Friday, March 18, 2011

The Trade Unions in Britain (September 1933)

The Trade Unions in Britain (September 1933) by Leon Trotsky

The trade union question remains the most important question of working class policy in Great Britain, as well as in the majority of old capitalist countries. The mistakes of the Comintern in this field are innumerable. No wonder: a party’s inability to establish correct relations with the class reveals itself most glaringly in the area of the trade union movement. That is why I consider it necessary to dwell on this question.

The trade unions were formed during the period of the growth and rise of capitalism. They had as their task the raising of the material and cultural level of the proletariat and the extension of its political rights. This work, which in England lasted over a century, gave the trade unions tremendous authority among the workers. The decay of British capitalism, under the conditions of decline of the world capitalist system, undermined the basis for the reformist work of the trade unions. Capitalism can continue to maintain itself only by lowering the standard of living of the working class. Under these conditions trade unions can either transform themselves into revolutionary organisations or become lieutenants of capital in the intensified exploitation. of the workers. The trade union bureaucracy, which has satisfactorily solved its own social problem, took the second path. It turned all the accumulated authority of the trade unions against the socialist revolution and even against any attempts of the workers to resist the attacks of capital and reaction.

From that point on, the most important task of the revolutionary party became the liberation of the workers from the reactionary influence of the trade union bureaucracy. In this decisive field the Comintern revealed complete inadequacy. In 1926-27, especially in the period of the miners’ strike and the General Strike, that is, at the time of the greatest crimes and betrayals of the General Council of the trade unions, the Comintern obsequiously toadied to the highly placed strikebreakers, cloaked them with its authority in the eyes of the masses, and helped them remain in the saddle. That is how the Minority Movement was struck a mortal blow. Frightened by the results of its own work, the Comintern bureaucracy went to the extreme of ultra-radicalism. The fatal excesses of the “third period” were due to the desire of the small Communist minority to act as though it had a majority behind it. Isolating itself more and more from the working class, the Communist Party counterposed to the trade unions, which embraced millions of workers, its own trade union organisations, highly obedient to the leadership of the Comintern but separated by an abyss from the working class. No better favour could be done for the trade union bureaucracy. Had it been with its power to award the Order of the Garter, it should have so decorated all the leaders of the Comintern and Profintern.

As was said, the trade unions now play not a progressive but a reactionary role. Nevertheless they still embrace millions of workers. One must not think that the workers are blind and do not see the change in the historic role of the trade unions. But what is to be done? The revolutionary road is seriously compromised in the eyes of the left wing of the workers by the zigzags and adventures of official communism. The workers say to themselves: The trade unions are bad, but without them it might be even worse. This is the psychology of being in a blind alley. Meanwhile, the trade union bureaucracy persecutes the revolutionary workers ever more boldly, ever more impudently replacing internal democracy by the arbitrary action of a clique, in essence transforming the trade unions into some sort of concentration camp for the workers during the decline of capitalism.

Under these conditions, the thought easily arises: Is it not possible to bypass the trade unions? Is it not possible to replace them by some sort of fresh, uncorrupted organisation of the type of revolutionary trade unions, shop committees, soviets, and the like? The fundamental mistake of such attempts lies in that they reduce to organisational experiments the great political problem of how to free the masses from the influence of the trade union bureaucracy. It is not enough to offer the masses a new address. It is necessary to seek out the masses where they are and to lead them.

Impatient leftists sometimes say that it is absolutely impossible to win over the trade unions because the bureaucracy uses the organisations’ internal regimes for preserving its own interests, resorting to the basest machinations, repression and plain crookedness, in the spirit of the parliamentary oligarchy of the era of “rotten boroughs!’ Why then waste time and energy? This argument reduces itself in reality to giving up the actual struggle to win the masses, using the corrupt character of the trade union bureaucracy as a pretext. This argument can be developed further: Why not abandon revolutionary work altogether, considering the repression and provocations on the part of the government bureaucracy? There exists no principled difference here, since the trade union bureaucracy has definitely become a part of the capitalist apparatus, economic and governmental. It is absurd to think that it would be possible to work against the trade union bureaucracy with its own help, or only with its consent. Insofar as it defends itself by persecutions, violence, expulsions, frequently resorting to the assistance of government authorities, we must learn to work in the trade unions discreetly, finding a common language with the masses but not revealing ourselves prematurely to the bureaucracy. It is precisely in the present epoch, when the reformist bureaucracy of the proletariat has transformed itself into the economic police of capital, that revolutionary work in the trade unions, performed intelligently and systematically, may yield decisive results in a comparatively short time.

We do not at all mean by this that the revolutionary party has any guarantee that the trade unions. will be completely won over to the socialist revolution. The problem is not so simple. The trade union apparatus has attained for itself great independence from the masses. The bureaucracy is capable of retaining its positions a long time after the masses have turned against it. But it is precisely such a situation, where the masses are already hostile to the trade union bureaucracy but where the bureaucracy is still capable of misrepresenting the opinion of the organisation and of sabotaging new elections, that is most favourable for the creation of shop committees, workers’ councils, and other organisations for the immediate needs of any given moment. Even in Russia, where the trade unions did not have anything like the powerful traditions of the British trade unions, the October Revolution occurred with Mensheviks predominant in the administration of the trade unions. Having lost the masses, these administrations were still capable of sabotaging elections in the apparatus, although already powerless to sabotage the proletarian revolution.

It is absolutely necessary right now to prepare the minds of the advanced workers for the idea of creating shop committees and workers’ councils at the moment of a sharp change. But it would be the greatest mistake to “play around” in practice with the slogan of shop councils, consoling oneself, with this “Idea,” for the lack of real work and real influence in the trade unions. To counterpose to the existing trade unions the abstract idea of workers’ councils would mean setting against oneself not only the bureaucracy but also the masses, thus depriving oneself of the possibility of preparing the ground for the creation of workers’ councils.

In this the Comintern has gained not a little experience: having created obedient that is, purely Communist trade unions, it counterposed its sections to the working masses in a hostile manner and thereby doomed itself to complete impotence. This is one of the most important causes of the collapse of the German Communist Party. It is true that the British Communist Party, insofar as I am informed, opposes the slogan of workers’ councils under the present conditions. Superficially, this may seem like a realistic appraisal of the situation. In reality, the British Communist Party rejects only one form of political adventurism for another, more hysterical form. The theory and practice of social-fascism and the rejection of the policy of the united front creates insurmountable obstacles to working in the trade unions, since each trade union is, by its very nature, the arena of an ongoing united front of revolutionary parties with reformist and non-party masses. To the extent that the British Communist Party proved incapable, even after the German tragedy, of learning anything and arming itself anew, to that extent can an alliance with it pull to the bottom even the ILP, which only recently has entered a period of revolutionary apprenticeship.

Pseudo-Communists will, no doubt, refer to the last congress of trade unions, which declared that there could be no united front with Communists against fascism. It would he the greatest folly to accept this piece of wisdom as the final verdict of history. The trade union bureaucrats can permit themselves such boastful formulas only because they are not immediately threatened by fascism, or by Communism. When the hammer of fascism is raised over the head of the trade unions, then, with a correct policy of the revolutionary party, the trade union masses will show an irresistible urge for an alliance with the revolutionary wing and will carry with them onto this path even a certain portion of the apparatus. Contrariwise, if Communism should become a decisive force, threatening the General Councils with the loss of positions, honours, and income, Messrs. Citrine and Company would undoubtedly enter into a bloc with Mosley and Company against the Communists. Thus, in August 1917, the Russian Mensheviks and Social-Revolutionaries together with the Bolsheviks repulsed General Kornilov. Two months later, in October, they were fighting hand in hand with the Kornilovists against the Bolsheviks. And in the first months of 1917, when the reformists were still strong, they spouted, just like Citrine and Company, about the impossibility of them making an alliance with a dictatorship either of the right or left.

The revolutionary proletarian party must be welded together by a clear understanding of its historic tasks. This presupposes a scientifically based program. At the same time, the revolutionary party must know how to establish correct relations with the class. This presupposes a policy of revolutionary realism, equally removed from opportunistic vagueness and sectarian aloofness. From the point of view of both these closely connected criteria, the ILP should review its relation to the Comintern as well as to all other organisations and tendencies within the working class. This concerns first of all the fate of the ILP itself.

September 4, 1933


Thomas Cain said...


You may be interested in reading Joseph Kishore's recent article, "The crisis of revolutionary leadership in 2011". I find that it's fairly typical in its limitations for a WSWS article. What stuck out to me is how the Kishore ritualistically invokes the "working class" by name yet does not at all give any insight to what they are actually saying. The reader is entirely limited to a brief summary of the machinations of American and global capital.

And then there's this "Fight for Socialism Today" conference that is advertised at the end. I don't expect that it would offer any way forward, given the ICFI's degeneration. Do you have any idea of what these conferences are about? In other words, since you were a former member, can you outline what the SEP would say to its audience?

Mark said...

The conferences are exactly the same as the web site in terms of content.

I suppose the party sees these conferences as a recruitment tool, but what interest a working class person would have in attending, I'm not sure. It should be clear to anyone in a short amount of time the SEP is only interested in giving lectures and writing articles.

This is a sectarian organization in its purest form, sectarianism as Trotsky himself described it. This article I posted here, could be applied daily as a critique of SEP's anti-unionism which seems to have taken on an even more rabid form in recent months.

Thomas Cain said...

I agree with your assessment of Trotsky's position; this one article could run infinite circles around the party's practice. The SEP's omission of the history of the Russian trade unions makes Jerry White's recent "exchange" with a trade union official come to mind. To put it bluntly, it's a farce:

"...the unions have been transformed into little more than business operations, led by corporate managers who share in the exploitation of the working class. They do everything they can to subordinate the working class to the Democratic Party, which is working with the Republican Party to impoverish workers and tear up education and social programs. In no sense can these organizations be referred to as workers organizations."

White throws out the baby with the bathwater here. He equates Trumka and his ilk with the union itself, which is consistent with's criticism of the SEP.

Have you had any personal experience with any trade union?

Mark said...

As for myself, while I've had many jobs, no, I have never belonged to a union. Maybe because I work now in software, and we are generally better payed than the average worker, it has not been as important for me personally.

But in terms of attitudes, I know that there are still workers that believe: "The trade unions are bad, but without them it might be even worse." And there is some basis for this thinking, as union employees have been generally payed more than non-union workers. So the SEP argument about the unions really falls flat here, in spite of the betrayals by the union leadership.

And there is a bigger problem here, that is uniting the union workers and the non-union workers. By the way, non-union workers represent the overwhelming majority of workers today and there is some degree of hostility among non-union workers to union workers because of the generally lower pay of non-union work. How do we unite both union and non-union workers? I think this question needs to be addressed directly in terms of transitional demands.

The SEP says to union workers, "abandon the unions", and says virtually nothing to the unorganized non-union workers, this is perfectly consistent with their sectarian position on the unions.

Thomas Cain said...

I took some time to reflect upon my studies for the past two weeks, and realized that I have no basis for opposing US imperialism in the Middle East. This is not to say that I support the capitalists in the least, but that I do not know how to mount a coherent argument against supporters of the Iraq war. In my opinion, a lot of what will spew out of my mouth is mostly left-wing tautology. "It's illegal; It's for oil, etc." My fear is that where the Middle East and 9/11 is concerned, I'm terribly uneducated. Here are my questions:

1.) Where would you first turn to find a Marxist interpretation of imperialism that still can apply to current events? My first thought went toward Lenin's book on Imperialism, but I wanted to check to see if I'm on the right track; perhaps there's other volumes on the subject?

2.)I've gotten a lot of flak for even referring to politics at all lately in (somewhat) polite company. I'm dismissed on the basis that I'm "biased," therefore my arguments can be dismissed in full because they orient toward an ideological basis. Have you ever been confronted in this way in regard to your politics? If so, how would you answer such criticism? I get the most trouble from skeptics. They think that "neutrality" is the answer towards any objective viewpoint.

3.)How did you first come upon Marxism? I imagine it's a long story, so summarize it however you wish. Or save it for another entry, whatever works for you.

I'm sorry for all these questions. They have been annoying me for quite some time. Some days I feel as though I've gone politically blind and have lost my ideological bearings, and this is one of the few places I can turn to for help. I appreciate all the time that you've given me over this long period.

Mark said...

To be honest, I don't talk politics a lot these days. If subject does come up I will offer my honest point of view and I am open about being a socialist, but I don't broach the question because I don't belong to any political political party, and there is none that I support, so what would be the point exactly? My blog is the only place I really go into any depth on theorectical issues and politics, and I feel like I have some responsibility to answer questions here given my knowledge of Marxism and socialist politics.

I think you should ask yourself when discussing politcs, what is the purpose of the discussion? What is the social class of people with whom you are speaking? When a person middle class identifies with imperialism, most often there is a class basis for this support even if they themselves are not conscious of this fact. Of course the middle class will play a signifigant role if a revolution takes place, and I think it is important to have support from the middle class, but they are not main force of the revolution, this will be the working class. If a worker identifies with imperialism, it is most often because they unconsciously accept bourgeois ideology. Bourgeois ideology is pervasive, and socialist ideology is virtually non-existent. It has been my experience that workers are far more receptive socialist ideas if they are explained intelligently.

My advice to you is to study the history of the middle east, study its relations with the US, build time lines of major events and interpret them within the framework of historical materialism. I think there is no substitute for really knowing the facts and knowing how to interpret those facts if you want to go beyond catechisms. I think Lenin's Imperialism is good to read as well as the basics of Marxism.

Thomas Cain said...

This question may be rather odd, but it's been at the back of my mind for a while. If I am to call myself a Trotskyist, I think it's necessary to find a historical perspective that critical of his weaknesses as well as his strengths. I don't mean in the sense that Robert Service did it (distortions and lying).

Lately, everything I read about Trotsky's struggle with Stalin is rather one-sided. Trotsky is made into a saint while the Stalinists "cheat". The WSWS, as you have said before, have transformed his contribution to Marxism into an an empty fetishism.

Do you know of a Marxist history that is as harsh on Trotsky as the man himself was on his opponents?

Mark said...

I don't remember if I wrote about this before here or not, but indeed the SEP's reverence for Trotsky is empty and largely ceremonial. Witness David North's multiple lecture tours on the subject of fact checking various biographies of Trotsky. Marxists and Trotskyists are not simply biographers, historians, or fact-checkers, there is world of difference between the practice of North and the practice of Trotsky. David North seems to be posturing himself more and more as an academic and historian.

The emptiness of the SEP practice and their purely ceremonial reverence for Trotsky turned me against Trotsky for a time, indeed I was looking a critique of Trotsky while I was in the SEP. It wasn't until I came in contact with Steiner and Brenner that I really understood what Trotskyism meant. I think it is still possible to critique Trotsky, but I think the purpose of such a critique would be refine his ideas. I think he was right on the whole about the Soviet Union, Stalin, and many other problems during his time in the 20th century.

When I read Trotsky now, not through others but just his own text, I see a human being there, but one deserving of respect and admiration for the consitentecy of his revolutionary work throughout his lifetime.

Thomas Cain said...


I was wondering if you had any thoughts of this "Marxist" website:

The reason I ask is because the first thing of theirs I have read--or tried to read without getting irritated-- was this exchange between a reader and the editor:

The editor's reply in general comes off as an elitist diatribe that reminded me solely of the WSWS's methods of addressing utopianism. As a reader of put it (sarcastically), "We go to workers to try and win them over to the fight for socialism but never are we given permission inside this movement to discuss our ideals and what our world could look like. The blind leads the blind!!!!!! Hey worker, come and join our movement, we fight for socialism but are not allowed to discuss what it looks like so don't ask!!!!!!"

What did Gegenstandtpunkt actually say? Here's a flavor: "In other words: those who inquire about the attractiveness of what communists have to “offer” confuse the critique of capitalism with election slogans of an alternative elite who promise to run things better for their valued citizens than those currently holding power."

They treat Marxism as if it is nothing more than a tool of criticism. Any attempt to actually inquire as to what a socialist society would look like is stamped into the mud. It would be funny if it weren't so pathetic.

Mark said...

My impression is that they treat Marxism as if it were a purely academic activity.

They evade question of the need for an alternative vision with very tortured circular logic, whereas Marx and Engels would have no problem explaining their vision of a socialist future, see for example "The Principles of Communism" by Engels.

By an initial glance I would say this is a strain of academic Marxism, which is to say they separate the critique of capitalist society from the practical work of organization and politics and focus solely on the former. It is not to say they don't have insights, perhaps they do, but as their style of writing is very dense and seemingly lacking in content, its difficult to gather what they might actually have to contribute.

As for the SEP/WSWS, they are increasing going in the direction of being a purely academic outfit, but I don't think the comparison is quite right. It unclear what the origins of this publication are, whereas the SEP came from Trotskyism, even if today they stand opposed to Trotskism in everything but the name there is still some pretense of being a Trotskyist organization.

Stephen R. Diamond said...

In its tone and outlook, SEP most resembles the left-Stalinist "Economic and Philosophical Review." ( ) Take a look at it. I think you'll be surprised by the similarity in outlook and philosophical stance.

The ESPR is also a split from Healy, earlier than North's. But while ESPR is widely regarding as kook, SEP has some serious unpleasant history behind it, from its libels of Hanson and Novack to lawsuits against other opportunist leftists to (apparently) building a party on top of an multi-million dollar capitalist enterprise, employing numerous workers without the aid of a union.

I'm surprised that you and the Permanent Revolution group are so easy on them, as though they're just harmless sectarians when they're actually rather vicious. Alex and Frank even appear reluctant to discuss "Security and the Fourth International" to the point of suppressing comments on the subject.

Mark said...

As far as Alex and Frank on "Security and the Fourth International", that's their own decision, I wouldn't restrict discussion on the subject. If I appear easy on the SEP than I apologize because you are right they do represent something more vicious (or at least harmful), indeed they end up supporting reactionary regimes when it suits their politics, something that the permanent-revolution web site has not shied away from.