Friday, 23 July 2010

The Politics And Programme Of The First International - Part 5

Trades' unions. Their past, present and future

(a) Their past.

Capital is concentrated social force, while the workman has only to dispose of his working force. The contract between capital and labour can therefore never be struck on equitable terms, equitable even in the sense of a society which places the ownership of the material means of life and labour on one side and the vital productive energies on the opposite side. The only social power of the workmen is their number. The force of numbers, however is broken by disunion. The disunion of the workmen is created and perpetuated by their unavoidable competition among themselves.

Trades' Unions originally sprang up from the spontaneous attempts of workmen at removing or at least checking that competition, in order to conquer such terms of contract as might raise them at least above the condition of mere slaves. The immediate object of Trades' Unions was therefore confined to everyday necessities, to expediences for the obstruction of the incessant encroachments of capital, in one word, to questions of wages and time of labour. This activity of the Trades' Unions is not only legitimate, it is necessary. It cannot be dispensed with so long as the present system of production lasts. On the contrary, it must be generalised by the formation and the combination of Trades' Unions throughout all countries. On the other hand, unconsciously to themselves, the Trades' Unions were forming centres of organisation of the working class, as the mediaeval municipalities and communes did for the middle class. If the Trades' Unions are required for the guerilla fights between capital and labour, they are still more important as organised agencies for superseding the very system of wages labour and capital rule.

(b) Their present.

Too exclusively bent upon the local and immediate struggles with capital, the Trades' Unions have not yet fully understood their power of acting against the system of wages slavery itself. They therefore kept too much aloof from general social and political movements. Of late, however, they seem to awaken to some sense of their great historical mission, as appears, for instance, from their participation, in England, in the recent political movement, from the enlarged views taken of their function in the United States, and from the following resolution passed at the recent great conference of Trades' delegates at Sheffield:

"That this Conference, fully appreciating the efforts made by the International Association to unite in one common bond of brotherhood the working men of all countries, most earnestly recommend to the various societies here represented, the advisability of becoming affiliated to that hody, believing that it is essential to the progress and prosperity of the entire working community."

(c) Their future.

Apart from their original purposes, they must now learn to act deliberately as organising centres of the working class in the broad interest of its complete emancipation. They must aid every social and political movement tending in that direction. Considering themselves and acting as the champions and representatives of the whole working class, they cannot fail to enlist the non-society men into their ranks. They must look carefully after the interests of the worst paid trades, such as the agricultural labourers, rendered powerless [French text has: "incapable of organised resistance"] by exceptional circumstances. They must convince the world at large [French and German texts read: "convince the broad masses of workers"] that their efforts, far from being narrow -- and selfish, aim at the emancipation of the downtrodden millions.

There has tended to arise the idea, from Leninism, and more particularly Luxemburgism, that the creation of Trades Unions is a symbol of the fact that the working class is a revolutionary class, whose conditions of life spontaneously generates a class consciousness, and that it is this class consciousness and the automatically arising collective and solidaristic organisation, which is the basis and form through which the new forms of property under Socialism are established. But, a reading of the programme set out here shows that conception is false.
As Marx sets out what characterises the actual material conditions of workers under Capitalism is not a natural collectivity or solidarity, but the fact that “disunion of the workmen is created and perpetuated by their unavoidable competition among themselves.” That competition exists not just at the individual level of one worker against another, competing for available jobs, but at every level. It exists at the level of one factory against another (mirroring the competition between the actual owners of those factories), one industry against another, one area against another, and one nation against another. That is on top of the other divisions amongst workers that Capitalism can exploit – sex, sexual orientation, ethnicity and so on.

As Lenin, himself pointed out, these conflicts between individual groups of workers, which for the reasons Marx sets out always tend to be defensive in nature, are not “class” struggles, because they are only conflicts between fragments of classes. They can only ever be sectional struggles, and the consciousness that results from such conflicts is not a “class” consciousness, but only a Trade Union consciousness, a reformist consciousness. Only when workers as a whole come into conflict with Capital as a whole i.e. with the Capitalist State, do such struggles become class struggles. The fact, that workers are forced to come together purely as a defensive measure – and even then this is not a natural condition, because only a small minority of workers ever come together even in Trade Unions – cannot, then be taken as meaning that this is a natural basis upon which new forms of property, let alone a new society can be based.

What the Trades Unions do constitute, however, is precisely what Marx says here, “organising centres”. The bourgeoisie, as its economic power developed, within the towns, used those towns as its organising centres. It was via, Coffee Houses, Business Clubs and whatever that groups of bourgeois could come together, and discuss their common interests, develop strategy etc. and begin to develop the political forms, which met their particular needs, the development of their Political Party, the development of Municipal Government etc. The Liberal Party did not simply emerge as the political party of the bourgeoisie, but was the product of these discussions, and conscious organisation. The same is true of Municipal Government. The only similar forums for workers were the Trades Unions. The Trades Unions were not an end in themselves, therefore, but an effective means by which the workers could begin to develop the ideas, and begin to create the kinds of organisations under which the material conditions which led to the competition between them could be changed. Trades Unions in themselves could never achieve that, and so could not be the basis of creating a new society.

Just as workers struggles were necessary to restrict the workers decline, but could not reverse it, so Trades Unions could have as their intention the removal of competition between workers, and could strive to achieve it, within the confines of Capitalism, they could never remove the causes of that competition, and so could never achieve their aim. The only way that aim could be achieved was by removing the material basis of it – the fact that workers only had their labour-power to sell. That could only be achieved if the workers became the owners of Capital, if they established their own Co-operative enterprises. But, Co-operatives were no more likely to arise spontaneously than was Municipal Government. In fact, less so. It had to be organised. Moreover, even where workers did organise Co-operatives, the bourgeoisie would use their political power to frustrate them, to limit them and so on. Only if such development was backed up by political action, at first to oppose such manoeuvres by the bourgeoisie, and later to create the kinds of conditions under which the Co-operatives could be encouraged and facilitated on a national basis, was their possibility of success, and again the Trades Unions role was to act as a centre of organisation, by which workers could come together to create the political party needed to conduct such a struggle.

The workers condition made them a class in themselves, but they could never become a class for themselves via the Trades Unions. Nor could they achieve that through any political parties simply created by the Trades Unions, because such parties could only ever codify the reformist Trades union consciousness. Marxists could attempt within those parties to raise that consciousness, just as they would try to do within the Trades Unions, but it would always be a hopeless task so long as the material conditions which fomented the competition between workers, and which underpinned the bourgeois ideology, which dominated the workers persisted.
In a review of Kautsky's work Capitalism In Agriculture, Lenin says,

"All these experiments, says Kautsky, irrefutably prove that it is quite possible for workers to carry on large-scale modern farming collectively, but that for this possibility to become a reality "a number of definite economic, political, and intellectual conditions" are necessary. The transition of the small producer (both artisan and peasant) to collective production is hindered by the extremely low development of solidarity and discipline, the isolation, and the "property-owner fanaticism," noted not only among West-European peasants, but, let us add, also among the Russian "commune" peasants (recall A. N. Engelhardt and G. Uspensky). Kautsky categorically declares, "it is absurd to expect that the peasant in modern society will go over to communal production" (S. 129).”

This small quote is extremely significant. What it is saying supports Marx's contention. For co-operative production, a certain degree of development by workers is necessary, and the basis of that solidarity can arise from the workers defensive struggles through the Trades Unions. But, this can never be enough. As Marx puts it in his criticism of Lassalle, the workers themselves must WANT to establish such production, they must be committed to it. Lenin's mistake that he only realised too late, was that he assumed that because the workers formed Trades Unions, this meant that they would automatically turn this exhibition of collectivism and solidarity into a desire to exercise control over the means of production. All that was needed then was to seize the means of production, and make that possible. In reality, the majority showed no more desire to do that than participated in the Trades Unions, or even in the Workers Parties. For example, in the German SPD at its height, only a very small minority of members played an active part in its Branch meetings.

As Lenin put it,

“We went too far when we reintroduced NEP, but not because we attached too much importance to the principal of free enterprise and trade — we want too far because we lost sight of the cooperatives, because we now underrate cooperatives, because we are already beginning to forget the vast importance of the cooperatives from the above two points of view.”


“There is another aspect to this question. From the point of view of the “enlightened” European there is not much left for us to do to induce absolutely everyone to take not a passive, but an active part in cooperative operations. Strictly speaking, there is “only” one thing we have left to do and that is to make our people so “enlightened” that they understand all the advantages of everybody participating in the work of the cooperatives, and organizes participation. “only” the fact. There are now no other devices needed to advance to socialism. But to achieve this “only", there must be a veritable revolution—the entire people must go through a period of cultural development.”

Lenin On Co-operation

Luxemburg, believed that what she thought was a spontaneous drive towards a socialist class consciousness arising from the workers' position, and their repeated conflicts with Capital, would result in them exercising this function of control, as and when they seized the means of production.

But, there is no automaticity in the way that either Lenin or Luxemburg believed. The Trades Unions could act as centres of organisation through which workers could begin to develop their forms of property, their forms of government, their political parties, but the actual transformation of workers consciousness, could only arise out of a transformation of their material conditions, not as some single cataclysmic event, but as Marx said, as part of a long drawn out process of the dissolution of the Capitalist Mode of Production. Workers would no more participate in the running of Co-operatives, or of their Party, than they already did in their Trades Unions, unless the very conditions of their existence led them to do so. That was why the nature of producer co-operatives as opposed to Consumer Co-ops was important, because their very nature, especially in competition with capitalist enterprise, forced every worker within them, to take an active role in order to protect their job, and their investment in it.

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