Trade union, economic struggle and class conflict in the era of job insecurity

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Creato: 27 Maggio 2014 Ultima modifica: 17 Settembre 2016 Visite: 2363
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The deep changes occurred in the last few years in the capitalistic production system on international scale have evened out on a planetary level the trade union conservative action and at the same time they are transforming more and more the economic conflict into a blunt weapon in proletarians’ hands. It is necessary to take note that a new phase of the class struggle has begun and that the road to take cannot consider any return to the past such as the reconstitution of the red trade unions or the recourse to other intermediate organizations between the revolutionary party and the  working class.

When at the end of the 1980s the Berlin Wall fell down and with it the imperialistic bloc depending on Moscow, too, many bourgeoisie ideologists asserted the end of the history thesis. A new era of peace and wealth began for the world Capitalism and nothing could thwart the pacific human cohabitation. The end of the class struggle the way it had developed up to that moment, was proclaimed, since the common interest was represented by the permanent economic growth finally ensured by the new kingdom of freedom.
While the bourgeoisie envisioned a new “Bengodi” [1], many spokespersons of the Communist Left, and  we were among them, thought that, with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the regimes more or less referring to Stalinism, some political spaces for a resumption of the revolutionary critique to the capitalistic society could be opened. The thesis asserted in those years was quite simple in its formulation and we can sum it up in this way: with the end of the USSR, eventually it was demonstrated that in Russia there has never been Socialism and that it was a particular form of Capitalism, the State Capitalism, which collapsed because of the crisis. By virtue of this unmasking – they affirmed – it would have been easy to get the train of the revolutionary struggle leave again after the Stalinism proditoriously and temporarily had caused its derailment.
After just a short lapse of time from the formulation of these optimistic previsions made by the bourgeoisie, the world plunged in a long period, protracting up to the present day, made up of wars and economic crises which have hurled billions of human beings into dire poverty. So, quite another thing than a new kingdom of freedom and the end of the class struggle: all the last decades have been characterized by a constant attack towards the living and working conditions of the international proletariat. The hardness of such attacks has been proportional to the worsening of the capitalistic system contradictions on international scale. The class struggle not only has not disappeared but in the last years it has intensified under the pressure of the crisis, but it is a class struggle that until now has had as an active protagonist only the bourgeoisie, while the proletariat, for many reasons which we will try to explain in the course of this work of ours, so far has passively suffered the blows given by the dominating class.
If the bourgeois ideologists have resoundingly failed the previsions made at the end of the 1980s, have the expectations of the Communist Left had a better outcome? Also in this case the previsions about a political and organisational recovery of the groups referring to the experience of the Communist Left have miserably proved not true. In fact, just the end of the USSR has caused the rise of all the limits of an experience such as the Communist Left one, in many ways extraordinary, whose reason for being was the struggle against Stalinism. The theoretical and political patrimony typical of the Communist Left, which has been able to explain, applying the historical Materialism, the whole event of the Russian counter-revolution, has not been enriched by its theorists so as to explain the new dynamics put to use by Capitalism and the deep changes even in the class composition of the modern proletariat. Does a Communist Left still exist with different souls stirring it or do the groups recalling to such a political tradition share only this label but actually support conflicting thesis? Since Stalinism is over and consequently also the necessity to be anti-Stalinist, what are the strings keeping together the groups recalling to that experience? Actually, we are in front of several groups which are not only divergent on many points qualifying a political strategy, but at the same time they have fallen out of the good habit to confront with the others and they entrench behind the blazon of their names in order to avoid coming to terms with all the innovations that Capitalism daily lays.
As for the subject-matter of our work – that is the union question, but there could be many other examination fields – the positions of the several groups recalling to the Communist Left differ one from another. There is still someone who maintains that Trade Unions must be brought back on their legitimate revolutionary channels, letting in this way emerge the need to work for the reconstitution of the red Trade Unions; others, even if they admit the treason of the present union managers, work inside in order to reconquer them; others still think that CGIL by now has distanced itself from the revolutionary cause, but they suppose the necessity to strive inside the base Trade Unions for pushing them more and more towards class positions; in the end, there is someone who maintains that the Trade Unions are too far from the proletarian cause since they have been transformed into a bourgeois body necessary to the economic planning of the modern monopoly.
As we can see, the several groups referring to the Communist Left experience have – with respect to the union question – contrasting positions that actually determine antipodean intervention tactics and political strategies. Among them we can find political groups asserting the necessity to work, also as bureaucrats, inside the Trade Unions in order to bring them back to their ancient function, as well as other ones sustaining the need that the working class economic struggle must be led outside and against Trade Unions, considering these last by now detached from the proletarian cause. We think it is necessary to go beyond the simple union question and we affirm the importance to reconsider the very nature and function of the proletarian economic struggle in order to try to get the limits of this struggle in the context of the 21st century Capitalism. So, we think fit to do a short historical digression of the union question, the way it evolved in the Capitalism history, and at the same time to highlight the difference among union, economic and class struggle.

The earlier Trade Unions

The first union organizations were born in the second half of the 19th century and they had the function to contain the competition among workers, promoting in this way the sale of  the labour force used in the production processes at a higher price than the one obtained where the negotiation was carried out, on an individual level, by the single worker. We have to refer to the Mutual Aid society to outline the prodromic organizations of Trade Unions. They were societies founded with the specific aim to support the workers’ strikes through the active help with contributions in favour of the struggling workers. The mechanism of solidarity, that was at the base of the birth of the Mutual Aid societies, had an extraordinary impact on the creation of the first union organizations. The very first jump in quality of the labour movement, with the rise of the first union organizations, was to go beyond the solidarity principle of the Mutual Aid societies, by organizing the working class economic claims.
The Trade Unions function – meaning also the one that best and more genuinely represented the working class economic interests – has always been to oversee the purchase and sale of labour force, never passing over the mere role of mediation in the conflicting relation between capital and labour. Trade Unions have always acted in full compliance with the rules of the capitalistic system, based upon the buy and sale and the exploitation of the labour force, without ever considering the political matter of going beyond the wage system in order to create an alternative to Capitalism. In a reality such as the 19th century’s one, based upon an economic system still dominated by the presence of wide areas of open competition, thanks to the Trade Union actions, the proletariat was able to achieve relevant goals from the standpoint of the economic claims and of the improvement in living conditions. For this reason, the achievement of a reduced workday is emblematic. In the historical phase we are examining, the workers’ struggles, led by Trade Unions, have been significantly successful in the field of the economic claims, too, materializing in wage increases which, nowadays, with the modern 21st century Capitalism, would be completely unconceivable. It is important to stress that the successes of the economic claims are not configurable as presents of the bourgeoisie, but as the issue of very hard struggles carried out by the working class which has paid dearly for whatever it obtained in that context.
Trade Unions during the first historical phase of Capitalism functioned as leaders of the working class claiming struggles which, substantially, expressed themselves in continuous demands of wage and labour standard improvements. Thanks also to these successes, Trade Unions increased extraordinarily their influence on the entire working class. During this long period in the history of Capitalism the permanent class struggle between bourgeoisie and proletariat expressed itself, first of all, in the field of the economic struggle and with Trade Unions having a very important role in the organization of the proletarian claims.
After the rise, all around Europe, of several socialist parties, born with the preeminent aim to lead the proletariat to the seizure of power through revolution, Trade Unions, even if they kept the above mentioned characteristics, have been also used to fulfil a strategic political function: acting as the binding agent between the revolutionary avant-garde and the working class. In this perspective, Trade Unions have taken on a completely new function compared to the one carried out until then, that is operating as a “transmission belt” between the working class political party and the working class itself.

The transmission belt

The one who better theorised the Trade Unions’ function as  a “transmission belt” was undoubtedly Lenin. In Lenin’s strategy, Trade Unions, being the instrument through which the proletarian economic struggle better expressed itself, had to be used by the revolutionary party to increase their influence among the working masses. So, in Lenin’s point of view the Trade Unions’ role became strategic since it was through them that the political avant-garde was able to increase its influence in wide sectors of the working class. According to the Bolshevik leader, in order to let Trade Unions function as a transmission belt, it was necessary that the party members strove right inside in order to influence it, having at the same time the opportunity  to promote the party’s political positions inside the working class. Lenin faces the ever prickly and never completely solved problem of the relation party-class, giving Trade Unions the role of transmission belt just because, by means of the union organization, in Lenin’s opinion the party would be able to confront as best it could with the whole working class.
The Leninist scheme is based on some theoretical prerequisites that need to be underlined since they will be evaluated in respect to the current conditions in which the relation between capital and labour develops. The early class clash between bourgeoisie and proletariat takes place in a field of economic struggle: workers are pushed so as to improve their life and labour standards. As we have seen above, the union organizations establish themselves in such a context of economic struggle. Only in the domain of the  economic struggle the proletariat has been historically able to give life to the Trade Unions, institutions structurally bound to the relation between capital and labour, but unable because of their nature to go beyond the claiming struggle which - it is necessary to repeat it – can never cross the limits of the capitalistic compatibilities even if it represents, in any case, the maturation process first step of the proletarian revolutionary awareness, in other words that form of awareness asserting that the only way to solve “tout-court” the working class problems is getting over the capitalistic production system. In the daily economic struggle led by Trade Unions, proletariat comes to increase its awareness to belong to a social class while the function to have the class awareness level raised to the point to let emerge the necessity to fight, not only for a higher wage but to overthrow the wage labour system, is typical of the working class political party. So there is a jump in quality from the economic struggle to the political one; the class awareness “in itself”, born in the context of the economic struggle, evolves into class awareness “for itself”, by means of which the proletariat comes to the awareness of the necessity to overthrow the capitalistic way of production.
Already Marx in his “Wage, price and profit” had stressed as the economic struggle is at the base of that process leading to a class awareness development. In the same speech Marx rebuked those who asserted the economic struggle uselessness because it wouldn’t have got any advantage to the working class since capitalists would have de facto void the advantages coming from the wage increase by raising the prices.  Without recalling what Marx affirms in his “Wage, price and profit”, so as to confute Mr. Weston’s theses – proponent of the economic struggle uselessness since the advantages given by the wage increases would be void by the commodities price rise – it is fundamental herein to highlight as Marx considers important the economic struggle in order to increase a class awareness among the workers, meaning the economic struggle as a training for the revolutionary one. The awareness to overthrow the wage system springs from the struggles for a higher wage. Marx also rebukes: “Such being the tendency of things in this system, is this saying that the working class ought to renounce their resistance against the encroachments of capital, and abandon their attempts at making the best of the occasional chances for their temporary improvement? If they did, they would be degraded to one level mass of broken wretches past salvation. […]By cowardly giving way in their everyday conflict with capital, they would certainly disqualify themselves for the initiating of any larger movement.”
Lenin proceeds along the theoretical direction drawn by Marx, but with the variation to use Trade Unions as an intermediate instrument necessary to link the political avant-garde, the revolutionary party, to the working class. The Leninist watchwords, launched to conquer a leading role in the Trade Unions and so as to better influence the proletariat, are therefore a direct consequence of the above mentioned theoretical prerequisites.
The fist historical check of Lenin’s theses efficiency about the union function took place during the October Revolution. In that circumstance Trade Unions, rather than operating as a transmission belt between the party and the working class, took position against the seizure of power by  the Bolshevik Party more than any other labour organization. Not only they did not function as a transmission belt but they obstructed the diffusion of the Bolshevik Party political positions among Russian proletariat, thwarting the organization of the political strikes which took place before the October Revolution days. In reality, formulating his thesis, Lenin forgot that Trade Unions by that time were not anymore the original ones. This is a gap that at the time went, thanks to the victory of the Russian revolution, almost entirely unnoticed. Only few people, and only after many years, evaluated critically what Lenin maintained and what factually happened during the Russian Revolution, so much so that the Leninist theses have always been a guiding light for the international Communist movement while the voices disassociating from what he asserted are still today a very small minority.

Trade Unions in the era of Imperialism

At the end of the October experience, with the Stalinist counter-revolution, the discussion about the Trade Unions’ role substantially arrested and later there was only a reprocessing of the Leninist theses. The only voice trying to go beyond the Leninist assertions on the Trade Unions’ role is the Communist Left one. Already in the immediate post-war period the comrades of the Communist Left, who founded the Internationalist Communist Party, just starting from the experience of the October Revolution, had elaborated a thesis according to which Trade Unions had undergone a radical change with respect to the past, losing definitely their class nature and consequently their role in the revolutionary strategy. The change in the evaluation on the Trade Unions’ role was to be found in the concentration and centralization processes of the capitalistic production system and in the consequent working process modification. Remarkable changes in the Trade Unions’ nature and functions  had occurred with the rise of great monopolistic groups, therefore there was the need to individuate other organizations, different from Trade Unions, to which entrust the function of intermediate organization between the revolutionary party and the working class.
Such a position is peculiar only of the group Battaglia Comunista whereas the other groups of the Communist Left have kept on supporting the Leninist theses’ validity, as if in the meanwhile nothing had happened in the capitalistic sphere. The immediate post-war intuitions have found a better placement in later works and the union question has further characterized the Battaglia Comunista  political positions in the Communist Left range. Here is what we wrote in the booklet “Il Sindacato nel terzo ciclo d’accumulazione del capitale” printed in the second half of the 1980s: “In the historical process of the capitalistic economic form development, Trade Unions, which since their birth essentially served as an attempt of controlled management of the labour force offer with the aim to determine higher prices than the ones a worker could have obtained in a possible individual bargaining, have gone through a slow involvement process in the company management. Above all in periods of market’s expansion, Trade Unions faced with a ruling class which even forestalled them in the granting of wage rises, made possible by, indeed, the high extra-profit amount generally made by this kind of company, thanks to its ability to intervene in the price formation processes.”[2] And some lines later we can read: “Consequently, Trade Unions, while they see most of their traditional functions entirely took by capital itself, are also urged to function as a moment of guarantee and stability for the capitalistic system in addition to or in place of the other typical bourgeois instruments of political and ideological repression.”[3]
These two long quotes express completely the thesis according to which Trade Unions, just because of the modifications occurred in the capitalistic economic structure with the monopoly achievement, have changed their nature, transforming themselves into an instrument used by the bourgeoisie to limit, in the scope of the economic planning compatibilities of the great monopolistic groups, the working class economic claims. With the development of monopoly, planning the economic activities has become vital for Capitalism and Trade Unions are the organizations that, better and more than the others, are called to guarantee the social peace inside the productive systems and in the entire society.    
The Trade Unions transformation from a working class organization into an instrument of the bourgeois economic planning was not, therefore, caused by some union official’s betrayal, that obviously we don’t want to deny here, but it is ascribable to the mechanisms of “concentration of the production means giving the bourgeoisie options able to reabsorb and institutionalize organizations of merely claiming struggle.” [4]
Trade Unions have not only definitively deserted the proletarian cause, but they have become one of the most important instruments in the bourgeoisie’s hands to better lessen the conflict between capital and labour and to facilitate the monopolistic economic planning.
But if Trade Unions, packing their bags, have gone over to the class enemy, the problem to go beyond Lenin’s scheme, that sees them as the intermediate organization between party and class, arises. This has nothing to do with finding a new intermediate organization replacing Trade Unions, but it’s a question of going beyond the same concept of intermediate organization. In the many times quoted document it is affirmed that the political party links to and confronts itself with the class, at least on a theoretical plan, through its own factory groups, which are not anymore intermediate organizations, but a direct party emanation operating in the factory world to bring the class its own elaborations and, at the same time, to glean and elaborate the instances coming from it in a permanent exchange relation from the class base to the political avant-garde and vice versa. The factory group has to fulfil the assignment of facilitating the transposition of the economic struggles on a more specifically political field. As we can see, they have gone beyond Lenin’s theses about the Trade Unions’ role and the concept of intermediate organization, restating at the same time the validity of Marx’s elaboration where it gives to the economic struggle the role of revolutionary training to facilitate the transposition of the class awareness ‘in itself’ to a class awareness ‘for itself’.

The economic struggle and the class conflict in the era of globalization

Thanks to the deep changes occurred in the last few years in the capitalistic system on international scale, for the first time in the Capitalism history a labour force single market on world scale has been created. All this has been made possible for the concomitant action of two factors imprinting a radical change to the production organization and to the same world proletariat working conditions. The first factor making the creation of a labour force single market possible is an economic one and it is to be found in the possibility given to Capitalism to move hands down the production units in those areas where the labour force cost is much lower than anywhere else. Thanks to the introduction of micro-electronics in the production processes, the production cycle flexibility has much increased making in this way possible and advantageous to move the production where there is more convenience in terms of labour force cost. The second factor is of geo-political nature and is to be found in the Soviet Empire implosion that has made possible the free capital circulation in wide areas of the planet. By means of the labour force market unification, on the one hand a reduction of its price has taken place, while on the other hand some mechanisms, further debasing the importance and the role until now carried out by the economic struggle in the process of a class awareness “for itself” formation, has got started.
The same business relationship precarization is a direct consequence of the labour market international unification. Billions of human beings, willing to sell the only goods they have in a single world market, are daily struggling against each other to find a capitalist ready to buy their goods at more and more fire-sale prices. Because of the great availability of an even highly educated and at the same time less and less qualified labour force, the capitalist has the possibility to use the labour force sellers with the throwaway formula. All this has surely a very strong impact on the class awareness formation process among proletarians. The differences compared to the past are completely evident: in fact, while in the world of the Fordist factory thousand workers, working daily and for long periods side by side with other workers, were almost instinctively led – through sharing processes – to consider themselves as part of the same social class and to fight on an economic plane in the attempt to improve their living and working conditions, in the temporary work era all the conditions facilitating the maturation of this awareness failed and also the economic struggle seems to have become a blunt weapon as opposite to the past. Indeed, the capitalist in this new context of temporary and strongly unqualified work has the possibility not only to replace in a very short time the struggling workers but to use more and more often the threaten to move his company in less conflicting contexts. Modern proletarians don’t live anymore those conditions that in the past facilitated the maturation of the awareness to belong to the same social class; too limited is the time they spend together in the place they work and in urban contexts to feel themselves joined by the same class interests. If proletarians can very hardly perceive themselves as a single class and if the economic struggle is not anymore so effective to have the workers’ conditions improved, well, it is required to reconsider the same transposition process of the struggles from a merely economic plane onto a higher political one. Can we consider still valid Marx’s thesis finding in the economic struggle a training for the revolutionary struggle, or just in virtue of the changes which synthetically we have above stressed does the economic struggle not carry out the same significant role anymore? We think the economic struggle has by now lost most of that function seen by Marx in it and, even not denying the possibility and the necessity for workers to fight for a better wage or for the defence of their job, we believe that the class struggle carried out by the proletariat can and has to express itself in this new context in immediately political terms. [5]
On the other hand, the bargaining margins are by now so limited that any claim aiming at the improvement of the proletarian’s living and working conditions immediately results explosive.
It may look as a paradox but it is only one of the new conditions in which the labour force sellers find themselves, since on the one hand a single world labour market was born while on the other hand individual labour agreements are more and more frequent in the place of the collective ones applicable to all the workers of the same category. Socially, but economically and juridically isolated proletarians are at the mercy of the great international capital excessive power and they have thousand difficulties to feel themselves part of a social class. This is the state in which billions of proletarians in every corner of the world are, a state very different from the one we could observe just a few decades ago.
In such a context we think that, politically, the position of those who maintain the need to rebuild the red Trade Unions or other intermediate organizations, functioning as a transmission belt between the revolutionary party and the working class, represents a remarkable moving back from the revolutionary strategy point of view. Likewise what is affirmed in the article “Lo stato, i soviet, la rivoluzione” seems to us a remarkable backward step compared to the previous Battaglia Comunista position on this subject. Here we can read that “When the Communist Party does not address the revolutionary problem, it penetrates and conquers the economic struggle organizations (struggle committees) just as they are born under the boost of the ever-worsening living conditions of proletarian groups and categories; all this with the intent to take root in the class and in its actions in order to enlarge its sphere in the direction of a joint class struggle”. [6] In these few lines the abandonment of the theses maintained in the past by the Battaglia Comunista is evident. In fact in them there is not only the return to the theses according to which the economic struggle organizations can still function as a “transmission belt” between the revolutionary party and the class – theses widely regarded as obsolete by the  Battaglia Comunista since the late 1940s – but even that this function may be carried out by unbidden organizations such as the “struggle committees”, which generally begin and end with the beginning and the ending of the single struggles. That is they have not in their DNA a permanent nature and therefore they cannot carry out the role the current Battaglia Comunista, willing to support the movements, would like to assign them: guaranteeing the party to take permanently root inside the class. Asserting this means, in our opinion, debasing the political leading role which the revolutionary party has to carry out to change it into a bandwagon following the struggle committees that periodically could be born inside the class. Wiping the slate clean, it removes the “factory groups” and the “territorial groups”, organizations that are a direct emanation of the party, operating in the factories and in the wider urban context, whose role is allowing the party to take root in the working class in order to let the prospective of the current production system overcoming advance. While others forswear their own political positions to better fulfil the new role they gave themselves, that is the tail-end of the class movement, we think it is necessary to remain rigorously on the historical Materialism plane in defining the relation between the party and the class and not to propose again formulas broadly overcome by the new context of the globalized Capitalism. The Trade Unions’ role has changed, the economic struggle is not anymore as effective as it used to be to promote the growth of a revolutionary awareness, but all the prerequisites of the class struggle the international proletariat is called to carry out in order to contrast the Capitalism savagery, remain intact.

[1] Cf. G. Boccaccio – “Decameron”, VII, 3
[2] “Il Sindacato nel terzo ciclo d’accumulazione del capitale” – ed. Prometeo – p. 8.
[3] Ibidem p. 9.
[4] Ibidem p. 11.
[5] On this subject see the article: G. Paolucci, “Ci vuole il partito, ma quale?” published in this same issue of the magazine.
[6] “Lo stato, i soviet, la rivoluzione” – Prometeo n. 7 series VII in May 2012.