A. Lozovsky

Infantile Diseases of French Trade Unionism

Source: The Labour Monthly, Vol. III, October 1922, No. 4.
Publisher: The Labour Publishing Company, Ltd., London.
Transcription/Markup: Brian Reid.
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2006). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.

(The following article was written by Losovsky before the decision of the French United Confederation of Labour to afliate with the Red International of Labour Unions. Is it was Losovsky’s own unexpected intervention in that Congress which contributed largely to the result, this contribution of his has a special interest. The issue which he covers is of wider than French significance: since it is the whole issue between the industrialists and those who believe in the need of a political party. The article can be read with advantage in conjunction with Tom Mann’s article earlier in the present issue.)

THE French United Confederation of Labour (C.G.T.U.) arose as the outcome of the struggle against the spirit of reformism; and it embodied all the old principles of revolutionary syndicalism.

It is well known that the General Confederation of Labour, with its anti-military, anti-parliamentary, and anti-political principles, became a military-political organisation during the war; its leaders being constant visitors in the ante-rooms of the Ministers. This unheard-of volte face of revolutionary trade unionists caused disappointment and demoralisation in the ranks of the working masses. From year to year the opposition grew within the ranks of the organised workers, until at last, when its dimensions assumed menacing proportions, the leaders of the reformist section of the C.G.T. proceeded to expel all the revolutionary trade unions. Measures were then taken to unite all revolutionary unions, and the formation of the United Confederation of Labour was the reply to the policy of expulsion.

The newly formed organisation was faced with untold difficulties. The reformists retained possession of all trade union headquarters, all organising material, and in addition were in the good books of the Government. The revolutionaries were empty handed, and had build up from the very beginning. The membership, too, was in a sorry plight, having fallen from 2,000,000 to about 500,000 at end of 1921 as a result of reformist tactics. Thus the revolutionary section of the workers was also saddled with the task of recreating the Labour movement owing to the demoralisation, disorganisation, and dismemberment brought about by Jouhaux and Dumoulin. Faced with such a situation fidelity to the old principles was not enough; it was the duty of the new leaders of the C.G.T.U. to assess the respective strength of the organisations, to examine the actual position, and put their revolutionary tactics in operation intelligently.

Unfortunately, from the very beginning our French comrades adopted wrong tactics. Scarcely had the C.G.T.U. been formed when the anarchist section demanded the acceptance of the Charter of Amiens (passed in 1905) as the chief plank in the new programme. We have, of course, no objection to discussions, differences of opinion, or to a theory; but here it is not a question of a theory which is adaptable to the daily needs of the situation, but of one which was to solve all problems that have arisen during the last decade. The Charter of Amiens was taken as a basis, regardless of the fact that it had its origin sixteen years ago, before either the world war or Russian revolution could be foreseen, at a time when the workers were faced with different problems. Any reference to these patent truths was met with denunciations of attacks on the independence of the workers, and any who made them were condemned in the name of anarcho-syndicalist principles.

History explains the origin of the charter. French socialism has always been noted for its localist and, reformist tendency, and the charter signalled a healthy class-conscious protest against the policy of compromise of the French Socialist Party.

But can the bare negation of a political party constitute a programme of action? Moreover, there is the existence of the political party. If some anarchists were to be credited the origin of the political Labour movement is due to the wicked action of certain intellectuals—in short, literary folk with little to do and such like create political parties for the sake of something to do. Such a childish conception of the mechanism of the social struggle can only be ascribed to primitive thinkers and people of narrow outlook. What does a party represent in reality? It is always a conscious reflex of a certain social class in the society of the day, an assembly of those of similar tendencies, with similar views about the basis of present-day society and the duties of that class whose interests it represents. The working class, in the process of development during the period of struggle, singles out continually political groups which in one form or another represent its interests. How is it possible to account for several workers’ parties in any one State with different programmes and different tactics? That happens because the working class is not uniform and its various strata are in different stages of development.There are workers’ parties representing the most backward strata, those which link the workers to the other classes. Again, there are political groupings, the bearers and revealers of the revolutionary ideal, which will destroy the society built on class. That is the Communist Party.

Therefore political parties are not due to chance, nor are they artificial constructions, but the reflex of the inmost needs of a class; built up from the conscious elements of the working class and those of other classes, and those elements sharing the same point of view, who link up together to realise the historic mission of the proletariat.

This reason alone should compel trade unions to take an interest in political parties and their formation. Is it possible for a trade union to have but one attitude towards a political party whether it be bourgeois, socialist, or communist? Can trade unions treat all political bodies in a like manner, when it must be clear to every worker that the objects of the one is to strengthen the bourgeois ascendancy, whilst others are out to undermine it? The reformist C.G.T. invokes the Charter to cloak its continual betrayal of the workers. But why do the anarchist trade unions adhere to these statutes? What do they want from the Charter of Amiens? In the face of all common sense must they declare that the “only organisation of the workers is the trade union.”

Revolutionary trade unionists have woven a theory around the revolutionary outlook of trade unions, believing them to be revolutionary as a matter of course. But in this they are mistaken. The whole history of the trade union movement for a century shows that trade unions are given to conservatism, and that much bourgeois prejudice exists. It is not necessary to go back far: the present position of the Labour Movement in the world will illustrate these points. A glance suffices to prove the conservative tendency of the German, English, American unions, and those of other countries, and the absence of the revolutionary leanings of the working class. The allegation that a trade union is by its very existence perforce revolutionary is a negation of history, a denial of fact, which the constitution of the working class in every country prroves.

This illusion of the revolutionary nature of trade unions, of the self-sufficiency of the trade unions, is cherished by the C.G.T.U. and is one of the most dangerous factors in the path of the revolutionary trade union movement in France.

The consequences of this line of argument must be faced. Our French comrades, by regarding themselves as the only revolutionaries, the only opponents of the bourgeois society, the only power to oppose the capitalist system, must of necessity cause disunity within their own organisation. The C.G.T.U. was founded to unite all revolutionary workers regardless of their political tendencies or convictions. By this they demand not only recognition of the principle of the revolutionary class struggle; they demand that every one should recognise the federation as the only weapon capable of liberating the working class.

But the leaders of the C.G.T.U. went even further. Their dissenting spirit was specially noticeable in two questions, namely, affiliation to the Red International of Labour Unions, and the attitude to be adopted towards the Russian revolution. The revolutionary wing of the French trade union movement had assisted in creating the R.I.L.U.; the revolutionary minority had joined with the Russian unions in forming the provisional international council of that body. From this it would seem to follow that they would form its most important section; but when it was finally established the French trade unionists took up a hostile attitude, basing their objections to it in the famous resolution against any connection existing between the R.I.L.U. and the Communist International. The relations between the two Internationals were made the bone of contention and sufficed for the anarchist-syndicalists as a reason to reject affiliation to the R.I.L.U.

If one reads carefully all that has been written on this episode, it may safely be said that the trade unionists do not oppose the Communist International because they are not in agreement with its aims, but merely because the Communist International is a political organisation. All their protests show no objection to the revolutionary tactics of the Communist International; all their arguments are directed against the one theme that it is a political organisation. In the Charter of Amiens the policy laid down for political parties is that their activities should be carried on “without and alongside of the trade unions”; hence the French trade unionists’ difficulty to agree to any mutual representation.

The demands of the C.G.T.U. leaders are as follows (1) Complete autonomy in national measures, absolute independence in management, propaganda, preparation of campaigns, in the examination of the means of organisation, and in action itself. (2) Autonomy and independence in international measures, rejection of mutual representation between the two leading organisations, and that both internationals should keep within their own bounds without interfering with each other; this to be attained by setting up boundaries of the activities of both bodies.

Let us see what the demands and formula mean. What does complete autonomy and absolute independence mean? Independence in what and of whom? Imagine a situation in France in which the pressure of the bourgeois were such as to call forth the anger of the working masses and necessitate serious measures being taken. What is to happen in such circumstances? If the C.G.T.U. principles are obeyed it must take action independently of the party, and both sections prepare action of their own accord. If, however, they carry out this fight for independence to a logical conclusion, the bourgeoisie will nevertheless annihilate them regardless of that fact. What sense is there in taking separate action in these circumstances when both the unions and the party are of one mind?Would it not be better to form a united committee of action for such an eventuality, thereby securing economy of labour, a greater conservation of revolutionary energy, and a more decisive blow against the enemy?

In whose name should this “independence” be cultivated ad absurdum? In the name of the Charter of Amiens? In the name of the theory that trade unions and political parties may not know another? Evidently such a theory could not withstand the least criticism, and would lead to serious results in view of the experiences of recent years, which show that the concentration of the power and energy of the working masses is essential. Hence there can be no doubt that where a Communist Party exists, capable of conducting the struggle and organising the masses, it would be criminal for trade unions to refuse to co-operate in action just cause of the abstract and thrice-buried Charter of Amiens.

The second point in the programme is also contrary to the interests of the workers. The spheres of activity of the Communist International and Red International of Labour Unions are thereby parcelled out. Does this mean to convey that trade unions are to concentrate solely on trade union questions!

Our humble thanks for such a sectionalisation; what farcical revolutionary trade unions those would be that confined their whole attention to purely union questions. Nor do they want to do so; their object is to have a Trade Union international which is a fighting organisation; they want to combat the bourgeoisie and bring their whole strength to bear against the bourgeois State and strike it at its weakest points.

Take an actual example—the Genoa Congress. Would it be out of place for the Trade Union International to take action in this connection? Surely no revolutionary trade unionist will deny the advisability of so doing; but how would the activities of the Communist International be defined in this matter? Should the Communist International be told to stand back and take no part on this occasion, or that “our action is towards a different aim with a different purpose”? No, we could do nothing but admit that we esteem the reasons which have brought about the Genoa Conference, as well as its results, in exactly the same manner as the Communist International. Let us take other examples, such as the Washington Conference, the destruction of the trade unions in Spain and Jugo-Slavia, the fight against militarism and reaction. How could the dividing line be drawn in these matters? Or if drawn, in what would it consist? Why not act in common provided no radical difference exists as to practical suggestions and methods of procedure? What could the French trade unions suggest in regard to the Genoa Conference that would be different from the wishes of the Communist International? If it were a new means of attack, the Communist International would be the first to adopt it. Therefore what is there to prevent the Communist International and the R.I.L.U., with a common audience and similar modes of procedure, from acting in unison? Would such an act endanger the interests of the workers? To act differently would be an injury to the Labour Movement for the sake of the dead Charter of Amiens.

Close dissection of all the objections, which have been written in France, to the Communist International does not divulge a single one worthy of serious consideration. These are learned phrases and metaphysics, not revolutionary thought or action.

The leaders of the C.G.T.U. are in a worse position when they approach international problems. Their attacks are uninterrupted against parties, sects, schools, &c., and in all these they flaunt the purely “libertaire” anarchist world policy, and in so doing begin to attack the dictatorship of the proletariat. It is their custom to write against all forms of dictatorship; but it so happens that the bourgeois dictatorship gets off lightly whilst their attack is chiefly directed against the proletarian dictatorship, against the dictatorship of the Russian proletariat.

To crystallise its rejection of all kinds of dictatorship the C.G.T.U. passed a resolution early in March reaffirming its anti-State and anti-political tendencies, and stressing the fact that is identifies itself with no State or party. The resolution is a protestation of anarchist belief, proving that the C.G.T.U. in its whole construction is against the State, Government, and dictatorship of any kind; that it is in no way interested in the struggle of parties, in a word that it is high up in the clouds and soars over everything. Its recognition of revolution is reserved and its hatred of oppression incidental. If this resolution of the C.G.T.U. were its only publication it would suffice to show that it is suffering from an acute illness and that unfortunately not a complaint of growth. For if the C.G.T.U. grew with events, if it would refrain from looking back to the Charter of Amiens and look forward instead, it would cease to look down on the Russian revolution and thoroughly inquire into all it has done, it would never have passed or formulated such a resolution.

In the opinion of the leaders of the C.G.T.U. the Russian revolution is guilty of many faults; as already mentioned they refuse to indentify the proletarian revolution of any country with a Government or party actually in power. Such utterances can only be ascribed to people devoid of interest in real facts. Why did the C.G.T.U. fail to read up the history of the Russian workers and their four years’ struggle? Why did they not inquire why and how the Soviet power was created, and why just this form was chosen and no other? Or do the C.G.T.U. leaders imagine that the Soviet appeared by chance, and that its formation is due to this or that party? Is it possible for grown-up people to take up such an attitude to historical events? Russia is a country with 150,000,000 inhabitants and an area equal to one-sixth of the world; how can anyone be so childishly casual in passing judgment and observing everything in relation to the Charter of Amiens, which excels in only one respect—and that is the prevention of its devotees from a real earnest consideration of life. What a sad impression these resolutions, full of conceit and rejection of any chance to learn from the Russian revolution, give when there is much to be learned, especially by French trade unionists.

In an article by a certain Max Steffen entitled “Affiliation to the R.I.L.U. is Impossible Without Giving Up Our Principles,” [1] the Congress is belittled because representatives of Georgia, Azerbaidjan, and other Caucasian comrades attended. This citizen considers Azerbaidjan, Georgia, and the Far Eastern Republic as negligible quantities. He is unaware of the fact that in Azerbaidjan there are 100,000 organised workers, and that its history is a brilliant one of centuries of struggle. Were a little union from Luxembourg to send a representative, the author would possibly say: “Oh, Luxembourg is in Europe, Azerbaidjan is in Asia, and one can scarcely compare Asiatics with highly cultivated Europeans.” Such people style themselves “revolutionary trade unionists,” and do not see how blinded they are by old-time prejudices.

This contempt for the awakening peoples of the East is akin to the psychology of the white European who regards all coloured peoples as a gift from God to be exploited for his benefit. What concern of this citizen is it that in the Far Eastern Republic there are 130,000 organised workers, or more than in all Portugal and three times as many as there are trade unionists in Holland, to which he refers. He knows that there are 30,000 trade unionists in Holland, and about the same number in Sweden, and he considers these 30,000 a proper organisation, whilst he hardly regards the 100,000 organised workers in the Far Eastern Republic even as workers. And why? Because they are still free from the ideas which crowd his muddled brain.

*   *   *  

The French trade union movement is going through a crisis. The unions have sacrificed an enormous number of members; the masses are full of discontent with the leaders. They are no longer to be placated with phrases, no matter how revolutionary these may be; only practical tactics will win them. The activities of the C.G.T.U. do not seem to be a preparation for the struggle. It is too slow and looks too much to the “libertaire” methods. But this policy will only lead to defeat. Every workers’ organization must be quite clear about what it risks. The time for words, revolutionary phrases, and empty formulæ is long passed. Now is the time for concrete, revolutionary, realistic tactics, uniting the trade unions to the masses and making them face the facts of the social revolution.

The C.G.T.U. is vacillating and torn by tendencies in its midst. It does not yet command sufficient clearness or certainty. But this does not mean that it will collapse; it will survive this period of vacillation and storm and stress, and of anarchist phrases, but precautions should be taken to prevent the anarchist phase from costing the movement too much. To attain this object curtsies to the Charter of Amiens will not suffice, nor will retrospective methods succeed; it will be necessary to study the revolution which has already taken place, and also to look ahead. One must consider that life cannot be modelled on the Charter of Amiens; but that charter can and must be made to fit the needs and requirements of the class struggle as it is to-day.


1. The C.G.T.U. affiliated at its first Congress in June to the R.I.L.U.

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