Martin Thomas concludes a series on "Marxists and the workers' party" with a warning against fetishising the trade-union-based forms of "old Labour"
In 1909, Karl Kautsky, then a Marxist, wrote that moves to set up trade-union-based Labour Parties in continental Europe "must be fought with all the means at our disposal" (Neue Zeit, July 1909, Vol.13 no.7, pp.316-28).
Lenin, a few years earlier, had opposed the call for a broad "labour congress" in Russia.
"A labour congress means 'taking down the signboard' it means merging with the Socialist-Revolutionaries [populists] and the trade unions
It would lead to that even against the wish of its convenors. And it is just for that reason that a labour congress now would be a petty opportunist adventure.
Petty - for there is no broad idea underlying it, nothing but the weariness of intellectuals who are tired of the persistent struggle for Marxism. Opportunist - for the same reason, and also because thousands of petty bourgeois of far from settled opinions would be admitted into the labour party. An adventure - for under present conditions such an attempt will bring about, not peace or constructive work, or collaboration between the Socialist-Revolutionaries and Social-Democrats [Marxists] - to whom [a Menshevik advocate of the labour congress] kindly assigns the role of 'propagandist societies within a broad party' - but only endless aggravation of strife, dissension, splits, ideological confusion, and actual disorganisation
[The advocate] bases his arguments on 'Belgium' [the formation of the Belgian Labour Party in 1885: it had a system of collective trade-union affiliated membership until World War Two] But [he] forgot to 'translate' to Russia the industrial conditions and history of Belgium.
After a series of bourgeois revolutions, after decades of struggle against Proudhon's petty-bourgeois quasi-socialism, and with the enormous development of industrial capitalism, possibly the highest in the world, the labour congress and the labour party in Belgium marked a transition from non-proletarian socialism to proletarian socialism.
In Russia with a Social-Democratic Labour Party that has a history of nearly one decade, a labour congress is a badly conceived invention, and fusion with the Socialist-Revolutionaries is an intellectual's whimsy".
(Lenin, The Crisis of Menshevism, December, 1906: Collected Works, Volume 11, pages 341-364).
Such arguments ring strangely to Marxists focused on the history and experience of the British labour movement. In Britain the trade-union-based Labour Party was a step forward - from the situation before 1900 of trade unions tied to the Liberal Party, and the socialist parties still small and without leverage - and we suffer a temptation to elevate that particular experience into a dogmatic universal norm.
It is not. As the old relations between working class, trade unions, and Labour Party change and break up, we can track the process and the possibilities accurately only if we have a broad view of the diverse forms that working-class politics has taken in different countries.
In Germany and Sweden the workers' socialist political party was formed first. The party formed the trade unions, rather than vice versa. Outside countries of the British Empire, directly influenced by British politics, working-class politics developed on the British pattern nowhere except in Belgium. In Ireland and Canada, British-modelled Labour Parties have developed, but have never been able to convert their trade-union affiliations into mass working-class support.
Mass working-class political representation often takes forms other than the "old Labour" one. In fact, truly independent working-class political representation - politically independent of the parties of the bourgeoisie, as well as organisationally independent - has only ever been established in forms different from the "old Labour" ones.
Marxists of Lenin's and Luxemburg's day saw Britain's development not as a norm from which other countries had regrettably been diverted, but as an expression of the peculiar trade-unionist bias and slowness to revolutionary ideas of the British working class.
France before World War One should be particularly instructive for anyone tempted to think in stereotypes shaped by "old Labour". There, the socialist party and a socialist trade union movement developed simultaneously, but in opposition to each other.
Small socialist groups were active, without ever reaching the stage of a large and established party, for many decades before the Paris Commune of 1871. There was relatively little trade-union organisation.
After the defeat of the Commune, tens of thousands of workers were killed, and tens of thousands more deported. The whole movement was crushed for years. It revived gradually.
By 1902, a trade-union confederation, the CGT, finally gained stable shape. It was revolutionary-socialist. It aimed to achieve socialism through purely industrial action - a general strike - and was hostile to the "political" socialists, who by then were also numerous.
The trade-union leaders were far from having the well-cut suits, large salaries, and expense accounts of Britain's union leaders today. One of them, Fernand Pelloutier, faced angry charges of corruption when he took work in the government statistics office in order to raise enough cash for medical care for his tuberculosis (which he would die from, months later). His successor, Victor Griffuelhes, was forced out of office because he had borrowed money from a rich sympathiser to buy the CGT a (small) headquarters building.
Although the movement emphasised solidarity, unions' local and industrial autonomy was respected. Throughout, significant parts of the movement were led by parliamentary socialists or by reform syndicalists. They got their say at the congresses.
The CGT's high point was May 1906, when it attempted to organise a general strike to win the eight-hour day. The strike ultimately failed, but it mobilised 150,000 workers, some of whom stayed out for weeks or months. Later that year the government introduced, for the first time, a law giving workers the right to one day off every week.
The revolutionary CGT was a splendid movement. Its weaknesses are all the more striking proof of the limitations of trade-unionist politics.
There were no fewer than five rival socialist political parties, plus a group of people elected to parliament as individual socialists. The six socialist political factions would not be united into a single party, the SFIO, until 1905.
Against those factions, Griffuelhes, secretary of the CGT in its heroic years, claimed that the CGT was a movement based solely on the economic class identity of the working class, not on doctrine.
"On the political plane, the working class was for a long time the prey of parties or sects which fought each other for the honour of leading it to its final emancipation We undertook to achieve the unity of the working class on the economic plane: no more Jaurèsists, Guesdists, Allemanists, or anarchists: just trade-unionists marching in unison in the same class struggle".
Asked about the impact of a theorist on the CGT, Griffuelhes once famously replied: "I read Alexandre Dumas myself". He claimed that the CGT was "not a movement of ideas or theories", but "of action".
He was wrong. It was because he was wrong that the CGT had such vitality.
The union movement's leaders were mostly people who had come into socialism via the political movements, then moved over into unionism. Fernand Pelloutier and Pierre Monatte were first Guesdists, Emile Pouget an anarchist, Griffuelhes himself a Blanquist. They mostly came to be leaders by first being trade-union journalists.
Their union movement was as much concerned with working-class self-education as with pay and hours. It was a long way removed from being a direct, unfiltered, "spontaneous" outgrowth of elemental working-class bargaining for better wages and conditions.
The CGT leaders knew that the core of their movement was an "active minority" rather than the whole working class. They openly insisted on the right and duty of that "active minority" to lead the workers forward into struggle, and win support by doing so, rather than waiting until they were sure of the assent of the passive majority.
Yet their movement mutated, in fact, into a reformist one.
The Guesdists had dominated the first trade-union congress, back in 1879. They lost support because many trade unionists perceived them as using the unions simply as instruments for a strategy focused on parliamentary politics and party-building, but they still controlled an important minority in the CGT.
The other socialist factions - Jaurèsists, Allemanists, different strands of Blanquists - settled into conceding the autonomy of the unions in industrial affairs but seeking to win their friendship for politics. The tactic yielded some fruits - in 1913, for the first time, the CGT and the SFIO ran a joint campaign, against the government's extension of the period of compulsory military service to three years - but meant abandoning any attempt at integrating different fronts of struggle into a coherent working-class strategy.
The CGT's "active minority" was, so to speak, not ideological enough. Instead of working through the strategic issues rigorously, they evaded them with the pretence that they represented only the economic class identity and struggle of the working class, leaving doctrine and other politics to the SFIO.
That division of labour meant both CGT and SFIO sliding into piecemeal reformism, though both still called themselves revolutionary. The CGT's industrial élan dwindled.
Symbolically, the rallying of the leaderships of both wings of the French labour movement to World War One was announced on 4 August 1914 in a speech by Léon Jouhaux - who had been elected CGT secretary in 1909 by members believing it meant putting a revolutionary back in the job after a short period of reformist control - at the funeral of the SFIO leader Jean Jaurès, who had been assassinated by a chauvinist on 31 July because of his anti-war speeches.
Even though the SFIO was notoriously feeble in membership compared with parties like the German Social Democracy - despite a parliamentary representation scarcely weaker than the Germans', it had only 44,000 members in 1906, 90,000 in 1914 - it was from the SFIO than most of the future revolutionary French Communist Party came. After World War One, the revolutionaries won a clear majority in the SFIO, but only ever gained a minority in the CGT.
Rationally, the CGT's "active minority" needed to organise as a political party, recognising openly that they were dealing with a much wider range of issues than just the trade-unionist, and recognising also the necessary autonomy of the mass membership from that minority. They needed to regulate their relations with other socialist parties politically - merging with them or battling against them depending on politics - rather than pretending to counterpose themselves to all political doctrine as a "Party of Labour".
Only a section of the CGT right wing did that rationally, in their own way. For a period in 1909-11, encouraged by some months in 1909 when the CGT came under reformist leadership, they together with some SFIO right-wingers advocated a Labour Party on the British model to replace the SFIO.
The appeal to static class identity against political doctrine could not advance working-class political representation. Quite the opposite. It was covertly encouraged by Aristide Briand, the former independent socialist parliamentarian now turned bourgeois prime minister, who in October 1910 smashed a railworkers' strike by decreeing the military mobilisation of the strikers and arresting the strike committee.
A similar scheme - a non-doctrinal union-sponsored Labour Party to replace the existing Socialist Party - was also mooted in Italy's union confederation, the CGL.
Those moves to increase the trade-union imprint on working-class politics were moves against working-class political independence, not for it.
It does not follow, of course, that a "labour congress", a general rallying of the trade unions to reassert their influence in the Labour Party, a strong Labour Representation Committee, would have the same significance in Britain today.
Here, today, it would be a step forwards, or at least a potential step forwards, as the British Labour Representation Committee of 1900 or the Belgian labour congress of 1885 were.
What does follow is that union-based forms of politics are not self-sufficient, nor the only form of working-class politics, nor even the normal and canonical form. Their import must be judged specifically in each specific set of circumstances. Trade-unionist politics may figure as a stepping-stone to all-round socialist working-class politics, but are a drag and an impediment if counterposed to those all-round socialist politics.