The Unions, the Class Struggle and Communists

The Unions as "Transmission Belts"

Communist consciousness is a reflection of the class struggle of the working class. It does not however arise directly from that struggle but is based on the reflections of a minority of the class on the lessons of that struggle. This gives rise to a revolutionary organisation or party which expresses the long term goal of the working class in the form of a communist programme. This has to be fought for within the wider working class and its struggles. A great contribution to this theory was elaborated in the writings of Lenin and in the experience of Bolshevik activity in the class.

From this condition emerges the task which the Russian Social-Democracy [the term was understood then in the communist sense, ed] is called upon to fulfil—to imbue the masses of the proletariat with the ideas of socialism and political consciousness, and to organise a revolutionary party inseparably connected with the spontaneous working-class movement.(1)

Given the material conditions that the proletariat faces in its life under capitalism, in the materialist view of the genesis of consciousness and the weight of the dominant ideology, the class - at best - is pushed into a "simple" fight for demands. The organized vanguard of the class (the Party) is formed, rather, by those who, look beyond the historical period and the level of class struggle, in developing revolutionary consciousness. The Party is actively involved in the struggles, but does not adapt to the spontaneity of the moment, but must take action by making itself the Communist political reference point, pushing the proletariat to take on board revolutionary consciousness. The task of communists is not, to paraphrase Lenin, to passively put themselves at the service of the labour movement, but to represent the interests of the movement as a whole, to show the movement its ultimate goal, the overthrow of capitalism.

The communists must therefore intervene in the class struggle, putting forward a political framework; they must try to broaden class consciousness to a revolutionary level. In what ways does the struggle of the proletariat express itself? Posing this question becomes a key issue. The type of response will outline the practical action of the communists; will influence the course of action, and the tactics to be adopted. Referring to the history of the labour movement in the century that preceded them, Lenin and the communists of the time responded to this question and concluded that the body through which working class struggle was going to express itself was the union. None of the communists considered the trade unions to be revolutionary bodies, but they were seen as the chosen instrument of the workers in demand struggles. This conclusion, of course, was to influence the tactics adopted by the communists. This tactic called for a specific course of action within the unions, work targeted towards the achievement of leadership of the unions themselves; snatching them from the hands of the reformist in order to influence the class in a revolutionary sense, so, the union was seen then as the "conveyor belt" between the party and class. This tactical conclusion was adopted by all the communist parties that adhered to the Third International including the PCd'Italia led by the Communist Left.

The Confrontation with History

It makes no sense for a Marxist materialist to regard a tactical conclusion as a dogma. For a Marxist the analysis, the programme, the tactics are a reaction to the practical social reality, and must therefore take into account the inevitable judgement of History. Historical events have shown clearly how impossible it was for the Communists to conquer the unions, and - consequently - the inapplicability of the tactical use of the union as a "transmission belt"

And that’s not all. The economic struggle - that is the battle for the defence of the immediate living and working conditions - is the first moment of confrontation of the ruling class by the proletariat. A real revival of class struggle by the proletariat, an open struggle against the bosses, cannot occur unless controlled by workers. This is a key point: a century of history has shown us in this by way of all the limitations of the union form. History has shown the inadequacy of the unions to express the real leadership of the workers, their inability to stand up as enhancers and promoters of an open confrontation with the bourgeois class, even on the terrain of demands. This inability is not simply due to the betrayal of this or that trade union leader, but is the result of the very nature of the union form.

The union form was the real expression of the working class struggle in both the structural (the rise of capitalism and free competition) and superstructural (the state-class-unions relationship) conditions of the nineteenth century. This has changed; the union has lost that specific characteristic. The "involution" of the old trade unions has been so widespread a process that - theoretical arguments aside - it is forced to make us think again: the unions were founded in the 1800’s as an instrument of struggle and became a " institutional unions" due to their nature (the set of characteristics that define them) and not just because of the errors or betrayals of this or that leader.

Reaching this conclusion does not mean questioning the key points of the "old" formulation of the party class relation, which we believe is still fully valid, but simply learning from past experience means to regard as ineffective the tactic which aims at the conquest of the unions by the communists and the use of these organs as a "transmission belt".(2)

Let us look at historical reality, by concentrating on three very significant examples: the First World War, the "Red Two Years" in Italy, and the "October Revolution" in Russia. We’ll start with the First World War, a war created by the big imperialist powers fighting for the division of the world. The socialist parties, social democrats, reformers, all lined up - with some exceptions - in support of their national bourgeoisie, in helping to drag the proletariat into the war. The unions, led by social democratic parties supported their ‘’own’’ national bourgeoisie. This was the first clear example of the unions standing in defence of the "nation-state system".

Let us examine a time and place which is even and even more relevant, from a revolutionary perspective; Russia in 1917. The historical period circa 1917 certainly represented the pinnacle - so far - of the proletariat as protagonist and the highest level of political organisation reached by communists. Russia was the only example where the revolutionary assault was completed: the only time the political power of the ruling class (Tsarist and bourgeois social democrat) was overthrown by the proletariat in alliance with the poor peasants and led by the Bolshevik Party. Well, the revolution happened without the Bolsheviks conquering the leadership of existing trade unions (without using them as "transmission belts"). There were other bodies that the revolutionaries were able to lead - the Soviets and before them - a fundamental milestone - the factory committees. The Bolsheviks managed to conquer the masses of workers and soldiers, to guide them to revolutionary action, but at the same time, no union was led by the Bolsheviks, not one! Indeed, there were more than a few openly counterrevolutionary actions carried out by trade unions in Russia, before and after 1917. To name a few; the union of railway workers participated in the counter-revolutionary "Committee for salvation" and gave orders not to transport Bolshevik troops, the postal and telegraph unions attempted to obstruct Bolshevik correspondence to the Smolny Institute, the banks employees’ union declared strikes to disrupt the activities of revolutionary bodies ...

And the last significant example, the behaviour of the General Confederation of Labour [CGdL ] during the "Red Two Years" in Italy. In the midst of the occupations of the factories, instead of trying to extend the class struggle (at least on the simple terrain of demands) the CGdL (together with PSI) did the exact opposite: they isolated protests in the factories and at the same time tried to reach an agreement in the metalworkers dispute. In a paper presented to the Giolitti government they asked it:

to change the former relationships between employers and workers so that the latter - through their unions - have the possibility of knowing the true state of the industry, their financial and technical operation, and may through their factory representatives - emanations of the trade unions - contribute to the implementation of regulations, control the hiring and firing of personnel and thus encourage the normal course of workshop life with the necessary discipline.(3)

One could argue that this trade union behaviour is due to their reformist leadership, but the point is this: the leadership of the trade unions could and can only be reformist. The three examples we have seen are even more significant because they are in fact taken from a historic period of proletarian turmoil, red hot from the revolutionary point of view. It is true that the Communist International itself and the parties linked to it - in the mid 1920's - would become counter-revolutionary, but this process was the political expression of a counter-revolutionary period, in contrast to the historic, pivotal moments of 1917 and the "Red Two Years" which were overtly or potentially revolutionary periods. Even if we look beyond the examples given, at this historic juncture not only was no union conquered by the communists (even in Russia!), but the trade unions in many cases went on to become barriers to the proletarian struggle.

Birth, Characteristics and Role of the Union

The "old" trade unions were in many respects different from those of today, however down the years both demonstrated the three characteristics that identify a trade union:

  1. an organ of mediation between capital and labour;
  2. the logic of delegation and representation;
  3. political reformism.

To start with the first characteristic is essential to the union-form. It explains the evolution of the role of the unions over the years: from bodies to defend the conditions of the workers to become “institutional unions”. So let's start by focusing on this aspect.

In the nineteenth century, a section of the proletariat was able to win substantial conquests that allowed it to improve its daily living and working conditions. The unions were born precisely in this historical phase, a phase of severe conflict between the bourgeoisie and proletariat, and would play a major role in the organisation and gains of the class. In many ways, these unions were different from those of today, because they were created by workers, without too much bureaucracy. Even though these unions were limited tools for the class and this was recognised by all revolutionaries: they were "simple" organisations for the defence of workers' conditions (within the capitalist system); non-revolutionary organisations.

These unions were born in a completely different historical period from that of today. They were born during the ascendant phase(4) of capitalism, characterised by a market of "free competition". These two aspects - the stage of ascendance and free competition - meant that:

  1. even if the boss class (of course) did not want to concede anything, the system had enough profit margins to absorb without great difficulty the cost of those improvements that the class extorted through struggle;
  2. the trend towards globalisation of the economy was already present, but had not yet formed the production and financial monopolies, typical of the imperialist epoch.

Another fundamental aspect: the bourgeoisie, the state, during this historic phase, did not recognise the unions, did not give them legitimacy. The unions were certainly mediation bodies, but this mediation was not recognised by the bourgeois state, it only involved a clash between unions/workers and the bourgeoisie.

So, what changed in the imperialist epoch, in the twentieth century? In the late nineteenth and early Twentieth century, capitalism began to develop the characteristics of imperialism, forming the large manufacturing and financial centres competing globally, the phase of "free competition" (if it ever really existed in bourgeois economics terms) was now behind us. The national bourgeoisie, in this context of international competition, began not only to recognise unions legally (this process began in the late nineteenth century) but most of all began to recognise them as a mediator between workers and bosses to manage the price of labour power (subject to the requirements of capital valorisation and competition of the "nation-state system" at the international level). The unions, over years, came to play the role of organisations of mediation, thus giving birth to "institutional" unions. The development was inevitable, a consequence of the nature of the unions: as bodies to mediate between two parties - workers and bosses - the unions seeking recognition, legitimacy, on both sides, even from the ruling class and therefore, the State.


In addition, another key issue, was that throughout the nineteenth century, the conflict between bosses and workers assumed a mostly local, limited character. The changes in the structure of capitalism in its imperialist phase (disappearance of "free competition", the prevalence of production and financial monopolies, international competition raised the scale of the conflict to the level of the nation state and national associations of employers become increasingly directly involved in the economic conflict between labour and capital.

The unions have not, over the years, lost their essential characteristic as bodies for bargaining over labour-power, mediation between employers and workers. If this feature, essential to unions, remains, what has changed is the way they carry it out.

The evolution of the unions is thus tied to the very nature of the union-form and not an alleged betrayal of the leadership. This latter thesis is completely at odds with a materialist and dialectical conception of history. In fact, as we said at the beginning, the evolution of the role played by unions has characterized the life of all the old trade unions and also - unlike the political decline of the Third International and the Communist Parties connected to it - the anti-proletarian behaviour of the unions is openly expressed in the pre-revolutionary and revolutionary phase, as documented by the striking historic examples that we reported above.

The process of bureaucratisation was a simple, but significant, formal reflection of their real activity.. Furthermore, this outcome is formally linked to a characteristic of the union-form: the logic of delegation and representation. It is precisely the mechanism of delegation and representation, in fact, combined with the function of mediation and negotiation, which creates the conditions for bureaucracy.

We now come to analyse the last feature related to the life of the trade unions: political reformism. As we said earlier, the unions have been in the past, and still are, places for reformism to conquer. This aspect is related to the nature of the union-form. In fact, as bodies which mediate between capital and labour, the terrain of action of a union is precisely that of capitalist production, so much so that at the time of the Third International nobody had ever suggested the unions were revolutionary organisations. It is this characteristic therefore that has made them fertile ground for reformism.

Even during the last century (in times of economic expansion, when there was considerable scope for mediation) unions managed to extract reforms and wage increases, but this was thanks to the workers' struggle. Also, at this stage the unions confirmed their identity as "institutional unions", at best managing the workers' struggle to prevent it from going beyond the framework of compatibility with capitalism, channelling the struggle within the institutional structures and limiting economic gains to the requirements of profitability and competition between the international bourgeoisie of their "own" country.

The Trade Unions in Italy


Over the years, unions (especially in Italy, the CGIL, CISL and UIL and UGL) have largely confirmed their role in the capitalist system: as bourgeois state institutional organs, key tools for employers in managing the price of labour power (levels of wages and salaries, in line with the competitive requirements of the "country system"). Not only that; these unions have been a real deception for the workers, especially in recent decades, in fact, on the one hand, they sign ever worsening agreements and contracts of all kinds (which take into account compatibility with the economic system) and on the other invite workers to fake fights, strikes announced months in advance limited to fragmented categories, fights that never harm the boss class, and nor do they even try to do so. These are fake struggles to vent the anger of workers. Even more misleading is the attitude of the supposedly most radical fraction of the unions, the FIOM-CGIL in Italy. The FIOM in recent years has signed agreements and contracts of every kind: so now it’s the "big talker", but in reality it has never called for a real fight. Indeed, it very often only intervenes after the fights have been started, to derail the anger of the workers and bring the fight within institutional limits.

To be sure the union 'confederations' in fact share the management of this system of exploitation, together with political parties and the bosses. As we have said, however, the limits of the union-form are not tied to the factor of leadership, it is not just this or that union that must be overcome, but the logic of trade unionism itself. The many base (or rank and file) unions (COBAS, SlaiCobas, CUB, USB, etc.. etc..), while criticising the collaboration of the big unions, do nothing but inevitably repeat union logic: delegation and representation, mediatory organs between workers and bosses, organs for negotiating and selling of the commodity labour power, reformism.

Despite the worsening conditions of workers and the behaviour of the openly collaborative confederated unions, "base" unionism has not really ever managed to take off, which essentially illustrates its failure so far. Essentially the “base” unions offer to workers simply a "true union", the problem is that being a "true union" inevitably ends up only as formal radicalism. Basically they offer workers a union, and therefore all the above described limitations. Positioning themselves on the union terrain, they are largely bypassed by the existing union federations which are seen as stronger in the eyes of workers.

The mechanism of delegation also leads the “base” unions to fall behind in the battle for workers' representation, but the class struggle cannot be represented by any union. This is the main issue, especially when the class struggle is tending, we hope, to become more general. It must be said, moreover, that even within the “base” unions a real bureaucratic sector has been created that, in fact, administers and manages the organisation.

The presence of so many acronyms has done nothing but atomise even more workers, who are often divided in the face of many small and useless strikes. The same grassroots unions, like the federations, continue to propose strikes as simple formal acts like a routine initiative ... A token strike that the union might need in order to keep its structure alive and standing, but that does not serve workers, because the “base” unions never organise really combative initiatives, but also because they stay within the antistrike legislation, to continue to play the part they have assigned themselves.

The thousands of alleged attempts to develop "real unions" or "class" unions and the results they have produced are further proof of what we have shown above, it just shows the limitations of the union form in any guise.(5)

The Organisation of Autonomous Struggles


The union will not be the organisational form through which to express an open break with the "social peace", even on the simple terrain of demands.(6) This, of course, does not mean that there will be no more demand struggles or that communist intervention in the class struggle is pointless, it simply means that this fight will be expressed through other forms of organisation. Which? The answer - again - is given to us by history, by the workers themselves. In recent decades - but not only then - the most significant moments of struggle have been directly carried out by workers and not the unions. The union might then intervene, with the effect (and purpose!) of calming the situation. There are several examples of combat-based organizations and agitation committees. The French May '68; assemblies took place in Italy during the Autumn of 1969, where unions were often bypassed; assemblies in Poland in August of 1980, capable of organising mass strikes, without the trade unions (Solidarity then put the fight to sleep and opened a space for state intervention, before morphing into an organism which was definitely middle-class in every respect), and the hard struggle of the British miners in the '80s, the dockers' strike in Denmark and Belgium, the assemblies and committees of struggle during the uprising in Argentina (piqueteros’ committees), the protest against the CPE law in France in 2006, likewise recent protests against French pension reform, animated not by unions but by the assemblies and agitation committees. And more; the "wildcat strikes" of the transport workers in Italy (2003-2004), the struggle of workers at Fiat Melfi (2004: also in this case, the FIOM was dragged in by the workers and performed its usual task of moderator of struggle), picketing workers at Pomigliano held daily assemblies outside the factory (2008), the struggles fought in China in recent years, etc. etc. etc. The situations maybe different, but all are united by a process of self-organisation of struggle: in addition outside, if not openly against, the union structures. Forms of organisation arose, therefore, due to the need to supersede the union form itself.

These grassroots bodies, the expression of workers, can take rudimentary or better structured forms, but as organs of struggle, their function comes to an end when the specific struggle ends, then maybe later they are reconstituted as part of a subsequent period of conflict.

This will not be the case in historic, potentially pre-revolutionary situations, where the activity of workers and organisations of the class tend to assume a largely generalized and permanent presence. At a time like this, these bodies take on a different meaning and may form the basis for tools of revolutionary struggle and proletarian power. That will be possible only through the political action of a strong class party. "The maturation of the revolutionary situation will be marked by an explicitly anti-capitalist and revolutionary orientation of these bodies, which then takes on the characteristics of workers' councils to be able to move on from anti-capitalist organs of struggle to organs of proletarian power. The anti-capitalist and revolutionary orientation does not arise spontaneously, i.e. without the active organised intervention of revolutionary militants".(7) In this regard we cannot avoid the example of the 1917 revolution in Russia: the Soviet of workers and soldiers were initially prey to social-democratic reformism, which saw these organs such as simply fighting for demands and therefore fit to fulfil their reformist perspective. The Soviets were transformed, thanks to the Bolsheviks into organs of revolutionary struggle and - the state smashed - became the vehicle of the dictatorship for the proletariat.(8)

Communist Intervention: Key Points

  1. "To put forward revolutionary demands on the ground, however small, in the current insecure and feeble conditions of workers' struggle, to engage in an active political militancy not just restricted to a typewriter and theorising which is an individual activity that is always debatable in intention as well as results.(9)" (O. Damen)
    We repeat these "old" lines to emphasise, once again, that - in our view - it makes no sense for an organisation defining itself as communist to regard action among the workers as an activity to be carried out only in certain historical periods or a future circumstance of greater numerical strength. The intervention of communists among the workers must always be an integral part of the activity of revolutionaries. This is carved in stone for us. Also because for communists, to intervene in the class means to immerse ourselves in reality, thus gaining experience. Another established point: "Subservience to spontaneity seems to inspire a fear of taking even one step away from what is “accessible” to the masses, a fear of rising too high above mere attendance on the immediate and direct requirements of the masses. Have no fear, gentlemen! Remember that we stand so low on the plane of organisation that the very idea that we could rise too high is absurd!(10)"
    The communists, in their intervention, can never submit to this spontaneity, do not adapt to it and the dominant ideological forms. Communists must always act as such, whatever the situation, must be an active part in class struggle but acting as a political reference as communists. Every opportunity for intervention must be used to stimulate - starting from the concrete - the workers towards greater awareness, trying to increase the capacity of the critique of capitalism, showing the necessity of overthrowing the economic and social system. A fight can be won or lost (clearly you must fight for the former outcome ...), the Communists must work to ensure that in any case, among the workers there remains something in terms of political and organisational progress, particularly among the more conscious elements.
  2. Arising from these two firmly established points, the methods, objectives and purpose of intervention obviously vary depending on the historical stage and numerical availability. The reference point must always be the class struggle and the organs through which the struggle is expressed. Today, that we must intervene in the class organs is a given, trying to win the more aware workers to the revolutionary programme and politics. In a revolutionary historical phase, communists get involved in the Councils to win political leadership and urge the class to take power.
  3. As previously emphasised, the union is not an instrument Communists can conquer, like a "conveyor belt". Criticism of the union tool, for us, as repeatedly emphasised, does not mean neglecting union terrain i.e. the events instigated by the union where rank and file workers are present, meetings, public events, as well as to participation in strikes put in motion by the union. Of course, we always intervene in these areas with our anti-union line.
  4. Communists in their intervention will make efforts to form internationalist groups, both factory (the workplace in general) and territorial.(11) These - unlike the organisations of struggle, which the class sets up itself - are offshoots of the communist (party) and must be the instrument of the party in the class. Political groups are thus composed of militants and sympathizers of the party in a geographical location/place/area of ​​work. Starting from the specifics of the work situation we will then go on to communist agitation and propaganda.
  5. Communist must hold the “anti-union line in favour of the self-organisation of the proletariat".(12) Notwithstanding the fact that the class can create its own organs to fight for its demands, even without the presence of the revolutionaries, Communists must give out propaganda, proposals, be an active part in the organs of self-organised struggle: the workers' assemblies, agitation committees of. In doing so they must always try to provide a communist political framework.
Battaglia Comunista


(1) Lenin, "The Urgent Tasks of Our Movement", 1900

(2) We must point out that the criticism of the trade union form and tactics of the "conveyor belt" was not an innovative theoretical analysis introduced by us in recent years. The debate on trade unions had already animated the life of the Italian Communist Left organised in small fractions abroad and critical reflection on the union form -and the "transmission belt" was already well advanced - albeit at a "primitive" level - by ​​many of the comrades of the Italian Communist Left (and several of the various non-Italian communist lefts). The P.C. Internazionalista certainly had a major role in the clarification of this issue.

(3) La Confederazione Generale del Lavoro negli Atti, nei documenti, nei Congressi 1906-1926

(4) By ascendant phase we mean the phase of capitalist history during which it imposed itself as an internationally recognised economic and social system, a phase we regard as completed by the early 1900s.

(5) To deepen the analysis of "base" (rank and file) trade unionism in Italy we recommend reading: “Sindacalismo e sindacati in Italia” (Prometeo, 2001) and "Il sindacalismo di base in Italia" (Prometeo, 2008), also available on the website.

(6) One obvious clarification: obviously our critique of the union does not wish to question the sincere will to fight of many workers belonging to different unions. Indeed, for this reason we consider it essential to clarify all the limitations of existing unions and dispel the illusion - represented today by the grassroots unions - of an alternative unionism.

(7) From "Il sindacato e l’azione comunista", Prometeo, no.13, 1997

(8) While in a historical pre-revolutionary phase class bodies (councils) can become, and only through the action of communists, the instruments of revolutionary struggle and power, it is not possible to hope that the rank and file bodies with which the class equips itself to fight for demands in a stagnant historical phase from the revolutionary point of view can be preserved and transformed into bodies of power: "The mistake made is to consider the “councils” without differentiating them as organs of power as well as bodies at the stage where such a problem is far from the consciousness of the proletariat ", to deepen understanding of these aspects one should read "Nature and functions of factory groups and the role of the class party" O. Damen, Prometeo, no.7, 1965.

(9) Battaglia Comunista, no.11, 1958

(10) Lenin, “What is to Be Done?”

(11) The call for communist factory groups was already being made at the time of P.C. d'Italia. Today of course the orientation of that instrument has changed, previously the factory groups looked to the unions, now they only look to direct intervention amongst workers and class struggle organs.

(12) From the Statutes of the P.C.Internazionalista, 1997


I find this article particularly helpful in clarifying the function of tge unions now, and specially like this formulation. "As we have said, however, the limits of the union-form are not tied to the factor of leadership, it is not just this or that union that must be overcome, but the logic of trade unionism itself. The many base (or rank and file) unions (COBAS, SlaiCobas, CUB, USB, etc.. etc..), while criticising the collaboration of the big unions, do nothing but inevitably repeat union logic: delegation and representation, mediatory organs between workers and bosses, organs for negotiating and selling of the commodity labour power, reformism."

The concept of there being a "union logic" and "a logic of trade unionism itself" and it's elaboration, is helpful. Also helpful is the statement that actual class struggle cannot be represented, or furthered in any way, by the

unions. When will we all take this on board though? I also appreciate - or, in fact, didn't! - Damen's reference to political activity which is restricted to a typewriter, or to theorizing. I am touched! And can't even lay claim to theorizing!!!