Revolution or War n°24

(May 2023)

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Continued correspondence with Bilan & Perspectives (ICT): Do Trade Unions Have a “Social Role” vis-à-vis the Proletariat? What Was the Effective Political Action of the Unions in the Strike Wave in the UK?

Following our letter of February 16 with critical observations on secondary points, the comrades of Bilan et Perspectives have sent us a letter. We publish it below. Insofar as it raises other questions to be debated and positions to be confronted that should be of interest to the entire proletarian camp, we are following it with our own comments.

Bilan et Perspectives ‘ Response (March 20th 2023)

Bilan et Perspectives to the IGCL,

Dear comrades,

We are responding late due to our obligations in this period of struggle. We ask for your understanding.

Of course, we are “interested to know your criticisms and comments” on our interventions during the social movement against the counter-reform of pensions. We still welcome your willingness to intervene together and to point out our agreements and divergences; these are very precious supports for the defense and the diffusion of our common positions.

You make two essential criticisms of our leaflets in this period.

The first is that “the imperialist war is presented in your leaflet as an element in the same way as the crisis”, you write. And it is precisely we underline and confirm our position, unlike the IGCL. Political situations are never white or black, but multi-colored. There are indeed phenomena that are more determining than others, but they are never unique or exclusive in situations. There are clusters of causes. Therefore, we believe that the crisis is also to be taken into account in the present situation. One could also have stressed that it is the economic crisis that precipitates the capitalist states towards war. But let’s leave this aspect of the question. The major effects of the crisis of the system, illustrated recently by the debacle of the Silicon Valley bank and its repercussions in the financial system, are not going to stop, far from it. If this debacle deepens, we will see other consequences, first in the field of the war economy and then in geo-strategic confrontations.

We therefore urge you not to simplify the political analysis and to argue it on the basis of facts. As you point out, “the difference is minor and does not change the class position and... of effective political vanguard of your position.” For all that, we don’t understand in what way the war in Ukraine would be a “primary factor, certainly not unique, dictating the economic, political, ideological and repressive attacks of each national bourgeoisie”, in relation to capitalism whose crisis of reproduction seems to be generalized in all its dimensions (without excluding, for example, the question of the environment).

The second criticism concerns the union issue.

The ICT platform states: “Trades unions are organs of mediation between labour and capital. They arose as negotiators of the terms of sale of workers’ labour power. They are not, and have never been, useful instruments for the overthrow of capitalism. In the imperialist era, the unions, regardless of their social composition, are organizations that work for the preservation of capitalism especially at the most crucial moments when it is under threat.” [1]

One can also read in the brochure For Communism the following point of view:

Unions betray nothing and no-one, least of all themselves. If they sabotage struggles, take us for a ride and, in this way, make themselves indispensable to capital as factors for negotiation and order, they are only acting consistently and logically in agreement with their original concerns, wishing to negotiate the business conditions of the sale of the labour power commodity with the capitalists “on the same level” (…) We do not call for the construction of new and better unions, which, sooner or later, will end in exactly the same politics of representation as the old ones. Permanent economic organizations of the working class must enter into negotiations with the capitalists, and thus, sooner or later, accept the rules of the game of the system of exploitation. At best this kind of “syndicalist experiment” would merely repeat the history of the last two hundred years in double quick time. The main issue is to understand that the unions’ framework for action, legalistic and fixated on the state, is a strait-jacket, which continually subordinates resistance and combativity to bourgeois economy, bourgeois right and bourgeois law.” [2]

So we fully recognize, as you do, that the unions are organs of the bourgeoisie within the working class. Like you, we “consider the unions as full-fledged organs of the capitalist state, with an anti-working class and counter-revolutionary political vocation and function.” For all that, this does not exclude, and even implies, that they are capable of playing a mediating role in the working class. How else could they maintain their influence and finally frame the proletariat, if not by playing this role with a minimum of success? Here we suggest that you go beyond the simple and correct assertion that the unions are a pillar of the bourgeois state, to identify the conditions that ground their power in the class.

How is it that workers regularly let themselves be dragged along behind them? In spite of all the experience they have accumulated, the proletarians would be well It is the heart of the matter.Auteur inconnu2023-03-21T15:40:36.950328177problem with the original version. I’ll ask them to send us the end of the previous sentence that have obviously been erased.

And it is because they try to make people believe that they can defend them and bring them improvements in their living conditions that they still have the means to deceive and mystify them.

Once again, we urge you, comrades, not to simplify the issues. When we have understood one thing, the role of the unions, we still have to see how they act and above all what must be denounced in their actions at a given moment. There is the role of “social assistant” on the one hand, and in the struggle, the role of divider to lead the struggle into dead ends, on the other hand. It is easier to denounce the divisive role in the struggles because all the workers can see it with their own eyes. It is more difficult to denounce their role as “social assistant” at the individual or collective level in the collective labor agreements. This is where they still try to keep some strength.

We have to admit that the credit of the unions among the proletariat is certainly diminished, but not null for all that. Their capacity of leadership in the current movement reminds us of this. We then ask the question: if the unions were only bodies purely external to the class, why would the class still trust them in part? This view can only lead to an idealistic understanding of the question, where deceptions and mystifications are the dominant factor; at the same time, the working class would appear to be very stupid to link its fate to organs whose entire experience leads to defeat.

On these two points, we wish on the contrary to lead you to reflect on the solidity of your analyses and your argumentation, which cannot lead from our point of view to really founded political conclusions. They are reminiscent of the simplifying and limited analyses of decadence or decomposition (which remains even more incomprehensible). We do not deny the decadence of capitalism, but it is insufficient to understand the evolution of capitalism, on pain of idealism. We must therefore take into account a whole range of events from other angles, parameters, etc.

You said that your criticisms were only secondary “critical observations”. For our part, we believe that there are differences in methods that we can discuss. They would raise real differences if you were not careful.

Fraternally, Bilan et Perspectives, March 20th 2023

Our response of March 30th 2023

The IGCL to Bilan et Perspectives,

Dear comrades,

We would like to thank you for your answer, which allows us “to point out our agreements and divergences [as] very precious supports for the defense and the diffusion of our common positions”, as you rightly say. We would add that our debates and exchanges must be understood as moments in the process leading to the party of tomorrow being able to adopt the clearest possible program; and that it can benefit as much as possible from previous experiences in order to develop as quickly as possible its capacities for intervention and political leadership in the class struggle and the historical turmoil that is coming. Let us repeat, for us, the points of divergence that we address in our correspondence are of secondary order. To the point that some could, and certainly they do one way or another, cross each of our two organizations.

To tell the truth, we are not even sure that the first point – the one about the imperialist war becoming or not the determining factor of the historical situation – marks a real difference between the ICT and the IGCL. That is why we have quoted in our letter an extract from the ICT platform and from an article of Battaglia Comunista, which we have taken over. Both, it seems to us, rightly point out that the growing affirmation of the dynamic towards generalized imperialist war – and not the war in Ukraine per se as you have taken up and wrongly understood – “is expressed today in the universal attack on the working and living conditions of the proletariat.” For our part, we say that it tends each time more to “determine” the attacks carried out by the bourgeoisie against the proletariat according to moments and countries. We can say that at least until the Covid crisis, the attacks of each bourgeoisie against the proletariat were – globally and without excluding that there could have been other factors intervening according to the situations – determined or dictated in the first place by the defense of the national capital against the rivals first and foremost, not only, on the level of economic competition. Since then, and even more since the war in Ukraine, each national capital tends (and only tends) to define its “economic” policies and its attacks against the proletariat, not simply and only for the defense of the competitiveness of the national capital against its rivals, but for the needs of the dynamics towards the generalized imperialist war by means of the development of war economies as the French president Macron said. For example, this requires policies of relocation of so-called essential goods in order to no longer depend on imperialist rivals, even if it means paying more for the price of labor power in the short term. It is therefore necessary to grasp these upheavals of an economic as well as a political nature, like those of the 1930s with the New Deal and the Popular Front, in all their magnitude and implications in order to best develop our intervention in the class and its struggles.

The union issue marks a real divergence between the ICT and the IGCL. It is neither of principle nor fundamental. Nevertheless, it can imply differences in the analysis of the development of the class struggle and therefore differences in the immediate intervention, as we will underline later. “Trades unions are organs of mediation between labour and capital”, says the platform of the ICT. We oppose this position on the unions as mediators. For our part, our platform and our basic positions defend that “the trade unions as a whole, the leadership as well as the base sections, are nowadays full-fledged organs of the bourgeois state within the working class milieu. They aim at maintaining the capitalist order within its ranks, at framing the working class and at preventing, counteracting and sabotaging any proletarian struggle, in particular any extension, generalization and centralization of proletarian fights.” (Basic positions of the IGCL) [3] This difference did not prevent us from developing the same orientations and slogans during the workers’ mobilization in France at the beginning of 2023. On the other hand, this was not the case this summer during the beginning of the wave of strikes in the United Kingdom in the face of inflation.

Unions and Social Assistance?

But before addressing this point directly, let us quickly note the distinction done in your letter between the unions “full organs of the capitalist state” – a position as such which you share with us – and their “social assistance role” [4] in order to base the position on this mediating role of the unions. This role would explain why “the class still trust them in part.” Let’s accept your ground for a moment, that of the social welfare performed on occasion by the unions “at the individual or collective level in the collective labor agreements.”

At the individual level, whether this or that union or shop steward acts as a social worker, helps or defends an individual worker on this or that occasion, has only a very limited, insignificant effect in “the credit of the unions among the proletariat.” Good for him or her if the shop steward, or the social worker, or even the human resources manager, solves his or her particular problem. But, does the police bus bringing an injured driver to the hospital change the degree of trust of the proletariat, as a collective force, in the bourgeois police? Moreover, the argument seems to us politically confused. Indeed, it makes the individual and atomized worker, with a personal problem, an element, indeed an expression, of the relation of forces between the classes. [5] Now the class-union relationship, or more broadly class-State, is defined and must be understood as that of the proletariat collective body, even in the most isolated cases; that is to say, it must include this same individual worker in the collective in struggle, or potentially in struggle, of his/her workplace. And, by individual and militant experience, we can assure you that even the worker, often among the most deprived and suffering particularly from social atomization, having had to call upon some kind of social assistance, finds himself quite “different”, including in his relation to the social assistance or to the trade union delegate who helped him, when his workplace finds itself in a collective struggle in which he himself can participate and of which he can feel himself an active part – if only because it breaks, or tends to break, his/her daily social atomization.

The second argument, at the collective level, suggests that unions would retain their credibility with workers through what would be achieved in company collective agreements. “How else could they retain their influence and ultimately frame the proletariat, if not by holding this [mediating] role with a modicum of success?” And in support of this, you quote an ICT pamphlet, For Communism [6]. But precisely, another passage of this brochure affirms that the unions are no longer effective tools, even a minima, for the defense of the immediate interests, basic ones says the brochure, of the proletarians: “Today we can only declare the absolute failure of the unions to even defend the most basic interests of the workers.” (emphasis added) We totally agree with this position. And the reality, particularly in Anglo-Saxon countries where company agreements are institutionalized, is that very often, when they are combative, workers reject the agreements negotiated by the unions. Thus, far from being a factor of credibility for the unions, these negotiations are very often a factor of discrediting and denouncing the unions. And this is what communists must emphasize.

The Dangers of the Position on the Mediation Role of Unions

Let us now address the fundamental divergence with the ICT, not B&P only, that we should confront and clarify as best we can by exposing and discussing it. We are well aware that we will not convince the ICT, nor the comrades of B&P in particular, of the erroneous nature of this position and we share their concern not to enter into “vain polemics”, a danger that must always be avoided. However, this does not prevent us from debating it, in particular by pointing out the political implications of our positions. It is only in this way that we can, each from our respective positions, clarify and specify these ones and our own interventions. If we have shared the analysis and the same orientations of intervention to the point of intervening together in the proletarian mobilization in France, it is not the same for the understanding of the dynamics of workers’ struggles in the United Kingdom since last summer.

As early as August, we thought it was appropriate to intervene directly and without delay by calling on the country’s proletarians to join the strikes in progress [7], especially the wildcat strikes, and to renew them without waiting for the days of action planned by the unions. The comrades of the CWO, on the other hand, thought it was appropriate to wait for the situation to mature and, therefore, for the hot autumn that the British unions were announcing. [8] One of the reasons for this difference in appreciation, besides perhaps different practical experiences of intervention as vanguard and political direction of party, is due to our respective positions on the trade union question and the understanding, or analysis, of workers’ struggles that can be derived from it. This is how the Notes on the UK Strikes Wave [9] written by the ICT present us the dynamics of the workers’ struggles of last summer:

“Undoubtedly, the immediate consequence of the rising cost of living coupled with stagnant wages has been the prime motive force. (...) Furthermore, the post pandemic labour shortage was expected to tip the scales on the labour market in favour of job seekers. A tighter labour market usually means more bargaining power for workers. Trade union leadership has sensed an opportunity and taken advantage of this situation, sending out strike ballots across many different sectors, largely over pay (pensions, casualisation, redundancies, etc., are also recurrent issues). This has affected both the public and the private sector, but mainly those workplaces where union density is higher (...). On a few occasions, workers have even taken the initiative themselves and did not wait for the union to go through the official process.” (emphasis added)

In our view, however, the reality of the dynamics of this wave of struggles, the political reality, was the opposite of what is described here. In fact, the British unions did not organize days of action to seize the supposedly favorable opportunity of the labor market to negotiate on wages. No, they organized them, in the middle of summer, to face the growing proletarian combativeness and the emergence of wildcat strikes. For them, as political organs of the bourgeois state, it was about countering this dynamic, to ride it out, then to control and extinguish it. What was first here, politically, were not the trade union calls followed by wildcat strikes, but the wildcat strikes as expressions of the discontent and the growing combativity of the proletariat in Great Britain. From the point of view of the proletariat, of its interests, including basic interests, and of its struggle, the call of the trade unions for days of action was a counter-offensive, or a counter-fire, if one prefers, in front of the danger – whether it was unlikely or highly likely does not change anything – of a generalization of the class struggle in the country.

The comrades concluded that it was necessary to wait for the situation to mature, whereas we thought it was necessary to rely without waiting on the immediate will to struggle precisely because the unions were organizing the counter-fire of the days of action. To think that the unions can be mediators between capital and labor today leaves the door open to the idea that they can seize and take advantage of opportunities – as the Notes say – to negotiate at best, here, on wages. So, their positioning, their slogans and their tactics of organization of strikes, days of action, their timing, cannot be understood, nor denounced and fought, concretely, on the very ground of the struggles, either as a moment of direct, or indirect, sabotage of these, or as moments of the offensive or counter-offensive of the bourgeoisie and the state against the proletariat during the very course of the struggle and the strikes. This does not allow to understand the real dynamics and the real places and moments of the different battles in progress in a particular mobilization because it is precisely the unions that are the vectors of the main battles and concrete stakes imposed by the bourgeoisie during the workers’ mobilizations.

That’s why, before the bourgeois counter-offensive, carried mainly – not only – by the unions, was fully developed and effective, it was necessary to call without waiting the proletariat to enter in open struggle and in strike when it was possible; in the British case, that was in August (maybe even was it late). In this way, the intervention of the communist groups, tomorrow of the party, would have been in the forefront of the struggle and they would have assumed their historical and concrete-immediate role of political leadership of the proletariat. In this way, the party and the proletariat can dispute with the bourgeoisie the timing and the terrain this one chooses to attack or counter-attack, above all politically, during the struggles. In this way, and in an immediate way, by taking up the slogans put forward by the communist groups, the proletariat could have really taken advantage of the opportunity to develop and impose a balance of power that would be more favorable to it and, thus, make the strikes and the struggle more effective to the point of obtaining generalized wage increases and a halt, of course momentary, to the deterioration of its living and working conditions. Because only the methods and objectives of struggle put forward by the communists can allow the defense of the “basic interests of the workers.”

This, dear comrades, is what we wanted to share with you. We hope that we have not entered into a vain or useless polemic. In any case, this is not our purpose, nor our intention. These questions and the historical situation oblige us to move forward as much as possible on the path of the party of tomorrow. It is our responsibility to define as best we can the role of the party in the mass struggles that are coming and that will precede-prepare for the massive confrontations to come between the classes.

Obviously, the pages of our journal are open for any response, or even correction or clarification, that you would deem useful to bring.

Fraternally, the IGCL, March 30th 2023



[4. This particular point is worth addressing, even if we consider it totally secondary, especially for countries with a closed-shop union system, often Anglo-Saxon, where you have to be a union member to be hired or where unions manage the health or social insurance systems.

[5. At best, it can be a very particular and limited expression of it, but by no means a factor as such.

[7. We refer to our leaflet of August 20th 2022: