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Trade Unions  and revolution: The Leninist view

James Fearon

The attempts in Ireland to establish a trade union activist network and in Britain the determined campaigning of the Grass Roots Left, suggests that rank and file trade unionists are on the move.  These developments involve a great deal of confusion in the working class and a corresponding confusion on the part of socialists. Should we unite with the trade union bureaucracy and use the reformist ideas about a “better fairer way” to gain a hearing in a wider swathe of the union movement or should we put forward a working class programme even if it is not widely accepted.? If we are to face and defeat entrenched bureaucracies we require a clear view of the political landscape within which their corruption exists. With democratic governments being replaced by technocratic juntas in Europe and a nationalist response to the Euro crisis growing, the problems facing workers  cannot be reduced to trade union issues. An approach that neglects political tasks will fail to enthuse the most political workers and leave others vulnerable to the misconception that vigorous trade unionism will automatically advance the socialist revolution. With this in mind it is perhaps appropriate to revisit Lenin, who spoke very clearly on spontaneity and trade union consciousness.

Lenin argued that any intervention by revolutionary socialists into labour ‘politics’, while relating to trade union consciousness, must transcend it. No doubt within the confines of spontaneity a degree of conscious advance can be gained and Lenin’s memorable line that “there is a difference  between  spontaneity and spontaneity” points to a degree of development, but not one that equates to a revolutionary consciousness. Lenin forcefully argued that socialist consciousness could only be brought to the struggle by drawing on Marxism and the understanding gained from history and especially the long history of struggle by the working class. It is for this reason that socialists intervening in labour struggles must not limit themselves to simply “trade union issues”. A danger exists in that immersion in the “too narrow” field of trade union work can cause revolutionaries to lose sight of themselves as political agitators. Lenin’s criticism of “economism” emphasized the fact that this work “taken by itself, is not in essence Social-Democratic (revolutionary) work, but merely trade union work.” Whereas, trade union work should serve as “a beginning and constituent part” of socialists’ work, losing sight of their revolutionary political tasks means they abrogate their political responsibility to represent the working class in relation “to the state as an organised political force.” Failing to raise acute political demands means failing to confront all aspects of class oppression and Lenin consistently  argued  that; “We must actively take up the political education of the working class and the development of its political consciousness.”

Failure  to  present a revolutionary programme to workers in struggle can be expressed by affording trade union struggles a “political character”. As in Lenin’s time this theoretical flaw does not “so much deny the political struggle as bow to its spontaneity, to its lack of consciousness”. This position is partly arrived at because spontaneity itself produces a degree of politicisation due to the fact that “the workers themselves are beginning to understand who the government supports”. Confronting the state can as easily, however, end in compromise. Accumulated economic demands will not automatically spill over into revolution and it is the objective of socialist revolutionaries to “convert” these “flashes of political consciousness” into the struggle for socialism. The central economist theoretical mistake that “politics always obediently  follow  economics”  is  correct  only in relation to reformism, revolutionary socialism will not develop spontaneously. Lenin argues that adapting to trade union consciousness means  subservience to bourgeois politics; “The spontaneous labour movement by itself is able to create (and inevitably will create) only trade unionism, and working class trade union politics are precisely working class bourgeois politics”.  Or to put it another way, socialists who limit the demands they place before the workers’ movement to ‘trade union issues’ are degrading  socialist politics to simple reformism by objectively “converting the labour movement into an instrument of bourgeois democracy.”

For the school of thought that teaches that we can simply establish a cadre of agitators within the trade union movement, and “wait” for spontaneous revolts, the question  is;  at what “stage” do they abandon their limited economic demands and “go over” to revolutionary socialist activity? This ‘stage-ist’ approach translates into activists forming a permanent opposition within the labour movement which never goes on to the offensive against reformist politics. No amount of ‘waiting’ will break workers from bourgeois ideology and it is the task of revolutionary politics to counterpose a revolutionary programme to spontaneous trade union consciousness. Those socialists who don’t fight for this political task should, if they take Lenin’s advice, “fold their useless arms over their empty breasts” and allow those who are dragging  the labour movement “along the line of bourgeois trade unionism” to complete this reformist task. Without bringing revolutionary political perspectives to workers struggles revolutionary socialism’s role is redundant. Without developing the political ambitions of the working class with a clear eye on British and European imperialist interests and the imperialist partition of Ireland the diversity of protest noted by Lenin has the potential for “outstripping the conscious Social-Democratic leadership of the movement.” And beware then “what rough beast…slouches towards Bethlehem to be born”. (Apologies to WB.Yeats)

# see: (“Essential Works of Lenin.” Ed; Henry M. Christman. 1987.)


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