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AUSTRALIAN
MARXIST
REVIEW

Journal of the Communist Party of Australia

ISSUE 69December 2018

Trade union work – plus!

The Communist essence

Editor’s Note:

Thirty-two years ago, the then general secretary of the Communist Party of the USA, the late Gus Hall, gave a speech at a party trade union conference. His address dealt with the role of Communists in the trade unions and offered timeless advice to members of Communist Parties. The counsel is worth considering in the context of the Change the Rules campaign, which some in the trade union movement are trying to limit to a marginal seats campaign on behalf of the ALP and our other trade union work.

The Communist Party of Australia can be pleased but never satisfied with the growth of the Party in the trade unions and the efforts surrounding the Change the Rules campaign. Young members have joined their union and are seeking roles within them. This is another good development. But the influence of social democracy and the lack of questioning of the presumed permanence of capitalism must be tackled. Hall’s words, presented in this extract of the original 1986 Political Affairs article, are a timely reminder that, as we tackle the tasks associated with the campaign and our Party obligations in general, we must bring that “plus” to our work.

Opening and summary remarks by Gus Hall, general secretary, CPUSA at a Party conference on trade union work, March 22,1986, at Unity Center, New York City.


First, I want to commend the Trade Union Department for calling this conference. It is timely and necessary. It takes place at a very good moment for many reasons, including the fact that we are celebrating the 100th anniversary of May Day.

It is also timely in the sense that we are celebrating Reagan’s first serious defeat – the vote in Congress against the $100 million for the Nicaraguan counter-revolutionaries. It is a tremendous victory and I think our Party acted quickly and more effectively than ever before on such an issue. The districts were already in gear when we called to check up.

I think the telephone has become the best, most effective and efficient method of protest in the country – surpassing petitions and delegations. It is a direct form of reaching opinion-makers. The calls are computerised and Congress gets the tally at the end of every day. But there’s a wrinkle, which is new. Some congress people have been asking for names and addresses, which is a form of intimidation. However, many admitted it was the telephone campaign that changed their vote.

This conference is also timely because the congressional elections will be held in six months. It is possible that this election can spell the end of Reaganism.

It is also timely because it comes right on the heels of the 27th Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) Congress, a congress that will have implications far, far beyond the borders of the Soviet Union.

It is timely because, come May 1, we will issue the first edition of the People’s Daily World. Our new daily, national, working-class paper will raise our work to a new level. We should consider the new paper as a critical, indispensable instrument in the trade union field.

This conference is timely because it comes after the Geneva Summit. There is now a danger of the collapse of the summit process. After the recent provocations there are some real obstacles to Summit II – the US fleet violating the sea lanes of Libya, Bulgaria and the Soviet Union; the expulsion of Soviet personnel from the UN mission on the false charge of spying; the restrictions placed on the missions of Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, the German Democratic Republic and Poland, and the most hostile, rabid and lying March 16 speech by Reagan.

It is especially timely because the Soviet Union proclaimed its last moratorium on nuclear testing on the basis that it will be in effect as long as the US does not conduct another test. Today, almost at this very hour, a nuclear bomb will be tested in the Nevada desert, thus breaking the test ban. The ban will end as of today and then negotiations will have to start on a new basis.

The conference is timely because there has been a period of militant, long strikes, including those against Hormel, GE, American Can, TWA, Colt Industries, etc. These struggles raise some very important questions about our role. Generally, it was and is very positive, but with some negatives and weaknesses.

But above all else, it is timely because we meet after the 16th convention of the AFL-CIO. As we said at the last Central Committee meeting, that convention was more anti-monopoly, anti-multinational, anti-racist, anti-apartheid, politically independent and anti-dictatorship. Lane Kirkland has now included Chile in his denunciation of dictatorships, as well as commended the AFL-CIO for its support of the labour unions in the Philippines and its role in toppling Marcos. The convention was less anti-Communist, less class collaborationist.

This convention, which was the convergence and surfacing of many directions, patterns and tendencies, opened the door for progressives, Communists, the Left and militant trade unionists. We have not yet fully assessed these possibilities.

This conference also comes at a good time because it is right after our last Central Committee meeting, in which we discussed the new political framework which the summit created.

What stands out is wider open doors

The challenge is to answer the question: How do we work in the new framework? What do we do with the new “fresh winds” we have been talking about? What do these mean in the daily life and work of our Party, in concrete terms?

In the new framework what stands way out is that the doors are open wider than ever before for us, for progressives and those on the Left. Therefore, it is not only that the doors are open, but in many cases, we are asked to come in and take part in struggles and in leadership. Trade union leaders and rank and file are asking us to come and help. So, the new framework is most important.

Then, the question is, once we are in what do we do? It is possible to walk in and then just stand around and talk about generalities.

Where do we go from there?

For instance, should we organize Left forms? If so, on what levels?

Is it possible to think about the Left in broader terms now – how broad and what forces?

We have to deal with complex new problems of the class struggle. But as a working-class party we have to deal with them in many cases in a new way. These problems include:

  • the new role of the government
  • the fusion of corporate galaxies such as GE and RCA, GM and Hughes. These mergers create political and economic galaxies which are multinational. We are dealing with a new phenomenon, not the old monopolisation process, but on a totally new scale.
  • the huge military corporations, corporations whose main profits come from military orders. This presents a whole new problem, especially because they have become the very corrupt core of the military-industrial complex.
  • there are new problems concerning imports and exports.
  • new problems in high tech and automation.
  • new so-called “hollow” corporations, which are basically assembly lines for imported parts and parts made in smaller companies. Assembly lines for foreign parts are becoming the dominant form of production in the US.
  • then, add the new skilful manoeuvring of corporations – for example, there are corporations which have an annual outing of employees, costing $150,000, to create an atmosphere in which to build a class collaborationist structure.
  • new problems of how to deal with the phony Left, who have penetrated many unions and strike struggles.
  • the high unemployment in a period of economic upturn.

How to deal with all these questions and problems from a Communist viewpoint should be the theme of this conference.

Then there are some new philosophical ideas that have emerged on the scene.

For example, the concept of the “under-class” has slipped in and made its way into our writing. It is not accidental. It is an attempt to divide the working class and create something that is not part of the working class. This concept is totally out of place and non-Marxist. It should not even be used enclosed between quote marks.

The concept is being promoted that strikes are outmoded and do not accomplish anything anymore. The concept is that today, under new conditions, this is not the way to fight anymore.

As struggles develop new problems emerge. An important contribution we can make is to keep the struggles focused and to show the connection between different areas of struggle.

For example, it is progress that Lane Kirkland takes a good position on the struggles in South Africa. But he uses this to cover up his bad position on the struggles in Central America.

The National Organization of Women (NOW) carries on good work on the abortion issue. But they do not connect this struggle with the struggle for a nuclear test ban.

Many movements use the so-called Jewish question to cover up their support for Reagan’s policies of nuclear aggression.

The task of Communists must be to make the connection between issues and to keep the focus on the main questions of the day.

The meaning of Communist trade union work

Maybe some did not take enough notice that this is not just a trade union conference; it is a Communist Party conference on trade union work. There is a big difference when you place it this way.

Perhaps it is a reflection on our work, that we do trade union work and not Communist trade union work. I want to emphasize that difference.

I don’t think we are over the hump on this weakness. There is a big difference between good trade union work and Communist trade union work.

Communist trade union work means good trade union work plus. When a Communist does good trade union work without the “plus” it is opportunism. As good as the work may be, without the plus it is opportunism. Without the plus it will go nowhere. It is a path to nowhere and nothing. We have to once and for all under-stand this. This is true whether a Communist is working full time as a union organiser or working in a shop.

Our new trade union program is correct. Our new assessment, our new framework are correct. Our ideas of raising the level of the trade union movement are correct. But we must still work out how to raise the Party’s work in this new framework, how to apply this new level.

For example, how did we apply this on the drive to defeat the anti-Nicaragua bill? Did we see the new framework and take advantage of it? I think there are very positive things in the actions we took to defeat this bill.

Or, the Hormel strike. Are Hormel workers more class conscious now than they were six months ago when the strike began? They are angry at Hormel. But are they angry at the capitalist system after six months? Do they question the system after six months on the picket lines?

What have we done, specifically, to raise the consciousness of Hormel workers? Picketing the bank will not do it!

We have to ask this question about all strikes, all struggles. I think if we do, we will find weaknesses.

What develops class consciousness is a very important question. It does not develop automatically or spontaneously. There has to be an injection and only our Party can do this.

Class consciousness develops by explanations of how the system works, explanations of what exploitation is, labor as a source of value, explanations of class struggle and socialism, etc.

Of course, we are interested in winning struggles. But we are interested in the “plus.” There is no contradiction. On the contrary, the plus makes a stronger, better organised, better understood strike. The plus is a plus even for the strike and should not be seen as being in contradiction to it.

When a strike begins, do we sit down and ask ourselves: How can it help workers to develop class consciousness? What can we do to help this process? We do not think in these terms.

I want to take this opportunity to correct a wrong concept in the Party that has been with us for a long time. It was such a strong trend that once when I wrote a pamphlet on the trade union movement and our Party’s role, the Political Bureau decided not to publish it. That is how strong the concept was. It comes from a misuse of an unclear formulation by Lenin.

We have said that there could not have been Social-Democratic (socialist) consciousness among the workers. It would have to be brought to them from without. The history of all countries shows that the working class, exclusively by its own effort, is able to develop only trade union consciousness, i.e., the conviction that it is necessary to combine in unions, fight the employers and strive to compel the government to pass necessary labor legislation, etc.

The misuse is “it would have to be brought to them from without.” Outside of what? This has been interpreted to mean outside of the class. By whom? This has been interpreted to mean that class consciousness and socialist consciousness must be brought to the workers by the professionals, intellectuals and middle class.

What Lenin obviously meant is that such ideas must be brought to the working class by a working-class political party that combines workers and intellectuals, outside of the trade union movement, not from outside the class. The working-class political party is inside the class.

This became clear when he said:

I speak of the organisation of revolutionaries, meaning revolutionary social democrats. In view of this common characteristic of the members of such an organisation, all distinctions as between workers and intellectuals, not to speak of distinctions of trade and profession, in both categories, must be effaced.

It was clear later when he said that in Party committees there should be eight workers to one intellectual.

What Lenin meant is that such ideas must be brought to the working class by a working class political party outside the trade union movement. Therefore, not outside the class, because the working-class political party is within the class.

When Lenin said, “I speak of the organisation of revolutionaries, meaning social democrats,” he meant that in view of the common character of members of such an organisation all distinctions between workers and intellectuals must be eliminated.

Lenin went further into this question about how the Party looks on class struggle as a revolutionary movement. After the upsurge of 1905, Lenin said the ratio should be two intellectuals to 100 workers.

For example, in the upcoming American Institute for Marxist Studies conference the speakers are 20 intellectuals to 1 worker. This is a terrible weakness. Workers and trade unionists should not only participate, but also speak. This is an example of the misinterpretation. Such a misinterpretation has led to many weaknesses, such as:

  • a lack of emphasis on the working class and the class struggle
  • intellectual smugness. Some of this remains. Intellectual smugness is a real weakness. This retards the development of intellectuals, not workers, because it becomes an obstacle to development and maturity.

Lenin spoke about the role of intellectuals like Marx and Engels in the development of the theories of socialism and the class struggle.

Left formations in trade union work

We have to examine all levels of work in the new framework. Very closely related to Party building is the organisation of Left forms. The political concepts and ideas are closer between the Party and the Left than with the overall trade union movement.

The development of the Left in this new situation is not even. The Left has become a mass development on economic questions. The strikes indicate this.

The Left is a growing sector on Central America and South Africa. The resolution passed at the AFL-CIO Convention was mainly pushed by broad Left forces, which gives an indication of the growth of the Left.

The Left sector is growing within the movements for political independence.

The Left is growing in the struggle for equality. There are many indications, including the approach to affirmative action and seniority.

There is a Left among women workers, youth, etc.

So besides overall Left formations it is necessary to help organise Left forms in the specific sectors rather than just overall general Left formations. We will move faster if we organise Left forms in these specific areas.

It is not quite true, but almost, that it is very difficult to build the Party without building Left forms. I want to leave this door open. Without Left forms we will not build very fast.

Generally, in this period, the danger is sectarianism. It is almost natural. When things move you either have to move with them or you are lagging behind. The whole idea of a new framework means things are moving and we have to move with them – find new and bold tactics and initiatives. This is necessary at this moment.

I think we must make a revolutionary change.

Party building is the test of good trade union work

We are far behind on the question of Party building because the objective developments are increasingly preparing the soil for it. But the objective soil will not by itself build the Party. Farmers are now preparing for planting, but without the seeds nothing will grow. So it is with Party building.

The question is how can we take advantage of new developments?

If your trade union work does not result in Party building you are doing poor trade union work. It is dialectical. Communists cannot do poor Party work and good trade union work. They are tied together. What you do to prepare workers for a strike should also prepare workers for the Party. There should be no contradiction.

If you have to be reminded, or even if you have to remind yourself, about the need to build the Party, or if it is a-once-in-a-while in your thoughts, you are not going to build the Party. If it is not a Party of your life you will not recruit. Party building consciousness must be a factor in everything we do, almost spontaneously, like a conditioned reflex. It must become a part of our lifestyle. It is not that way with most of us. It is a-once-in-a-while thought. If we have to say, “The Central Committee said we have to build the Party!” we probably will not do it.

What do we gain from good trade union work without the “plus.” A momentary credit. It actually turns into a negative to do good trade union work without the plus. Because you win results without the workers learning what it was all about. It turns into an illusion for workers. Not knowing what you are really fighting for, or about, turns into a negative because it builds illusions; it is not even neutral, but negative.

For example, recently I met with an old timer. A fine comrade. A full-time trade union official for 50 years, who always accepted the line of the Party, always paid dues, never behind, always made contributions. He always attended state committee meetings. He was a member of a district trade union commission. But he never recruited anyone. So now he is retiring. How do we assess his work? What has he contributed to class consciousness, to socialist revolution?

It is a negative assessment. It is a wasted political life – at least. It is very sad because he believes in socialism and the Party, but he leaves nothing. And that is trade unionism without the plus. It adds up to nothing. We have to think about this now, before we retire. Maybe this comrade will change, but it is a little too late.

Adding the plus in good trade union work

We must examine our work from this viewpoint. It is not easy. But it is not impossible and certainly not difficult if you eliminate opportunism. This is an excuse – that it is too difficult to add the plus.

We have the means of doing it.

There is an excitement even among non-Party trade unionists about the launching of the People’s Daily World on May 1. Of course, the fact that the paper is Marxist-Leninist, Communist, makes it even better, more exciting.

We need a revolutionary change in our approach to our new paper. There cannot be a Communist who is not involved with the paper. This should become the “Year of No Excuses.”

There has been a tremendous explosion of shop papers. This is a very positive development. But we must examine the content and see if comrades are achieving the plus. Also, we have to examine the content of our writing, our speeches.

Will workers join our Party because they see Communists as good trade unionists? A few will, if they know the trade unionist is a Communist.

Will they remain in the Party if they remain on a trade union level? No. They will come in, but they will leave.

Will workers join the Party because of our position on racism, both Afro-American and white workers? Yes. Will they remain based on this one issue? No. Most will not.

Some will join because of our position on peace. But if they remain on this level they will not stay in the Party. Pacifism is not a solid basis for remaining in the Party.

Will workers develop class consciousness during a strike? Some, but not too many. The Hormel workers are angry at Hormel, but this is not class consciousness.

Will workers who are not class conscious join the Party? Of course, we should recruit them, but then we must help to develop class consciousness as soon as they join.

The challenge is not only to build the Party, but to build Communists. This can mainly be done on the club level.

Do we have problems with comrades who become full-time trade union leaders? Yes. This is an old weakness. In fact, I resigned as a full-time trade union organiser mainly because of this and because of the unlimited expense account.

When these comrades leave the Party orbit they almost always move to the Right. In the trade union they move to the Right, but in their rhetoric, they become more Left. They move Right and talk Left. They become extra critical of the Party from the Left, while they are moving to the Right.

We have had cases where they were moving in an opportunist direction in the trade union movement and in the Party, they were moving Left – defending Stalin in the Party. Their lifestyle changed. They were going to more cocktail parties and fewer Party meetings.

What is the “plus”?

It is explaining issues in a way that goes beyond reforms.

It is making the connection between issues, using the People’s Daily World, shop papers. How to deal with ideological questions. The mind is not a blank slate. One cannot write anything one wants on it. One must argue to make room for good ideas. One must argue against bad and wrong ideas and then present good substitute ideas. If you only present new ones without getting rid of the wrong ideas, the new ones won’t stick.

For example, on class collaboration, you have to undo the ideas of class collaboration and replace them with ideas of class struggle trade unionism.

You have to undo racist ideas and, in place, argue for equality and affirmative action.

To develop class consciousness, you have to clear out the ideas of class collaboration. That is why this is not a spontaneous process. Therefore, we have to think about how to do this.

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