An excerpt from John Rees' Strategy and Tactics: How the Left Can Organise To Transform Society
Trade unions are the basic defence mechanism of the working class. They were first built to defend workers at the point of production from employers’ attacks on wages and conditions. They work best when they organise the widest possible sections of the working class irrespective of political, religious, ethnic, or any other kind of distinction. The old trade union slogans are, in this sense, fundamental truths: unity is strength; united we stand, divided we fall.
For these reasons, the first and fundamental job of any socialist at work is to build and strengthen trade union organisation wherever possible. But that is just the start of the problem.
Precisely because trade unions organise over the most basic economic questions, and because they aim to organise all workers – from the most politically conscious to the most conservative – a question arises about relationship between the politically conscious minority and the rest of the unionised workforce.
If we return to Trotsky’s metaphor of five workers with different outlooks (that is, uneven consciousness), then, in this case, we might imagine that all five workers are in the union together. Moreover, since trade unions exist within capitalism in order to bargain over the conditions under which labour is exploited – and not to abolish capitalism and exploitation – they inevitably exist in a state of compromise with the system. Even the most militant and successful strike will end with significant improvements for workers within a still-existing capitalist system. And many strikes will end with compromises that are worse than this.
There is, therefore, a contradictory pressure within the unions. On the one hand, there is the constant spur to organisation and action provided by employers’ attempts to worsen conditions, lengthen hours, intensify work, and lower wages. On the other, the necessary class-wide organisation of the unions introduces an element of conservatism, and, because compromise is inevitable at some point in every union struggle, the more conservative members are encouraged to push for compromise sooner rather than later, settling for less rather than more.
Moreover, the longer unions exist and the more stable they become, the more likely they are to develop a conservative layer of full-time officials. These officials, especially those higher up the union structure, no longer feel the daily pressure of those still at work. They are likely to enjoy better conditions and higher pay than those they represent. They meet with employers and government ministers far more often than any ordinary trade unionist is ever likely to do.
In many instances, union officials will also be members of the Labour Party. This reinforces their conservative tendencies, because the Labour Party’s official doctrine is to seek reform, and therefore compromise, within the capitalist system. When the Labour Party is in government, the pressure to compromise is even greater.
Under these circumstances, there exists an intense pressure for trade union officials to cease representing the interests of their members to employers and government, and instead to represent the interests of employers and government to their members.
To counter this pressure, rank-and-file organisation is desirable whenever it can be built. Rank-and-file organisations bring together ordinary workers and their most immediate elected representatives (shop stewards and office representatives) in union-wide or sectional organisation that can act as a counter-weight to the conservative pressure of full-time officials and give a lead to the rest of the workforce.
Such rank-and-file organisation, through meetings and bulletins, seeks to maximise the militant impulse of workers to defend themselves and to minimise the influence of officials who wish to dampen down the struggle.
But it is also necessary for a revolutionary organisation to maintain its own profile, both within the unions and in any rank-and-file organisations that it can assist in building. The organisational and political independence of the advanced minority is extremely important in the trade unions precisely because it is here that the direct mechanisms for transmitting the views of the employers and the government, and the pressure of the more conservative workers, can be most effective in disrupting the action of the working class.
There are many important lessons to be learned from the great General Strike of 1926. One of them, highlighted by Trotsky, is the way in which the pressure of the ruling class is transmitted into the working class movement.
Trotsky’s point was that the government did not simply defeat the strike ‘militarily’ so to say. Nor did it exercise only direct ideological pressure on the working class movement. Rather, pressure was exercised indirectly through the intermediary layers of the Labour movement, especially its leaders. But the ultimate success even of this form of pressure depended on the political weakness of the left at the end of the chain of influence.
Trotsky saw that the government put pressure on the Labour Party leaders, the Labour Party leaders put pressure on the TUC, the right-wing of the TUC put pressure on the left-wing, and they in turn put pressure on the Minority Movement, the Communist Party-initiated rank-and-file movement of shop stewards. And finally, the Minority Movement, those who stood closest to the Communist Party, pressurised the Communist Party itself – whose resistance to the sell-out collapsed.
The Minority Movement, embracing almost a million workers, seemed very promising, but it bore the germs of destruction within itself. The masses knew as leaders of the movement only [trade union leaders] Purcell, Hicks, and Cook, whom, moreover, Moscow vouched for. These “left” friends, in a serious test, shamefully betrayed the proletariat. The revolutionary workers were thrown into confusion, sank into apathy, and naturally extended their disappointment to the Communist Party itself, which had only been the passive part of this whole mechanism of betrayal and perfidy. The Minority Movement was reduced to zero; the Communist Party returned to the existence of a negligible sect. In this way, thanks to a radically false conception of the party, the greatest movement of the English proletariat, which led to the General Strike, not only did not shake the apparatus of the reactionary bureaucracy, but, on the contrary, reinforced it, and compromised Communism in Britain for a long time.
In this case, as Trotsky explains, a critical weakness was introduced into the Communist Party’s politics by pressure from the Stalinist bureaucracy in Moscow. Stalin wanted foreign allies and he soft-pedalled criticism of the British trade union leaders in the hope they would assist this project.
But the warning stands without the peculiarity of Stalin’s influence. The state will always try to exercise influence through the union bureaucracy. And the reformist politics of the union bureaucracy will always lead them to try and transmit this pressure to the rank-and-file, using left-wing allies who are not sufficiently strong to resist them.
This underlines the importance of the political and organisational independence of the revolutionary minority. If – and this moment should be avoided if it can be – there comes a moment when the allies of yesterday become the channel for compromise today, the party must assert its independence even from its closest friends.
Long before the General Strike, in 1915, the rank-and file organisation, the Clyde Workers Committee, had summed up the right attitude towards the trade union leaders:
We will support the officials just so long as they rightly represent the workers, but we will act independently immediately they misrepresent them.
Trotsky was only paraphrasing the same sentiment when he wrote:
With the masses – always; with the vacillating leaders – sometimes, but only so long as they stand at the head of the masses. It is necessary to make use of the vacillating leaders while the masses are pushing them ahead, without for a minute abandoning criticism of these leaders.
John Rees is a writer, broadcaster and activist, and is one of the organisers of the People’s Assembly. His books include ‘The Algebra of Revolution’, ‘Imperialism and Resistance’, ‘Timelines, A Political History of the Modern World’, ‘The People Demand, A Short History of the Arab Revolutions’ (with Joseph Daher), ‘A People’s History of London’ (with Lindsey German) and The Leveller Revolution. He is co-founder of the Stop the War Coalition.