization, 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. They do not in any way disturb the independent development of the trade unions, and they support trade union struggles with all their strength. But at the same time the Communist Party reserves the right of expressing its opinion on all questions in the working-class movement including the trade union question, to criticize 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. The party strives to win the confidence of the working class, above all, of that section organized in the trade unions.

What is the meaning of the quotations from Marx adduced by Comrade Louzon? It is a fact that Marx wrote in 1868 that the workers' party would emerge from the trade union. When writing this he was thinking mainly of England, at that time the sole developed capitalist country already possessing extensive labor organizations.

Half a century has passed since then. 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. 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. On the other hand, 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. And we, like Comrade Louzon, belong to an International which includes the little British Communist Party, but which combats the Second International supported by the English Labour Party that had its origin in the trade unions.

In Russia - and in the law of capitalist development Russia is just the antipode of Great Britain - the Communist Party, the former social-democratic party, is older than the trade unions, and created the trade unions. Today, the trade unions and the workers' state in Russia are completely under the influence of the Communist Party, which by no means had its origin in the trade unions but which, on the contrary, created and trained them. Will Comrade Louzon contend that Russia has evolved in contradiction to Marxism? Is it not simpler to say that Marx's judgment on the origin of the party in the trade union has been proved by experience to have been correct for England, and even there not 100 per cent correct, but that Marx never had the least intention of laying down what he himself once scornfully designated as a 'supra-historical law'? All the other countries of Europe, including France, stand between Great Britain and Russia on this question. In some countries the trade unions are older than the party, in others the contrary has been the case; but nowhere, except in England and partially in Belgium, has the party of the proletariat emerged from the trade unions.

In any case, no Communist party has developed organically out of the trade unions. But are we to deduce from this that the entire Communist International is of illegitimate birth?

When the English trade unions alternately supported the Conservatives and the Liberals and represented to a certain extent a labor appendage to these parties, when the political organization of the German workers was nothing more than a left wing of the democratic party, when the followers of Lassalle and Eisenach were quarreling among themselves — Marx demanded the independence of the trade unions from all parties. This formula was dictated by the desire to counterpose the labor organizations to all bourgeois parties, and to prevent their being too closely bound up with socialist sects. But Comrade Louzon may perhaps remember that it was Marx who founded the First International as well, the object of which was to guide the labor movement in all countries, in every respect, and to render it fruitful. This was in 1864 and the 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 — ideas first expressed in 1847 in the Communist Manifesto.

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.

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.” 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. Whether the party and the trade union confederation are mutually represented on their central committees, or whether they form joint committees of action as needed, is a question of no decisive importance. The forms of organization may alter, but the fundamental role of the party remains constant. 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 labor 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 fulfill 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.

The recent purification of the Communist Party of France, which rid itself on the one hand of whining petty bourgeois, of drawing-room heroes, of political Hamlets and sickening careerists, and on the other hand actuated the rapprochement of Communists and revolutionary syndicalists, implies a great stride towards the creation of suitable relations between trade union organizations and the political organization, which in turn means a great advance for the revolution.

March 23, 1923

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