Introduction (Henri Simon)

This pamphlet is about unions and the working class seen in historical perspective. Readers should therefore not expect another theoretical discussion on such eternal and nonsensical quesitons dividing the 'revoluitonary mileau' as:

Are unions relevant to the modern capitalist world?

Is it advisable to be a union member?

Should we support or promote 'alternative unions'?

Submitted by libcom on September 20, 2005

Does a permanent organization of the trade union type (including the 'alternative unions') have any chance in the modern capitalist world of today to escape the fate of being completely integrated and bureacratized - like so many other organizations of that type in the past?

We are convinced that such intellectual (and very often not so intellectual) discussions about the world as it should be are a mere waste of time.In the world as it is the ongoing class struggle between capitalists and workers provides the answers to all of these and many other questions concerning the role of trade unions. It is our task to understand these struggles, their essence and their implications e.g. for trade union development and history up to this day. The rest is useless speculation.

This pamphlet is a collection of texts arising out of a controversy between a british trade union official and a Dutch council communist around problems of the British working class movement. The origin and the development of this controversy are not important in themselves, but might still be useful for the reader who wishes to be informed about its background. In the late 60's Cajo Brendel, a lifelong militant of the Dutch concil communist movement (and now member of the Dutch group DAAD EN GEDACHTE), wrote a book on the working class movement in Britain as he and others around him had come to see it. He was helped in this work by a British union and political militant, Joe Jacobs, a man with a long experience inside the britsih working class movement. The book was originally written in german and later translated (with supplements) into French and italian, but unfortunately an English translation was never completed (this situation could end next year.) Someone in Britain who had read the french edition of Brendel's book found it interesting enough to publish a summary in the English language as a separate pamphlet. This pamphlet became available in Britain two years ago. Right from the start it is important to know two things about the summary:

Neither the author nor any of the groups having published the original title had been informed or consulted about this attempt of familiarizing British readers with Brendel's ideas on the British working class movement.

Instead of presenting Brendel's fundamental ideas as expressed in the book, the translator rather concentrated on what he personally thought was important about Brendel's ideas. Even where he stuck to the original text his translations were in fact far from being accurate. On top of this a great number of factual errors crept into the translation which could not be retraced to the original text. All in all the English summary of Brendel's book was a rather bad, incomplete and abridged version, not very faithful to the original text. Nonetheless it was published under Brendel's name.

This haphazard translation got into the hands of a N.U.M. (National Union of Miners) official - David Douglass, and certainly infuriated him. Being in contact with the British libertarian group Class War he put down his harsh criticism of the pamphlet in a paper to be presented at the Class War conference in July 1991. And being unaware of how the translation and summary had been done he firmly believed to be attacking Brendel for his ideas while in fact attacking an unacceptable summary and translation by someone else.

This is true for nearly all of his arguments except the central one referring to the relationship between the working class and the unions (in this case the N.U.M.). Douglass defends the unions not simply as organizations of the working class, but as major instruments of working class struggle, in particular where the left wing inside the unions scores victories over the right wing. Brendel (and in this case not just the author of the bad summary) as well as the other people contributing to this pamphlet are clearly opposed to such views emphasizing the concept of an autonomous workers' movement independent of the unions - if not in opposition to them - i.e. the non-identity of union and class.

After some discussion with participants of the network of Echanges et Mouvement, with which he cooperates closely, Cajo Brendel prepared a draft letter to David Douglass to clarify some of the issues raised in his paper. This draft letter was circulated to a number of comrades for comment. Brendel then drew up the final version integrating some of the comments made. To this letter David Douglass has not yet replied - and it is doubtful if he ever will reply at all. Wherever comments of comrades from the Echanges et Mouvement network could not be integrated into the letter, they were then reformulated as separate texts dealing with specific problems discussed by Douglass in his paper.

To present a complete view of the controversy we have included the following texts:

- a short summary of Cajo Brendel's book written by the author himself;

- David Douglass' paper prepared for the Class War conference;

- the letter sent to Douglass by Cajo Brendel;

- some remarks on the development of the shop stewards' movement in Britain since the last war (by Theo Sander).

This pamphlet is part of a project trying to continue the critical discussion of the role of trade unions in capitalist societies.

Henri Simon