Conquer or destroy the unions?

In the past [nineteenth] century, at the beginning of the worker’s movement, Karl Marx was given the occasion to consider the forms through which class struggle had led to political and revolutionary struggles in syndicalist organizations. The experience of Chartism in particular helped determine Marx’s view that unions are a school for socialism, and will be an arena in the revolution. His judgment is beyond reproach considering the period in which it was formed.

However, referring to the present epoch, it must be noted the syndicalists have indignantly speculated about that old opinion of Marx, in order to attribute to trade union forms the exclusivity of the revolutionary role. The fact is generally ignored in Italy and France that Marx, a scrupulous observer of class struggle’s development and tireless opponent of dogmatic conclusions, did not miss the chance to revise this viewpoint in light of historical experience. He realized that unions were caught in the shifting sands of economic resistance, and were thus no longer natural organs of class struggle, as the epigones of the Leninist school (Trotskyists, Bordigists, Brandlerites, etc.) affirm. Rather their function has become limited to resisting to the capitalist tendency to reduce capitalism’s costs to a bare minimum.

[Marx] later found that this resistance from unions would never bring real and general improvement to the workers’ situation. Economic struggles within the limits of capitalist society only permit workers to perpetuate their lives of slavery, while unemployment crises would come to take away the livelihood of the masses. On the other hand, Marx noticed that unions could not play the role of revolutionary educators to the proletariat. For him, that was the essential element in the development of the class struggle towards victory in socialism. It goes without saying that no revolutionary would lose sight of this fundamental perspective, which in-itself [en soi] contains the liberation of the proletariat and, along with it, the whole of society. What Marx still could not see was the destiny of union organizations, which was to fall into the swamp [marais] of class collaboration, as seen both during and after the war.

After the World War and Russian Revolution, two tendencies lay before the communist movement — two tendencies which offered completely different solutions to the union problem. Some (i.e., the Leninists) stressed the necessity of conquering trade unions, that is to say, replacing reformist leaders with communist leaders, or to revolutionize reformist unions. Others (i.e., German extremists) advocated the destruction of unions. To the unions they opposed the revolutionary councils, which had spontaneously arisen in Germany during the insurrectionary years of 1918-1919, as instruments of direct struggle for the proletarian class.

Needless to say, these two tendencies did not manifest without intermediate degrees. Both communist and syndicalist elements still advocated a departure from the reformist unions to form revolutionary ones.

It should be noted that Leninism already recognized the counterrevolutionary nature of trade unions during the war, the bourgeois nature of their bureaucratism. Very strange, then, that this recognition [étude] did not push it to adopt more radical positions. Only in 1920 did the Leninists feel impelled to capture the sympathy of the masses, thus drawing the revolutionary movement into the vicious circle of trade union conquest. In reality, the theory which cast unions as natural organs of the proletariat had no historical justification. Even if the unions had truly been such organs in their inception, they gave proof of their degeneracy during and after the war. No longer were they just nonrevolutionary organs, as Marx defined them, but also led to class collaboration, to the victory of counterrevolutionary forces. So it is not without displeasure that we read in Bordiga’s speech at the Second Congress of the Comintern on the question of parliamentarism: ‘’Unions even when corrupted remain workers’ centers!’’ This affirmation is so infantile, almost anyone can surmise the obvious inconsistency. Bordiga, in seeking to legitimize the Leninist theory of conquest, legitimizes the potential conquest of reactionary unions, even fascist corporations. Envisaging the union problem in this manner, moreover, is abstract and antihistorical. If unions are corrupt, this is not because of reformism. Reformism is on the contrary a product of the evolution of unions in a counterrevolutionary direction. Revisionism in Germany developed within social democracy and dominated it, but had its roots in the unions. The theory of conquest, upholding the regeneration of the unions, evidently takes the view that external forces corrupted these organizations of proletarian resistance (and must be cast out in order to put revolutionary forces in their place). If we start from the view that union corruption as a historical phenomenon finds its raison d’être in the nature of the union, the goal cannot be to reconcile the new revolutionary forms with the old corrupt forms of class struggle. However, the revolutionary political elites, whose embryo was already found in international social democracy before and after the war, which manifested themselves in the nuclei and immediate postwar communist parties are, according to the theory of conquest, the organs that arose to revolutionize the masses in the old union organization. But we’ll go one better! Factory councils, which are not the product of any conquest by the masses, have no consequence for the theoreticians of conquest. Indeed, the theory of conquest, by blinding itself to the conflict between unions and councils, has effectively relegated the latter to the status of legalized organs, to be subordinated to the counterrevolutionary line of the German CGT.

Thus the antidialectical nature of the theory of conquest emerges from the historic experience of the German movement. It denies the conflict between revolutionary councils and unions: that is to say, between proletarian forces in the factory and the trade union bureaucracy. It pretends to employ new political forces in regenerating the unions, but all this activity by the “conquerors” cannot prevent these regenerated forms from being further corrupted. Such activity does not preclude compulsory arbitration: even better, the forces of conquest are now forced to maneuver in the terrain of class collaboration. Leninism, which boasted on the ground of the destruction of the state, did not understand that corrupt organs also have to be destroyed. Toward the unions it acted in a completely reformist, if not reactionary fashion. The revolutionary activity of the proletarian political elites should never put them across the historical process; we cannot first hide conflicts and pretend that we have solved them with a backwards strategy.

The failure of Leninist strategy seems incontestable today. No one would deny it, looking at the results we have just underlined. And it is the very height of inconsistency that the conquerors still hang onto this theory like a safety board, though historic experience has definitively condemned it. We should not conquer corrupt organizations but destroy them.

Infantile extremism, against which Leninism directed its irony in 1920 (emboldened by temporary successes), did not allow the wave of enthusiasm to shake its faith in its theory of destruction. Many revolutionaries were blinded at the time. The theory of destruction was not an abstract and undialectical theory, which wished to apply its anodyne system to history. Leninism, owing to the widespread dissemination of its concepts, managed to spread a caricature of extremism. And Bordiga himself contributes to distorting [défigurer] extremism when during his speech at the Second Congress of the Comintern he assimilates it to syndicalism. Syndicalism idealizes the union form, seeing in it the eternal renewal of revolutionary forces. In the union, socialism supposedly reaches its goal or perfect form.

To summarize, for this theory the union is the only form, the eternal form which always rejuvenates in the course of class struggle. Syndicalism thus identifies class struggle wholly with the union, and in that sense would not be so far from Leninism, if the question of the party were not there to separate them.

Radicalism or extremism grasped changes which the historical process brought to class struggle, realizing that what is corrupted can never be fixed. It is a product of the experience of the class struggle in Germany, a living force which emerged from the revolution. Unlike syndicalism, it is not an abstract theory. And unlike Leninism, it is not an anachronism in the context of a proletarian revolution in Western Europe.

German-style revisionism advocated class collaboration and, having roots in syndicalist organizations, invaded all the social-democratic milieux. After the war broke out, revisionism triumphed. Union bureaucracy and the aristocracy of labor had already infected social democracy and the unions. They were simultaneously a product of capitalist development as well as the purely economic forms class struggle had taken. Purely economic forms of struggle, chasing partial demands, fed social-chauvinism among the working class, the belief that the proletarian lot could be improved under the capitalist regime. Obviously, this assumption led workers to believe their well-being was tied to the supremacy of their capitalist motherland (this can still be heard today among French workers). Thus did the daily struggle for existence in its unionized form bring the working class to the precipice of class collaboration… From there, the war integrated the bureaucratic apparatus of the unions into the state apparatus of the bourgeoisie (even in France, via the CGT). Class collaboration was now officially proclaimed by unionist organs, which denied the possibility of class struggle during war, pushing workers into capitalist war as faithful servants of imperialism.

The German working class was thus faced with an historic phenomenon which turned former class organs into docile weapons in the hands of the capitalists. No doubt, unions had fought for the eight-hour workday, wage increases, etc. They knew how to take advantage of certain moments of economic conjuncture to wrest concessions from capitalism that it had to respect even during periods of crisis. But such concessions were only relative measured against the immense development of capitalist profits and were, as subsequent events have shown, extremely precarious. The tangible results of this daily struggle for their livelihood [les moyens d’existence] led to the formation of unions encompassing millions of workers. At the top of these organizations now formed a centralized and manifold bureaucratic apparatus. This bureaucratic layer, which drew its forces above all from the most privileged stratum of the working class — the aristocracy of labor, who never understood the aspirations of the lower strata of the proletariat — could not preserve a revolutionary class-based [classiste] spirit. On the contrary, it detached itself completely in its habits and ideas from the class that had been its origin. Hence its ideology became capitalist and conservative. Indeed, the preservation of this social layer was and still remains possible solely through the perpetuation of the capitalist regime. Proletarian revolution has as one of its goals the suppression of all that is parasitic in society. Bureaucratism is merely a parasitic phenomenon, developed during the the heyday of capitalism, that the exploiting classes have favored and supported in their own interest. State bureaucratism [bureaucratisme étatique] has witnessed formidable growth under bourgeois auspices, even in countries where it used to be a negligible phenomenon. Union bureaucratism [bureaucratisme syndical] has gone hand-in-hand in its development with the bureaucratism of the state. In Germany, England, and the United States these two elements have no difference between them. It is not extraordinary that union bureaucratism would absorb bourgeois ideology, or would attempt — often quite successfully — to mystify proletarian ideology, by corrupting the working class.

In its [progressive] estrangement from the working class as a revolutionary historic force, in its collaboration with capitalism, the union bureaucracy idealized its own social condition in a theory of cross-class collaboration. It was only natural for it to then extend this theory to the working class as a whole.

A few have attempted to explain this collaboration between the unions and the state as a mere transitional phenomenon, as the consequence of a period of lull in the class struggle. Such elements thus idealize the union, making it out to be an eternal form. They do not grasp the difference that exists between the class struggle as a total process and its various forms. These same people are inclined to believe that, since we reject the idealization of these forms (namely their own) that we somehow reject class struggle as such!

Trotsky himself did not seem to recognize that the unions have not been natural forms of class struggle for a while now. He affirms in his text on 1917 [Lessons of October] that in countries other than Russia, the organs of revolution will likely be the factory committees and the unions, an obvious confusion. In Trotsky, eclecticism [l’éclectisme] has been pushed to the point of having to admit these two forms of class struggle are identical… According to this conception, pure syndicalism is mixed with radicalism until the historic antithesis of these two forms disappears. Bureaucratic ideology is assimilated to purely proletarian ideology. Reformism is placed on the front lines alongside revolution. It is moreover surprising that this argument, which Trotsky so delicately offers to elements of the proletarian revolution, had not already occurred to them. Through idealization of unions, such elements have been brought today to the idealization of workerism. [Robert] Louzon, theoretical leader of the Syndicalist League, arrived by way of geographic determinism (which is not at all similar to historical materialist determinism) to find the economic and political rallying point of British and Belgian workerism [travaillisme]. He practically resolved, operating on the ideological terrain of the Syndicalist League, the problems with revolution [Fernand] Loriot theoretically posed in his brochure. He gave living form to the ideological specter [fantôme] of Loriot. [Maurice] Chambelland went further, bringing the Syndicalist League still closer to workerism on a practical level. He made a very diplomatic a posteriori apology of compulsory conciliation. Pierre Naville, who had not yet found an appropriate form for his revolutionary surrealism adds a very apologetic note to this workerist table: revolutionary honesty!

We can scarcely imagine anything more grotesque than this guiding role attributed to the union. The union! It has torn apart every revolutionary movement, with its colossal and vile bureaucratism. The union, which today in Russia is a weapon of the Bonapartist state, helping it maintain the triangle regime in Soviet factories! Now in Italy the union only has a place within the purest forms of proletarian oppression: the corporations!

Those who have idealized the union — to the point of even making it the most sensitive revolutionary organ during a dictatorship of the proletariat — have ignored the results of a century of class struggle. They have not and still do not see that today, even if the class struggle created unions at some point in the past, it cannot rely on them any longer to reach higher, more revolutionary forms. They fail to grasp that, regardless of whether the starting point of class struggle is purely economic, proletarian consciousness develops historically beyond purely economic impulses. Their conceptualization reduces the materialist dialectic to the level of a utilitarian theory. It does not understand that such economic forms of class struggle enter into marked contrast with revolutionary forms, precisely because the former impose limits onto the latter. Economic struggle has offered an experience that is increasingly restrained. Of course, agitation along economic lines quite often constitutes the starting point for revolutionary agitation (though certainly not always). This tendency of economic movements to be politicized finds its rationale in the nature of classes. But this spontaneous tendency cannot of itself bring about the reality of the revolution. If it could, the revolution would have been accomplished a long time ago. Revolutionary spontaneity found its limits in the lack of experience of the working class. And these limits brought the masses back to their original economic positions. Unions are nothing but the organized expression of these limits. Despite the spontaneity of class struggle, as a movement begins to generalize, its power tends to build until finally reaching a crescendo. In Germany and Italy, at the time of their most intense revolutionary effervescence, this led to the formation of more or less complete factory councils. In Italy, the spontaneity of the revolutionary movement coated itself with a highly novel form from an historical point of view. In the occupation of factories, this spontaneity pushed the working class to directly expropriate them. This was not achieved by some constituted government, but by the self-activity of the most advanced section of the laboring masses. On that note, however, we must be careful not to confuse revolutionary action with union action. The latter never went further than a tariff policy and the mobile scale, which was nonsensical from a revolutionary point of view. The metallurgists in Italy went beyond the limits of what is called the purely economic. Here one might well object that there is no “pure” economic sphere from a Marxist point of view, that every economic movement is an embryonic political movement. We have already pointed out that there exists a tendency within every economic movement of the proletariat to become a political movement. But we must also note that there are forces that  seek to relegate those movements to the economic sphere. That is to say, the economic element has a double character. It consists in the dilemma: Struggle for one’s livelihood or struggle for the revolution? Up to this point there have been very few examples where this dilemma has found a revolutionary resolution. Even then, these only really happened outside of forms of union organization. The example of the factory occupations shows us the path revolution will take in the near future. It goes beyond every prior method of struggle in terms of spontaneity. Furthermore, it presents itself as a concrete unity. We must notice that this movement was at first an initiative by workers of the metallurgist category. It then spread to other categories. Had it gone unrepressed, it would have reached the totality of the working class [la totalité de la classe ouvrière]. Many believe it was the product of union action from the Metallurgist Federation. Angelica Balabanoff tries to downplay the importance of the factory movement in her memoirs by alluding to an analogous movement which was in reality provoked by the fascists before the occupation of factories in September 1920. She ascribes no importance to the big September movement, and does not try in any way to analyze its causes or development. Evidently for her, as well as for many others, this was a purely syndicalist action. But we must counter that the September occupation was preceded by two highly significant movements: the council movement in Turin and the occupation of the Fliani and Silvestri factories in Naples. The former was pushed to a purely reformist terrain by the communist elements of Ordine Nuovo, on the terrain of control over production. The occupation of Fliani and Silvestri was isolated, if we consider that it occurred in Naples, a little further from the real industrial center. But it was very significant symptom of the revolutionary tendencies that agitated the Italian masses. It was resolved by the resistance of workers against police forces and by the assassination of a member of the soviet, which was constituted inside the occupied factory itself.

The great occupation of September 1920 was provoked by the workers spontaneously occupying a few factories in Liguria and Milan. Only after these spontaneous movements did the Metallurgist Federation take up the initiative to occupy its factory, against the will of union leaders. And it was not only workers within that organization but the totality of metallurgical workers [la totalité des ouvriers métallurgistes] who participated in this movement. The leaders of the Federation declared the character of this movement to be “purely economic”… Indeed, union functionaries were extremely preoccupied with the council movement that developed during the factory occupations. Just like the Ordinovists in Turin, the syndicalists proposed that the councils play a more reformist role in controlling production. It is therefore strange and contradictory that Bordiga used this argument, not only to condemn “Ordinovism,” but to bolster the role of the classic Italian CGT. Bordiga proves in this circumstance to have misunderstood the reality of the conflict, which occurred during the occupation of factories in Italy. Of course to him the class tradition of the Italian CGT triumphs over the councils, with the latter appearing as mere reformist organs. Needless to say, the form that the Ordinovists and Italian reformists tried to give to factory committees was reformist. But their real form was not the form which the reformists tried to foist upon them. In their real form they tended to recognize themselves as constituting a new form of political hegemony. It was in this respect that they were truly revolutionary. Further development of the factory occupations would have assigned to councils the role of providing direction to the struggle. But the limitations of purely economic struggle, represented not only by the Metallurgists’ Federation and the Italian CGT, but by all of the union organizations (Unione Sindacale Italiana, the Docker’s Federation, the Railwaymen’s Union, etc.) and the political parties, either tried to impose limits on the movement or else accepted them without resistance, which are more or else the same. Among them could be found the elements that founded the Communist Party four months later in Livorno.

The September 1920 movement in Italy once again proves that while the economic starting point can lead the proletariat to spontaneously revolutionary positions, unions tend to bring them back to the beginning. The victory of councils in Italy was the end of union organizations. And yet, we must notice that the development of the labor aristocracy was extremely low in Italy. And that union bureaucracy was, compared to other countries, relatively limited, even if it was neither less corrupt, nor less clever.

Union organizations which had socialists, anarchists, and revolutionary syndicalists in their leadership proved no less hostile to the revolutionary march. They sought to bring it back within the limits of the economic, provoking the reactionary offensive that would later defeat the proletariat. These organizations, in which the verbal maximalism of their leaders expressed the general fear of the revolutionary masses, were in the revolutionary process of Italian class struggle counterrevolutionary organisms. The path to revolution in Italy, just like anywhere else is not that of the union. The attempt to revive the union experience, after the ignominious experience of this movement is a counterrevolutionary anachronism. Collaborating to restore organs in which the revolution found enemies means working in the way of counterrevolution.

Prometeo has correctly understood that we reject any form of mass organization in Italy. We would like to point out that since our departure from the Bordigist fraction, we began to think, to reflect with a freer brain. Without any disciplinary engagement, which forced us into dogmatic cretinism, we had to see the reality that lay in front of us. Incidentally, it looked a little different from what we were previously shown. And the reality examined here is not a figment of our imagination but rather the history of the class movement in Italy. There are indeed mass organizations in Italy: i.e., the fascist corporations which, just like the unions in Germany, in Russia, etc., serve as the prisons of class consciousness and proletarian spirit. Corporations are to unions what fascism is to reformism: two perfectly analogous and complementary things. Such are the last elements of experience in the spontaneous: where the unions have not, through an evolution and a gradual corruption, due to the strong labor aristocracy and union bureaucracy, progressively reached class collaboration or economic fascism, they have nevertheless played a counterrevolutionary role.

L’Ouvrier Communiste
August 1929