From Where We Stand : The Limits of Trade Unionism in its Current Form of Organisation and Bureaucratised Structure

From Where We Stand : The Limits of Trade Unionism in its Current Form of Organisation and Bureaucratised Structure

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Surely what is critical now is an analysis and realisation of the limitations of the traditional forms of struggle because we have to begin from and on the historical ground on which we stand. Hegel (from whom I think there is lots to learn to help us in all this) somewhere in his Logic [1] writes that the process of positing a limit is the same process of transcending it. The most advanced layers of the proletariat remain imprisoned within a consciousness which corresponds to the trade union militancy of the 1960s-1980s. If I may be permitted to use the phrase, they have not, as yet, had enough ice cold buckets of water thrown over them to help to shake them out of it. But many of these wake-up buckets are coming their way. As the crisis is deepening, the consciousness which corresponds to the past conditions is stubbornly holding on but it cannot endure. Meszaros speaks of the ‘line of least resistance’ [2] having to give way sooner or later. Lots of noise, demos and flashy union banners, bravado speeches and flagwaving cannot, in and by itself, address the needs of millions as this crisis deepens. The TUC, as usual, is making a lot of noise (the toothless bark) i.e. operating strictly within the political parameters set down by the capital order because to start to go beyond those parameters means the beginning of its own demise.

Only in the living experience of struggle, in opposition, do many thousands, if not millions, come to a practical realisation of what is now required in the form of organisation, the changes in structure and organisation which are required to move forward. The results of such experience can be generalised and articulated in re-organisation and re-structuring of the movement as a whole. Changes in ‘mass consciousness’ require such learning experiences by millions in struggle. I think somewhere in The German Ideology (or Holy Family?) [3] Marx speaks of the alteration of the consciousness of men on a mass scale as an epoch making step forward. Or rather communist consciousness must grip and move men on a mass scale if it is to be epoch changing. But this communist consciousness only arises out of men in struggle changing themselves in the course of changing their conditions of existence.

This is why any suggestion as to re-direction of a movement must be based on our collective living experience, the experience of thousands if not millions. If ‘we’ state that we need such and such a new party or organisation, etc, then if we do it as if pronouncing a papal decree (as with some of the left groups), then it falls on barren ground. It does indeed then become a ‘prescription’ for the masses which they would be right to reject. But if, for example, after major defeats as a result of the betrayals of the top stratum of the trade union bureaucracy, and this has taken place in the full view and experience of millions of trade unionists and under ‘favourable’ historical conditions (unlike in the Miners’ strike of 1984-85), we assert that we need to re-structure and re-organise trade unionism itself on new foundations so such betrayals cannot happen again, then this is the initiation of a struggle for a re-direction of the movement which is not ‘prescriptive’ but historically necessary for the development of the interests of the class, its consciousness, etc. It is based on the living experience of millions and not simply on what the ‘left wing groups’ think the proletariat should do as we repetitively get with the left groups, etc. This is a trap, I think, which is very easy to fall into and one which we must try to avoid at all costs

At this point in the struggle, as the state power of capital begins to transfer all public provision into the hands of capital, the most fundamental question is therefore not simply one of agency and organisation but of the new forms of living struggle required to oppose capital and its state power. It is only out of the elaboration of these new tactics and forms of opposition that the need for a corresponding new form of agency will assert itself under the prevailing and developing conditions. At the moment, we remain with trade unionism in its currently outmoded form of organisation and bureaucratised structures. This is the current state of mass organisation of the proletariat (approximately 6 million members of trade unions in a national population of 60 million). To state, out of the blue so to speak, that we need a radicalised trade unionism or ‘social unions’ etc, is to place the newborn before the process of its birth, is to suggest that revolutionary agency can come into existence without struggle and experience generalised by millions, without what Hegel (and Meszaros) refers to as specific forms of ‘mediation’ [4]. Unlike kind mercy, such agency doth not droppeth from the heavens like gentle rain but is born in and out of the strife of conflict. In other words, issuing from the development of forms of struggle out of the forms of organisation and the corresponding stage of consciousness we stand with at the moment, as a development on from them or a qualitative break from them based on this aforesaid experience. This is not to participate ‘prescriptively’ but to work in order to help them develop and move on as part of the overall fight to defeat the capital order and its state power.

Since dialectical thinking involves the study of the world in its development (and not as a static, fixed formation), this ‘world in its development’ is grasped as the identity and conflict of arising and vanishing moments, giving it its immanently contradictory character, the tendency to return to the old but at a different stage or phase of development, the ‘leap’ forward to a qualitatively new set of relations, etc, etc. As one determinate formation or stage of it is passing away this becomes identified with and makes room for a new formation or stage which is emerging out of its passing and which is connected with it yet distinct from the older, dying phase, etc. Contradiction is precisely this identity of vanishing and arising moments which are nevertheless distinct and opposed in their identity.
We need to grasp this in relation to the present stage of the development of the crisis of the capital order and especially in regard to trade unionism because the crisis of the former inevitably forms the historical ground of and gives rise to a most intense crisis in the latter. Here organised labour remains in its movement and consciousness with its traditional ‘economistic’ organisation. This is the outmoded form that faces the all pervasive gravity of capital’s crisis, its effects on millions, etc. When I speak to many trade unionists on a one to one level, they often dispute that there is a stratification of interest within trade unionism itself. They see that reps, convenors and general secretaries, etc, are elected to office and that confers a certain legitimacy on their position and inflated salaries/pensions/perks regardless of what they say or do. What they do not see behind the veil of formalities is that the bureaucratised character of trade unionism itself implies a differentiation of interest based on and arising out of the prevailing class relations and that the bureaucracy itself is a stratum whose interests ultimately lie in the continuation of the capital order. This must have explosive implications for the current structures and form of organisation of trade unionism tied, as it is, to the history of the capital order. And, of course, this applies in Britain more than in any other country where the roots of trade unionism have become intertwined with the roots of industrial capital over two centuries.
As the crisis of capital deepens, what will inevitably become sharpened is this difference of interest within trade unionism, placing on the agenda the absolute necessity to overturn trade unionism in its current defensive form and moribund structure, replacing it with a higher, more democratic, offensive form. I don’t often quote Lenin these days but I think in Volume 38 [5] (the so-called Philosophical Notebooks) he speaks of the old form being thrown off by the emerging and developing new content and replaced by a form more appropriate to the ‘notion’ (begriff) of the new content. If this does not happen, (and there is no inevitability in it) the trajectory of trade unionism is undoubtedly downwards into the black hole of the history of class society.

Trade unionism in its current form and structure acts as a policeman of the proletariat, is effectively acting as a proxy of capital and its state power. The real historic dependence of the bureaucracy on the continuation of the existence of the capital order has been a function of the existence of this order prior to the onset of the unfolding of its global structural crisis. In other words, only under certain historical conditions does and can this dependent relationship prevail. As those conditions alter, as social antagonisms sharpen and millions begin to open up an offensive front against capital, this relation between state power and trade union bureaucracy starts to be impacted by the class struggles unfolding. The old cosy relationship between the two comes under the strain and stress of these struggles. Historically they have fought over the distribution of value, its partition and relative division but the bureaucracy has never questioned the right of capital and its state power to rule.

The state power wants to shackle rank and file trade unionism but not destroy the bureaucratic control mechanism that instructs workers to return to work. This state recognises its conservative role in the proletariat. It wants to maintain a ‘business unionism’ but it would prefer no unionism at all to one which is radicalised under crisis conditions brought on by the historic trajectory of global capital. That would be the worst scenario of all because then organised labour is beyond its control and has declared political independence from the state power and its proxies in the TUC. The present relation between the state power and the bureaucracy is therefore a function of the present historical conditions of existence of the capital order. We can expect changes and qualitative shifts, if not disruptions, in this relation as the crisis of this order deepens. The contemporary arrangement cannot hold. We cannot discount the possibility that sections of this bureaucracy will break away and come over to the proletariat but, on the whole, it will try to maintain the equilibrium of its subservient relationship with the state power because its historic position depends on the continuation of this relation. Anything that threatens it – including and especially the radical transformation of the form of organisation and structure of trade unionism – will be opposed and attempts made, with the help of the state power if necessary, to defeat it.

This is why the struggle of trade unionism against the transfer of public provision by the state power into the hands of capital needs to be linked increasingly, gradatively, to the challenge against this bureaucratic stratum and the current organisational form and structure. Some of us used to think that trade unionism was spontaneously generated by the capital order and that by some sort of historical default it would always be part and parcel of that order and even outlive it; the historically inevitable representative bodies of organised labour so to speak. But I now have my doubts about this. I am starting to think that with the gravity of unfolding events, a capital order without any trade unionism whatsoever is entirely possible and even perhaps necessary for this order as its crisis worsens. If not this worst scenario for workers then a completely integrated and corporatist trade unionism or even its transmogrification into a mere members insurance society legally bound without strikes. As recently as the last general election campaign, that paragon and vulgarian of bourgeois liberalism, coalition Business Secretary Vince Cable, blurted out on the BBC Radio 4 Question Time that it was his opinion that strikes should be limited or even outlawed in the public sector. He more or less repeated the same threats recently in a speech at a GMB conference (!!) for which the leadership of that union applauded him from the platform and subsequently awarded him an expensive bottle of Scotch Whisky on the floor of conference. With union leaders like that who needs anti-union laws? Why was he invited to speak in the first place? This is precisely what we mean by “Business Unionism”.
The trade unions are already so financially dependent on the functioning of the capital order in that they have many millions invested in its operation in the form of bonds, pension funds, shares, etc. In certain respects, the major trade unions function like corporations, guarding, augmenting and pursuing their investments, funds, etc. Trade union investments function as capital on the world’s markets and the funds which grow as part of their portfolios arise out of the sweated, uncompensated and superexploited labour of others. If we substituted the term ‘providence society’ for trade union, barring the right of its members to strike, a minimal internal adjustment would be required in order to bring the bureaucratised organisations into a resonating consonance with their new name. General Secretaries would slip effortlessly into the same leather upholstered chair the next morning but now as Chief Executive Officers in the same fluent way that many have readily placed their posteriors on the padded seats in the House of Lords.
The sort of ‘business unionism’ that the capitalist class and its state would dearly love to see is, in all but name, more or less, with a few exceptions, already operational and that’s how the top stratum wants it. The aspirations of the rank and file, of course, are a different matter. If they don’t fight they will lose everything. So there is no cast iron guarantee that the trade unions will actually survive within this order nevermind outlive it as the conditions of this order’s continuation alter with the unfolding of its structural crisis. I think the notion that capital would always spontaneously generate trade unions and that trade unionism would outlive the capital order was and remains an oft-chanted mantra or oft-repeated dogma of some on the left. Wage labour is not necessarily unionised wage labour. I use to think that under capitalism you simply couldn’t have a world where trade unions had been eliminated. Now I am not so certain.

For my part, I think the high tide of trade unionism in Britain – in its present structural and organisational bureaucratised form – was the miners’ strike of 1984-85. Over a quarter of a century has passed and it is as if trade unionism has been tamed. Scargill was, and latterly the late Bob Crow of the RMT was, the personification of the left wing of the trade union bureaucracy. The attempt of Scargill and the cohort around him to establish a new party (SLP) represented an aborted articulation of the interests of the left wing of that bureaucracy. Any future attempts by this stratum in the labour movement to create ‘parties’ or ‘alliances’ etc, will merely articulate a same or similar interest. It will, in all probability, be in similar vein to the debacle of the SLP. Therefore, as I see it, the miners’ strike circumscribed the political limits of trade unionism in its current abovesaid bureaucratised form. This is not to state unequivocally that such a ‘high tide’ will not arise again but such a ‘tide’ will not be any higher or much higher. It will certainly not transcend its limits without a ‘revolution’ within trade unionism itself.

This is why the Miners’ strike strike was of such fundamental historic significance for the proletariat itself. It truly revealed the limits of trade unionism in its current form and that the capital order actually lays down these limits, draws the line in the sand. Step over it and the full force of the state power comes down upon you. And yet over it they must step as events unfold!!
In regard to the RMT, there is no reason why the state power cannot connive and prepare for a rail strike in the same way it prepared to break the miners in the 1980s. Of course, it is not simply a question of a shallow rationalism, but, nonetheless, the late Bob Crow – as personification of the left wing of the trade union bureaucracy – like Scargill did, thought or rather took for granted that official trade unionism can operate within the capital order in the same way it operated in the 1960s and 70s. The crisis of that order dictates otherwise. Ironically and perhaps unconsciously, the cynicism of the realpolitik of the TUC is a more truthful acknowledgement in practice of its own interests than the posturing of its left wing is in ostensibly representing the interests of trade unionised labour. The motto of the TUC might be ‘surrender and survive’ but that of its left wing perhaps should be ‘The good old days will never die’. Strange, since ‘the good old days’ are as dead as the Dodo and gone forever.

The TUC has evolved into a protestation with all the accompanying PR of a well-regimented accountancy firm. The Price-Waterhouse or Prudential of trade unionism. Trade unionism has therefore become, for the TUC, a movement to be governed, ruled, controlled, chanelled and contained within manageable parameters which define not only the interests of this top bureaucratic layer but also, simultaneously, provide a supporting prop for the capital order itself. The capital order is the historic ground on which the privilege and interests of this layer rests. Accordingly, this stratum is not going to kick that ground from underneath itself. Quite the contrary, it must maintain it. This bureaucracy will strive to contain all future struggles of rank and file trade unionists within these parameters which means, necessarily, with the deepening of capital’s crisis, rank and file trade unionism is on a collision course with this bureaucracy and, by implication, with the whole outmoded and moribund structure and form of organisation of trade unionism as it has existed over the past century and more.

Shaun May


[1] Hegel, G.W.F., Science of Logic, Allen and Unwin
[2] Meszaros in Beyond Capital, p771 ff.
[3] Volumes 4 and 5 of the Marx-Engels Collected Works, Lawrence & Wishart
[4] Hegel and Meszaros, Ibid
[5] Lenin, Volume 38, Philosophical Notebooks, Progress Publishers

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