Marxism and Anarchism

Communism and Syndicalism

Leon Trotsky

The trade union question is one of the most important for the labour movement and, consequently, for the Opposition. Without a precise position on the trade union question, the Opposition will be unable to win real influence in the working class. That is why I believe it necessary to submit here, for discussion, a few considerations on the trade union question.

1. The Communist Party is the fundamental weapon of revolutionary action of the proletariat, the combat organisation of its vanguard, that must raise itself to the role of leader of the working class in all the spheres of its struggle without exception, and consequently, in the trade union field.

2. Those who, in principle, counterpose trade union autonomy to the leadership of the Communist Party, counterpose thereby—whether they want to or not—the most backward proletarian section to the vanguard of the working class, the struggle for immediate demands to the struggle for the complete liberation of the workers, reformism to communism, opportunism to revolutionary Marxism.

3. Prewar French syndicalism, at the epoch of its rise and expansion, by fighting for trade union autonomy actually fought for its independence from the bourgeois government and its parties, among them that of reformist-parliamentary socialism. This was a struggle against opportunism—for a revolutionary road.

Revolutionary syndicalism did not, in this connection, make a fetish of the autonomy of the mass organisations. On the contrary, it understood and preached the leading role of the revolutionary minority in relation to the mass organisations, which reflect the working class with all its contradictions, its backwardness, and its weaknesses.

4. The theory of the active minority was, in essence, an incomplete theory of a proletarian party. In all its practice, revolutionary syndicalism was an embryo of a revolutionary party as against opportunism, that is, it was a remarkable draft outline of revolutionary communism.

5. The weakness of anarcho-syndicalism, even in its classic period, was the absence of a correct theoretical foundation, and, as a result, a wrong understanding of the nature of the state and its role in the class struggle; an incomplete, not fully developed and, consequently, a wrong conception of the role of the revolutionary minority, that is, the party. Thence the mistakes in tactics, such as the fetishism of the general strike, the ignoring of the connection between the uprising and the seizure of power, etc.

6. After the war, French syndicalism found not only its refutation but also its development and its completion in communism. Attempts to revive revolutionary syndicalism now would be to try and turn back history. For the labour movement, such attempts can have only reactionary significance.

7. The epigones of syndicalism transform (in words) the independence of the trade union organisation from the bourgeoisie and the reformist socialists into independence in general, into absolute independence from all parties, the Communist included.

If, in the period of expansion, syndicalism considered itself a vanguard and fought for the leading role of the vanguard minority among the backward masses, the epigones of syndicalism now fight against the identical wishes of the Communist vanguard, attempting, even though without success, to base themselves upon the lack of development and the prejudices of the more backward sections of the working class.

8. Independence from the influence of the bourgeoisie cannot be a passive state. It can express itself only by political acts, that is, by the struggle against the bourgeoisie. This struggle must be inspired by a distinct programme which requires organisation and tactics for its application. It is the union of programme, organisation, and tactics that constitutes the party. In this way, the real independence of the proletariat from the bourgeois government cannot be realised unless the proletariat conducts its struggle under the leadership of a revolutionary and not an opportunist party.

9. The epigones of syndicalism would have one believe that the trade unions are sufficient by themselves. Theoretically, this means nothing, but in practice it means the dissolution of the revolutionary vanguard into the backward masses, that is, the trade unions.

The larger the mass the trade unions embrace, the better they are able to fulfill their mission. A proletarian party, on the contrary, merits its name only if it is ideologically homogeneous, bound by unity of action and organisation. To represent the trade unions as self-sufficient because the proletariat has already attained its “majority,” is to flatter the proletariat, is to picture it other than it is and can be under capitalism, which keeps enormous masses of workers in ignorance and backwardness, leaving only the vanguard of the proletariat the possibility of breaking through all the difficulties and arriving at a clear comprehension of the tasks of its class as a whole.

10. The real, practical and not the metaphysical autonomy of trade union organisation is not in the least disturbed nor is it diminished by the struggle of the Communist Party for influence. Every member of the trade union has the right to vote as he thinks necessary and to elect the one who seems to him most worthy. Communists possess this right in the same way as others.

The conquest of the majority by the Communists in the directing organs takes place quite in accordance with the principles of autonomy, that is, the self-administration of the trade unions. On the other hand, no trade union statute can prevent or prohibit the party from electing the general secretary of the Confederation of Labour to its central committee, for here we are entirely in the domain of the autonomy of the party.

11. In the trade unions, the Communists, of course, submit to the discipline of the party, no matter what posts they occupy. This does not exclude but presupposes their submission to trade union discipline. In other words, the party does not impose upon them any line of conduct that contradicts the state of mind or the opinions of the majority of the members of trade unions. In entirely exceptional cases, when the party considers impossible the submission of its members to some reactionary decision of the trade union, it points out openly to its members the consequences that flow from it, that is, removals from the trade union posts, expulsions, and so forth.

With juridical formulas in these questions—and autonomy is a purely juridical formula—one can get nowhere. The question must be posed in its essence, that is, on the plane of trade union policy. A correct policy must be counterposed to a wrong policy.

12. The character of the party’s leadership, its methods and its forms, can differ profoundly in accordance with the general conditions of a given country or with the period of its development.

In capitalist countries, where the Communist Party does not possess any means of coercion, it is obvious that it can give leadership only by Communists being in the trade unions as rank-and-file members or functionaries. The number of Communists in leading posts of the trade unions is only one of the means of measuring the role of the party in the trade unions. The most important measurement is the percentage of rank-and-file Communists in relation to the whole unionized mass. But the principal criterion is the general influence of the party on the working class, which is measured by the circulation of the Communist press, the attendance at meetings of the party, the number of votes at elections and, what is especially important, the number of working men and women who respond actively to the party’s appeals to struggle.

13. It is clear that the influence of the Communist Party in general, including the trade unions, will grow, the more revolutionary the situation becomes.

These conditions permit an appreciation of the degree and the form of the true, real, and not the metaphysical autonomy of the trade unions. In times of “peace,” when the most militant forms of trade union action are isolated economic strikes, the direct role of the party in trade union action falls back to second place. As a general rule, the party does not make a decision on every isolated strike. It helps the trade union to decide the question of knowing if the strike is opportune, by means of its political and economic information and by its advice. It serves the strike with its agitation, etc. First place in the strike belongs, of course to the trade union.

The situation changes radically when the movement rises to the general strike and still more to the direct struggle for power. In these conditions, the leading role of the party becomes entirely direct, open, and immediate. The trade unions—naturally not those that pass over to the other side of the barricades—become the organisational apparatus of the party which, in the presence of the whole class, stands forth as the leader of the revolution, bearing the full responsibility.

In the field extending between the partial economic strike and the revolutionary class insurrection are placed all the possible forms of reciprocal relations between the party and the trade unions, the varying degrees of direct and immediate leadership, etc. But under all conditions, the party seeks to win general leadership by relying upon the real autonomy of the trade unions which, as organisations—it goes without saying—are not “submitted” to it.

14. Facts show that politically “independent” unions do not exist anywhere. There never have been any. Experience and theory say that there never will be any. In the United States, the trade unions are directly bound by their apparatus to the general staffs of industry and the bourgeois parties. In Britain the trade unions, which in the past mainly supported the Liberals, now constitute the material basis of the Labour Party. In Germany, the trade unions march under the banner of the Social Democracy. In the Soviet republic, their leadership belongs to the Bolsheviks. In France, one of the trade union organisations follows the Socialists, the other the Communists. In Finland, the trade unions were divided only a little while ago, one going towards the social democracy, the other towards communism. That is how it is everywhere.

The theoreticians of the “independence” of the trade union movement have not taken the trouble up to now to think of this question: why their slogan not only does not approach its realisation in practice anywhere, but why, on the contrary, the dependence of the trade unions upon the leadership of a party becomes everywhere, without exception, more and more evident and open. Yet, this corresponds entirely to the character of the imperialist epoch, which bares all class relations and which, even within the proletariat, accentuates the contradictions between its aristocracy and its most exploited sections.

15. The consummate expression of outdated syndicalism is the so-called Syndicalist League. By all its traits, it comes forward as a political organisation which seeks to subordinate the trade union movement to its influence. In fact the League recruits its members not in accordance with the trade union principle, but in accordance with the principle of political groupings; it has its platform, if not its programme, and it defends it in its publications; it has its own internal discipline within the trade union movement. In the congresses of the confederations, its partisans act as a political faction in the same way as the Communist faction. If we are not to lose ourselves in words, the tendency of the Syndicalist League reduces itself to a struggle to liberate the two confederations from the leadership of the Socialists and Communists and to unite them under the direction of the Monatte group.

The League does not act openly in the name of the right and the necessity for the advanced minority to fight to extend its influence over the most backward masses; it presents itself masked by what it calls trade union “independence.” From this point of view, the League approaches the [practice of the] Socialist Party, which also realises its leadership under cover of the phrase “independence of the trade union movement.” The Communist Party, on the contrary, says openly to the working class: Here is my programme, my tactics and my policy, which I propose to the trade unions.

The proletariat must never believe anything blindly. It must judge by its work. But the workers should have a double and triple distrust toward those pretenders to leadership who act incognito, under a mask, who make the proletariat believe that it has no need of leadership in general.

16. The right of a political party to fight to win the trade unions to its influence must not be denied, but this question must be posed: In the name of what programme and what tactics is this organisation fighting? From this point of view, the Syndicalist League does not give the necessary guarantees. Its programme is extremely amorphous, as are its tactics. In its political evaluations it acts only from event to event. Acknowledging the proletarian revolution and even the dictatorship of the proletariat, it ignores the party and fights against Communist leadership, without which the proletarian revolution would always risk remaining an empty phrase.

17. The ideology of trade union independence has nothing in common with the ideas and sentiments of the proletariat as a class. If the party, by its direction, is capable of assuring a correct, clear-sighted, and firm policy in the trade unions, not a single worker will have the idea of rebelling against the leadership of the party. The historical experience of the Bolsheviks has proved that.

This also holds good for France, where the Communists received 1,200,000 votes in the elections while the Conféderation Générale du Travail Unitaire (the central organisation of the Red trade unions) has only a fourth or a third of this number. It is clear that the abstract slogan of independence can under no condition come from the masses. Trade union bureaucracy is quite another thing. It not only sees professional competition in the party bureaucracy, but it even tends to make itself independent of control by the vanguard of the proletariat. The slogan of independence is, by its very basis, a bureaucratic and not a class slogan.

18. After the fetish of “independence” the Syndicalist League also transforms the question of trade union unity into a fetish.

It goes without saying that the maintenance of the unity of the trade union organisations has enormous advantages, from the point of view of the daily tasks of the proletariat as well as from the point of view of the struggle of the Communist Party to extend its influence over the masses. But the facts prove that since the first successes of the revolutionary wing in the trade unions, the opportunists have set themselves deliberately on the road of split. Peaceful relations with the bourgeoisie are dearer to them than the unity of the proletariat. That is the indubitable summary of the post-war experiences.

We Communists are in every way interested in proving to the workers that the responsibility for the splitting of the trade union organisations falls wholly upon the Social Democracy. But it does not at all follow that the hollow formula of unity is more important for us than the revolutionary tasks of the working class.

19. Eight years have passed since the trade union split in France. During this time, the two organisations linked themselves definitely with the two mortally hostile political parties. Under these conditions, to think of being able to unify the trade union movement by the simple preaching of unity would be to nurture illusions. To declare that without the preliminary unification of the two trade union organisations not only the proletarian revolution but even a serious class struggle is impossible, means to make the future of the revolution depend upon the corrupted clique of trade union reformists.

In fact, the future of the revolution depends not upon the fusion of the two trade union apparatuses, but upon the unification of the majority of the working class around revolutionary slogans and revolutionary methods of struggle. At present the unification of the working class is only possible by fighting against the class collaborationists (coalitionists) who are found not only in political parties but also in the trade unions.

20. The real road to the revolutionary unity of the proletariat lies in the development, the correction, the enlargement, and the consolidation of the revolutionary CGTU and in the weakening of the reformist CGT.

It is not excluded but, on the contrary, very likely that at the time of its revolution, the French proletariat will enter the struggle with two confederations: behind one will be found the masses and behind the other, the aristocracy of labour and the bureaucracy.

21. The new trade union opposition obviously does not want to enter on the road of syndicalism. At the same time, it breaks with the party—not with a certain leadership, but with the party in general. This means quite simply that ideologically it definitely disarms itself and falls back to the positions of craft or trade unionism.

22. The trade union opposition as a whole is very variegated. But it is characterised by some common features which do not bring it closer to the Left Communist Opposition but, on the contrary, alienate it and oppose it.

The trade union opposition does not fight against the thoughtless acts and wrong methods of the Communist leadership, but against the influence of Communism over the working class.

The trade union opposition does not fight against the ultra-leftist evaluation of the given situation and the tempo of its development but acts, in reality, counter to revolutionary perspectives in general.

The trade union opposition does not fight against caricatured methods of anti-militarism but puts forward a pacifist orientation. In other words, the trade union opposition is manifestly developing in the reformist spirit.

23. It is entirely wrong to affirm that in these recent years—contrary to what has happened in Germany, Czechoslovakia, and other countries—there has not been constituted in France a right-wing grouping in the revolutionary camp. The main point is that, forsaking the revolutionary policy of Communism, the Right Opposition in France, in conformity with the traditions of the French labour movement, has assumed a trade union character, concealing in this way its political physiognomy. At bottom, the majority of the trade union opposition represents the right wing, just as the Brandler group in Germany, the Czech trade unionists who, after the split, have taken a clearly reformist position, etc.

24. One may seek to object that all the preceding considerations would be correct only on condition that the Communist Party has a correct policy. But this objection is unfounded. The question of the relationships between the party, which represents the proletariat as it should be, and the trade unions, which represent the proletariat as it is, is the most fundamental question of revolutionary Marxism. It would be veritable suicide to spurn the only possible principled reply to this question solely because the Communist Party, under the influence of objective and subjective reasons of which we have spoken more than once, is now conducting a false policy towards the trade unions, as well as in other fields. A correct policy must be counterposed to a wrong policy. Towards this end, the Left Opposition has been constituted as a faction. If it is considered that the French Communist Party in its entirety is in a wholly irremediable or hopeless state—which we absolutely do not think—another party must be counterposed to it. But the question of the relation of the party to the class does not change one iota by this fact.

The Left Opposition considers that to influence the trade union movement, to help it find its correct orientation, to permeate it with correct slogans, is impossible except through the Communist Party (or a faction for the moment) which, besides its other attributes, is the central ideological laboratory of the working class.

25. The correctly understood task of the Communist Party does not consist solely of gaining influence over the trade unions, such as they are, but in winning, through the trade unions, an influence over the majority of the working class. This is possible only if the methods employed by the party in the trade unions correspond to the nature and the tasks of the latter. The struggle for influence of the party in the trade unions finds its objective verification in the fact that they do or do not thrive, and in the fact that the number of their members increases, as well as in their relations with the broadest masses. If the party buys its influence in the trade unions only at the price of a narrowing down and a factionalizing of the latter—converting them into auxiliaries of the party for momentary aims and preventing them from becoming genuine mass organisations—the relations between the party and the class are wrong. It is not necessary for us to dwell here on the causes for such a situation. We have done it more than once and we do it every day. The changeability of the official Communist policy reflects its adventurist tendency to make itself master of the working class in the briefest time, by means of stage-play, inventions, superficial agitation, etc.

The way out of this situation does not, however, lie in counterposing the trade unions to the party (or to the faction) but in the irreconcilable struggle to change the whole policy of the party as well as that of the trade unions.

26. The Left Opposition must place the questions of the trade union movement in indissoluble connection with the questions of the political struggle of the proletariat. It must give a concrete analysis of the present stage of development of the French labour movement. It must give an evaluation, quantitative as well as qualitative, of the present strike movement and its perspectives in relation to the perspectives of the economic development of France. It is needless to say that it completely rejects the perspective of capitalist stabilization and pacifism for decades. It proceeds from an estimation of our epoch as a revolutionary one. It springs from the necessity of a timely preparation of the vanguard proletariat in face of the abrupt turns which are not only probable but inevitable. The firmer and more implacable is its action against the supposedly revolutionary ranting of the centrist bureaucracy, against political hysteria which does not take conditions into account which confuses today with yesterday or with tomorrow, the more firmly and resolutely must it set itself against the elements of the right that take up its criticism and conceal themselves under it in order to introduce their tendencies into revolutionary Marxism.

27. A new definition of boundaries? New polemics? New splits? That will be the lament of the good but tired souls who would like to transform the Opposition into a calm retreat where one can tranquilly rest from the great tasks, while preserving intact the name of revolutionist “of the left.” No! we say to them, to these tired souls: we are certainly not travelling the same road. Truth has never yet been the sum of small errors. A revolutionary organisation has never yet been composed of small conservative groups, seeking primarily to distinguish themselves from each other. There are epochs when the revolutionary tendency is reduced to a small minority in the labour movement. But these epochs demand not arrangements between the small groups with mutual hiding of sins but on the contrary, a doubly implacable struggle for a correct perspective and an education of the cadres in the spirit of genuine Marxism. Victory is possible only in this way.

28. So far as the author of these lines is personally concerned, he must admit that the notion he had of the Monatte group when he was deported from the Soviet Union proved to be too optimistic and, by that fact false. For many years, the author did not have the possibility of following the activity of this group. He judged it from old memories. The divergences showed themselves in fact not only profounder but even more acute than one might have supposed. The events of recent times have proved beyond a doubt that without a clear and precise ideological demarcation from the line of syndicalism, the Communist Opposition in France will not go forward. The theses proposed represent by themselves the first step on the road of this demarcation, which is the prelude to the successful struggle against the revolutionary jabbering and the opportunist essence of Cachin, Monmousseau, and company.