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Issue #1911      April 20, 2020

Part Two. Reformist “Theories” And Harmful Practices Must Be Routed

“No Politics in the Union” – This slogan was put forward by the “economists” in Russia. The “economists” said that the tasks of the trade unions should be confined to the economic – wages, conditions, hours.

Lenin attacked and destroyed this trend, pointing out that “no politics in the union” really meant bourgeois politics in the unions; it meant that the workers were left at the mercy of bourgeois propaganda and ideology.

We have seen that the objective must be to politically revolutionise the unions. Some comrades interpret this to mean that they should confine themselves to academic, abstract discourses on theory and political questions at union meetings. This is wrong. Communists must be the best trade unionists, i.e., giving a lead on all problems of the trade unions and lead the fight for the economic demands of the workers, in short, be the best fighters on the job and during strike periods.

At the same time, politics must be introduced, linked with the union’s problems, and on favourable occasions when political issues are raised in correspondence, etc., to educate the workers in socialist ideas. The union journals and other avenues must be fully utilised for such political education. The reformists here in Australia cling to the “economists” idea of “no politics in the union,” or only reformist politics in the union. The aim must be to kill this reactionary idea in the unions by showing that, without a correct political policy, without the theoretical education of the rank and file, this union’s efforts are in the end doomed to futility.

The question of the relationship between economics and politics was continuously before Marx and the First International. In a resolution drawn up by him for the 1871 Conference the following instructive passage occurs:

“In the presence of an unbridled reaction which violently crushes every effort at emancipation on the part of the working class, and pretends to maintain by brute force the distinction of classes and the political domination of the propertied classes resulting from it; considering that against this collective power of the propertied classes the working class cannot act, as a class, except by constituting itself into a political party, distinct from and opposed to, all old parties formed by the propertied classes; that this constitution of the working class into a political party is indispensable in order to ensure the triumph of the social revolution and its ultimate end – the abolition of the classes; that the combination of forces which the working class has already effected by its economical struggles ought at the same time serve as a lever against the political power of the landlords and capitalists; the Conference recalls to the members of the International: That in the militant state of the working class, its economic movement and its political action are indissolubly united.”

Here is a clear expression by Marx of the idea that politics are the concentrated expression of economics, that the workers need a revolutionary political party to lead the struggle for socialism, and that the trade unions, far from adopting an attitude of neutrality, of non-partisanship, should adhere to such a party and play their part under its leadership in the struggle.


The reformist leaders in the trade union movement contend that the needs of the working class can be satisfied by a policy of reforms, by a gradual increase in wages, a shortening of hours and improvement of the job conditions. They tell the workers that if the unions keep on increasing wages soon there will be no exploitation, no margin of profit left for the employing classes.

This is the trade union equivalent of the social-democratic theory of “gradualism” of “peaceful evolution,” or “revolution without class struggle, bloodshed or dislocation of industry.”

It is true that the reformists can point to instances where the Arbitration Court has awarded increased wages, shortened hours, or eased conditions, of employment in the factories. Why, therefore, cannot we continue this peaceful, evolutionary process until we make the position of the bosses untenable in industry; why not undermine their control by these piecemeal processes? It will be found, however, that tremendous mass pressure (economic strikes, demonstrations and agitation in the press and on the platform) preceded all reforms by the arbitration courts or “voluntary” concessions to the workers.

For example, the first Lang Government in NSW “granted” the 44-hour week in NSW, although previously Lang had opposed the 44-hour week as an “extremist” communist policy. But the building workers in Sydney absented themselves from work on Saturday mornings for a prolonged period. Other unionists struck or threatened to strike over the issue of the shorter week. The unions were in a good position because it was the period of temporary capitalist stabilisation, of relative boom. So finally, the Lang Government legislated the 44-hours and claimed all the credit, although it is quite clear that it was the economic situation and the mass pressure of the workers that was really responsible.

Karl Marx and Frederick Engels answered the gradualist “theory” long, long ago, in the Manifesto of the Communist Party (1848), to be exact.

These two great geniuses, the founders of Communism, wrote on this point:

“The various interests and conditions of life within the ranks of the proletariat are more and more equalised, in proportion as machinery obliterates all distinctions of labour, and nearly, everywhere reduces wages to the same low level. The growing competition among the bourgeois, and the resulting commercial crises, makes the wages of the workers ever more fluctuating. The unceasing improvement of machinery, ever more rapidly developing, makes their livelihood more and more precarious; the collisions between individual workmen and individual bourgeois take more and more the character of collisions between two classes.”

Let us apply this to our own Australian experiences. The last decades of the 19th century were a period of great trade union and class struggles in this country, for the raising of the general standards, which were very poor.

After this, in line with the rapid growth and expansion of capitalism there was a more or less continuous improvement, side by side with the rapid growth of the ALP and the trade unions. This was the heyday, the golden age of reformism; it had one hundred per cent control of the unions and the reformist Labour governments were coming to office and initiating a number of reforms. This was the time when “gradualism” looked good to the workers.

The outbreak of the imperialist world war, reflecting the general crisis of world capitalism, ended this period. By 1917 the unions were on strike, striving to retain something of their position, to save something from the chaos created by the prolonged reactionary war. The reformist Labor governments (Hughes, Holman, etc.) had broken asunder and collapsed under the strain of the crisis, and given way to anti working-class governments. When the war ended, there was vast unemployment and hardship, which neither the ALP nor the bourgeois parties could alleviate; to the contrary, they conducted an “offensive” against the workers.

“Commercial crises,” “competition” had led to war, to intensified “commercial crises” which destroyed the gains the workers made in the preceding “peaceful” capitalist expansion period.

This proves to the hilt Marx’s statement, about the effects on the workers of the capitalist system and his proposition: “Now and then the workers are victorious, but only for a time. The real fruit of their battle lies, not in the immediate result, but in the ever expanding union of the workers.” (Author’s emphasis.) And it is true that in this period of “peaceful” reform and the period of crises, the unions did grow in numbers, organisation and strength; the workers began to take a more critical attitude towards reformism as a result of this experience, which facilitated the foundation of the Communist Party of Australia.

“Commercial crises,” promoted by the imperialist rivalry, by the chaotic nature of capitalism itself and its unstable, anarchistic, transitory character preclude an endless chain of reforms, i.e., “gradualism.” Subsequent history provided further proof. How well have Marx’s words on the obliteration of distinctions among the workers been fulfilled. The conveyor belt and mass production undermines the skilled tradesman and replaces him with the semi-skilled and unskilled. Speed-up Bedeaux and Taylor and other “systems,” piece-work, and bonus systems extract the last ounce of energy from the workers, irrespective of shortening of hours.

On the basis of the defeat of the revolution after the war, except in Russia, and an intensive “offensive” against the living standards of the workers on a world scale, capitalism was temporarily stabilised. A relative boom set in. Once more arbitration courts and reformist governments were able to make concessions to the workers. Again reformist illusions commenced to wax, and the reformists, headed by Lang, were able to commence a bitter struggle against the militants in the unions, against the communists.

This reformist honeymoon was short-lived. The world economic crisis hit Australia with devastating force in 1929. The workers were shut out of the factories. Their basic wage became the “dole”! By means of the Premier’s plan, initiated and operated by the Labor Government with the assistance of the reformist trade union leaders, who stifled the defensive actions and broke many of the strikes of the workers, the gains of the preceding period made by the trade unions were once more swept away.

Before the war, there was a mass unemployed army in all capitalist countries including Australia, living, or rather existing, on the dole.

This is in accordance also with what Marx and Engels wrote in the Manifesto:

“The serf, in the period of serfdom, raised himself to membership in the Commune, just as the petty-bourgeois, under the yoke of feudal absolutism, managed to develop into a bourgeois. The modern labourer, on the contrary, instead of rising with the progress of industry sinks deeper and deeper below the conditions of existence of his own class. He becomes a pauper and pauperism develops more rapidly than population and wealth.”

The mass armies of unemployed in Britain, USA, and the Nazi “labour camps,” before the war, all testified to the growth of “pauperism,” to the correctness of Marx’s forecast.

The “revisers” of Marx, especially Bernstein and the German trade union bureaucrats, the fathers of the “revision” of Marxism in favour of reformism were utterly opportunist as the subsequent history of trade unionism under capitalism amply proves. They based their “theories” on the expansion period of capitalism prior to the 1914-18 war, and they were chiefly responsible for the undermining of the revolutionary spirit of German social-democracy and the Second International, thereby defeating the German social revolution and giving us Hitler.

“Gradualism” leads, not to continuous improvement and socialism, but to “pauperism” and fascism, and it cannot be otherwise whilst capitalism exists.

This article originally appeared as part of a pamphlet entitled The Trade Union: Communist Theory and Practice of Trade Unionism in 1942.


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