The proletarian class party, part 3

Trotsky reading The Militant

Leon Trotsky reading the organ of the American Socialist Workers’ Party

For those of you who don’t like to read titles, this post is part three of my series on the topic of the proletarian class party, with parts one and two being found here and here respectively. One thing I didn’t stress in part two was that the objective conditions which determine the functions of the party in relation to the class also condition the rise and fall of the party itself. This post has been followed by another, on the topic of the relation of the party to the state.

As we saw in the second part, the task of the party is to win over the class to the program of revolution and communist construction. Here we will concretely examine ways to do this, in light of the previous distinction between objectively favorable and unfavorable periods for the maturation of the proletariat into a class-for-itself. At all times our tactics must be oriented to the goal of winning over the class, keeping in mind the maxim that where the workers are, we must follow.

Keep in mind that these are my opinions, and someone may have the same conception of the party and disagree with my suggested tactics. Feel free to flame me in the comments (I’m expecting quite a few critics).

Work within the trade unions 

The old expression about the unions is that they are “transmission belts” from the party to the class, and that they are “schools for communism.” This is largely because the unions used to be broad proletarian organizations where work within them was more or less necessary if one wanted to build any links with the class.

Work within the trade unions has definitely lost a great deal of importance for socialists in the 21st century. According to the OECD, the United States had a union density1 of 11.4% in 2010, the UK had 26.5%, Germany had 18.6%, with the only countries listed as having over 30% as Italy (35.1%), Sweden (68.4%), and Finland (70.0%). This represents a decline in unionism, as can be seen by comparing the numbers from even the relatively recent year of 1999, much less the hey-day of trade unionism: in 1999, the US had a union density of 13.4%, the UK had 30.1%, Germany had 25.3%, Sweden had 80.6%, and Finland had 76.3%: only Italy did not suffer a major drop, since in 1999 Italy had a union density of 35.4%. Thus, the importance of unions and hence in union work for reaching out to the class is diminishing and, if trends continue, will continue to diminish. Nevertheless, these numbers show that significant numbers of workers still operate within the trade unions, and therefore we must work within them too.

When it is possible to do so, within the unions communists work to not only defend the immediate interests of the workers in “bread-and-butter” struggles and events against both the capitalists and the union bureaucrats, but also to strive to push these struggles forward to incorporate even greater numbers of workers. In addition, communists must do propaganda work within the unions to be able to win over the union to the party, if not directly affiliated then at least agreed on main principles.

Where it is not possible to push the struggle forward, owing to conditions which work against the party, the party must still attempt to maintain cells within the union, in order to maintain an organic link to the workers and to provide a base from which to limit the influence of the union bureaucracy.

However, where objective conditions do exist for winning over the class and the rank-and-file but the union leadership is so thoroughly bourgeois, the question cannot be of winning over the union but to break from the union entirely, and agitate among the workers of the union to form a new, more proletarian trade union not bound to bureaucratic pro-bourgeois leaders. This, incidentally, holds true for any similar situation where the workers are being lead by bourgeoisie or bourgeois lackeys.

Work in parliament

Since the beginnings of the socialist movement the question of parliamentarianism is one that has divided people.  Should we work within parliament? Should we not work within parliament? If so, what do we do in parliament? If not, what do we do in regards to it? It is only with a materialist understanding of the party’s tasks that we are able to sort out how we stand in relation to parliament.

Although I won’t get into detail here, parliament is thoroughly unfit for both the seizure of political power and also for the form of the proletarian dictatorship, something I know many comrades nowadays seem to disagree with. Thus, for the purposes of using parliamentary work as a serious force for revolutionary seizure of power, it is useless. However, it is useful to a limited extent as a platform for building up of the movement. Thus, parliamentary work is available to us wherever the class movement is not mature enough to pose the question of power, provided we are not blinded by the illusion it is not the road to this power. The uses of parliament as a platform can be effective, given the illusions placed in it by the majority of the workers, although it is becoming continually less and less effective as the workers lose faith in it (which they are).  The correct line on parliament was best put by the Abstentionist Communist Faction of the Italian Socialist Party when they said, in 1920:

“Participation in elections to the representative organs of bourgeois democracy and participation in parliamentary activity, while always presenting a continuous danger of deviation, may be utilised for propaganda and for schooling the movement during the period in which there does not yet exist the possibility of overthrowing bourgeois rule and in which, as a consequence, the party’s task is restricted to criticism and opposition.”

However, when the class movement is mature enough, parliament becomes a “fetter,” so to speak. The election of delegates to the parliamentary body instead of incessant agitation  against its very existence and the readying of the class for the overthrow of the whole bourgeois state edifice is unacceptable: it is a waste of time, resources, and energy, while giving the appearance that revolution can be done “democratically” and risking the rise of opportunist elements within the parliamentary faction which can seriously harm and betray the movement.

Work in politically reformist proletarian movements 

In contrast to the declining importance of unions, in the 21st century these sorts of “social movements” that are mainly proletarian but dissociated from the traditional structures of organized labor are gaining importance. These are movements whose demands are fundamentally reformist but point towards a meager expression of proletarian political interests. In our world today we see many of these: in America, the Occupy Wall Street movement; in Spain, the 15M movement; and everywhere the movements for greater transparency in government against monied interests.

The relation of the party to these movements presents itself in a fundamentally similar manner: to safeguard the immediate demands of the class and also to safeguard its future interests and move towards the progression of the movement along radical lines. However, there are a few key differences: unlike with unions, we generally do not see these sorts of movements in historically unfavorable periods, whereas unions may exist in stagnant or diminished forms. The very existence of these movements is a fundamentally positive thing for party work.

Second of all, in recent years these sorts of movements had adopted a “structureless” structure. That is to say, formal structures are minimal or nonexistent. Informal leaders and procedures still exist, but their lack of transparency has several problems. First of all, it is impossible to have any formal leadership within the movement, and thus the extent of ones influence is not formally expressed and the leadership may be disconnected from the broader movement. Second of all, it makes gauging one’s popularity and influence within the movement hard to tell, as one has to go by solely informal measures.

However, working within these movements is necessary because they are not merely economic but political, and insofar as the class struggle is at its heart a political struggle it is of utmost important that communists lead this struggle on a radical line.

From the question of how to get mass support for the party and for the revolution, we must go to the next issue: what to do once we have smashed the bourgeois state and replaced it with organs of proletarian power. That is, we must investigate the relation of the proletarian class party to the proletarian class state. This, however, we will leave for the next post.

  1. Trade union density corresponds to the ratio of wage and salary earners that are trade union members, divided by the total number of wage and salary earners (OECD Labour Force Statistics). Density is calculated using survey data, wherever possible, and administrative data adjusted for non-active and self-employed members otherwise.  

About Maximilien Robespierre

I am an American comrade and a founder of the ##marxism IRC channel on freenode. I have been accused of, among other things, ultraleftism, impossibilism, Bakuninism, totalitarianism, Blanquism, Leninism, Trotskyism, Stalinism, anarchism, insurrectionism, Bordigism, minoritarianism, intransigence, and hopeless incoherence. I am also rather silly.
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3 Responses to The proletarian class party, part 3

  1. yeksmesh says:

    Some extra points one can make with this are:

    – Union structures in the present are generally the result of the creation of certain concilatory structures by the bourgeoisie during times of strong class struggle in an attempt to encapsulate class struggle in non-threatening ways, now this doesnt mean that unions are naturally reactionary or something, but it does provide an important factor in analysing the unions.

    – An important element in the analysis of social movements is that you need to very strongly watch out if you want to adapt their informal structure as the radical left is hardly the only group that wants to coopt these movements, and altering the structure of these movements might open them up for cooption by much bigger and reformist movements.

    – If you havent already read some of this, you might be interested in some of the stuff written by platformist anarchists as they tackle some of the same issues you are tackling here (if you can stand the occasional misguided jab at marxists).

    Usefull stuff include:

  2. Maximilien Robespierre says:

    Hey there yeksmesh, thanks for replying.

    (1) Day-to-day union work is and always will be entirely reformist. It is important, however, to not fall into the fallacy of opposition to the union form. Living in America, I know how shitty many unions can be (yes I am referring to the AFL-CIO). Yes, it is true that the day-to-day actions of the union form involve inherently reformist actions and unfortunately tend to breed a reformist attitude. However, it is important to not fall into the fallacy of the distinction of reform versus revolution: that is, you must choose one or the other. This is simply not true, and workers organizing in unions can struggle for their own conditions in the present while also pressing for a socialist future. Various analyses of the “decadence of capitalism,” while potentially a useful analytic category, all fall into this trap when they consider the tactical implications of such a decadence.

    This isn’t to say that you are anti-unionist, but I think that this is also something we must consider when looking at our attitude towards the unions.

    (2) This is true, but I think you overstate the dangers. The purely informal structures in existence in many of these movements generate a lack of transparency about who is the leadership (even if “formally” there is none, informally there will be a leading group). Altering it to give it more formality takes the entire question of leadership out of the dark and makes it more transparent and hopefully more accountable to the base.

    (3) Platformism is my favorite variety of Anarchism!

  3. Pingback: The proletarian class party, part 4 - Spirit of Contradiction

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