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1970. Ernest Mandel: Trade unions - Pillars of the system or its opponents?

2 August 2022
Ernest Mandel

The modern trade union movement is a product of the first phase of modern capitalism, that of free competition.1 The capitalist mode of production denies the producers free access to means of production and food, thereby forcing them to sell their labour-power in order to gain the means of daily subsistence; their labour-power is transformed into a commodity. Like any commodity owner, the owner of labour-power goes to the market to sell it. Like any other commodity, the commodity labour-power is ultimately sold at its value, i.e. at the socially average production price. However, compared to that of all other owners of commodities in capitalism, the sellers of labour-power find themselves in a different situation, one that is institutionally distinct. Conditioned by the capitalist mode of production, the seller of labour-power is forced to sell his commodity at the current market price, because he cannot withdraw it from the market in order to wait for a more favourable market situation. If he refuses to accept the going market price, he is, along with his family, in danger of starvation. That is why under normal capitalist conditions, and especially when structural unemployment is high (and with the exception of thinly populated settler-colonies the onset of industrialization determines this high level), labour-power is continually sold below its value.

The modern trade union movement arose as a response of wage-workers to such conditions. If the competition between capitalist entrepreneurs is extended to competition between the sellers of labour-power, those who are dependent on wages are helpless in the face of the tendency of the wage to fall below the production costs of labour-power. Trade unions are an attempt to limit the atomization of wage-dependents. Insofar as the sale no longer takes place individually but collectively, the institutional inequality of buyers and sellers of labour-power is limited.

Neutral trade unions?

In and of themselves, therefore, trade unions are not contradictory to capitalism. They are not a means to abolish capitalist exploitation, but only a means to ensure a level of exploitation that is more tolerable for the mass of wage earners. They are meant to achieve wage increases, not to abolish wage labour altogether. But at the same time, trade unions in and of themselves are not in conformity with the capitalist system. For by putting a stop to the fall in real wages and by being able, at least periodically and under certain conditions, to exploit favourable fluctuations in the demand for and supply of labour-power to increase the market price of this commodity, trade unions allow the organized mass of the working class to exceed a minimum of consumption and needs. Thereby class organization, class consciousness and a growing self-confidence can emerge on a broader scale and create the necessary preconditions for broader anti-systemic mass struggles.

In order to function and expand normally, the modern trade union movement requires two economic preconditions. First, a degree of industrialization or average economic growth in which more jobs tend to be created than are abolished by the processes of the ruin of the self-employed artisans and peasants by the concentration of capital. Second, a form of functioning of the capitalist mode of production in which the determination of wages by the fluctuations of demand and supply of labour-power, i.e. by the market situation on the labour market, does not endanger the vital interests of the most powerful strata of the ruling class. Historically, these conditions have been realized only in the West, and only in the early imperialist phase of monopoly capitalism, roughly between 1890 and 1914.

If the first condition is not fulfilled, trade unions remain weak and ineffective, as was the case in Great Britain in the first part of the 19th century and in the rest of Western Europe until the 1880s. This is still the case today in the countries of the so-called ‘Third World’. If the second condition is no longer fulfilled, the big capitalist entrepreneurs set about restoring the necessary conditions for the valorization of capital by eliminating free trade unions. This generally happened in economically weaker countries of Europe at the time of the great economic crisis.

The fact that trade unions in and of themselves are neither antagonistic nor supportive of capitalism has, since the end of the 19th century, given rise to views of their ‘neutrality with regard to the capitalist mode of production. Such ideas had already long existed among the ‘pure’ trade unions in Britain but they also arose in trade unions founded by socialists. The argument is that trade unions should confine themselves to the organization of wage-earners and that through the growing power of this organization they would be able to eliminate the worst excesses of capitalist exploitation, and secure an increasing standard of living for the workers. This power would then force bourgeois society to gradually adapt itself to objective processes of socialization. The rest could be left to universal suffrage.

Bernstein’s openly expressed revisionism was entirely in line with the wishes of the leading circles of the trade unions. During the debates within the German workers’ movement before the First World War, these circles were the fiercest opponents of the Left led by Rosa Luxemburg. Underlying the revisionist views was a certain historical prognosis, namely that of a gradual reduction of class antagonisms within the capitalist mode of production as a result of the organized power of the labour movement, in the first place the trade unions. Sixty years later, British and US liberal economists like Galbraith have revived Bernstein with their theories of ‘countervailing-powers’ and the ‘mixed society’.

Unfortunately, the history of the 20th century has by no means confirmed the illusions of a gradual reduction of the internal contradictions of the capitalist mode of production. Since this mode of production fulfilled its historical task of creating the world market and the worldwide expansion of commodity production, a long series of shocks has testified to the growing explosiveness of these contradictions. Two world wars, the great economic crisis of 1929-32, the expansion of fascism throughout Europe, the capitalist mode of production losing control of a third of the earth, an unbroken chain of colonial wars in the last 20 years, the terrible danger posed to the future of humanity by the nuclear arms race are only some of the most important indicators of these explosive contradictions.

The trade union theories that were born of the hopes for gradual, uninterrupted progress proved incapable of recognizing, let alone solving, the new historical tasks that confront the labour movement in the current epoch. Adherence to ‘pure’ trade union theory and practice was bound to lead to the conclusion that only a vigorous and healthy capitalism could grant wage increases. Therefore trade union leaders were prepared to be the doctor at the sickbed of capitalism, and instead of trying to help this patient to their end, were committed to curing capitalism by any means necessary. The paradox reached its apogee when wage cuts were accepted in order to produce a ‘healthy’ capitalism, i.e., to achieve subsequent wage increases. A trade union movement that came to such absurd conclusions had obviously reached a dead end.

Growth of the trade-union bureaucracy

In a society built on generalized commodity production and the division of labour, every institution is subject to the danger of reification and of becoming a goal in itself, i.e., of losing its original function and serving only its own self-preservation. This danger is particularly great when in such an institution a social stratum arises whose material interest is closely bound up with the self-preservation of the institution in question. This paradox is thus at least partly explained by the process of the bureaucratization of the trade union movement, a process that is closely linked to the degeneration of the theory of class struggle into the theory and practice of class cooperation. The paradox, however, also has independent ideological roots that correspond to the inner contradictions of ‘pure’ trade union theory. As the ideology of the trade union bureaucracy began to determine a change in the function of the trade unions, gradually, in the age of late capitalism, ever stronger objective processes pushing in the same direction have become visible.

Since the 1940s, late capitalism has been marked by the third industrial revolution, by accelerated technological renewal. This determines a shortening of the reproduction cycle of fixed capital and implies a growing compulsion towards long-term investment planning, to exact cost planning, and therefore also to exact wage cost planning. This necessarily shrinks the traditional field of trade union activity. The ideal model for ‘organized’ late capitalism is a generalized economic and social coordination which allows large corporations to coordinate their investment programmes with each other. Under the rule of private ownership of the means of production, this coordination must remain purely indicative in the economic sphere, but it is intended to be imperative in the social sphere. Hence the pressure everywhere in favour of ‘concerted action’, ‘incomes policy’, and ‘social programming.’ Behind all these formulas is a single aim: to dismantle the autonomy of the trade unions in collective bargaining. The goal is to prevent workers from exploiting temporary favourable conjunctures on the labour market (such as full employment or even an acute shortage of labour) to achieve significant wage increases and (under conditions of a certain monetary policy) significant reductions of the rate of surplus value and profit.

At the same time, however, this fundamental trend of late capitalism in economic and social policy provides the trade union bureaucracy with new perspectives. It is now a question not only of exploiting organizational power at the negotiating table vis-à-vis the employers’ representatives, but also of representing wage earners in the numerous bodies of state and semi-state economic governance. In the Scandinavian countries, in Belgium and the Netherlands, in France and Italy, and for some years now also in Great Britain, a process of the widest integration of the trade union leaderships into the bourgeois state has become apparent, with trade union leaders often spending more time in such state bodies than in actual trade union meetings.

Ideologically, this further integration of the trade union bureaucracy into the late-bourgeois state apparatus corresponds to the same motivations for class collaboration and gradualist illusions as the previous wave of integration. Because ‘social progress’ is supposedly determined by ‘economic growth’, it is necessary to take responsibility for this economic growth without worrying about the structure of the existing mode of production, the class antagonisms and class exploitation shaped by this growth, etc. Positions on the boards of directors of nationalized industries, corporations and central banks, as well as innumerable posts on state planning bodies, are seen as so many ‘positions’ from which to conquer the bourgeois economy ‘step by step’. Among some trade union leaders who are not completely given to cynicism, ‘co-determination and co-responsibility’ in the late capitalist economy is rationalized as a step toward future socialization. The archetype of this behaviour was provided by the old French trade union leader Jouhaux, who, after the First World War, gleefully presented trade unionists with the decree appointing him a member of the Board of Directors of the Banque de France, exclaiming, ‘The first nail in the coffin of capitalism!’ However, French capitalism seems to have survived those nails very well for 50 years, and is as much alive today as it was in 1919....

Contradictions in late capitalism

However, the tendency towards the growing integration of trade union leadership into the bourgeois state apparatus encounters two fundamental contradictions in late capitalism:

On the one hand, big corporations and bourgeois governments need the participation of the trade union bureaucracy in economic and social programming only to the extent that this can reduce a revolt of the working class against the continuing cyclical development of the capitalist mode of production. (First, full employment but with a ‘moderate’ wage policy; then, recession with unemployment and massive attacks by the employers against the standard of living and working conditions of wage earners.) But a growing identification of the trade union leadership with ‘state-directed’ wage policy (as in the Netherlands and Scandinavia for many years) or with a ‘voluntary’ incomes policy (as in Great Britain) must inevitably meet with growing resistance on the part of the wage-earners, wildcat strikes, and an erosion of the internal relations between rank and file members and the trade union organization. And this development reduces the usefulness of the trade union bureaucracy in the eyes of the big corporations. Capital needs a trade union bureaucracy that actually controls the masses of workers and channels their struggles, not a merely nominal trade union bureaucracy, as the example of the so-called ‘vertical’ state trade union in Spain clearly demonstrated. If the trade union bureaucracy is no longer capable of exercising control, its ‘disintegration’ from the bourgeois state apparatus becomes likely, be it that the large corporations take the initiative, or that the trade union leadership makes a ‘turn to the left’ in order to regain control over the workers’ agitation.

On the other hand, the tendency towards growing economic programming and towards ‘organized’ capitalism, which implies the integration of the trade union bureaucracy into the bourgeois state apparatus, has a two-sided and contradictory effect on the mass of wage-earners. Undoubtedly, the latter are exposed to a greater extent than before to the mystifying demagogy of ‘company interests’ and to a class collaboration that for the bourgeoisie is only pretense but for the trade unions is real. At the same time, increasing public debate on social aggregates such as gross national product, national income, wage rate, investment rate, volume of money, increase in productivity, etc., etc., can mean growing interest in part of advanced and white-collar workers in macroeconomic issues and in society as a whole. Just as the economy before the First World War, with its ongoing guerrilla struggle between capitalist entrepreneurs and wage-earners over the distribution of the value created by labour, became a practical school of class struggle as soon as the inner connections of this struggle were made visible to workers, so today’s public disputes over the distribution of national income and the scope, content and orientation of investments can become a practical higher school of class struggle. However, this requires that wage-earners are educated about the inner connections of these processes on a broad scale. The contradictions inherent in the capitalist mode of production, its exploitative character and the relationship between this clarification and the immediate concerns of wage earners need to be clearly established.

Certainly, the objective result of the growing amalgamation of large corporations, the bourgeois state and state economic and social policy is by no means a self-evident product of ‘organized’ late capitalism. A democratic neo-reformist current, which has been spreading in the trade union movement since the so-called ‘plan experiments’ of, for example, Hendrik de Man in the 1930s, tries to present the transition of the struggle for reforms in the sphere of distribution to struggles for structural reforms as a great advance in and of itself. However, experience has shown time and again the great need to distinguish sharply between neo-capitalist reforms and those that cannot be integrated into the capitalist mode of production. The first kind of reforms rationalize the system (often at the expense of the wage rate!) and can be easily absorbed by the big corporations. The second kind of reform has the effect of disrupting the system and ultimately leads to a decisive battle in the class struggle.

By their logic, the first kind of reforms leads to further integration of the trade union bureaucracy into the bourgeois state apparatus, to further dismantle wage-earners’ willingness to fight, and to diminish their experience of struggle. The struggle for the second kind of reforms, on the other hand, can only radicalize the trade union movement and mobilize the masses for further and broader struggles and build a growing anti-capitalist consciousness.

New forms of struggle

The possibility of starting from the new forms of functioning of the capitalist mode of production in order to reorient the trade union movement and broader working masses towards radical anti-capitalist goals corresponds to a spontaneous tendency of elementary workers’ struggle at the shop floor level. This tendency was expressed in the French general strike of May 1968 and in the great Italian strikes of the autumn and winter of 1969, and to some extent in the numerous wildcat strikes of many West European countries in the last 12 months. These strikes, the largest ever seen in the history of capitalism (nearly 10 million strikers in France, nearly 15 million in Italy), expressed a sudden challenge to and ‘contestation’ of not only the capitalist distribution of income, but of capitalist relations of production themselves. No matter how important wage and working time issues were for this strike movement, the novelty of these huge industrial struggles in Western Europe was that strikers, very often spontaneously, without deeper theoretical insight and with clumsy formulations, did not just express higher wages and shorter working hours as goals of their struggle. They also contested the new forms of remuneration (payment according to job location, ‘measured day work’, etc.) which lead to atomization of the working class. Strikers opposed attempts to install new forms of rationalized control over labour-power in the factory, tried to reduce the margin between the worst and the best paid strata of wage-earners, attacked the organization of work in the factory, tried to determine the rhythm of the assembly line, even shook up the intra-factory division of labour and began to undermine the authority of managers and foremen, in other words the whole hierarchical structure of the capitalist factory. One cannot better characterize all these novel demands than to recognize in them the germinal form of direct struggle against the power and rights of capital to command labour and machinery; they are a germinal form of direct struggle against capitalist relations of production.

It would certainly be premature to consider all the French and Italian strikes, meaning the class consciousness of 25 million West European wage-earners, in this category. It would be even more mistaken to see in every wildcat strike in every West European country the beginning of a French May or an Italian Autumn, the beginning of a direct questioning, at least in germinal form, of capitalist relations of production. Never before has the law of uneven development and of the internal differentiation of the working class been so clearly visible in Western Europe as it is today. But it is a question of discovering in time what is new in these struggles and recognizing that it will have the tendency gradually to spread to all the imperialist countries of the West, as well as to Japan.

This is because this new kind of workers’ struggle in the industrialized countries is itself a product of the third industrial revolution, of the changing forms of the capitalist mode of production. Accelerated technological renewal in ‘organized’ late capitalism means accelerated structural crises of companies, branches of industry and industrial districts, accelerated disqualification of entire occupational groups, accelerated exploitation and, above all, the constant intensification of the labour process. But at the same time it means the accelerated reintroduction of intellectual labour into the production process, faster raising of the average level of qualification and knowledge of the direct producers in the technically leading branches of industry, the accelerated contestation of bourgeois domination and alienation in higher and secondary education and communications. In people’s everyday life and in the sphere of consumption in general, there is a growth of resistance again alienation and bourgeois domination. Inevitably this leads to an increasing contestation of similar conditions of domination and alienation in the sphere of production.

Ruling class manoeuvres

The more intelligent layers of the big corporations and the bourgeois class are well aware of the great danger that these new forms of struggle and goals of the workers pose for the survival of their class rule – unfortunately they are much more aware of this than most trade union leaders. This is why an ideological turnaround of the big bourgeoisie coincides with the explosion of May 1968 in France. De Gaulle launched the solution of ‘participation’, which since then has been taken up most eagerly by British Tories, by the most diverse currents of the French bourgeoisie, by most Scandinavian capitalists (as well as by most northern social-democrats), and even by a part of the Spanish big corporations. Loosely translated into English, ‘participation’ means ‘co-determination’. It testifies to the well-known political immaturity of the West German bourgeoisie that a formula which elsewhere is recognized as the last protection against the loss of capitalist authority in the workplace, economy and state is in the Federal Republic of Germany still seen as a diabolical danger. For it is undoubtedly such a protection. Broad sections of the West European working class proved that neither advantages above collective agreements at the workplace level, nor the growing integration of the trade union leaderships into the bourgeois state apparatus, can keep them from periodic great explosive struggles that objectively question the continued existence of the capitalist mode of production. The late capitalist conglomerates of Western Europe want to achieve their historical goals of recent decades in a new way. Their aims are the systematic dampening of proletarian class struggle and preventing the development of proletarian class consciousness by granting the trade unions ‘co-determination’ in the national direction of the economy and shared responsibility in economic management at the workplace level.

This manoeuvre is so clumsy that it would have no chance of success if significant sections of the trade union leadership had not sown such confusion in the minds of wage earners that to some of them what is an employers’ manoeuvre appears to be the workers’ achievement. It is a clumsy manoeuvre , for just like ‘concerted action,’ ‘incomes policy’ and ‘social programming’, it attempts to disguise the different class positions in which buyers and sellers of labour-power find themselves in bourgeois society. Since the worker has neither wealth nor the economic power that springs from wealth, wages can be set by corporations and government, The wage tax can be directly and totally captured at the source. And with exception of the effect of those evil wildcat strikes, the total social wage bill can also be fixed precisely in advance. But just as no bourgeois government has yet succeeded, even under threat of the most severe penalties – think of the Nazi regime – in freezing prices and profits, so no ‘co-determination body’ nor any ‘co-determining’ board of directors can succeed in eliminating the laws of capitalist competition and capital utilization. It is impossible to prevent periodic economic fluctuations, to prevent capitalist entrepreneurs from being forced by competition to periodically adopt severe rationalization measures and introduce dismissals or short-time work, to increase the pace of work and of exploitation of labour-power... etc. Under conditions of private property and profit-oriented economic structures, co-determination and co-responsibility inevitably mean co-determination and co-responsibility for such outcomes of the capitalist mode of production.

Workers’ ‘representatives’ who are willing to do this will inevitably clash with the immediate interests of their base. They turn into representatives of ‘workplace’ (meaning capitalist) interests against the workers. Once you travel down this road, it is difficult to stop anywhere and say: So far and no further. In the recent wildcat strikes, did we not see ‘labour leaders’ from the trade union movement acting as real employers’ zealots, trying to remove ‘rabble rousers’ from the workplace, refusing any concession to the strikers, or even to negotiate with them, even when the bosses themselves were already using much more moderate language?

A trade union integrating itself into not only the bourgeois state apparatus but even the daily management of capitalism would not be a trade union supporting the system; it would quickly cease to be a real trade union at all. In such a case, wage earners will no longer see any reason to pay voluntary dues from their hard-earned wages to such controllers of labour. A trend toward large- scale membership loss would set in (consider, for example, the turnover of ‘system-supporting’ trade-unions in the US, such as that of the Miners’ Association, during the last few years!). In return for close cooperation, the bosses would have no interest in causing financial hardship to the union bureaucracy and one would see a move to a system of compulsory collection of union dues ‘at source’ by the bosses themselves. This [checkoff] would be a system of ‘second-hand payroll tax’, so to speak, as applied in Spanish ‘vertical unions’. At the end point of such a process of degeneration, the trade union bureaucracy would have ceased to be a bureaucracy of independent workers’ organizations. It would have been reduced to a special component of the state administrative bureaucracy, tasked with administrating labour-power (a commodity that unfortunately for late capitalist society is prone to unpredictable actions and explosions), just as other parts of this bureaucracy administer trains, motorways, post, universities and tanks.


New tasks for the union movement

Fortunately, we are still far from having reached this end point. So far, only the first hesitant steps towards such self-denial and self-abolition of the free trade union movement have been taken in Western Europe. Everything suggests that the more conscious, radical and militant sections of Western European labour will reverse this process in time. In the long run, however, such a reversal will only be possible if the trade union movement thoroughly overhauls and reshapes its attitude to the problem of internal trade union democracy, to the problem of the new tasks arising from the specific situation of late capitalism, and to the ultimate socialist goal of the workers’ movement.

The centralization of capital has been accompanied by a steadily growing centralization of the trade unions. This is a very contradictory and ambivalent process. Trade unions, unlike parties, are not organizations of like-minded people that only unite those working people who stand on a certain programmatic basis and want to realize a certain historical goal. Trade unions are, in principle, representatives of the immediate material interests of all those who are forced to sell their labour power. But even joining trade unions requires a minimum of elementary class consciousness, which, at least in the larger countries of the West, has so far only ever been achieved by a minority of wage-earners.

The centralization of the trade unions therefore makes it possible to oppose the central economic power of big capital with more power than the isolated wage-earners of a workshop, a factory, a city or an industrial district could normally muster. It is therefore a necessary weapon in the class struggle and benefits above all the weaker, the less organized, and those condemned by a particular economic situation to unfavourable starting conditions in negotiating their wage. To act for the abolition of trade-union centralization would in the last analysis only be in favour of the capitalist class.

But the same centralization that allows the weaker wage earners to negotiate more favourable wages and working conditions than they could achieve themselves also threatens to turn against the more militant and radical workers once a union apparatus is bureaucratically deformed and becomes autonomous from its base. When an ever smaller circle of officials makes all the crucial decisions – including compromises in collective bargaining – without involving a broad layer of activists in the decision-making process, the bureaucracy threatens to undermine the entire basis of the unions since it would lead to systematic passivity on the part of union members.

The excessive centralization of decision-making power in the trade unions is all the more dangerous because the refusal of active trade union organizations to submit to ‘incomes policy’, ‘social programming’ and ‘concerted action’ for the long term periodically leads to sharp campaigns by the bosses against the ‘excessive power of the unions’ (as was the case in Britain in 1967 and 1968), and trade unions can only withstand such campaigns if they have the voluntary and enthusiastic support of many thousands of active members.

It is no accident that bourgeois public opinion, otherwise so strongly committed to ‘democracy’, wants to impose even more centralization on the unions, and in countries like Britain and Italy accuses the leadership of giving too much leeway to the ‘anarchist unaccountability’ of workplace militants. The employers would like the trade union apparatus itself to carry out what they regard as the inevitable ‘purging’ of workplaces. A union that decides to take this course damns itself; its trade union substance would quickly decline.

The only means of avoiding the excesses of union centralization is the broadest possible internal union democracy. This means not only the duty to inform and consult widely among the membership and activists, involving them in any important decision that is made, but also the right of minorities to join together to coordinate their efforts at least in union meetings as much as the apparatus can. It is significant that the moderate wing of the unions always claims this right as a matter of course when it finds itself in a minority position, or when fears that it will be pushed into such a position, but as soon as its control of the organization is consolidated is not prepared to grant the same right to radical minorities. The trade unions of the Weimar Republic in the 1920s, like those in Czechoslovakia in 1968 and 1969, bear eloquent witness to this.

It is often countered that union members themselves are ultimately to blame for the growing power of the apparatuses, because they do not attend meetings, are not active, and often are even more moderate than the apparatus. We will not deny that there is a grain of truth in these remarks – but only a grain. For, in the first place, events show again and again that occasionally great masses of workers, as in France in 1968 and in Italy in 1969, run a thousand miles ahead of the trade union apparatus instead of lagging behind it. And second, what is true of swimming is also true of trade union activity; it can only be learned by jumping into the water at some point, meaning, by practice. Those who reproach the working masses for showing too little trade union activity should ask themselves what they have done to educate these masses to take the initiative, to be self-active and to make their own decisions. Only a trade union strategy that is systematically oriented towards such education through the practice of daily struggle can produce an ascending line in the activity of broad masses. A trade union strategy which deprives the mass of members of any possibility or sense that they themselves can take initiative in struggle will only produce a combination of growing passivity and periodic explosions outside the framework of the unions.

Only a trade union strategy oriented towards active grassroots initiative in the class struggle corresponds to the new tasks that arise for the trade union movement from the present phase of the development of capitalism. We have already said that more and more workers’ struggles are moving spontaneously in the direction of questioning capitalist relations of production. The strategy which corresponds to this spontaneous tendency is that of workers’ control of production. In contrast to ‘co-determination’, the strategy of workers’ production control assumes that the collective bargaining autonomy of the trade unions and defense of the interests of the wage-dependent, are fundamentally incompatible with co-responsibility for profit maximization in the enterprises and submission to the laws of motion of the capitalist mode of production. It therefore demands the right of control and veto for wage-earners, but not co-responsibility for the management of capitalist enterprises and the capitalist economy.

‘Workers’ control under capitalism, co-determination under socialism’ was the succinct formula used by the late André Renard, deputy general secretary of the Belgian trade union federation FGTB, to sum up the trade union doctrine on this subject. It seems to us to be completely accurate.

But workers’ production control requires far-reaching initiative at the level of the company and the workplace, even at the level of each workshop and assembly line. The struggle for workers’ production of control creates germinal forms of self-organization of all wage-earners at the workplace. For the first time in decades, this is the case today in the largest enterprise in Western Europe, the Fiat plants in Turin. To seek to integrate such a body of delegates into the trade union organization and even attempt to base it on law is to completely misjudge its nature. It is rather an extension of the field of activity of the working people in the workplace, who no longer want to limit themselves to collective bargaining and be restricted by the outcome of these negotiations. In order to be effective, such self-organization of working people at the level of the workplace must retain complete autonomy. It is the embryo of a system of dual power at the workplace level, which in turn can be the embryo of a system based on workers’ councils. Therein lies its peculiarity and its task. But it can and will have an effect on the activity of the trade union members in the workplace, stimulate their activity, and promote trade union democracy, as long as it remains the expression of a growing participation of the mass of wage earners in economic and social struggles.

In the same direction of a more supple articulation of centralization and intra-union democracy, late capitalism poses the trade unions another new task: that of greater international cooperation and integration. In the age of the multinational corporation, this is the only means of at least partially avoiding the rapid shifting of orders from country to country and stopping international corporations from playing off of workers with relatively low wages against workers with relatively high wages. So far, the large trade union apparatuses have completely failed on the question of international action. They are still waiting for the first European strike, when there are already so many Europe-wide companies. And when the workers of such a multinational strike in one country or the strikers of a branch of industry are severely hampered in the activity of their strike by the rapid supply of competing goods from a neighboring country, the millions of strong ‘official’ trade union movements have achieved less for international solidarity than small radical minority groups.

International cooperation and integration, however, are unthinkable at the level of organizational centralization: action must be taken simultaneously at the level of companies and plants and at the level of umbrella organizations. It is the duty of the trade union movement to lead by its own example. The idea that it is impossible to link the centralization caused by technical progress with growing self-activity and self-determination corresponds only to bourgeois and bureaucratic logic. But this needs to be shown in practice.

A conservative British technocrat, Michael Rose, fears that the generalization of cybernetic steering systems in the economy and the state could lead to an enormous concentration of decision-making power in a few hands, based on the monopoly of access to the mass of information. Several bourgeois economists have expressed the idea that in 15 years at the latest, some 200 large international corporations will dominate the economy of the ‘free world’. The fact that the paradox of calling a world characterized by such a concentration of economic power ‘free’ remains hidden from them only testifies to the typical blindness of these bourgeois economists.

A ‘liberal-democratic order’ in which all major strategic decisions determining the economic and social life of broad masses are actually taken by these masses themselves, in which access to all important sources of information and knowledge is generalized, in which centralization of technology is combined with decentralization of the decision-making processes, is only possible on the basis of common ownership of the means of production and their administration through democratic-centralist means, i.e. planned self-management by producers and consumers.

The trade unions will only be able to solve the tasks arising from the development of late capitalism if they are again guided in their daily practice by this ultimate socialist goal, which has never been as relevant as it is today. ‘System-compliant’ trade unions cannot exist under late capitalism. ‘System-critical’ trade unions, however, need conscious socialists at their head.


1 This article was first published in the theoretical discussion journal of the German trade union federation DGB, Gewerkschäftliche Monatshefte (no. 6, 1970) under the title ‘Systemkonforme Gewerkschaften?’. Subheadings and translation by Alex de Jong.

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