Trotsky vs. a Trotskyist vs. Our Position: a Three-Way Conversation, Part 1

by Jan Makandal

January 15, 2016


This is a response to a Trotskyist who asserts that contemporary institutional labor unions in the U.S. currently represent working class interests, rather than having mainly been co-opted by the capitalist class (through various violent and legal means) into instruments of the pacification of workers. He quoted Trotsky in his argument (as indicated below) but we interpret his position to be actually non-correspondent to Trotsky’s. We are posting this as a distinct piece because his application of Trotsky’s position is not uncommon, and others may find it a useful contribution to the general debate.


It is always a danger in our movement to turn the position of any revolutionary, whether proletarian or non-proletarian, into verse—statements frozen in time. Such an approach is dogmatic, and dogmatism is always coupled with sectarianism. “Trade Unions in the Period of Imperialist Decay” was written by Trotsky 76 years ago. It was a theory for the elaboration of a political line, based on the conjuncture and context of that epoch.


Any theory, especially in the social field, is contextual. But it can also give us a foundation to understand the progressive development of the reality it is interpreting. The progressive development of that reality can either: a) force us to totally question that theory, even if it was correct at time of its elaboration, or b) show the need for the theory to be consolidated, while adding needed footnotes to the original theory because our practice and current objective reality demand that we do so.


This is what dogmatists and sectarians refuse to do. The consequences of that refusal are the ossification and stagnation of that theory. Reality is advancing at its own pace, and dogmatists refuse to understand that advancement. Usually that refusal is also due to a mechanical conception or a total denial of class struggle.


I am assuming you are a Trotskyist, but Trotsky was not. He didn’t know about Trotskyism, and his position in the first paragraph of his analysis proves that.


He argued, “…the degeneration, of modern trade union organizations in the entire world: it is their drawing closely to and growing together with the state power. This process is equally characteristic of the neutral, the Social-Democratic, the Communist and ‘anarchist’ trade unions. This fact alone shows that the tendency towards ‘growing together’ is intrinsic not in this or that doctrine as such but derives from social conditions common for all unions.”


Proclaiming to be a Trotskyist is not an automatic immunization from opportunism, nor does it make one absolutely and permanently correct. Trotksy’s point, which we agree with, is independent of your doctrine. The social condition, the objective reality—including you as a Trotskyist—is not only independent of your doctrine, but needs to determine the way your doctrine is to deal with that reality.


So, being a Trotskyist, a Maoist, or an anarchist is irrelevant to the fact that these lenses don’t dictate the reality. They can only provide the basic tools and concepts to give an interpretation to that reality. Mao, Trotsky or any other individual are unavailable to further our thought process in the appropriation of that reality. In this case, the tools provided by Trotsky are a good foundation, with his identification of the degeneration of the trade unions in his time. Rather than ask for proof, we have to consolidate that theory in our time. Proof, by the way, is part of the contextual material conditions that are right in front of us, and our interpretation of it will be based on our political line. On this point, I confirm my assertion that it is not about anyone being a Maoist, a Trotskyist, etc. What really matters in the final analysis is our political line.


You asked, “If the trade unions are no longer workers organizations, then please explain when this occurred. When were the unions transformed qualitatively from organs of the working class to capitalist organizations?”


Contrary to your position, Trotsky made the initial observation of the degeneration of the trade union in the period of imperialist decay. Now, it’s up to us to show the maturation this decay has achieved, or if that decay is no longer occurring. Obviously, Trotsky is no longer around to give us that contribution. It is now our responsibility. Trotsky not only built the initial foundation, but he also deepened it from his observation of the material conditions of his time. He went further: he demarcated from reformism (within his own limitations).


The degeneration of the trade unions, starting from Trotsky’s correct observation, is the qualitative and quantitative process of transformation of the trade unions from working class organizations into the capitalist organizations that they are nowadays. That is, unless you think that Trotsky’s observation, as well as reality, stood still in time, and nothing has developed in the material conditions that Trotsky described.


In the US and internationally, organized labor, through front organizations such as AFEILD (now Solidarity Center), became the mouthpiece of the capitalist class. They work closely with both the imperialist State Apparatus and with dominated State Apparatuses to disorganize the popular masses and participate in repressive acts, as we have seen in France in the ’60s, Vietnam, Chile, Nicaragua, etc. In Haiti the only trade union allowed to function during the time of Duvalier was one connected to the AFL-CIO.


Trotsky did not know about these practices, but they confirm his initial theory. Only an intellectually blind dogmatist and a reformist will miss this. Our divergences with Trotsky are qualitatively different from our divergences with Trotskyists. Trotskyists are not Trotsky born again.


My next installment will be our line on the degeneration of organized labor.