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Once Again: on trade unionism and economism

In numerous past posts I've discussed the limitations of the trade union movement in Canada and the need for communists to avoid a political strategy that is primarily based on trade unionism.  Based on discussions with friends and comrades, however, I feel that it is important to clarify the meaning of this position because it is often misunderstood, intentionally or unintentionally, as a form of anti-union ultra-leftism rather than an important strategic clarification.  The problem with trade unionism articulated by myself and the Maoist groups I support should not be conceived as a bland anti-unionism––or even some vague and anarchist rejection of "union bureaucracy"––but a critique of economism and, in this critique, an extension of Lenin's distinction between trade union and revolutionary consciousness.

Having come from the trade union movement, and having spent years working as an anti-capitalist within a union, there is a part of me that cannot help but remain sympathetic with union struggles.  I am still in a labour union, after all, and it would be dishonest for me to suggest that my life hasn't been made easier by the struggles within which my local has participated.  At the same time, it is partly because of the fact that my life has been made "easier" by these struggles that I was led to a critique of the limitations of trade unionism: there is, after all, a kind of comfortable consciousness that arises from the kind of lifestyle under capitalism that unions have historically been able to promote where the unionized working-class may have a lot more than their chains to lose.  Moreover, it is because of my experience of the limitations of the trade union movement (discussed here, here, here, and here) that I gravitated towards the critique of trade unionism that I currently uphold.

My position, which is generally the position of the Maoist organization I support (the PCR-RCP), is that the normative communist strategy of embedding ourselves within the labour movement so as to push union members towards a revolutionary consciousness is a strategy that does not work––at least not now, at this historical conjuncture––for a variety of interconnected reasons.  None of these reasons implies that we should adopt an ultra-leftist anti-union ideology, but they do suggest that we should be focusing our organizational energy outside of the typical trade unionist strategy.

First of all, since this strategy relies on the assumption that unionized workers are the "advanced" elements of the working-class (since they are the most organized, since they have the most experience with fighting capitalism, etc.), and thus relies on a specific theory of insurrection, it is unable to grapple with the fact that unionized workers not only constitute a minority of workers but that their consciousness may in fact not be advanced.  That is, unionized workers represent a privileged layer of workers who have historically been able, at least at the height of the union movement, to buy their way out of proletarianization and live a petty-bourgeois lifestyle.  Now, with the union movement under attack by the austerity measures of the crisis, while these workers might be in the process of being reproletarianized, the trade union movement is fighting for a return to Keynesianism and the historic compromise between labour and capital (that is, they are fighting to maintain their integration with capitalism) rather than demonstrating the kind of advanced consciousness that they are supposed to possess––they are not fighting for communism, nor are they interested as a whole in doing so.  This problem is, as aforementioned, historically been labelled economism and has been understood, from Lenin to the present, as the result of trade union consciousness.

Secondly, the strategy of focusing primarily on the trade union movement––along with other social democratic and connected movements––is that it leads to the liquidation of revolutionary politics wherein one tails a primarily social democratic movement that is only interested in reform.  Although communist groups may be able to avoid looking reformist by waving the red flag and proclaiming some commie slogans, what usually happens in practice is that the need to construct an autonomous revolutionary organization is replaced by the desire to pursue immediate (and limited) gains.  More than one organization has lost itself in the trade union movement, or at best maintained an independent theoretical presence while doing nothing but reformist and short-term struggle in practice, whether these organizations be those who follow Hal Draper's endorsement of such liquidation, or those organizations that believed they could build a party by entering the union movement en masse.  These latter organizations, such as Canada's Workers Communist Party [WCP], were destroyed in part because of this strategy––which is why there are so many former communists who are now union bureaucrats acting just as the union bureaucrats of the past, the very bureaucracy they attempted to challenge during those days when they entered the unions.

Thirdly, the "hard core" of the proletariat, the section of the masses that a communist movement should be focusing on, is not generally located in the trade union movement.  As noted by the first point, it is more accurate to think of unionized workers as a privileged section of the working class in comparison to the majority of workers in a given society.  Although it has become unpopular in some circles (usually those circles who have built their reputation on naming the union movement revolutionary) to use the term "labour aristocracy", we also have to take into account the structural implications of imperialism on the working class movement; one doesn't even have to accept that the entire working class movement at the centres of capitalism has been affected by imperialist super-exploitation to at least accept, on a crude empirical level, that the union movement has obviously benefited from imperialism.  One would have to be a liar or intentionally myopic to ignore the fact that unions invest money in stocks, bonds, and finance-capital in order to pay for the benefits and pensions divvied up amongst their workers.  Hence, the union movement at the centres of capitalism is a conflicted movement that, while possibly being reproletarianized now, has been at the forefront of embourgeoisification for a very long time.

When we take these problems together we should be able to recognize that a revolutionary movement capable of fighting capitalism cannot afford to submerge itself in the trade union movement but must, on the contrary, build itself into an independent organization that, if and when it intervenes in the trade union movement, it does so in a fully autonomous manner.  Such a movement should also refuse to treat the unionized workers as the advanced section of the proletariat, instead organizing those who actually experience the kind of proletarianized life, and thus demonstrate a proletarian consciousness, that the union movement has succeeded in burying over so many decades of "social peace" and imperialist-based reforms.  None of this is to say that we cannot and should not engage with reformist movements in a non-reformist manner, only that we truly need to demarcate a revolutionary movement from a trade union movement.  There will always be, after all, social democrats who will tirelessly work to build and develop reform movements; a communist movement will lose its way if it tails these organizers––especially since, lacking any contradictions, they might be better at this kind of work.  Our involvement with such movements, if and when it is necessary, should be one of intervention determined by the strategy of organizing a parallel revolutionary movement that will not focus its time on reformist goals.

Action Socialiste, one of the precursors of the PCR-RCP that operated in Quebec between 1986-2000, summed up its experience with trade union liquidationism, and the line struggle it caused within this organization based on union work and the limitations encountered in this work:

"Suddenly it was like an abyss had appeared between us and comrades from Liberation [an organization that, composed primarily of former WCP members, had merged with Action Socialiste]. More than a simple tactical question, it was a deep divergence. […] For them, unions were still the main tool for social change, like in the 1970s. And anything that could cast reasonable doubt on this suddenly became dangerous and to be condemned.  So, according to them, "Socialisme Maintenant!" [the AS newspaper] was talking too much about revolution and liberation struggles in the third-world, which no longer interested anyone in the unions. It was too openly critical of the PQ [the Parti Quebecois, the nationalist party that has recently launched the racist charter], which might disappoint some "allies"; it didn't propose enough "immediate demands" and suggestions to improve capitalism's functionality while waiting for the "great night". […] During an internal conference held in late 1993, ex-members of Liberation, who above all hated the years of work done by comrades towards unorganized and overexploited workers… made a proposal in preparation for Action Socialiste's Fifth Congress. They wanted the group to abandon these people, as well as anti-imperialist work, and concentrate all its energy in the trade union movement. Only in this movement, according to them, would we find the proletariat's advanced elements; for them, it was mainly by ascending the leadership ladder into the union's upper hierarchy that we could find the most advanced elements, because they were more experienced." [Action Socialiste: An Unforgettable Experience (Montreal: Maison Norman Bethune, 2009), 8-9]

The point, here, is not that the trade unionist approach to communist strategy must always and necessarily lead to the political line described above––where an organization refuses to even approach anti-imperialist and mass work––but only that such an approach is driven and delimited by this logic because this is the logic of economism.  If a socialist organization engaged in this trade union is successful in avoiding total ideological liquidation, it does so despite the problem of economism.  There are, after all, great examples of anti-imperialist and mass work performed by union locals (i.e. CUPE's resolution 50 which forced the provincial body of this union to endorse Palestinian self-determination, the anti-poverty and radical immigration work that has been supported, from time to time, by union working groups formed by a local's most radical members), and I would be lying if I said that I did not participate in some of these ventures in a local that, at the time, permitted this kind of radical space.  But this was just a temporary permission and, based on the entire history of even my local (which was unique in this area and, it must be said, not even considered "properly working class" by other die-hard unionists), was far from normative.  After all, unionized workers are ultimately united by a collective agreement and the fact they happen to work in the same place… And, as the practice of even some of my radical friends would prove, at the end of the day economism dominated: focus on keeping the union together, fighting for a good collective agreement, dealing only with the immediate demands of the union, etc. was what mattered the most.

Again: the argument is not that unions are bad, that union movements should be rejected by communists, or that unions aren't useful to the working masses––these are all rather infantile points and could rightfully be dismissed as ultra-leftist.  As it should be clear, yet again, the position we revolutionary communists have on trade union activism (and thus all reformist activism) is about how we approach it, the focus we put on it, the our ultimate goals (which should always be clear) that drive our critique and/or intervention.

In closing, I think it is useful to cite another passage from the Action Socialiste summation document that will hopefully connect this position on trade unionism with the overall and problem of social democracy tailism:

"What we can also learn is the necessity to align our praxis to revolutionary theory.  We may adopt the best principled positions and publish the best analysis, but if our praxis comes back to doing the same as Marc Laviolette [union bureaucrat, former WCP member] or Francoise David [Quebec Solidaire leader], following the mass movement or at best to push it slightly forward, and if we don't carry the revolutionary viewpoint into the heart of the mass movement and fail to organize or accumulate forces for revoluiton, then we stick to being 'paper revolutionaries.' […] To make revolution, we don't have to limit ourselves to talking about it. A few years ago, an ex-comrade criticizing the opportunistic viewpoint within our group said that to be revolutionary, it wasn't enough to add a small 'communist' sentence at the end of an economist article or pamphlet to give ourselves the feeling of a good conscience (he called it "red tailing," like our articles were ending to a certain extent).  If we want to make revolution, then we must seriously undertake it. Beginning with forging instruments the working class absolutely needs to make it––a party, an army and a revolutionary mass movement. […] The fundamental problem in any revolution is that of power, meaning the destruction of the reactionary classes' power… and the conquest and establishing of a new revolutionary power. From now on, our practical activity must be relevant with this principle, it constantly must thrive to bring forward the struggle for power." [Ibid., 11]


  1. Great post---readers interested in the history of Quebec M-Ls turned social democrats should also know that Francoise David was in En Lutte!

    1. I didn't know that about Francoise David, but I'm not surprised. There are a lot of former M-Lers from that period that went social democrat. Back when I was heavily involved in my union local, and went to cross-union events, I would always encounter former members of the WCP who had succeeded in transforming themselves into union bureaucrats with cushy jobs, and with a politics that went along with their situation. But in the case of Quebec, pretty much every significant figure in the mainstream left––from social democrat to left communist––who is older than their forties used to be in or in the circles of the WCP or En Lutte.

  2. Did you ever read Ted Hill's Looking Backward: Looking Forward. Although it is now dated in some respects, and di not anticipate the large-scale emergence of precarious employment which you refer to in your 2011 post, it had a very good and lasting effect on the Marxist-Leninist movement in Australia.

    There's a link to it here:

    1. No I haven't read this and, in fact, know very little about the anti-revisionist ML movement in Australia. Thanks for the link.


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