by Jan Makandal
January 19, 2016
First, to avoid any futile debate, let us demarcate from the theory that no work should be done inside the existing unions. This is not our position. In fact, we disagree with that political line and the practices that emerge from that theory—total absence and unilateral abstinence of presence inside these unions. For us, that would be ultra-leftist, the inversion of a right-wing deviation.
We do agree with Trotsky on his conception of the degenerated nature of organized labor [institutionalized unions]. The concept of degeneration is a dialectical concept, implying a phenomenon that is in a process of decaying. We do not think that they could be still at the same stage of decomposition as they were 76 years ago. To say that we are in the same stage is not only intellectually lazy, but is also a dogmatic approach.
Dogmatism is one of our biggest enemies in the theoretical battlefield of dialectics. Dogmatism asserts permanency in phenomenon—dynamics frozen in time. But the only thing actually permanent in a phenomenon is reproduction.
We agree with Trotsky about the degenerated nature of unions that existed 76 years ago. Furthermore, we also think that today’s unions have totally transitioned to their highest form of decay, into capitalist organizations among the working class. These unions, far from being the instruments of working class power that they started out as, are in fact playing a pre-emptive repressive role among the working class, in the interest of capitalism.
76 years ago, Trotsky’s analysis correctly identified a moment in the degeneration of unions. His call to wage struggle inside them to reverse this degeneration meant, for him, waging a struggle to turn trade unions into organs of the broad exploited masses rather than the organs of a labor aristocracy. This position, even at that earlier stage of degeneration during Trotsky’s time, was incorrect. The degeneration of unions was not simply related to their practice; it was a structural question. It was a structural degeneration that led to a transition from a workers’ organization to its antagonistic opposite, a bourgeois organization.
We disagree with Trotsky because there has been no precedent in which we have seen an historical structure of class struggle reverse from a decaying form, to its non-decaying original form. No revisionist communist parties, no reformist movements that were once combative, have ever been able to revert back to their original form. Trotsky’s position of taking back the unions was incorrect then, and it is even more incorrect today.
The Trotskyist position of taking back the union is a dogmatic position. This theory of taking back a rotting phenomenon, expecting it to un-rot, is erroneous. It can only lead to reformism, which is the operating reality of most organizations of the Trotskyist tendency. Additionally, reformism is not only a deformation of the struggle for reforms; it is also a material condition that favors a process of degeneration.
The mass movement, with the masses in struggle to ameliorate their objective conditions of reproduction, is not reformist. Rather, reformism is the political line of a revolutionary organization that makes the struggle for reforms become an end, the final objective. It is not the doctrine itself or its label that is fundamental in dealing with a reality, but the political line that we construct to face that reality.
The revolutionary line to face a rotten structure or a structure in the process of degeneration is: radical rupture. Achieving this radical rupture must be based on the fundamental issue [contradiction] that gives life to a phenomenon, not on the effects that are being produced by the process of degeneration. A process of degeneration [at any stage] is a fundamental contradictory condition which can only be resolved through radical rupture. Attempting to take over and transform a decaying structure, or to rupture with a decaying structure over secondary issues [its effects], can only lead to the realization of an opportunistic and reformist solution. Both approaches lead to the inevitable recovery of all parts of the decaying structure, even if in new forms.
Structure determines practice. The dialectic in any practice done inside a structure, especially a decaying structure, can only lead to the recuperation of these practices by the structure. Even if some reforms are achieved, or even if those practices slow down the process of decomposition, these will inevitably be recuperated and be molded into a part of the decomposition. If we look at the experiences of organized labor, this is the dominant tendency we observe. The SEIU and Unite Here started as combative unions. The SEIU ruptured with the AFL-CIO over secondary issues to quickly become its competitor for membership. And the radical petit bourgeois employees of SEIU and Unite Here have even attempted many times to form their own unions within unions, due to the unfair labor practices they are subjected to!
Another orientation is that of the radical caucus—an initiative of workers dissatisfied with the unions’ representation of their interests.
All that said, we do agree with Trotsky here: “From what has been said it follows quite clearly that, in spite of the progressive degeneration of trade unions and their growing together with the imperialist state, the work within the trade unions not only does not lose any of its importance but remains as before and becomes in a certain sense even more important work than ever for every revolutionary party. The matter at issue is essentially the struggle for influence over the working class. Every organization, every party, every faction which permits itself an ultimatistic position in relation to the trade union, i.e., in essence turns its back upon the working class, merely because of displeasure with its organizations, every such organization is destined to perish. And it must be said it deserves to perish.”
Ours is not a simple agreement in theory, but it is also in practice.
So now, how do we see the elaboration of a line based on the foundation elaborated by Trotsky? How do we advance?
This will be elaborated on in the third installment of this series.