Revolution or War n°11

(Biannual - February 2019)

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Comments on the GCCF’s Thesis on the Union Question

The Gulf Coast Communist Fraction has published Thesis on the Union Question that we want to comment on here. As the introduction clarifies, the members of the GCCF were in disagreement on this question and obviously it is through an internal discussion that these Thesis have been adopted. The fact that they contain some contradictions, even within individual points, illustrates that they can only be a transitory statement that the group will have to overcome if it wants to develop a coherent intervention toward the working class struggles. Nevertheless, the fact that these comrades have not hesitated to publish this text despite the conditions of its realization and its limits is to be saluted and supported. The following critical comments aim to develop the reflection and discussion on this question not only among the comrades of the GCCF but among the whole international proletarian camp.

For us, the main weakness of this document is that there is no historical approach on the Union question, except a short mention in point 4. We warmly salute the fact that, since their publication, the GCCF agreed with this critical comment : ’When we published our ‘These on the Union Question’, our close associates from Nuevo Curso pointed out that there was something missing in our theses: a historical explication of how the union-form went from a defensive organ of the working class to an instrument fully integrated into capital.(Introduction to B. Peret on the History of Unions [1]). As a result of this lack, each point of the Theses is stated in abstract without being related to the reality of the class struggle, that is to say that they tend to consider the capital-labour relation only as an economic relation and not as basically a political one.

Even though, for our part, we don’t share the theoretical explanation that the German and Dutch Left provided for its denunciation of the unions, it is nevertheless the case that it was the first political current that ’felt’ that the unions had historically ’died’ as unitary organs of the proletariat and that they have passed to the service of the capitalist state. Thus, most of the work of criticizing and denouncing the unions was developed by it. In particular, Anton Pannekoek, both in the 1920s when he still defended and supported the Russian revolution, the Bolsheviks and the International, and in the 1930s when he became one the most famous theoreticians of councilism, wrote important texts that are still worth reading and discussing today. In his article Trade Unionism [2] (1936), he begins by making a short history of the unions and the working class struggle in relation to capitalism’s development. While in a prior historical period, the working class could oppose with some efficiency the ruling class in a single corporation or industry because it was essentially opposing ’one boss’ or one industrial fraction of the bourgeoisie, the conditions of the working class struggle changed so that these kind of ’industrial’ or ’corporation’ struggles were no longer efficient: ’The reason is obvious. An isolated group of workers might be equal to a fight against an isolated capitalist employer. But an isolated group of workers against an employer backed by the whole capitalist class is powerless. And such is the case here: the state power, the money power of capitalism, public opinion of the middle class, excited by the capitalist press, all attack the group of fighting workers.’ [3]

This point is very important because it underlines the fact that, in relation to capitalism’s development and domination of the whole society, the working class was confronting an increasingly united ruling class whose main expression is the capitalist state. This phenomenon, already underway in the late 19th Century, was incredibly accelerated during the 1st World War because of the needs of the war itself. It is particularly during the imperialist war and because of it that the capitalist state develops a totalitarian character up to the point of invading and occupying all the dimensions of social life and integrating all the different organizations of this social existence – that is what we call state capitalism, which cannot be reduced merely to its economic measures and policies. It is useless to explain here how state capitalism, particularly under its democratic form or regime, is now ruling and powerful as never before. For the proletariat and its historical as well as immediate struggles, the development of state capitalism to date has two main consequences:

- the permanent proletarian ’spaces’ and mass organizations on which the working class struggles were based, whether parties or unions (or still the Bourses du travail [4]), disappeared or were ’incorporated’ by the state. Of course, this was an historical process that lasted decades but whose crucial date can be fixed in August 1914, the declaration of the 1st World War, and definitively closed with the following imperialist war that began in 1939, if not earlier;

- the occupation by the state of all the dimensions, or spaces, of social life means that its totalitarian character – very far from being limited to its fascist and stalinist regimes – prevents any permanent proletarian ’life’, that is a permanent and mass opposition to bourgeois ideology and politics, except during the massive class mobilizations.

Therefore, and since then, except during a few massive working class mobilizations and revolutionary periods, the proletariat can no longer organize itself in permanent unitary organizations, that is organizations that gather all the workers of a given factory, industry, city or country, independently of their political positioning, whether they are unions, or general assemblies, or strike committees or workers’ councils. Once the struggle is over, these organizations disappear or, if they persist, are integrated by the state – generally as a new radical or rank and file union. The same goes for proletarian political parties: there can no longer be mass parties akin to the German Social-Democratic Party but only minority communist parties even during the revolutionary period.

Thus, from this introduction, one can easily deduce that, for us, the theses are reductive, and even weaken, the revolutionary understanding and approach on the Union question today. Let’s now see the Theses one by one.

Theses 1 and 2

The these 1 states that the unions have ’a particular end – negotiations and enforcement of labor contracts’ while the these 2 claims, abstractly – that is without any historical approach or reference –, that ’by virtue of the properties inherent to the union-form itself, unionism can neither break with the capital-labor relationship in theory nor practice’.

Already on these points alone, we would have a lot of comments, rectifications and elaborations to make. Let’s focus on the main ones. The theses reduce the function of the unions to the economic dimension, that of negotiations of labour contracts. Thus, it ignores Marx’s quotation according to which the trade unions are the schools for Socialism, the workers are there educated up to Socialism by means of the incessant struggle against capitalism which is being carried on before their eyes’ [5]. Therefore, he did not see the role of the unions limited to the economic dimension but extended to the political and historical dimensions. So, the assertion according to which the union, ’by virtue of its [form] properties’, is inadequate to break ’in theory’ with the capital-labour relationship is not valid [6]. According to these points, the unions cannot break with capitalism due to their ’form’; and not because of their function and place in the class struggle as unitary organization of the class in the past or as... fully political organs of the capitalist state as they clearly are today. However, in both cases their fundamental function and action is mainly... political because every class struggle is a political struggle(Communist Manifesto).

These 3

It rejects any ’meaningful distinction between “business” unionism and “rank and file” unionism’, which is correct in itself. But we don’t understand exactly what distinction is made in this point. Certainly, is it due to the American closed-shop system. Consistent with the first two points, the short denunciation of rank and file unionism is also limited to solely the union organizational form and ignores its main political function: to control the most militant proletarians and to derail any collective expression of struggle onto the bourgeois political ground.

These 4

It deals with two different questions. The first one, even though still with the single negotiating role of the unions, attempts to get an historical understanding of the union question and makes a distinction of function between ’the rising and declining phases of capitalism’. We only can encourage this historical methodology to discuss and clarify any questions and positions of the communist program. The second sentence has the virtue of calling for the ’direct confrontation of the class with the wage-labor relation, effectively expressing the negation of wage-labor’. However, the second part can be very confusing. Not only does this part pass in silence over the direct, concrete and material, confrontation against the ruling class and the state – the political class struggle – but it also introduces an idea that class confrontation should express the negation of wage-labour. If this assertion is understood as meaning that the proletarian revolutionary struggle, its class struggle, expresses historically the negation of wage-labour, we can in itself, abstractly, agree with it. If it is understood as the rejection of any wage or material demands for the proletariat’s daily conditions, then we are fully opposed and will fight against this vision – which is often put forward by those currents that we call modernist.

These 5

Despite the fact that it remains within the same economist vision of the unions, we agree that the unions are ’unsuitable for organizing workers in fighting for short-term demands’. Of course, we add ’nowadays’, ’in our historical period’. Thus, it is not solely because of their form. For instance, the union form, namely that of one of the local unions, the Camere del lavoro, did not prevent it from playing an active role during the development of the mass strike in Italy in 1919 and 1920 :

" In Florence, as in dozens of other cities, it is still at the Camera del lavoro and ‘workers’ cooperatives’ that the requisitioned goods (food, shoes, cloth) are carried in trucks with red flags on them. And it is the Camera del lavoro that decides to reopen the stores after imposing price reductions of 50 to 70%. In hundreds of cities, the Camera del lavoro and ‘people’s committees’, ‘requisition committees’, ‘price commissions’ carry out requisitions, set prices, maintain order in the shopping streets where militants patrol to avoid vandalism » (Italie 1919-1920 les deux années rouges, Bruno Paleni, Les bons caractères, 2011).

Theses 6 to 10

They deal with the question of the communists’ intervention and behaviour regarding the union. There is the difficulty of the differences between the "closed-shop" union system and the other union systems [7].

First of all, according to us, the communists, whether as political group and the party, or as individual workers in their workplace, have to attempt to intervene as much as they can and everywhere they can. Whether a meeting or an assembly is called by a union or not, whether it is within the union framework and organization or not, imposed or not by the closed-shop system, does not change the fact that the revolutionaries should always try to intervene if they can address the ’mass’ of the workers and call on them to prepare and organize... the struggle – or at least make propaganda and oppose the bosses’ and unions’ campaigns and ideologies. It is obviously this right concern that these Theses argue for and develop. As such, we support and agree with them. We also agree that the communist workers as well as the political communist groups should try to ’organize workplace cells’ every time and in every place they can.

We would like to particularly comment on the these 7. "In cases of workplaces that are already unionized, it would be foolish for communists to abstain from participating in the unions of their own workplaces, as such a policy would leave the rank-and-file to the unchecked assaults of the leadership, thus ruining the possibility of a revolutionary minority having a presence in the workplace". First, this point posits a specific ’tactic’ to adopt with the already unionized workplaces of the "closed-shop" system. As it is raised here, this question does not exist in the other systems. We don’t understand what the thesis means, or refers to, when it talks of "participating in the unions". If it is participating in the meetings open to all workers that the local union may organize, indeed we agree. If it means participating in the unions’ internal apparatus life, then we’ll disagree because it would be developing and maintaining not only the "unions’ credibility" in the eyes of the workers on the grounds that ’they are places where we can discuss’, but also because it would be developing and participating actively in an "internal union life" that can only be contrary to the workers’ struggles, even the smallest ones.

Then, this participation is argued for because otherwise it would be abandoning the rank-and-file to the union leadership. But what is rank-and-file ? The these 3 already mentioned rank-and-file... unionism. If this theses mentions this rank-and-file, that is any kind or ’radical’, militant, base, unionism that exists everywhere in the world, the task of the revolutionaries is not to support them, or prevent them from being ’defeated’ by the union leadership, but to fight against the illusions it carries and the sabotages and traps it sets up against the working class struggles. Thus, certainly because comrades of the GCCF are still close to the IWW, this point calls for defending the rank-and-file unionism that the these 3 has denounced as pure unionism and whose form can’t defend the proletarians’ interest or struggle according to the whole theses. We can see in this point how an abstract and formal criticism of the unions can quickly lead to concessions to radical unionism – even more dangerous when its militants are sincere and honest as well as taking personal risks – and be useless, if not opposed, to the development of the workers’ struggles and consciousness toward the concrete dangers of unionism, which can’t be reduced to just the unions’ leadership, who often lack credibility among the most militant workers, but are borne by the most radical rank-and-file unionism whose main function, political one, is to bring back the workers to the ’union ground and policy’ [8].

This confusion about rank-and-file unionism is repeated again in the these 9, which makes a clear difference between it and the leadership while, in our opinion, the communists have precisely and on the contrary to underline and clarify the fact that rank-and-file and any radical unionism, whatever is its form and expression, is the indispensable complement to the unions’ leadership so that it and the whole capitalist state apparatus can control and sabotage the daily working class struggles, as well as the revolutionary ones, and derail the workers from their class struggles and ground.

Before concluding, we fully agree with the these 11 on the IWW. The theses 12 to 15 are specific to the local situation and IWW practice. They are difficult to understand precisely. While these points seem to see the IWW as, in practice, a leftist group (these 12), the last point leaves the door open to some ’cooperation’ with some General Membership Branch, the local section, of the IWW, which is politically contradictory and even dangerous if one understands clearly, as the Communist Left does, that leftism is fully part of the capitalist political forces addressing particularly the working class struggles for the sake of the capitalist state.

Finally, it appears that these theses are an attempt of synthesis between different basic class, proletarian and capitalist (leftist), positions, the latter influenced by immediate and local unionist practices. The result is that they don’t just express political confusions but above all actually present political concessions to unionism. We think it is important to insist on the need to break not only with the ’official union’ or union leadership and bureaucrats, but with unionism as a whole, its ideology and its practice as expressed particularly by the so-called radical and militant rank-and-file unionism whose militants are often leftists or influenced by leftism. Unions are nowadays entirely organs of the capitalist state and unionism has also become a capitalist ideology and practice against the working class struggle. To really and deeply break with unionism, it is important to not repeat the... German Left and the KAPD experience: while being, apparently and superficially, very radically against the unions, it never really broke with unionism as such. While its main slogan of that time, since 1920, was the radical ’leave the unions!’, it finally called and set up the AAUD (Allgemeine Arbeiter Union Deutschlands) and AAUE (Allgemeine Arbeiter Union-Einheitsorganization) that actually were... new unions, radical and ’democratic’ ones for sure, but still unions. That’s an important experience that has been particularly criticized by other Left fractions, which we should discuss and refer to.

In our opinion, the key point for adopting and developing a clear position and practice in regard to the daily and historical working class struggles and in relation to the unions’ opposition to them, is to keep in mind and draw the political consequences and meanings of the very fact that the class struggle is a political struggle, and that the proletariat is always confronted by the state apparatus. This experience comes from Marx and Engels’ struggle against political indifferentism and anarchism, Lenin’s against Economism, Rosa Luxemburg’s against revisionism within the German socialist party and trade-union – see particularly Mass Strike, Party and Union –, the Communist Party of Italy’s (and Bordiga’s) against Gramsci’s fetishism of the workers councils [9], up to the one that we have to lead today against modern Economism, that is what we call Councilism, and modern anarchist political indifferentism.

The IGCL, October 29th 2018.



[3. The French version of the Pannekoek’s quotation of Trade Unionism is a little different since it does not speak of the workers powerlessness but of the ’union powerlessness’ : « L’impuissance du syndicalisme n’a rien de surprenant, car si un groupe isolé de travailleurs peut apparaître dans un juste rapport de force lorsqu’il s’oppose à un patronat isolé, il est impuissant face à un employeur qui est soutenu par l’ensemble de la classe capitaliste.» (

[4. Camera del lavoro in Italian, Bolsa del trabajo in Spanish, that is the geographical or local organization of the unions distinct but complementary to the factory and industrial unions, particularly at the end of the 19th Century and beginning of the 20th.

[5. Marx’s interview by Hamann published in Volkstaat in 1869 and reproduced by La révolution prolétarienne #26 in 1926 and La critique sociale in 2008 : See also the mention of this interview in English in

[6. By the way, many unions of the past, particularly revolutionary unionism, have broken with capitalist social relations at the theoretical and ’programmatic’ level. See for instance the 1905 ’program’ of the French mass union CGT: ’The Congress of Amiens confirms the article 2, principle of the CGT : ’the CGT regroups, outside any political school, all the workers who are conscious of the struggle to lead for the disappearance of wage labour and of the bosses [« Le Congrès confédéral d’Amiens confirme l’article 2, constitutif de la CGT : ’La CGT groupe, en dehors de toute école politique, tous les travailleurs conscients de la lutte à mener pour la disparition du salariat et du patronat’ »]

[7. It is important to point out that some points of the Theses refer to the specific characteristics of the unions "system" that prevails mainly in North American countries and Great Britain, the so-called "closed-shop", which differs from the European ones, particularly the ones predominating in Italy, France and Spain – to give the main examples. Often this difference makes the international discussion on the Union question difficult with misunderstandings because the immediate conditions of the revolutionaries’ intervention in their workplace may appear different. The fact that, as their fellow workers, they often need to be unionized to get the job, may confuse the discussion on their intervention and relation with the union framework. It is beyond the scope of this text to deeply address this question but the key point is that today the communists have to break with the union’s ideology and practice in their workplace whether they are constrained to be unionized or not.

[8. Among so many examples in the working class struggles of crucial derailing and sabotaging actions of the radical and rank-and-file unions, since the 1960s, one can refer to our balance-sheet of the railway workers struggle in France of 2018 and the "radical" action of the French union SUD in our journal Revolution or War #10 (