Participation in trade unions

Participation in trade unions

The second in a three-part debate conducted within the pages of Marxist ultra-left journal Socialisme ou Barbarie on the nature of the trade unions. Translated by Corinne Chambers and published in English by Ninth Symphony Press (Collective Action) as 'Worker Autonomy: Debate on the Unions'. Fontenis' criticisms here are principally directed against the views of the Renault worker Daniel Mothé. These were published earlier in the same journal as, "Union Bureaucracy and the Workers"

This article was originally published in Socialisme ou Barbarie n°15, November 1954.

We have received the following text from comrade G. Fontenis, leader of the Fédération Communiste Libertaire1. Our disagreement with comrade Fontenis’s views on the issue of unions does not prevent us from appreciating the clarity of his argument and we feel that this text, through its rich and precise exposition of the viewpoint of the defenders of union participation, offers an excellent basis to the debate which we intend to continue in the next issue of Socialisme ou Barbarie. Mothé’s text, to which Fontenis reacts, was published in issue 14 (pp.27-38).

Mothé’s thesis is, at first glance, indisputable. Simple, logical, appealing -- in my opinion, too simple, too appealing, too logical. There is nothing simple about the issue of unions, in spite of appearances; one must, perhaps on this issue more than any other, be wary of a logical reasoning which could very well overlook the real issues at stake – the questions that militant workers ask themselves with every step – and one could fear that Mothé’s conclusions are only appealing because they offer an escape from confronting difficult questions, and because they flatter a certain taste vanguards have for clear-cut, seemingly unalterable views. Mothé’s demonstration can be summed up as follows: unions, reformist by nature, are nowadays divided along the lines of the affinity between their bureaucracies and one or the other imperialist bloc2; workers are getting further and further away from these imperialist agencies/unions; workers’ unity will then be created under other organisational forms than unions; so revolutionaries do not have to fight for a utopian union unity, and even have nothing to do at all within unions.

We will agree with the whole theoretical-historical part of Mothé’s thesis, but not with his view on workers’ disinterest towards unions and even less with his conclusions. We will even accept that no vanguard militant (apart from a few rare specimens of true revolutionary syndicalists) is still discussing the revolutionary incapacity and the reformist nature of the union, characteristics linked to its tasks and structure corresponding to the conditions of capitalist society. We also accept that unions have become more and more integrated with imperialist blocs. However, this is hardly news, and on this issue
both Malatesta3, on the one hand, and Lenin4, on the other, had already pointed out the reformist character of unions. They did not deduce from it (in fact quite the opposite) that they should be left alone.

Have conditions changed to the point that revolutionaries must abandon the struggle inside unions, must consider that it is totally impossible to fight for their democracy, to make their members class-conscious... in a word, that it is impossible to work in a union towards preparing the conditions of a revolution? Is Mothé’s reasoning not a bit tainted by the fact he might have had some illusions about unions in the past? Discovering their reformist nature, he turns away from them, looking for another instrument of the revolution. As far as we are concerned, never having had illusions about them, we cannot be disappointed and it is knowingly that we work and will work within the limited framework of unions. We must not only have in mind the general pressure from capitalist society and the pressures from bureaucracies on unions, but also the pressure exerted by the union members on their bureaucrats and against the obstacles of capitalism, according to the interests of their class. This would already be enough to justify theoretically the participation of revolutionaries in unions. However, we must now examine the current practical conditions of the struggle of revolutionaries inside unions.

According to Mothé, more and more workers are leaving unions. Arguably, we are no longer in 1936 or 1945, but there are still nowadays -- compared to in the thirties, for example -- an important number of unionised workers and even of union militants. To refer to the peak years of ‘36 or ‘45 is to forget the experience of older militants, and to base one’s argument on an item of data which can be fake or temporary. The disaffection for unions is neither as serious, nor as general, as Mothé sees it, who possibly founds his claim on only a few examples5. Aside from the limited drop in numbers, we can see the creation of new union sectors, a continuing massive participation from workers in staff delegate or works council elections, and, most of all, no decrease in numbers in places where unity has been maintained for reasons specific to the sector (Education), and where, however, the activity of the union is disputable and its inefficiency is obvious.

The relative inaction and impotence of unions are arguably the reasons behind this limited drop in numbers of members, but it still seems that the main reason behind the disaffection of workers is union division. Workers often express their view on this point, and Mothé himself writes that workers wait before taking action so that the different unions might reach an agreement. To state some unconscious – and therefore unexpressed – judgement from the workers on the fundamental inefficiency of unions would be fantasy. We must keep to what is self-evident or demonstrable.

Are we then falling into the Trotskyist illusion of a Union Unity realised through the miracle of clashes between union headquarters? On the contrary, we denounce, along with Mothé, the exasperating Trotskyist compulsion to pretend to push masses to experiment (which masses already do!) by increasing confusion6... Nevertheless, we can, from the accurate remarks on the desire of the masses for union unity, draw some very different conclusions from Trotskyists, mainly this one: workers remain attached to the union mode of action, which does not seem outdated or sterile to them. As far as possibilities of unity are concerned, it seems unlikely to us that the fight between the two blocs will go through phases such that even a temporary unification would able to take place. It is, however, not totally impossible, and we would then witness an increase in numbers, like in ‘36, after a period of division and stagnation.

What is more likely is an increase in numbers in one of the existing unions, more able than others to lead a successful protest movement, which is honestly not unthinkable. Let us go further, strikes led outside of unions’ leaderships, by strike committees, can help make workers join an existing union or lead to the creation of new organisations which would still be unions even if they go by another name. Experience has shown that strike committees and action committees do not survive the action and that only unions, old or new, are able to permanently group workers.

As a last comment on the issue of Unity, let’s clarify that we can only encourage workers to want and demand unity, by explaining to them that this unity can only really be made against bureaucrats, by outflanking them, and that it can only be realised in action. Of course, Mothé will then say that what we are envisioning is workers’ unity and that it will not be realised in a union setting. We think, however, that some, even localised, instances of unification between union structures can play a part in the development of an anti-bureaucratic consciousness among workers and, even if it was to take a long time to come, or if it took some unexpected forms, the tension of the working class towards unification deserves to be used by revolutionaries within unions.

As for workers unity in a larger sense, Mothé is arguably right when he judges that it can be achieved outside unions. It can even be achieved in spite of union divisions and can already be found common today. Nonetheless, to believe, as Mothé does, that it will be achieved organisationally – and outside of unions, obviously – is to already set oneself in the frame of the openly-revolutionary period. When this unity is achieved today, it is only during peak periods and under temporary organisational forms which are aborted as soon as we enter a quieter period or a period of less intense activity. Strike committees and action committees do not survive the action, we must repeat once again. What workers want is a permanent, solidly-structured7 organisation to defend them against their boss (private boss or state bureaucracy).

Additionally, whether we like it or not, this permanent organisation will have its reformist limitations -- the workers will demand that small issues, and the application of social laws, etc. be dealt with -- and its dangers of bureaucratic evolution. Even if we were to call these organisations by another name, even if they were born on the corpses of former unions bled dry of their members, they would also be unions.

It then appears that should the revolutionary militant want, during the long periods of relative stagnation, to keep in touch with the masses and their immediate issues, should he want to gain the consideration
and the trust of the workers, he must take part in union activity. This consideration and trust, as hard to gain as they are, are necessary even during revolutionary action, and in the setting of new organisms, such as the Councils.

Further, we cannot see why revolutionary militants could not lead the anti-bureaucratic struggle within unions. This is where it can be led most easily and through living demonstrations. To fight from the outside is to ignore a lot of potential listeners, and let’s not forget that in some work sectors, divided into an infinity of workplaces or small companies, only the union meeting can gather all workers and allow people to be heard.

Finally, even if there were only 15% of workers left in unions, these 15% are, albeit misled, among the most combative and most attached to workers’ struggles, and it would be a fatal error to leave them in the hands of their bureaucrats. To wait for them to enlighten themselves on their own is to deny any role the vanguard might have. Let’s not forget that oppositional factions are created within unionised masses and that they need our help.

We are the first, as libertarian communists, to take part in strikes, in action unity committees which are formed at a relevant time, even outside union organisations and against their bureaucracies, and we very well know that the organisational forms of the proletariat during a revolutionary period are leaning towards the system of “councils” and that unions are then outflanked, doomed to disappear in their present form8. Yet we refuse to wait and see -- we fight within unions, taking into account what they are and the limits they have. Obviously, we do not forget that workers’ action is not limited to union activity, and neither do we forget the need to fight on a political level and to politically organise in order to work, outside and within unions, to raise the class-consciousness of workers, to subtract them as much as possible from the influence of bureaucrats, and to open up revolutionary perspectives for them.

  • 1. FCL: Libertarian Communist Federation (1953-1957), a renaming and restructuring of the French Anarchist Federation initiated by the fraction called OPB (Organisation Pensée Bataille), causing a schism and the creation of a new “Anarchist Federation”. The FCL will run candidates in the 1956 legislative elections before being made illegal in 1957 because of their vocal opposition to the French occupation of Algeria. [Translator’s Note]
  • 2. Force Ouvrière was created in the 50s as an anti-Communist alternative to the main union, the CGT. [TN]
  • 3. cf. the debate on anarchism and syndicalism between Errico Malatesta and the French revolutionary syndicalist Pierre Monatte at the Anarchist Congress of Amsterdam in 1906. [TN]
  • 4. cf. “Should revolutionaries work in reactionary trade unions?” in Lenin’s “Left-Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder”, written and published in 1920. [TN]
  • 5. the statistics from the French Ministry of Work on the evolution of the rate of unionised workers for the period suggest Fontenis is mistaken on this point. [TN]
  • 6. Fontenis refers here to the strategy of “transitional demands” - an agitational demand made by a socialist organisation with the aim of linking the current situation to progress towards a socialist society. Transitional demands typically call for things that governments or corporations are unwilling or unable to offer, e.g. “free housing for all”, hence Fontenis’ accusation of the pretence of “pushing the masses to experiment by increasing confusion” as the basis of these interventions [Collective Action]
  • 7. Are workers who desert unions not saying ‘What to do? Criticising is not enough. We need to organise.’? Mothé must have experienced this.
  • 8. Obviously the unions which take part in the revolutionary acts are then more than and different from unions.

Comments

syndicalist
Nov 13 2012 02:55

Curious statement:

Quote:
Finally, even if there were only 15% of workers left in unions, these 15% are, albeit misled, among the most combative and most attached to workers’ struggles, and it would be a fatal error to leave them in the hands of their bureaucrats. To wait for them to enlighten themselves on their own is to deny any role the vanguard might have.
RedAndBlack
Nov 13 2012 17:45

Fontenis quite commonly used the term "vanguard" (with connotations distinct from the Leninist use of the term), see for example the intro to this:

Quote:
'vanguard' had been used extensively, by anarchists in the past to describe, not the Leninist vanguard, but a group of workers with advanced ideas. The term was used, for example, in this respect in the Spanish movement (see Bookchin's writings on the subject), and also by anarchist-communists in the United States who named their paper 'Vanguard' (see the memoirs of Sam Dolgoff). However, it has too many unhappy associations with Leninism. Whilst we recognise that there exist advanced groups of workers, and that the anarchist movement has ideas in advance of most of the class, we must recognise fully the great creativity of the whole of the working class. There exist contradictions between advanced groups and the class as a whole, complex contradictions which cannot be explained in simple black and white terms, which could lead to the Leninist danger of substituting a group for the whole class. The anarchist-communist Organisation should be aware of these problems and attempt to minimalise these contradictions. True, the Manifesto sees this vanguard as internal to the class, rather than an external vanguard of professional revolutionaries as Lenin saw it. Nevertheless the term should be regarded with great suspicion.

http://libcom.org/library/manifesto-of-libertarian-communism-georges-fontenis

Bakunin also described the anarchist organisations as a revolutionary "avant-garde".

syndicalist
Nov 13 2012 18:47
RedAndBlack wrote:
Fontenis quite commonly used the term "vanguard" (with connotations distinct from the Leninist use of the term), see for example the intro to this:
Quote:
'vanguard' had been used extensively, by anarchists in the past to describe, not the Leninist vanguard, but a group of workers with advanced ideas. The term was used, for example, in this respect in the Spanish movement (see Bookchin's writings on the subject), and also by anarchist-communists in the United States who named their paper 'Vanguard' (see the memoirs of Sam Dolgoff). However, it has too many unhappy associations with Leninism. Whilst we recognise that there exist advanced groups of workers, and that the anarchist movement has ideas in advance of most of the class, we must recognise fully the great creativity of the whole of the working class. There exist contradictions between advanced groups and the class as a whole, complex contradictions which cannot be explained in simple black and white terms, which could lead to the Leninist danger of substituting a group for the whole class. The anarchist-communist Organisation should be aware of these problems and attempt to minimalise these contradictions. True, the Manifesto sees this vanguard as internal to the class, rather than an external vanguard of professional revolutionaries as Lenin saw it. Nevertheless the term should be regarded with great suspicion.

http://libcom.org/library/manifesto-of-libertarian-communism-georges-fontenis

Bakunin also described the anarchist organisations as a revolutionary "avant-garde".

Knowing the Dolgoff's we had a couple of conversations about this years ago. Caused it surprised when I saw the use of it. I can appreciate the need for an revolutionary organization taking up the fight. I get that. Perhaps its my own aversion to and perception of Fontenis at work here.

That said, this sounds awfully similar to what the Leninists say about the working class only attaining "trade union consciousness". And that the vanguard party must, to use the aforementioned quote: "enlighten [the workers] on their own is to deny any role the vanguard might have."

Perhaps Fonetinis was projecting a more rigid view of the revolutionary vanguard. And in a manner that seems to only allow for a certain level of class and revolutionary consciousness by the workers.

In a short article I wrote elsewhere, this is how "The vanguard" group initially described themselves. Perhaps hair splitting, I'm not so sure.

Quote:
In the premier issue [of "The vanguard"], the comrades, in part, stated in their "Declaration of Policy":

"We are an anarchist-communist group. We are of the opinion that the great struggle for the liberation of the individual from all forms of authority cannot be divorced from the struggle for a socialized economy based upon the principles of human solidarity. ...

"We call ourselves a Vanguard group. We want to revive here, in America, the great anarchist idea of a revolutionary Vanguard, the anarchist idea of the role and place of an active revolutionary minority in the great mass struggle of today and in the near future. ...

"It is upon these perspectives that we orient our work, perspectives giving us the hope of building up a genuine libertarian movement closely related to the realities of American life."

A glimpse of Anarchist-Communism in the 1930's USA
http://www.anarkismo.net/article/1606

BTW, I didn't know Bakunin was an "avant guard" painter -:)

R. Spourgitis
Nov 13 2012 18:59

I could be wrong but I took syndicalist's pointing out of the quote to be the curiosity in assuming that by the very fact the workers are in trade unions that they are "among the most combative and most attached to workers’ struggles," although the vanguard bit is sort of an icing on the cake.

I do know that there is a complex history as cited by the Fontenis quote about this term, and some can quibble about its meaning/use, like I've seen before about cadre, dictatorship of proletariat, democratic centralism, etc. The varying past historical uses don't resolve the history earned for these terms by authoritarian Leninism imo, but in looking at say, texts from the 50s French left, sure it's a good point.

Edit: ok, so I guess I was wrong, as I typed up this reply while syndicalist gave the above. I don't have time to get into this at the mo, and I need to read both these SoB pieces, but I feel there's something to be said here about assuming a militancy by sections of the class, where in actuality a multiplicity of views exist and social democracy, reformism or even reactionary views can co-exist w/in a given trade union or even individual, besides obviously the class itself.

klas batalo
Nov 13 2012 22:53

Yeah Fontenis, like whatever.. I think he was obviously using it loosely to mean an active minority, though sure take into consideration his politics if you want, role in FA via the Theory Struggle Organisation faction etc. I've also seen a pamphlet by Bonanno called Why a Vanguard? At least in that he starts by saying it is probably not that useful anymore, but that when people mention active or revolutionary minority they basically mean the same thing, like we can see from the statement by the Vanguard group.

R. Spourgitis
Nov 14 2012 00:42

So now having read the two pieces here, the Mothé and the Fontenis response, I do think it's sort of an interesting debate on the question of the usefulness of agitation within the trade unions. Without coming down on one side or the other, I do think that Fontenis 15% quote is just wrong on its face.

I've previously only read the Manifesto of Lib.Com. by him, but it was a good intro text for me a couple of years ago in understanding the class struggle anarchist concepts. I wouldn't have thought that SoB had published him, but it makes sense I suppose.

This is a good reminder for me to check out some of those Socialisme ou Barbarie pieces in the libcom tag, something I've been meaning to do. Anybody recommend any in particular? Are there any other sources of english translations of their texts?

klas batalo
Nov 14 2012 02:09

Also for Collective Action folks. I am left wondering is there a reflection on this by CA that is missing? It mentions it is three parts but I only see two. O.o

syndicalist
Nov 14 2012 04:59
klas batalo wrote:
Yeah Fontenis, like whatever.. I think he was obviously using it loosely to mean an active minority, though sure take into consideration his politics if you want, role in FA via the Theory Struggle Organisation faction etc. I've also seen a pamphlet by Bonanno called Why a Vanguard? At least in that he starts by saying it is probably not that useful anymore, but that when people mention active or revolutionary minority they basically mean the same thing, like we can see from the statement by the Vanguard group.

Hmmm..... we can put the semantics of the "vanguard"on hold for a bit, that's cool.
But Fontenis still reads like he see the political organization as leading and supplanting the masses. That's the real concern and how I read that piece.

Are workers, even those clinging to unions, as Fontenis implies, only capable of "trade union consciousness"? And is the role of the organization to supple plant the workers organization as the only revolutionary vehicle?

RedAndBlack
Nov 14 2012 14:24
klas batalo wrote:
Also for Collective Action folks. I am left wondering is there a reflection on this by CA that is missing? It mentions it is three parts but I only see two. O.o

It's coming, formatting is a bit of a nightmare. Up by the end of the week I promise smile

RedAndBlack
Nov 14 2012 14:27
R. Spourgìtis wrote:
Edit: ok, so I guess I was wrong, as I typed up this reply while syndicalist gave the above. I don't have time to get into this at the mo, and I need to read both these SoB pieces, but I feel there's something to be said here about assuming a militancy by sections of the class, where in actuality a multiplicity of views exist and social democracy, reformism or even reactionary views can co-exist w/in a given trade union or even individual, besides obviously the class itself.

This is exactly the point that Mothe makes against Fontenis. I believe it is (Mothe's view that is) more or less accurate and certainly a lot more relevant to our contemporary experience.

RedAndBlack
Nov 14 2012 15:16
syndicalist wrote:
Are workers, even those clinging to unions, as Fontenis implies, only capable of "trade union consciousness"? And is the role of the organization to supple plant the workers organization as the only revolutionary vehicle?

I don't think that is quite the point that Fontenis is making. Rather he is asserting the necessity of a conscious and organised revolutionary minority against the more spontaneist understandings of revolutionary consciousness held by some members of SoB. If this minority was in the form of a specific revolutionary organisation that would be too formalist and run closer to the Leninist application of the term, but as it stands he applies the more broader concept of a "revolutionary vangaurd" - something that could have a more diverse composition. I don't think he is denying spontaneity here, just emphasising that organised intervention has its role.

In terms of the latter point Fontenis does argue the "revolutionary incapacity" of unions (a point in which he is supported by Lenin but also Malatesta). So he doesn't consider trade unions as a worker's revolutionary vehicle. But then he emphasises councils as ultimate objectives (and not a revolutionary party or group).

klas batalo
Nov 14 2012 17:15

yeah i took it as him advocating a role for revolutionary minorities to play in arguing for councils and superseding the trade union form, but in a way that is less "councilist" in ideology (i.e. faith in informal spontaneity). though i think the "councilists" of SouB like R. and R&B are saying were probably better at showing here how the traditional platformist argument that the trade unions have the most militant/organized workers is not neccesarily so. sure it is a site of organization of some sort, but as we know most times that organization is very week and there are varying politics within it.

syndicalist
Nov 14 2012 17:55

I gather I am not so bright then. wall confused Perhaps the totality of the articles argues what yas all are saying. But the brief paragraph I quoted implies --- to me --- something else.

Anyway, thanks for making these texts available. violet black star

klas batalo
Nov 14 2012 18:54
syndicalist wrote:
I gather I am not so bright then. wall confused Perhaps the totality of the articles argues what yas all are saying. But the brief paragraph I quoted implies --- to me --- something else.

Anyway, thanks for making these texts available. violet black star

i guess it really depends on how one feels about fontenis. i'm not super well read up on the guy. it just seemed to me that he thought trade unions were a site of struggle, but were not gonna be revolutionary and thus workers needed to try to supercede. it depends on whether we think he means the structures can't be revolutionary or the workers.

syndicalist
Nov 14 2012 20:07

This is the sentence which sticks out for me and what I'm basically reacting to:

Quote:
To wait for them to enlighten themselves on their own is to deny any role the vanguard might have.

It's sorta one of those "half-full, half-empty" expressions. That is, you can read it whichever you wish, I suppose.