by Jan Makandal
January 21, 2016
76 years ago, Trotsky correctly observed that trade unions were progressively degenerating and fusing with imperialism. That gradual degeneration has, at this point in time, reached its maturity point—institutionalized forms of organized labor have become capitalist organizations, even with workers and laborers as members.
The bureaucratic bourgeoisie—a fraction of the capitalist class—has historically developed within the leadership of organized labor. The problem is not a simple issue of bad or corrupt leadership. The issue lies with the entire structure of organized labor that has now been absorbed—institutionalized— into capitalism. Trotskyists, viewing the process of degeneration as static, will never see this reality.
Institutionalized labor is now a historical form of capital accumulation. Dues, corruption, strike funds, retirement funds, and government stipends are all forms of capital accumulation. Although dues-paying members are currently the principal form of accumulation, it is important that we also point the finger at corruption.
Corruption is a common form of capital accumulation by the capitalist class. Many think that it can simply be corrected by anti-corruptive measures. This reformist conception reduces corruption to the act of stealing, and ignores the fact that contemporary capitalism is an historical form of accumulation rooted in mercantile capitalism (trade).
In most cases, under capitalism, corruption becomes a material condition for the development of the bureaucratic bourgeoisie. This problematic fraction of the capitalist power bloc shares a lot of tendencies with fascism, and functions in contradiction with some foundational elements of capitalism, such as competition. Setting moral boundaries for corruption represents the inter-class struggle among capitalists to limit, control or advance the constitution of the bureaucratic bourgeoisie.
Although institutionalized labor has degenerated into capitalist organizations, union members—the rank and file—are obviously not capitalists. Further, many of these union members reproduce the class that holds a direct and antagonistic relation with capital. In the past 50-plus years, institutionalized labor has done its best to displace workers and laborers from their historic fields of struggle—the strike, wildcat strikes, and work slowdowns. Instead, they have channeled workers and laborers into bourgeois fields of class struggle—elections and lobbying. They also lean heavily on the petite bourgeoisie (as paid organizers) to convince workers to join so they can lead them in non-autonomous fields of struggle, in which defeat is always guaranteed. Rather than organizing and mobilizing workers and laborers to face social capital, institutionalized labor unions simply use their members as the faces of their marketing campaigns and recruitment efforts.
To think that organized labor is a simple deformation caused by bad leadership, and ignore the fact that unions are now bourgeois organizations, is fundamentally divergent from Trotsky’s position regarding their degeneration. Further, this misconception can only lead to a wrong prescription for a deadly sickness.
As long as workers remain under the leadership of institutionalized labor, no matter how combative it may seem, their struggle will never be autonomous.
We often argue against the level of populism among workers—their attachment to existing unions. Although we politically and ideologically understand the attachment, it is a reflection of the current level of consciousness, of widespread working class populism and opportunism.
At this time we need to recognize two sets of contradictions:
- The attachment of workers to existing unions
- The need for a new alternative
Again, aside from our difference with Trotsky over his line of taking over the unions, we do agree with other foundational elements of his position.