I. Theory, organization, activity
Numerous unpublished texts, translation & notes by Roger Dangeville
I. Theorie, organisation, activite
Nombreux textes inedits, traduction & notes de Roger Dangeville)
Trade Unionism and Environment
According to Marx, one solves a problem only by preventing it from posing again. For this, one must act on the causes that go beyond the narrow field or the problem manifests itself.
The bourgeois conception suggests that the more an individual restrains his sphere of action and knowledge by specializing, the more efficient it is. This is the case of the modern expert who limits his competence to his own domain and asserts that he knows nothing of the neighbor’s, with which he has implicitly passed the following pact: we must prevent at all costs that we can see That we are inflated with the most complete vacuum, even in our respective sectors.
Unlike the expert, the trade unionist must be more than a trade unionist because his field of activity extends to the economic and social conditions of capitalism and even of socialism. Indeed, trade unionism is par excellence the field where Marx called the autonomous activity of the proletariat, desired and animated by the workers themselves in terms of their immediate, as well as future and general, class interests.
Trade unionism relates to a determined phase in the evolution of the productive forces of mankind. Trade union desires and demands were born of capitalist exploitation, and trade unionism was not conceived before the existence of capital. The first condition, then, has been the separation of the producer from his means of production, which is the very precondition of capitalist production. Trade unionism extends itself with the increasingly complete and general expropriation of producers, when the latter has only its labor power, and sells it to the capitalist for a wage. It then has only one means left for defending and asserting itself: to associate with other employees of the same condition for actions of resistance with a view to the ultimate goal: to reappropriate, on a collective scale, the means of production.
Within this immense historical arch, trade unionism evolves considerably. In the early days of capitalism, for example, unions emerged directly from protest movements and local, partial and momentary demands: immediately after the agitation, the organization disintegrated. Much later, the trade unions took other proportions, organizing themselves into more general and complex associations, permanent. The action committees, mutual aid and solidarity organizations, mutual aid societies, the resistance funds, the trade union chambers gradually evolved towards the trade union; The latter, in turn, became a craft/trade federation, then, through the development of production, into a trade union of industry, and finally into a confederation (national or international) of industrial unions, themselves attached to the proletariat’s political party, and even to the international community.
At the end of the cycle, after the revolutionary conquest of political power by labor, the trade union became more generalized as workers reappropriated production, and eventually founded itself in the community organization of production and the society, rid of the mercantile relations, the division of class labor and the state.
The evolution of the nature and functions of trade unions is closely linked to the development of production, and the economy does not proceed by leaps and bounds. Contrary to what happens in politics, which is the domain of organizational superstructures or which collide with organized or unorganized forces, whether legal or not, dominated by the state, concentrated violence, the economy does not proceed by leaps and bounds. From an economic point of view, the extension of the productive forces or of an enterprise depends solely on continuous work, and is proportional to it.
In the trade union domain, demands and forms of organization are more evolutionary than ever elsewhere, developing on the solid ground of material realities. However, they are confronted with all the contradictions of the capitalism of which development is in the highest degree unequal. Even in the most advanced countries, there are still entire sectors of work still semi-capitalist, alongside the most socialized forms. It is therefore inevitable that industrial unions – such as metallurgy, chemicals, building and food, for example – take precedence over trade unions of metalworkers of a craft/trade type – those of carpenters, roofers, glassmakers , for example, which correspond to a development characterized not by the productive specialty of capital but by the qualification of human labor.
However, the coordination of the various types of labor unions does not take place in the capitalist image. The bourgeois, on the other hand, overcome the division of labor in the manner of capitals, those of the advanced sectors predominant over all the others, thanks to the enormous concentration of the productive forces which they represent. The link is then made through the network of business and investment banks and by the state with its organized force. The result is a specific class coordination which evolves in close connection with the more concentrated and dynamic forces: the hierarchical order of bourgeois civil society is accentuated in the organization of the ruling class as an omnipotent oligarchy and despotic.
In a vibrant page of Capital, a synthesis of the experience drawn from the fierce lances of the English proletariat, and from better living conditions marked by remarkable social conquests, Marx defined the conditions not of coordination but of unity of proletariat : “Workers must make one head and one heart.” This union of forces engaged in the process of social production is carried out in an elementary way in the economic struggles and trade union movements. It implies, according to Marx, the most categorical opposition to the bourgeois world, the abolition of competition among the workers, the struggle against hierarchies and craft/trade particularism. Finally, thanks to the generalization of slogans and actions, the fusion of economic and political demands, the international workers’ association will seize political power, expropriate the capitalist expropriators and establish the rule of labor on production and the society.
It is this whole which constitutes the environment and the trades of the unions, and determines their roles and their multiple functions.
Trade Unionism and Claims
Contrary to what is suggested by the present conditions of arrogant triumph of capitalism, trade union activity is not an eternal recommencement, the acquired gains of yesterday disappearing during the night and everything being repeated each time. Marx has always opposed this conception of trade unionism, by warning that it was ceded when trade unions limited their action and their claims solely to the economic plan.
If we lock ourselves in it, the mechanisms of capitalism oblige the trade unions to a real Sisyphus work: the general development of production, capitalist implies that an acquired conquest, even if it is not soon questioned purely and simply no longer constitutes a minimum tolerable to the workers after a few years.
Marx gives an example in Capital: “For thirty years, the concessions which the working class wrested were purely nominal. From 1802 to 1833 the Parliament passed three labor laws, but he took great care not to vote a penny to have them executed.” Marx advances, saying that the English workers did not fight in vain, however, since the day of normal working hours passed from 15-16 hours to 12 (law of 1833), and the technical aspect of industry soon rendered this new day of labor intolerable, for in the meantime capital had introduced mechanization to a large scale and intensifies the pace of labor to the point of extorting an advantage of surplus value in ten hours than in fifteen or sixteen years. The English workers were therefore compelled, just to defend their physical integrity, to claim the eight-hour day, a claim which Marx and Engels did not consider particularly exaggerated in 1865.
Far from stopping, the struggles are only intensifying with the development of capitalism and gaining sectors of ignorance at the beginning of the industrial era. As long as capital is not overturned, each conquest, instead of reducing social contradictions or diminishing the causes of the class struggle, only multiplies the fronts of battle, providing a permanent motive for a struggle more afterwards and more decisive. As wage-earning workers form the overwhelming majority of the population, their demands far surpass the economic plan of immediate working conditions within the enterprise and the fixing of the level of surplus value and wages.
The working class realized that “landowners and capitalists use their political privileges to defend and perpetuate their economic monopolies,” so it began to demand that the state promulgate laws regulating the day of work and impose, in a coercive way, their respect for the thirsty capitalists see only the means of gaining a little more: prolonging their working day, thus depressing the wages of the great mass of workers in their category.
Soon, the working class was also to reclaim a share of political power (Chartism), since it now constituted the main (and only productive) force of the population, it could no longer admit that the forces of the order intervened systematically against it, less appeal of any boss or judge to the pay due local capitalist, to break a strike, invoking the “freedom of work.” She could not endure longer than the workers could get together and join in debating their interests and the best means of achieving them, or that the workers are kept apart from the school, being deprived of the most elementary of the means of intellectual communication. It became inadmissible that the workers could not practice the profession of arms to defend their cause with adequate means, while the employer was the absolute master, not only in his factory, but also in the working-class quarters or houses and magazines and so on. The worker’s life did not follow suitably among the machines of the enterprise, but was conditioned by all the political and social organization which forcibly kept him in his employe.
In line with real social development, the Marxist conception of trade unionism can only be historical and economic. This is why, even from the point of view of form, Marx and Engels never deal with trade union issues in isolation. Therefore, in order to collect the texts on this question, we had to choose in their entirety the passages, studies, articles, manifestos and resolutions relating to trade unionism. It should not be concluded that Marx did not really worry about it. On the contrary, it was only by proceeding in this way that he treated this question thoroughly and seriously.
Trade Unionism and Politics
By definition, economics has always been political so far : any productive act implies a certain system of social relations (policies in class societies) and has a political effect of preserving, strengthening or upsetting established social relations. However, at the beginning of capitalism, the economic or demanding action of the proletariat had not – and could not have – a political effect of a directly proletarian character. This effect could only be indirect, remaining within the limits of the economic, political, and social order of capitalism, at least as long as its mode of production remained progressive for humanity and constituted a necessary stage of development of society. Under these conditions, the capitalists appropriated not only the product of labor, but also the political results of the workers’ struggles, deforming and maltreating at the level of institutions the will and aspirations of the masses to the point of ultimately turning them against them, which did not fail to arouse a certain apoliticism within the working class, tenacious apoliticism at the union level.
It is only at a more advanced stage of development of capitalism and the organization of the proletariat that Marx-Engels insists above all on the political character of struggles to concentrate all their efforts to demonstrate that the proletariat must wrest from the bourgeoisie the monopoly of politics, through which it reigns without doubt not only on production but also on society as a whole. They will also explain that for proletariat, the economy becomes political only by a certain quantitative level of action: for example, when a strike is general or poses social demands that are of interest to the whole working class. That is to say, they ask the workers to go beyond purely categorical and partial actions and demands to generalize their field of struggle and program if they do not want to be reabsorbed by bourgeois politics and economics: cf. Infra, p. 99-100.
Marx-Engels thus centered all their struggle, first in England, then in the countries which had become fully capitalized in Western Europe after 1871, on the necessity of the political struggle, or their violent attacks against the apolitical anarchists and the reformist policy of a large social-democratic fraction.
On the face of it, it seems paradoxical that reformism, which flourishes especially in the political sphere and more particularly in Parliament, joins the position of anarchism which rejects all political action. In fact, the two currents hold in common that they deny the real, actual necessity of an independent and anti-bourgeois proletariat policy.
At the outset, anarchists denied the necessity of a policy, abandoning the political sphere to the bourgeoisie. As for the reformists, they deny it, by practicing a policy of bourgeois in the last analysis, since they defend only a policy of the possible within the framework of bourgeois institutions and, if they claim the ultimate aims of socialism or communism, is only in words, since they alone count the immediate achievements. In short, in politics, anarchism is identified with reformism in general; the better it complements it, or does not endure reformism, for example in trade union action, alongside the great unions that have passed into reformism. Both, although opposing, sabotage, consciously or not, the revolutionary action of the proletariat, denying the necessity of this political party by which, according to Marx, the proletariat is constituted in an autonomous class and distinct from all the other classes of bourgeois society and set aside for all its actions the overthrow of capitalism and the establishment of socialism, failing which the proletariat is only a crushed and lost class in bourgeois society.
However, if the class party is to exert a political and revolutionary influence on the economic movement of the proletariat, the economic movement of the proletariat must constitute the vital base of the political party of class.
Simple common sense suggests that there should be no separation between immediate demands and final demands or, if you will, between direct action and revolution. It is absurd to suppose that a communist (or a socialist) may not be revolutionary, since to be communist (or socialist) means to recognize by definition that the present social order must undergo a profound revolution. Yet this division exists, and it rests on the more or less important importance attributed either to the immediate-reforms-which are leverage, or to the communist revolution, which is the goal. The antagonism between everyday work, practical, and revolutionary aspirations, final, due proletariat exists only in the minds of those who mistake the socialist movement or deferment. The revolutionaries therefore attach the greatest importance to the final goal, without neglecting the daily conquests of the proletariat. The reformists, in practice, give all their attention to the immediate achievements, but neglect all that is connected with the final goal, which is not without result on the outcome of the immediate struggles themselves.
It will never be enough to repeat, however, that all forms of proletarian class struggle, including, of course, which serve to prepare the revolutionary consciousness of the masses. But at the same time, it is necessary to stop repeating that all the improvements that the proletariat conquered within the capitalist society are sooner or later called into question by a bourgeois reaction or by a subsequent development of production, so that the proletariat must become ever more deeply aware of class antagonism and prepare for more decisive fights. As the Manifesto says: “Sometimes the workers are victorious, but their triumph is ephemeral. The real result of their struggle is not the immediate successes, but the growing union of the workers.” Under these conditions, the unpardonable error of the reformists or opportunists lies in the fact that they make the workers believe that the improvements, always minimal and limited, represent something stable, a definitive achievement, in short a fine one.
The revolutionary party does not arouse the struggles of the workers: the origin and cause of the class struggle are spontaneously found in the economic and social contradictions of the capitalist mode of production and distribution. On the other hand, the success of these struggles is essentially conditioned by the organization of the class arising out of these struggles, that is to say, by the level of consciousness and the political, tactical and social directives. Whether the part of the proletariat is revolutionary or not, is what will determine the final result of class struggles “spontaneous.” In other words, the struggles due to proletariat do not follow an accidental, timeless and irrational impulse; both economic and political factors, productive factors as well as factors of consciousness, method and organization, which the political party concentrates and ensures to the maximum.
Alongside the struggle for immediate improvements and for the constitution of organized resistance cores, this the party must therefore maintain among the workers an awareness of the relative character of all that they can conquer within the limits imposed by the bourgeois economy. It must remind them insistently of the great difficulties, the many struggles, the conflicts that await society before a better social system can be established. He must make them understand that, while defending their interests and self-interests, they must support the proletariat of other regions and countries in its assault on bourgeois society. He must take advantage of each of their attempts to improve their lot in order to show them how, even as they have improved it, they remain, as Engels puts it, wage slaves, disinherited, objects of derision, workers who produce wealth for all other classes of society, who are and remain privileged, materially, culturally, politically and socially. He must show them how the society which now presents them as “privileges,” reserves for their children a future of economic insecurity and social and political humiliations. It must be remembered that the limited success of economic demands-for example, the forty-hour week in 1936-does not address the political problems of society, namely, war which destroys not only gigantic productive capital but also and especially workers by the million and pauperize entire countries and continents.
On the contrary, it must arouse and maintain, not an illusory feeling of satisfaction, but, on the contrary, a strong feeling of revolt which drives the solidarity of all the exploited and all the oppressed and represents the first spring of thought and of socialist action. All this the reformists neglect to do so, not only among the non-working social strata whom they claim to conquer, and who are difficult to convert to socialism even though they are intellectuals, but also and above all among the workers to whom they apply the criteria of petit bourgeois quietness.
It is not the Marxist method of the class struggle that has failed in reformist politics, but this method is deformed. This is the origin of the malaise and the failure of the reformists of all time.
To be revolutionary, the Marxist party does not need to cheat with reality. Contrary to the Reformist method, the Marxist method nourishes its propaganda and the action of the masses of the reality of things, for it is precisely the real-existing class antagonisms-that makes the masses revolutionary. Today the direct action of the large masses not yet organized and the innumerable wildcats which routinely and everywhere go over the safeguards of the trade union leaders bear witness to the fact that the social environment is not always yellow or pink.
International, Trade Unions and Production Associations
In the years 1864-1871 Marx and Engels subjected their revolutionary program to fire, and we witnessed the conscious and organized formation of the working class beyond the national frontiers, with the rise of the class political party all the proletariat: the First International.
In the wave of events surrounding this event we shall particularly see the role that Marx and Engels attributed to trade unions in the international organization of the proletariat, that is to say, in the birth and development of a new class on the world scene.
One of the conditions for the revolutionary unfolding of the class struggle until victory is the existence of a working-class International which plunges solid roots into the production and material conditions of the proletariat, thanks to what Marx calls, “the organization of the working class through the trade unions.”
The class union organization, external to the political party of the proletariat, but firmly connected with it, represents the objective premise for a fruitful action by the latter. The main task of the class party is to penetrate, organize and direct trade unions, without limiting its action to the frontiers of any nation, or to any particular branch of activity. Aware of the social and international development of capitalism, it develops its action on the conditions of all the other countries. Thus, in the eyes of Marx, the direction of revolutionary action will not be the privilege of the proletariat or of the party of the most economically advanced nation — England of the last century — but will be entrusted to the direction of the, “International which alone can effectively defend the general interests of the revolutionary movement: “It would be madness, not to say a crime, to leave [this great leverage of the proletarian revolution that is the trade unions] in purely English hands.”
This is not an exorbitant pretention, nor an abusive thirst for power from the doctor of Red Terror, Marx. In order for the proletariat to triumph, it is necessary to unify all its struggles, in a coherent development, so that they have a common objective and a method, thanks to which only one can speak of a class, beyond the local situations, various occupational categories, national frontiers and races.
This unit is the fruit of historical efforts and is achieved only through a modification of the spontaneous action of individuals or groups, thanks to the action and directives of the party, so that the masses feel the feeling and the consciousness of truly constituting one and the same body, having a common aim and program: the abolition of wage-earning, as Marx and Engels repeatedly reinforce. Even if the party physically gathers only a fraction of workers, it is nevertheless by it that the unity of the proletariat is realized in the sense that the workers of different trades, localities and nationalities participate in the same plan, with the same purpose, the same methods and the same rules of organization.
This union is purely formal with the federation of the trade unions of the various trades or industries, even with the alliance of the workers’ political parties, even if it results in numbers superior to those of the class party. All these forms of organization do not satisfy the fundamental positing of the union of all the workers, because they have neither cohesion nor unity of aims and methods.
However, as it stands, trade union organization is the first stage in the associative consciousness and practice of workers, because it opposes them to employers, even if only locally and partly.
Moreover, precisely because it is a primary stage of consciousness and organization of the masses, it is this which leads them to the field of concentrated and centralized struggle against the capitalist regime, for it brings the workers together, of their common condition of economic exploitation, and brings them closer to those in other localities or other trades, thus contributing to the formation of a class consciousness. Being a transition, the trade union organization must be unified, and it is absurd to divide it because of a particular conception of the proletariat’s general program of action. In the same way, it is absurd to ask the workers who organize themselves for the defense of their interests what their vision of the little proletarian is, what is their political opinion. The worker may have no political positions, or have false ones, without this being incompatible with the action of the union; it is on the contrary that from which it will draw the elements of its later political orientation. The larger the organization, the more conducive is the field of experience and consciousness.
This explains why the revolutionary Marxists are, by definition, against the splitting of trade unions, when the majority of the adherents or the opportunist leadership give them a little revolutionary orientation. They also work for the unification of trade union organizations when they are divided, and tend to have in each country — if not all — a single trade union center. Whatever may be the influence of opportunist leaders, trade union unity is a coefficient favorable to the spread of ideology and revolutionary organization of a political nature, and it is within the single union that the political party, and it is within the single union that the class party recruits the best, as it can best develop its champagne against erroneous methods of struggle that others propose to the proletariat.
Those who hold back the workers’ struggles, by making limited and partial demands, are the very ones who defend the autonomy of trade unions, their specificity and their diversity. They fear that the generalization of the struggle will radicalize the demands and feelings of the masses and bring them under the revolutionary directives of the class party.
This is why, even before the unity is realized, revolutionary Marxists energetically support the necessity of the overall action of the whole proletariat. In order to avoid unity being done in a purely formal way, without a revolutionary content, the process of unification must go hand in hand with a broadening and deepening of the struggles of demands. Indeed, if the ultimate goal is unique, the tactic must tend to become so, for the differences in taxation and method of struggle are ultimately reduced to frictions, hesitations, against a patron who is always united when he is threatened by his class enemy.
In modern terms, it is the united front of the organized proletariat that will develop the union of proletariat on the political program of the class party, having demonstrated in the struggles that any other program is at least insufficient. But it is a very serious equivocation to confuse the formula of the united front which proposes the unification of struggles and trade unions, and that which proposes the formation of a bloc of “proletarian” parties, is the direction of the action of the masses by a committee resulting from a compromise between various parties or currents. As experience has shown, the second formula–that of the bloc of proletarian parties–prevents the unification of the workers’ movement, missed its aim in the struggle against fascism and ended in the thesis of the plurality of parties after the “conquest” of political power, or a simple copy of parliamentarism and the bourgeois regime.
It is simply absurd to assert that several “workers’” parties could unify the proletariat into one class by a single real goal – non-demagogic and false – for example, for the abolition of wage labor, namely, socialism. In the Manifesto, Marx and Engels attributed a vital function to the party, that of constituting the proletariat as an autonomous class, with its specific ways and purpose. Throughout their lives, Marx and Engels did not accept political and social sharing with other parties, but instead sought to dissolve the socialist sects and pseudo-parties and to link the unions to the only communist political party, realizing the union of demand-based struggles and political struggles.
The Marxist party, in order to make its program triumph, distinct from that of all the others, must not only cast stern and radical slogans, but also clearly denounce the betrayals of socialists or even the mistakes of the syndicalists and anarchists.
Only the Marxist party can genuinely wish (because it is a programmatic principle and a vital practical necessity) to unite the working class, and thus trade unions and workers’ economic organizations. During the interminable discussions on trade union unity in France, the emphasis has always been on moral questions of good or bad faith. But the problem is objective. The reformists or lackeys of the bourgeoisie cannot realize the unity of the working class, because this is possible only on class-ground, that is to say, revolutionary and anti-capitalist. Indeed, by staying on the bourgeois terrain, the working class cannot unite, being practically torn into a body of trades and industries, categories, hierarchies which correspond to the bourgeois economy. The non-revolutionary unity of trade unions, if feasible, would be purely formal and not effective.
Experience has shown that it is always the reformist parties which provoke trade union splits. In the present situation the trade unions are quite divided, and the situation corresponds to a situation of profound degeneration of the movement of the working class which, according to Marx’s formula, is revolutionary or nothing.
The revolution is not a matter of organization, Marx said, in the sense that it would be necessary beforehand to have the leadership of the unified trade unions or a faithful network of workers’ councils (Soviets) or 50% + 1 members of the working class. Indeed, the revolution is provoked by the contradictions of bourgeois society, especially the productive apparatus. The unification of the working class, that is to say, of all individual workers, will be realized only after more than a decade of socialism: the trade union question therefore continues to arise after the conquest of power. Formerly, political unification through the party through trade unions obviously brings together only the decisive elements in the struggle against capitalism and presupposes a mass that is certainly combative, but which cannot have the level of consciousness of the militant. It is therefore possible that some of the trade unions remain in the hands of the reformists on the day of the revolution; on the other hand, what is impossible is that the decisive elements and, through them, the working masses are under their control, for that would mean that the revolution has already failed. The essential condition is not “will the revolution break out?”, but “will it conquer?” The Marxist answer is: “In order that, on the day of the decision, the proletariat should be strong enough to conquer, it is necessary that it should constitute itself an autonomous party, a conscious class party, separated from all others. This is what Marx and month we have constantly defended since the Manifesto of 1848” (Engels, 18-12-1889).
The party is therefore the first and fundamental question, because it is that of program and socialism. This historic party can, however, exist formally only if it acts concretely within the working class to tear everywhere– even in the reactionary unions– the workers from counter-revolutionary directions. Marx and Engels have provided us with a brilliant model of this connection with the First International in its relations with trade unions, cooperatives and workers’ societies of all kinds.
Better than our words, Engels’ polemic with the possibilists (see the texts of 1890-92 at the end of this volume) illustrates the attitude to be taken with respect to the reformist trade unions influenced by a non-revolutionary “workers’” party. Starting with the maximum program, Marx and Engels did not agree to compromise. Thanks to this, in ten years of operative life of the First International, the first organs of resistance of urban and agricultural workers were transformed into proletarian fighting organizations that were increasingly pressing for its international class party and its program of revolutionary intervention in all sectors. Marx and Engels will make it a power – not numerically, but socially explosive – in front of which tremble the great European states.
The history of the First International is an admirable example of the conjunction of the class and its party; in this fertile union, “pauperism” becomes a class, Owen’s philanthropy and mutual aid societies are transformed into organized and conscious instruments of the class struggle; on the basis of politics, the economic takes on a social and revolutionary character.
The International is at the head of all the labor movement and marks its struggle, every struggle, even if it is not physically present with its sections and militants. For Marx and Engels, the war between proletariat and capitalism ultimately resulted in a war between the revolutionary class party and all the other parties, for influence in the workers’ movement. Anyone who succeeds in winning this war ensures, at the moment of the crisis, victory in the gigantic social strife.
It is by perfectly posing the problem of the conquest of the great mass of the workers as the objective of the International that Marx and Engels opened up to the improvement of the living conditions of the workers at the same time as to their revolutionary organization and preparation. It is by paying the greatest attention to the economic struggles and to the general interests of the working class that they have posed the trade union question in its entirety, at the heart of revolutionary action. This position contrasts with that of the reformist parties, which are always influenced by electoral successes, which in order to gain influence over other layers of society-while the large working masses remain firmly under the influence of more or less bourgeois-established reform programs benefiting non-wage-earners: the doses of compromise then replace the methods of struggle which, alone, really transform social conditions.
In times of acute social crisis, the masses naturally tend to create economic organizations capable of engaging in the struggle for productive revival through the control exercised by workers on production. Since 1917, some admit that the workers’ councils or the soviets are the only ones capable of performing a revolutionary function and that the trade unions have ceased to play this role. This was not the position of Lenin and the Communist International, which established the following hierarchy of organizations: the soviets, the trade unions, the latter being the closest to production and its evolution. On the side of trade unions, which predominantly exist in industry, that is to say, especially in developed countries, soviets are, in pre-revolutionary times, a type of organization embracing the working masses independently of their trade and the level of their political culture. When the proletariat has conquered political power, the soviets are the state organizations of the working class and poor peasants, in other words the first degree of the administrative network, which culminates in the Soviet government led by the Communist Party. This politico-economic character has a regional scale, because they form the territorial base of the state, confer them the second degree in the hierarchy, which corresponds to what Marx defines so well in The Civil War in France: “In a brief sketch of national organization which the Commune did not have the power to develop, it is expressly stated that the Commune must be the political form itself of the smallest hamlets of champagne. The rural communes of each department were to administer their common affairs by an assembly of delegates to the chief town of the department, and these departmental assemblies, in their turn, had to send deputies to the national delegation in Paris. These delegates were to be at any time revocable and bound by the imperative mandate of their voters. The few but important functions which still remained in the central government should not be suppressed, as has been said falsely …” (Soc., 1953: 43).
It is essential to distinguish between the pre- and post-revolutionary phase, but what is always important is the autonomy of economic organizations, whatever their nature, with regard to party politics and the bourgeois state, in other words their connection with revolutionary socialism. The revolutionary process can only be carried out by collective and centralized action of the proletariat, by subordinating all the measures adopted to the general class interest and to the final fate of socialism. To this end, organizations reassembling groups of proletarians and reflecting their particular interests (plant councils, industrial unions, craft unions, consumer organizations) must be subordinated to directives issued by the International or, in the country or proletariat which has triumphed, by the system of political soviets which, by their nature and constitution, are more likely to represent general interests. There is no direct coincidence between the particular interests of groups and associations of workers arising from the technical-economic system of capitalist production and the general and collective interests of the proletariat. This coincidence will tend to take place only at a very early stage of the communist revolution, when production will be socialized and all the particular activities that constitute it, harmoniously subordinated and inspired by general and collective interests. Before this stage, throughout the transitional phase from capitalism to communism, producer groups are going through a period of continuous transformation, and their general and collective interests of the movement as a whole.
Factory councils, soviets, etc., which emerged only in times of acute social crisis, have an apparent double advantage over trade unions: on the one hand, they seem revolutionary in essence, whereas in reality they are more fragile and demand, in order to remain revolutionary, that the party should soon be in power; on the other hand, they form a network or form of organization which is relatively easy to extend to the whole industrial or agricultural population, whether liberal or commercial, bureaucratic or military. It is then a double that this network wants to replace the party which defends the general, future and international interests of the proletariat, and removes all that is not economic, whereas the revolutionary, military and political tasks are paramount, especially the day after the victory in one country.
The control of production by the trade unions, insofar as they exist and are favorable to the revolution, has the advantage of ceasing, in a more satisfactory manner, competition between the units of production which, hands of each factory committee, would continue to compete. In fact, trade unions favor less the transfer of ownership to particular and competing groups even if they are workers, or even a particular class. Thus Marx said: “To transfer land to associated agricultural workers would be to deliver the whole society to a particular class of producers.” (Marx, The Nationalization of the Earth, pp. 167-170).
Finally, the trade unions allow a more satisfactory solution at company level to control the production of trade and the distribution of products (machinery, raw materials, means of subsistence, etc.).
Trade unions represent larger units than factory councils and are therefore in principle better able to represent a step towards the general interests of the working class, even and above all on an international scale. The 5th resolution of the 2nd Congress of the Communist International on the Trade Union Movement, “The workers’ councils of the factory cannot replace the trade unions. […] The trade unions organized the working masses in a struggle to raise wages and reduce the number of working hours, and did so on a large scale. The factory councils organize themselves for the workers’ control of the industry and the struggle against economic disorganization; they encompass all workers’ organizations, but the struggle they support cannot take on a very general political character. But only insofar as the unions succeed in overcoming the counter-revolutionary tendencies of their bureaucracy and become conscious organizations of the revolution, the Communists will have the duty to support factory councils in their tendency to become trade union groups.”
These preoccupations and theses in general correspond, as one will see in the pages of Marx-Engels which follow, to the principles formulated by the original and fundamental Marxist program. Despite the alleged newness of the movement of workers ‘and peasants’ councils, the phenomenon is as old as revolutions or workers intervention. Councils have arisen among the soldiers during the time of Charles I of England, in the districts and sections of Paris in 1793, in Germany in 1849, during the Commune of 1871, in Russia in 1917, etc. But the essential is not in the novelty or the oldness of the phenomenon; it is in the role of these spontaneous movements in the general cycle of the socialist revolution, and this role, Marxism has established it without ambiguity.
Critique of the Limits of the Trade Unions
In the latter part Marx and Engels criticize the narrowness and conservatism of the trade unions, which group together only a thin section of the working class and limit their demands for the defense of the interests of this labor aristocracy, thus dividing the working class into a privileged fraction on the one hand; and a great mass of poor and neglected on the other.
Engels has terrible words for these conservative trade unions: they are a measure of the horror of the ravages they cause in the proletariat and the whole society. Indeed, in the background of Marx and Engels’ struggle against the predominance of the labor aristocracy over the mass of workers not yet organized, but revolutionary by instinct, the shameful abandonment and the betrayal of the Second International, who delivered the international proletariat to the imperialist bulwark of 1914-1918 and prepared the unprecedented retreat of the general standard of living of the masses which ensued. Indeed, it is in this context that the trade union issue and Marx and Engels’ hard-fought struggle against the corruption and betrayals of the workers’ leaders, linked to the prosperity of the most advanced capitalist countries, which exploit almost the whole world.
The whole demonstration of Marx and Engels in the trade union question is summed up in a simple and clear affirmation: only a general class position, politically and socially revolutionary, allows the trade unions to fulfill their purpose and even defend simply the immediate interests of all workers.
Marx and Engels, for example, ask the trade unions to link the ultimate goal of the abolition of wage labor to the immediate demand for the eight-hour legal work day, which must be claimed for the entire international proletariat and fixed, not by special agreement with each employer or class of employers, but by a coercive law binding on all employers and workers, and not binding the proletariat to employers in a process of “freely subscribed” contracts or agreements. In practice, the second claim is entirely conditional on the former, since it concerns the proletariat as a whole and eliminates competition between workers for hours of work, placing each worker or each category of workers on the same footing, employers. Apart from the fact that this unitary measure, conquered in the economic-political struggle, unifies the proletariat into a revolutionary class, it prepares, as it were, the communist organization of the future society: “Which explains the obstinate resistance which the English manufacturers the ten-hour law was that they knew very well that a two-hour reduction in work for women and children would also result in a reduction in working time for adults because it is in nature of the large industry that working time be equal for all. What is now the result of capital and the competition of the workers among themselves will be tomorrow, if you subtract the relation of labor to capital (by abolishing wage-earning), the fact of a convention based on the ratio of the sum of the productive forces to the sum of the existing needs” .
The unprecedented retreat in the conditions and working hours that we enumerate in this post-war period is linked, among other things, with a general political event: war accompanied by class collaboration with the great bourgeoisie of the principal Western powers. This is how the “Communists” participated in the government, and the slogan “Go back to work and roll up your sleeves” (to rebuild the capitalist society that came to fail a second time on the entire social scale, in less than a generation). It followed quite naturally a long general depression of the condition of the working-class: in practice the abolition of the previously acquired eight-hour working day, the odious increase in the age of retirement, the increase of employers’ rights in all domains, and especially within the enterprises where factory despotism is still unheard of, with rhythms of hard labor.
The political and social degeneration of the workers’ organizations has determined the present situation of general retreat of social conquests, the magnitude of which is striking when one confronts the present demands with those which Marx and Engels launched more than one century ago.
As to sanction this decline, the C.G.T. modified article 1 of its statutes, the one which was the most direct expression of the revolutionary Marxist conception: “The C.G.T. is to group, without distinction of political, philosophical and religious opinions, all organizations composed of wage laborers conscious of the struggle to eliminate wage-earning and employers and desirous of defending their moral, material, economic and professionals.”
In the new article, “the C.G.T. aims at the suppression of capitalist exploitation, in particular by the socialization of means of production and exchange.” In so doing, the leaders of the C.G.T. have purely and simply renounced communism, which is synonymous with the abolition of wage labor, and it is the ideal of the society of popular democracies that has prompted the current CGT-ist leaders to modify the first article of the statutes: for them, socialism is reduced to a general system of wage labor, the very one that Engels describes as the ultimate phase of capitalism: “D.– Partial recognition of the social character of the productive forces imposed on the capitalists themselves. Appropriation of large production and communication organizations, first by joint-stock companies, then by trusts, then by the State. The bourgeoisie becomes a superfluous class; all its social functions are now fulfilled by remunerated agents” (Anti-Duehring, Eds Soc., 1950, p.323).
A major confession is thus torn from the CGT-ist leaders under the pressure of the facts and, indeed, from the international proletariat, because how would the trade unions of the developed capitalist countries of the West now fight for the abolition of wage-earning, whereas in the “socialist” countries this question is no longer on the official agenda, although it is doubtless left in the aspirations of the broad masses? Indeed, in these strange “socialist” countries, there is a growing hierarchy of wages proportional to returns, more than conquering years after the socialist revolution, in a word, the whole range of social inequalities which, in the capitalist society, are not but the direct causes of their division, weakness, and alienation.
The mistake of the conservative leaders of the CGT is to believe that the proletariat has ceased to be revolutionary; they join the error of certain “leftists” who seek revolutionaries elsewhere than in the working class, and propose to desert the trade unions. According to Engels, the revolutionary proletariat will reject even the idea of being guided by, “people for whom the wage system is an eternal and unshakeable institution,” in other words, for which communism is impossible, and capitalism eternal.
 Cf. Marx, The Poverty of Philosophy, I, 2. See, pp. 181-83, how the struggle between wages and profit extends directly into a struggle for political power and the abolition of wage labor.