Communist Intervention in the Workplace

Durham Open Meeting, 11 January 2012

The CWO’s regular monthly meeting in Durham was on “how do communists intervene in the workplace today?” The following report is a brief account of the discussion.

The meeting was introduced by a comrade from York who began by stating that there was a two-fold contradiction between the working class and the bourgeoisie: the immediate contradiction was between the latter’s interest in extorting as much surplus value out of us as possible, and the historic contradiction between their benefit from the last form of class society and our interest in creating a classless one.

Under normal circumstances, most workers are aware of the first, economic, aspect, even if only subconsciously in some cases, and, when the contradiction is sharpened, this awareness tends to become generalised. The awareness of the second aspect of the contradiction is not an immediate product of material conditions, but of a reflection upon, and analysis of, those conditions. Only the most advanced part of the class can make this analysis under conditions of capitalist normality, and they need to return the results of this analysis to the rest of the class before it can act upon them.

The History of Trades Unionism

As soon as the working class starts to become properly formed and thus aware of its economic concerns, it also feels the need to organise to protect those concerns. Initially, the bourgeoisie resists this organisation, and a bitter class struggle was necessary to establish the first trades unions (Tolpuddle Martyrs, the Chapelier Law passed by the bourgeois revolutionary National Assembly in France, etc).

In the second quarter of the 19th century, at least in Britain and France, the bourgeoisie conceded a restricted right of workers to organise in unions.

These unions, in contrast to today’s, were relatively unbureaucratic and the members’ dues went mostly to strike funds. Nevertheless, even these unions were not in the least revolutionary, and existed to fulfil a role within capitalism, the mediation of the sale of labour power. Throughout the rest of the 19th century, the implications of this role and the development of monopoly capitalism worked themselves out in reality, resulting in the unions more and more accepting the bourgeois view that the interests of the bourgeoisie were the interests of the nation, and the interests of the nation were those of everyone in it.

In short, the union changed from being a usable tool in the economic fight of the working class to being an implement for the bourgeois management of capitalism. This culminated in the support of the unions everywhere for the imperialist slaughter in 1914.

Today, the unions actively act to prevent the generalisation of struggle, to sap workers’ initiatives of life by bringing them within union control, etc., etc. And this role is not just restricted to the upper echelons of the unions — the shop stewards are sucked into it, even against their will.

Death to Rank and Filism, an article written by a militant active in Royal Mail is particularly good at describing how this happens:

Shop stewards are negotiators, and in spite of their best instincts have to play a similar role, albeit on a much lower key, as top union officials. The philosophy of unionism is one that accepts capitalism; accepts the justice of there being workers and bosses and even at its most extreme only argues for a left-wing implementation of capitalism. A shop steward has to actively work within this philosophy. If not at the instruction of the union and the bosses then at the behest of the members.
A steward who goes wild in the manager’s office, threatening to slit their throats every time they act ‘unfairly’ is no use to the people s/he is representing on the shop floor. Management will only listen to a steward if they think s/he can rely on the back-up of the workforce. A shopfloor will only want a steward who they think can defend them in everyday injustices.

We can’t agree with all of this article, as it rejects the idea that the class nature of unions has changed with the development of capitalism, but it sees the basic problem of trades unions.

The History of Intervention

The most advanced part of the working class, the one that sees the possibility and need for a classless society, together with those individuals from other classes that join with it, has also organised, at times within a formal party, at times within smaller, less formal organisations, depending on the material and political circumstances in which it finds itself.

And it has always been faced with the need to “intervene” in the rest of the class, whether this has been with the realistic prospect of changing the direction of events in a sense favourable to the overthrow of capitalism, or favourable for the achievement of economic victories, or merely to attract enough militants to make that prospect realistic in the future.

Initially, Communists intervened in the unions, attempting to win the leadership in order to influence the mass of members. But, with the change in the class nature of the unions, this tactic has become out-moded (and, in truth, genuine Communists never really succeeded in carrying out this tactic), because there is an incompatibility between exposing the class nature of the unions and taking over their organisation.

Fortunately, the class struggle is a living thing, and if the unions stand in the way, the struggle will continue nonetheless, with workers breaking with them in practice and organising themselves to carry out their struggles more effectively. But therein lies the problem — breaking with the unions in practice, but not in theory, renders the new organisations thrown up by the class vulnerable to recuperation within the union framework, either by being absorbed by the existing unions, or by taking on a union role.

Or, as the article mentioned above has it:

A permanent economistic workplace group must always be reformist because it has to operate under the rules laid down by Capital. The rules may change slightly, we may force them to accept secondary picketing, for example, or they may make such action unlawful, but capitalism remains.
What we want throughout workplaces are groups of people who do not accept capitalism and will not negotiate with it. This means not trying to form a union! These groups will try to show the true nature of capitalism and the choices that face the working class. While portraying a life without wage-slavery and alienation they will help show how we can take control of our struggles now.

Death to Rank and Filism, 1990

Factory Groups

In fact, the solution pointed at by Death to Rank and Filism has been anticipated by Battaglia Comunista, and adopted by the whole Internationalist Communist Tendency (ICT).

We posed the question of the penetration of communist ideas into the working class, and also how the working class can resist. The CWO’s Factory Group Platform of 1981 asks the latter question thus:

But workers can't just accept the bosses’ attacks. They must struggle and they must organise, so how do they do this?

Our answer to this question was the self-organisation of the class. However, in order to facilitate this self-organisation, we intended to create Factory Groups which would carry the lessons of past struggles into future ones, and, in particular, oppose the unions, as well as propagandise for Communism. This dual aim was expressed thus:

The Factory Groups have two aims. First, they help to lead the class struggle. However, they are not trying to become trade unions or any other kind of mass organisation so they avoid the traps laid for these. Second, the Factory Groups help to develop political understanding amongst the workers and to win them to communist politics and the communist party.

Platform of Factory Groups of the Communist Workers’ Organisation, 1981

The Platform goes on to outline the tactics to be used in the pursuit of these aims: arguing for mass meetings, extension of struggle, rejection of union control, ignoring bourgeois law where the balance of forces permits it, and the holding of meetings for political education, etc.

In order to exclude those who do not in reality accept the need for communism, we drew up the following basis for membership:

a) All countries in the world are capitalist.
b) Capitalism is a crisis-ridden system whose only alternatives are World War or working class revolution and the building of communism.
c) The struggle for communism requires the worldwide destruction of the capitalist state and a regime of workers’ councils.
d) For this an international communist party (of which the CWO is a fore-runner) is necessary.
e) The unions, Labour and Communist Parties are defenders of the capitalist system, and cannot be used by the working class.
f) Workers have no common interests with their exploiters and oppose all attempts to stimulate these by nationalism. Their only common interests are with the workers of the rest of the world.

Platform of Factory Groups of the Communist Workers’ Organisation, 1981

Territorial Groups

However, things have changed since 1981.

Firstly, the Eastern Bloc has collapsed, which means that some of the above points need to be rephrased — for example, b) excludes the possibility of a long-drawn out crisis without a world war, which doesn’t seem to make it suitable as a membership criterion.

Secondly, the disaggregation of the working class, as analysed by, primarily, our Italian colleagues, renders the factory as a basis for organisation questionable. At the very least, the word “workplace” needs to replace “factory” in the title, and not just in our propaganda. The idea of territorial groups needs to supplement, if not supplant, the concept of factory groups. These gather together all the workers in an area who share the aims given above (or a new version of them). Not only do territorial groups answer the problem of the vanishing of most large concentrations of workers in single industries, they also contain from the start a generalisation across sectors of the class, as well as prefiguring the territorial character of soviets.


Although the CWO has not managed to create any factory groups, our Italian comrades have shown that this creation is possible and useful.

We appear to be on the threshold of a new period of class struggle as the bosses’ attacks on the class are more uninhibited than they have been in the past, driven on as they are by necessity. In this period, if the working class responds to the demands put upon it by the situation, the opportunity for factory groups, or a more modern analogue, will also grow. If this opportunity presents itself, we must take it, in order to render the fightback more effective, and to start to turn the fightback into something more.


The Discussion

The outline was broadly accepted by the meeting with comrades who had been involved as both union stewards and anti-union workplace groups giving us the benefit of their different experiences. One comrade pointed out that the best-intentioned shop stewards and even union leaders who might think they have the welfare of members at heart always end up acting on the bosses’ side since that is the nature of the unions’ role in the capitalist process of exploitation. In addition comrades made a number of points in order to clarify one or two things. The first took issue with the description (in one of the quotes from Death to Rank and Filism) of permanent economic workplace groups becoming "reformist". They were worse than this as they too end up identifying with the bosses like the old unions (and the example of the COBAS in Italy was cited). It was also suggested that we drop the words “intervene” and “intervention” as they were imported into our language from Italian and French. In English they gave the impression that communists were outside the class movement instead of growing with it. We also need to correct the CWO statement that it was the “forerunner” of the future world party of the proletariat. The ICT is not only not the party but does not even see itself as its direct forerunner. Our aim is to participate in the struggles of the world working class towards such a party and to link up with those organisations which will be thrown up by the struggle.

Some points from the talk were expanded on. The nature of the unions today compared with the 19C when they were fighting organisations where nearly all dues were to save up for strike pay and this was used to have all-out strikes. This changed with the concentration and centralisation of capital to the creation of monopoly and then state capitalism in which the unions became more and more integrated into the capitalist state structure.

Unions have never been revolutionary but now no longer even “schools of socialism” (Marx) or “transmission belts” (Lenin) between party and class. Unions are now vast bureaucracies who fight only on sectional terms, accept all capitalist restrictions on the struggle and use the members dues as investments for the pensions of its bureaucrats.

When class struggle is acute they act to divide workers by section and nation. However this is not obvious to workers who think that the union still represents their basic interest and without which they would be isolated. Ergo workers see the union as the only framework for their activity. It is not true that the most advanced workers are outside the unions as union membership depends as much on circumstance as choice.

It is usually only at times of struggle that workers begin to question the unions. This means that (at least in the UK – in France and Spain the situation is different) revolutionaries do not boycott the unions as members but on the contrary join them to find fellow workers who are questioning the system and the unions too.

The question of the link between the daily struggle of the class and its long term interests cannot be resolved by a mere critique of the unions. It seemed agreed by everyone that any serious revolutionary organisation has to have a strategy to try to keep workers connected to the political programme. Our chosen strategy is the workplace group. This is made up of at least one member of the political organisation with others who recognise the limitations of the union-dominated struggle and who also share an understanding of the nature of the system of exploitation. It is open to all irrespective of any other political allegiance.

Wherever a member of the ICT is present in any workplace s/he should work to make contacts with the aim of setting up a group. If this means being a member of the union then so be it.

The tasks of workplace groups are:

  • to promote ideas of class autonomy;
  • advocate strike committees and mass assemblies to control the committees;
  • promote solidarity struggles across sections and frontiers;
  • maintain links between workers in times of class quiet;
  • promote the dissemination of revolutionary ideas via leaflets and programmes of discussion and education in preparation for the more general battles ahead. This is not just a one way process but part of the education of all communist militants to be involved with workers in the immediate struggles of the moment.
Thursday, March 1, 2012

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