The question of trade union unity

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Author(s) Leon Trotsky
Written 25 March 1931

[Leon Trotsky: Trade Unions in the Epoch of Imperialist Decay. New York etc. 1990, p. 48-58]

The question of the unity of the workers’ organizations is not subject to a single solution suitable for all forms of organization and for all conditions.

For the party the question resolves itself in most categorical fashion. Its complete independence is the elementary condition of revolutionary action. But even this principle does not give in advance a ready-made reply to the question: When and under what conditions must a split or, contrariwise, a unification be made with a neighboring political current? Such questions are settled each time on the basis of a concrete analysis of the tendencies and political conditions. The highest criterion, in any case, remains the necessity for the vanguard of the organized proletariat, the party, to preserve its complete independence and autonomy on the basis of a distinct program of action.

But precisely such a solution of the question with regard to the party not only admits but, as a general rule, renders indispensable a quite different attitude with regard to the question of the unity of other mass organizations of the working class: trade unions, cooperatives, soviets.

Each one of these organizations has its own tasks and methods of work — and, within certain limits, independent ones. For the Communist Party, all these organizations are first of all the arena of revolutionary education of broad sections of the workers and recruitment of the advanced workers. The larger the mass in a given organization, the greater are the possibilities it offers the revolutionary vanguard. That is why, as a rule, it is not the Communist wing but the reformist wing that takes the initiative in splitting the mass organizations.

It is enough to contrast the conduct of the Bolsheviks in 1917 to that of the British trade unions in recent years. The Bolsheviks not only remained in the same trade unions with the Mensheviks, but in certain trade unions they tolerated a Menshevik leadership even after the October revolution, although the Bolsheviks had the overwhelming majority in the soviets. The British trade unions, on the contrary, upon the initiative of the Labourites, not only drive the Communists out of the Labour Party but, so far as it is possible, out of the trade unions as well.

In France the split in the trade unions was also the consequence of the initiative of the reformists, and it is no accident that the revolutionary trade union organization, compelled to lead an independent existence, adopted the name unitary.

Do we demand today that the Communists quit the ranks of the CGT? Not at all. On the contrary, the revolutionary wing within Jouhaux’s confederation must be strengthened. But by that alone we show that the splitting of the trade union organization is in no case a question of principle for us. All the ultraleftist objections in principle that may be formulated against trade union unity apply first of all to the participation of Communists in the CGT. Yet every revolutionist who has not lost touch with reality must recognize that the creation of Communist fractions in the reformist trade unions is an extremely important task. One of the tasks of these fractions must be to defend the CGTU in discussions with members of the reformist trade unions. This cannot be accomplished except by showing that the Communists do not want the trade unions to be split but, on the contrary, are ready at any moment to reestablish trade union unity.

If one believes for an instant that the splitting of the trade unions is imposed on Communists by their duty to counterpose a revolutionary policy to the policy of the reformists, then one cannot limit oneself to France alone. One must demand that the Communists, regardless of the relationship of forces, break with the reformist trade unions and also set up their own trade unions in Germany, in Britain, in the United States, and so on. In certain countries Communist parties have actually taken this road. In specific cases the reformists really leave no other way out. In other cases the Communists commit an obvious mistake by responding to the provocations of the reformists. But up to now Communists have never and nowhere motivated the splitting of the trade unions by the inadmissibility in principle of working with the reformists in the organizations of the proletarian masses.

Without stopping to deal with cooperatives — the experiences in which will add nothing essential to what has been said above — we will take soviets as an example. These arise in the most revolutionary periods, when all problems are posed with the keenness of a blade. Can one, however, imagine even for a moment the creation of Communist soviets as a counterbalance to Social Democratic soviets? This would mean killing the very idea of the soviets.

At the beginning of 1917 the Bolsheviks remained within the soviets as an insignificant minority. For months — and in a period when months counted for years, if not for decades — the Bolsheviks tolerated a conciliationist [Menshevik and Socialist Revolutionary] majority in the soviets, even though they already represented an overwhelming majority in the factory committees. Finally, even after the conquest of power, the Bolsheviks tolerated the Mensheviks within the soviets so long as the Mensheviks represented a certain part of the working class. It was only when the Mensheviks had completely compromised and isolated themselves, by being transformed into a clique, that the soviets threw them out of their midst.

In Spain, where the slogan of soviets may in the near future be put practically on the order of the day, the very creation of soviets (juntas) — provided there is an energetic and bold initiative of the Communists — is not to be conceived of otherwise than by way of a technical organizational agreement with the trade unions and the Socialists on the method and the intervals of the election of workers’ representatives. To advance, under these conditions, the idea of the inadmissibility of working with the reformists in the mass organizations would be one of the most disastrous forms of sectarianism.

How then is such an attitude on our part toward the proletarian organizations led by the reformists to be reconciled with our evaluation of reformism as the left wing of the imperialist bourgeoisie? This contradiction is not a formal but a dialectical one, that is to say, one that flows from the very course of the class struggle. A considerable part of the working class (its majority in a number of countries) rejects our evaluation of reformism; in other countries, it has not as yet even approached this question. The whole problem consists precisely in leading these masses to revolutionary conclusions on the basis of our common experiences with them. We say to the non-communist and to the anticommunist workers: “Today you still believe in the reformist leaders whom we consider to be traitors. We cannot and we do not wish to impose our point of view upon you by force. We want to convince you. Let us then endeavor to fight together and to examine the methods and the results of these fights.” This means that within united trade unions, where union discipline applies to all members, groupings must enjoy full freedom. No other principled position can be proposed.

The Executive Committee of the Communist League [Left Opposition in France] is at present correctly giving first place to the question of the united front. This is the only way that one can prevent the reformists, and above all their left-wing agents, the Monattists, from counterposing to the practical tasks of the class struggle the formal slogan of unity. [CP leader Albert] Vassart, as a counterbalance to the sterile official [Communist Party] line, has put forward the idea of the united front with the local trade union organizations. This way of posing the question is correct, in the sense that during local strikes it is primarily a question of working with local trade unions and specific (national] federations. It is equally true that the lower levels of the reformist apparatus are more sensitive to the pressure of the workers. But it would be wrong to make any kind of principled difference between agreements with the local opportunists and those with their chiefs. Everything depends upon the conditions of the moment, upon the strength of the pressure of the masses, and upon the character of the tasks that are on the order of the day.

It is self-evident that we never make agreement with the reformists, whether locally or centrally, an indispensable and preliminary condition for the struggle in each specific case. We orient ourselves not according to the reformists but according to the objective circumstances and the state of mind of the masses. The same applies to the character of demands put forward. It would be fatal for us to commit ourselves in advance to accept the united front according to the conditions of the reformists, that is, upon the basis of minimal demands. The working masses will not rise in struggle for demands that seem unrealistic to them. But on the other hand, should the demands be too limited in advance, the workers may say to themselves, “Why bother, it’s not worth the trouble.”

On each occasion, the task consists not in proposing the united front formally to the reformists but in forcing them to accept conditions that correspond as well as possible to the situation. All this calls for an active strategy, one of maneuver. In any case, it is incontestable that only in this way and by it alone can the CGTU mitigate, up to a certain point, the consequences of the division of the masses into two trade union organizations, throw the responsibility for the split onto those on whom it really belongs, and advance its own militant positions.

The singularity of the situation in France lies in the fact that two trade union organizations have existed there separately for many years. In the face of the ebb of the movement in recent years, people have accustomed themselves to the split; very often it has simply been forgotten. However, one could foresee that the revival in the ranks of the working class would inevitably revive the slogan of the unity of the trade union organizations. If one takes into account that more than nine-tenths of the French proletariat is outside the trade unions, it becomes clear that, as the revival steps up, the pressure of the unorganized will increase. The slogan of unity is nothing but one of the first consequences of this pressure. With a correct policy, this pressure should be favorable to the Communist Party and the CGTU.

Even if, for the next period, an active united front policy were the principal method of the French Communists’ trade union strategy, it would nonetheless be quite wrong to counterpose this policy to that of unity of the trade union organizations.

It is entirely incontestable that the unity of the working class can be realized only on a revolutionary basis. The policy of the united front is one of the means of liberating the workers from reformist influence and even, in the last analysis, of moving toward the genuine unity of the working class. We must constantly explain this Marxist truth to the advanced workers. But a historical perspective, even the most correct one, cannot replace the living experience of the masses. The party is the vanguard, but in its work, especially in its trade union work, it must be able to lean toward the rear guard. It must, in fact, show the workers — once, twice, and even ten times if necessary — that it is ready at any moment at all to help them reconstitute the unity of the trade union organizations. And in this field we remain faithful to the essential principles of Marxist strategy: combining the struggle for reforms with the struggle for revolution.

What is the attitude today of the two trade union confederations toward unity? To the broad circles of the workers it must appear entirely identical. In truth, the administrative stratum of each organization has declared that unification can only be conceived of “from below” on the basis of that organization’s principles. By covering itself with the slogan of unity from below, borrowed from the CGTU, the reformist confederation exploits the forgetfulness of the working class and the ignorance of the younger generation, which knows nothing of the splitting work of Jouhaux, Dumoulin, and company. At the same time the Monattists assist Jouhaux by substituting for the fighting tasks of the labor movement the single slogan of trade union unity. As honest brokers they direct all their efforts against the CGTU in order to detach from it the greatest possible number of trade unions, to group these around themselves, and then to enter into negotiations with the reformist confederation on an equal footing.

As far as I am able to judge here from the material I have, Vassart has expressed himself in favor of the Communists themselves putting forward the slogan of a unification congress of the two trade union confederations. This proposal was categorically rejected; as for its author, he was accused of having gone over to Monatte’s position. Lacking data, I am unable to express myself thoroughly on this discussion. But I consider that the French Communists have no reason to abandon the slogan of a fusion congress. On the contrary.

The Monattists say, “They are both, one as much as the other, splitters. We alone are for unity. Workers, support us.” The reformists reply, “As for us, we are for unity from below.” That is, “we” will generously permit the workers to rejoin our organization. What must the revolutionary confederation say on this subject? “It is not for nothing that we call ourselves the unitary confederation. We are ready to effect the unity of the trade union organization this very day. But to accomplish that, the workers have no need whatsoever of questionable brokers who have no trade union organization behind them and who feed upon splits like maggots on a festering wound. We propose the preparation and, after a specified period, the convening of a fusion congress on the basis of trade union democracy.”

This manner of posing the question would immediately cut the ground from under the feet of the Monattists, who are a completely sterile political grouping but are capable of bringing great confusion into the ranks of the proletariat. But will not elimination of the group of brokers in this way cost us too dearly? It will be objected that if the reformists consented to a unity congress, the Communists would be in the minority there and the CGTU would have to give way to the CGT.

Such a consideration can appear persuasive only to a left trade union bureaucrat who is fighting for his “independence” while losing sight of the perspectives and tasks of the movement as a whole. The unity of the two trade union organizations, even if the revolutionary wing remains in the minority for a time, would very quickly be revealed to be favorable precisely to communism and to it alone. The unity of the confederations would bring in its train a great influx of new members. Thanks to this, the influence of the [economic] crisis would be reflected within the trade unions in a more profound and more decisive fashion. The left wing would be able, within the rising new wave, to begin a decisive struggle for the conquest of the unified confederation. A preference for an assured majority in a narrow and isolated trade union confederation rather than oppositional work in a broad and real mass organization, is the mark only of sectarians or officials and not of proletarian revolutionists.

For a thinking Marxist it is quite evident that one of the factors contributing to the monstrous mistakes of the CGTU leadership resulted from a situation where people like Monmousseau, Semard, and others, without theoretical preparation or revolutionary experience, immediately proclaimed themselves the “masters” of an independent organization [in 1922] and consequently had the possibility of experimenting with it under the orders of [Comintern leaders] Lozovsky, Manuilsky, and company. It is incontestable that if the reformists had not at some point brought about the split in the confederation, Monmousseau and company would have had to reckon with broader masses. This fact alone would have disciplined their bureaucratic adventurism. That is why the advantages of unity would have been immeasurably greater at present than the disadvantages. If, within a unified confederation embracing about a million workers, the revolutionary wing remained in the minority for a year or two, these two years would undoubtedly be more fruitful for the education not only of the Communist trade unionists but of the whole party than five years of “independent” zigzags in a CGTU growing constantly weaker.

No, it is not we but the reformists who should fear trade union unity. If they consented to a unity congress — not in words but in deeds — that would create the possibility of bringing the labor movement in France out of its blind alley. But that is just why the reformists will not consent to it.

The conditions of the crisis are creating the greatest difficulties for the reformists, primarily in the trade union field. That is why they find it so necessary to take shelter behind their left flank; it is the brokers of unity who offer them this shelter.

To unmask the splitting work of the reformists and the parasitism of the Monattists is now one of the most important and indispensable tasks. The slogan of the unity congress can contribute greatly to the solution of this task. When the Monattists speak of unity, they aim this slogan against the Communists; when the CGTU itself proposes a road to unity, it will deliver a mortal blow to the Monattists and will weaken the reformists. Isn’t this quite clear?

It is true that we know in advance that, thanks to the resistance of the reformists, the slogan of unity will not yield the great results at present that would be obtained in the case of a real unity of the trade union organizations. But a more limited result, provided the Communists follow a correct policy, will undoubtedly be achieved. The broad masses of workers will see who is really for unity and who is against it, and will become convinced that the services of brokers are not required. There is no doubt that in the long run the Monattists will be reduced to nothing, the CGTU will feel itself stronger, and the CGT weaker and more unstable.

But if that is how matters stand, does this policy not boil down simply to a maneuver rather than to the achieving of effective unity? This objection cannot frighten us, This is precisely the way that the reformists evaluate our whole policy of the united front. They declare that our proposals are a maneuver only because they themselves do not want to lead the struggle.

It would be entirely false to differentiate in principle between the policy of the united front and that of the fusion of the trade union organizations. Provided that the Communists preserve the complete independence of their party, of their fraction in the trade unions, of their whole policy, the fusion of the confederations is nothing but a form of the policy of the united front, a more extended and broader form. In rejecting our proposal, the reformists transform it into a “maneuver.” But on our part, it is a legitimate and indispensable “maneuver”; it is such maneuvers that train the working masses.

The Executive Committee of the Communist League, we say again, is entirely correct when it urgently repeats that unity of action cannot be postponed until the unification of the trade union organizations. This idea must be developed as has been done heretofore, explained, and applied in practice. But this does not exclude the duty of posing boldly, at a definite and well-chosen moment, the question of the fusion of the [CGT and CGTU] confederations or even of individual [union] federations. The whole question consists in knowing if the Communist leadership is now capable of effecting such a bold maneuver. The future will show. But if the [Communist] Party and the leadership of the CGTU refuse to follow the advice of the [Communist] League today — which is most probable — it may well be that they will be obliged to follow it tomorrow. It is superfluous to add that we make no fetish of trade union unity. We postpone no question of struggle until unity. It is not a question for us of a panacea, but of a lesson in specific and important things that must be taught to the workers who have forgotten or who do not know the past.

For participation in the unity congress, we do not of course set any conditions of principle. When the unity brokers, who are not ashamed of cheap phrases, say that the united confederation must base itself upon the principle of class struggle, etc., they are doing verbal acrobatics in the interests of the opportunists. As if a serious man could ask Jouhaux and company, in the name of unity with the Communists, to tread the road of the class struggle, which these gentlemen have deliberately abandoned in the name of unity with the bourgeoisie. And just what do these brokers themselves, all these Monattes, Zyromskys, and Dumoulins, understand by the “class struggle’? We are ready at any moment to stand on the grounds of trade union unity, but not in order to “correct” (with the aid of quack formulas) the mercenaries of capital. No, we take this stand in order to tear the workers away from their traitorous influence. The only conditions that we set have the character of organizational guarantees of trade union democracy, first of all the freedom of criticism for the minority, naturally on the condition that it submits to trade union discipline. We ask for nothing else, and on our part we promise nothing more.

Let us imagine that the [Communist] Party — even if not immediately — follows our advice. How should its Central Committee act? It would first of all be obliged to carefully prepare within the party the plan of campaign, to discuss it in all the trade union fractions in the light of local trade union conditions, so that the slogan of unity might be effectively directed simultaneously from above and from below. Only after careful preparation and elaboration, after having eliminated all doubts and misunderstandings within its own ranks, would the leadership of the CGTU address itself to the leadership of the reformist confederation with concretely elaborated proposals: to create a parity commission for the preparation, within a period of two months for example, of the trade union unification congress to which all the trade union organizations of the country must be admitted. Simultaneously, the local CGTU organizations address themselves to the local CGT organizations with the same proposal, formulated with precision and concreteness.

The Communist Party would develop a broad agitation in the country, supporting and explaining the initiative of the CGTU. The attention of the broadest circles of workers, and primarily that of the CGT workers, must for a certain time be concentrated on the simple idea that the Communists propose to achieve immediately the organizational unity of the trade union organizations. Whatever the attitude of the reformists may be, whatever may be the ruses to which they resort, the Communists will come out of this campaign with profit, even if their proposal comes to no more, in this first attempt, than a demonstration of their attitude.

The struggle in the name of the united front does not cease, during this period, for a single minute. The Communists continue to attack the reformists in the provinces and in the center, basing themselves upon the growing activity of the workers, renewing all their offers of fighting actions on the basis of the policy of the united front, unmasking the reformists, strengthening their own ranks, and so on. And it may well happen that in six months, in a year or two, the Communists will be obliged to repeat their proposal of fusion of the trade union confederations and thus put the reformists in a more difficult position than the first time.

A genuinely Bolshevik policy must have precisely this character. It must boldly take the offensive while conducting a maneuver. It is only on this road that the movement can be preserved from stagnation and purged of parasitic formations, and the evolution of the working class toward revolution can be accelerated.

The lesson proposed above has no meaning and cannot succeed unless the initiative comes from the CGTU and the Communist Party. The task of the league naturally does not consist of independently advancing the slogan of a unity congress, pitting itself against the CGTU as well as against the CGT. The league’s task is to push the official party and the CGTU onto the road of a bold united front policy and to stimulate them, on the basis of this policy, to carry out at a propitious moment — and in the future there will be many such moments — a decisive offensive for the fusion of the trade union organizations.

In order to fulfill its tasks toward the party, the league — and this is its first duty — must align its own ranks in the field of the trade union movement. It is a task that cannot be postponed. It must and will be solved.