Schools for communism

Throughout the 20th century the best communists were respected by their colleagues for their work in trade unions, writes Mary Godwin

The ongoing review of our Draft programme at the CPGB’s weekly London Communist Forums is drawing to a close. On November 30 we looked at the penultimate section - 6.2, on ‘Communists and trade unions’.

It is important to note that this section is distinct from our immediate demands relating to trade unions listed in section 3.5, which are concerned with maximising the power of workers and curbing the union bureaucracy. Section 6.2 is concerned with how Communists Party members should work in and with trade unions, now and in the future.

It begins by stating: “Trade unions are basic organisations of working class defence. The Communist Party is the highest form of working class organisation. The party and the trade unions are therefore different organisations of the same class.” It goes on to say that if this crucial difference is blurred, or either institution attempts to assume the functions of the other, both are weakened.

This insistence on a clear distinction between the two organisations echoes Trotsky’s comments in his 1938 Transitional programme: “Trade unions do not offer and, in line with their task, composition, and manner of recruiting membership, cannot offer a finished revolutionary programme; in consequence they cannot replace the party.”

The next sentence in the existing Draft programme reads: “Communists defend the organisational independence of the trade unions and their political dependence on the Communist Party.” In my opening I asked for clarification of “political dependence” in view of what comes before. Comrade Peter Manson said it means we want to win the trade unions to the ideas of the Communist Party, but agreed the phrase may be ambiguous and suggested we may want to find a different form of words. Comrade Jack Conrad said the existing formulation is designed to stress the difference between organisational independence of trade unions - from the state, including a socialist state, and a Communist Party - with political dependence: which means we seek to persuade trade unionists to adopt our politics.

Section 6.2 concludes: “All economic, trade union and political demands must be connected with the task of putting society as a whole into the hands of the working class.” As the earlier part of the section clearly states that trade union demands are not identical to the tasks of the party, the question then arises: what is the nature of this connection? Which is another way of asking how communists should work in trade unions. The Draft programme states (in section 3.5): “Communists openly seek to make trade unions into schools for communism.”

Comrade Conrad insisted that communists working in the unions must always act under the discipline of the party, in order to represent what we understand to be the real, objective interests of workers, rather than their perception of them. If the members we represent vote us out as a result, then so be it. Comrade Manson gave examples of communists holding union positions who have tended to act as trade unionists first and communists second.

Comrade Phil Kent made the point that we should attempt to win the rank and file of trade unions to our politics, rather than just the leaderships. I agreed - a leftwing union leadership that does not enjoy the support of the membership will be powerless. If the unions become a battleground for contending left groups who have no backing from the rank and file, they can be ignored by the bourgeoisie.

The Draft programme states: “Communists put forward a consistent perspective which unites, not divides, the trade unions. Communists fight both sectionalism and splits along economic or political lines in the trade union movement and bring to the fore the common interest.” This again agrees with Trotsky’s Transitional programme. He wrote: “Sectarian attempts to build or preserve small ‘revolutionary’ unions, as a second edition of the party, signify in actuality the renouncing of the struggle for leadership of the working class.” Giving historical examples from Germany, comrade Ben Lewis argued that attempts to use unions as a launch pad for a new party are unlikely to succeed. They certainly cannot produce a Communist Party.

In conclusion, I said that workers are unlikely to be impressed by trade union activists who use their position purely to engage in sectarian battles with other left groups, or who hope to use the trade union movement as a means of “conning the masses into taking power”. Throughout the 20th century the best communists were respected by their colleagues for their work in trade unions as “the best fighters for the day-to-day interests of the proletariat, as well as those who look after the interests of the future”, in the words of current Draft programme.

We should encourage our own young comrades to emulate their example.