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.
- 1FCL: 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]
- 2Force Ouvrière was created in the 50s as an anti-Communist alternative to the main union, the CGT. [TN]
- 3cf. 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]
- 4cf. “Should revolutionaries work in reactionary trade unions?” in Lenin’s “Left-Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder”, written and published in 1920. [TN]
- 5the 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]
- 6Fontenis 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]
- 7Are workers who desert unions not saying ‘What to do? Criticising is not enough. We need to organise.’? Mothé must have experienced this.
- 8Obviously the unions which take part in the revolutionary acts are then more than and different from unions.