On Work within the Trade Union Movement
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The struggle for democracy in the trade unions and against the trade union bureaucracy is primarily a class question. It is not simply a procedural or organisational consideration. Bureaucracy is the product of class relations (and serves to perpetuate these relations) either in the form of state organisations or in the form of the organisations created by the proletariat itself i.e bureaucratic relations are always mediated by class relations in existence or in the process of their historic formation.
The problems which are presented to us, as a class, within such a context of fighting for higher forms of democratic control within the trade unions are therefore bureaucratically-mediated problems which arise out of the prevailing character of class relations. These problems therefore have historic roots in the relation between capital and labour. Accordingly, there is an intermediation between class relations and bureaucracy in which the former hold primacy in the dialectics of this intermediation.
The conditions which confront us do not fit an ‘ideal’ (and never can in rerum natura) but are the real conditions as they exist through and within which we have to work. In order to explore and develop wider forms of democracy within the trade unions, it is obviously necessary to participate in them, regardless of the conditions which are presented to us. We cannot wait for the conditions to change – to be more adequate – but must participate as they stand.
By overemphasising the ‘constraints’ and ‘limitations’ of the current state of the trade unions, it is very easy to fall into ‘pessimistic overtones’, into a ‘metaphysical pathos’. We need to recognise such ‘constraints’ as part of the conditions facing us whilst still focussing on those which potentially enable higher democratic objectives to be realised. The struggle is to transform the trade unions into a higher form of agency of the proletariat, and that inevitably brings members on a collision course with the whole current structure and organisation of trade unionism as expressed in the conflict with the dominant bureaucratic form of rule of the top stratum.
Specifically, in relation to work within trade unionism, a certain degree of pessimism and fatalism aforementioned arises out of the the current bureaucratised and highly controlled state of trade unionism, its outmoded structures and form of organisation, i.e. it arises out of the brick wall of bureaucratic control and inertia which people encounter when they strive to move trade unionism forward. It indicates the existence of separate caste interests at the top of trade unionism. When people are constantly fighting for real change against the interests of the top stratum and falling short of achieving their objectives or even anything at all, they become exhausted so that moods of pessimism and fatalism (Alvin Gouldner’s ‘Metaphysical Pathos’ ) are sometimes an almost inevitable result of all this. I can think of individuals who I know or have known in the past who have simply just ‘dropped out’ after becoming so disillusioned and tired of it all after years of struggle and participation.
 Alvin Gouldner. Metaphysical Pathos and the Theory of Bureaucracy
The trade union bureaucracy is the principal proxy of capital in the class movement of the proletariat. This has been its fundamental historic role in the service of capital. The problems which are presented to us in the struggle for the transformation of trade unionism appear, therefore, to originate, phenomenally, as a result of the operation of these bureaucratic relations. However, at root, they arise out of the prevailing character of class relations. We cannot simply turn our backs and walk away from them but must address them as they confront us. Any possibility of achieving democratic objectives within the trade unions therefore must involve acknowledging the real existence of that which we are striving to overturn. If the bureaucracy has instituted an iniquitous system of differentiated rights between employed and non-employed members, then this is an intrinsic part of the unavoidable conditions which confront us.
The conditions which confront us do not fit a wished for ‘ideal’ but are the real conditions as they exist through and within which we have to work. In order to explore and develop wider forms of democracy within the trade unions, it is necessary to participate in them, regardless of the conditions which are presented to us. We cannot wait for the conditions to change – to be more adequate – but must participate as they stand as part of the process of making them ‘more adequate’. We must recognise the ‘constraints’ and ‘limitations’ of the current state of the trade unions which serve to hamper the achievement of our objectives. We recognise such ‘constraints’ as part of the conditions confronting us whilst still focussing on those possibilities which could enable democratic objectives and aspirations to be realised. The tendencies which actually serve to inhibit the realisation of democratic objectives within the trade unions may, as conditions evolve and under certain circumstances, also serve to undermine bureaucratic domination of the unions and thus to develop the class movement of the proletariat as a whole.
But, in my opinion, all this requires, at its core, a revolutionary critical approach to and conception of the origins, historical development and the current tendencies of development of trade unionism in the age of the structural crisis of global capital. Without this, how can there possibly be the elaboration of revolutionary perspectives in relation to trade unionism? Without this, without such an alterable conception on which to establish changeable perspectives, what does ‘participation’ actually turn into?
For Marx, history was a living process and that is how he approached it in his work. He did not approach it as if it was ‘something that had happened’ and then had to be ‘rationally explained’. In his writing of history, for example, he was not communing with the dead but with the living. His critique was a revolutionary critique and not a critical critique. It was a critique to inform and orientate men in revolutionary activity. If we look at Marx’s Class Struggles in France, The Eighteenth Brumaire and The Civil War in France, we can see almost instantaneously this revolutionary critique of unfolding events. There is nothing ‘dry’, academic or ‘objectivist’ in his approach. The very first page in The Civil War in France is a call to arms. This is how we need to approach our critique of trade unionism within the conditions of capital’s worsening structural crisis. Our critique is always necessarily a revolutionary critique which references existing, living conditions even if we are writing a discourse on Antiquity.
A revolutionary critical approach is not the approach of a form of philosophical rationalism. As if the object of the critique is merely a question that needs to be solved or is describing events that ‘need to be explained’. A revolutionary critique always involves the question of a real, participatory engagement with the living struggles of the day and how to orientate towards these, in terms of conception and perspectives, in order to further the interests of the proletariat in the struggle to end the rule of capital.
Let us not lose sight of Marx’s Thesis on Feuerbach : ‘The philosophers have only interpreted the world. The point is to change it’. All criticism must be a living revolutionary criticism otherwise it turns, or has the potential to turn, into a mere detached critical criticism. And Marx’s criticism (the critique of critical criticism) was directed at the rationalistic idealism of Stirner, Bauer et al, The Holy Family.