Written: Late Summer 1933.
Source: The Militant, Vol. VI No. 45, 30 September 1933, p. 3
Transcription/HTML Markup: Einde O’Callaghan for the Trotsky Internet Archive.
Copyleft: Leon Trotsky Internet Archive (www.marxists.org) 2015. Permission is granted to copy and/or distribute this document under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0.
fter a brief interval I am returning again to the policy of the Independent Labor Party. This is occasioned by the declaration of the delegation of the I.L.P. at the Paris conference which permits a clear idea of the general tendency of the I.L.P., as well as of the stage at which now it finds itself.
The delegation considers it necessary to call a World Congress of “all” revolutionary parties beginning with those adhering to the Third International. “If the Third International proves unprepared to change its tactics and organization, the time will have come to consider the formation of a new International”. This phrase contains the very essence of the present policy of the I.L.P. Having shifted decisively to the left, to Communism the members of this party refuse to believe that the Communist International which disposes of numerous cadres, of material and technical means, is lost for the revolutionary movement, It is necessary, they say, to make one more test of the ability or inability of the Comintern to change its policy.
It is incorrect, even naive, to pose the question in this manner. The ability or inability of a party is not determined at a Congress but in daily struggle, and particularly, in time of great dangers, momentous decisions and mass action. After the victory of Hitler for which the Comintern bears a direct responsibility, the leadership of the Comintern had not only left its policy unchanged but on the contrary has intensified its disastrous methods. This historic test weighs a thousand times more than all the declarations which the representatives of the Comintern might make at any one congress. It must not be forgotten that congresses represent elements of “parliamentarism” in the workers’ movement itself, While parliamentarism is inevitable and necessary it cannot add anything fundamentally new above what has been actually attained in mass struggle. This refers not only to parliamentarism of the bourgeois state but also to the “parliamentary” institutions of the proletariat itself. We must orientate ourselves by the real activity of working class organizations and not expect any miracles from the proposed World Congress.
During a period of ten years (1923–1933) the Left Opposition acted as a fraction of the Comintern hoping to attain an improvement In its policy and regime by systematic criticism and an active participation in the life of the Comintern and its sections. The Left Opposition therefore has a colossal experience of an international character. There was not a single important historic event which did not force the L.O. to counterpose its slogans and methods to the slogans and methods of the bureaucracy of the Comintern. The struggle around the questions of Soviet economy and the regime in the Communist party of the Soviet Union, the Chinese revolution, Anglo-Russian committee, etc., etc. remained comparatively little known to the workers’ parties of the West.  But two chapters of this struggle passed before the eyes of the advanced workers of all the world: they deal with the theory and practice of the “third period” and with the strategy of the Comintern in Germany.
If the Left Opposition can be blamed for anything, it is certainly not for an impatient break with the Comintern. Only after the German Communist party which has been gathering millions of votes, proved incapable of offering even the least resistance to Hitler, and the Comintern refused not only to recognize the erroneousness of its policy but even the very fact of the defeat of the proletariat (in reality the victory of Hitler is the greatest defeat of the proletariat in the history of the world!) and replaced the analysis of its mistakes and’ crimes by a new campaign of persecution and slander against real Marxists, – only after this did we say: nothing can save these people any more, the German catastrophe, and the role of the Comintern in it, is infinitely more important for the world proletariat than any organizational maneuvers, congresses evasive declarations, diplomatic agreements, etc. The historical judgment on the Comintern has been pronounced. There is no appeal from this verdict.
The history of the Comintern is almost unknown to the members of the I.L.P. which has just recently taken the revolutionary path. Besides no organization learns only by books and flies. The I.L.P. wants independently to undergo an experience that was made by others on a much larger scale. Had this involved only the loss of a few months, one could have reconciled oneself to it despite the fact that each month of our time is much more than years of another. The danger, however, lies therein, that aspiring to “test” the Comintern by a closer drawing together to it, the I.L.P. may follow unnoticeably for itself the ways of the Comintern – and ruin itself.
The trade union question remains the most important question of proletarian policy of Great Britain as well as of the majority of old capitalist countries. In this field the mistakes of the Comintern are innumerable. No wonder: the inability of a party to establish correct relations with the class reveals itself most glaringly in the trade-union movement. That is why I consider it necessary to dwell on this problem.
The trade unions were formed during the period of the growth and rise of capitalism. They had as their task the raising of the material and cultural level of the proletariat and the extension of its political rights. This work that lasted in England over a century clothed the trade unions with a tremendous authority among the workers. The decay of British capitalism under the conditions of the decline of the world capitalist system, undermined the basis for the reformist work of the trade unions. Capitalism can maintain itself longer only by lowering the standard of living of the working class. Under these conditions the trade unions could either transform themselves into revolutionary organizations or become the helpers of capitalism in the intensified exploitation of the workers. The trade union bureaucracy which solved satisfactorily its own social problem took the second path. It turned the whole accumulated authority of the trade unions against the socialist revolution and even against any attempts of the workers to resist the attacks of capital and reaction.
Henceforth the liberation of the workers from the reactionary influence of the trade union bureaucracy has become the most important task of a revolutionary party. In this decisive field the Comintern revealed a complete inadequacy. During the years 1926–27 and first of all during the miners’ strike and the general strike, that is, at the time of the greatest crimes and betrayals of the General Council of the trade unions, the Comintern obsequiously toadied before the honorable strike-breakers covering them up before the masses by its authority and helping them to remain in saddle: thus, a mortal blow was struck at the “minority movement”. Frightened by the results of its work, the bureaucrats of the Comintern went to the extreme of ultra-radicalism: the fatal excesses of the “third period” were due to the desire of the small Communist minority to act n a manner presupposing that they had a majority behind them. Isolating itself more and more from the working class, the Communist party counterposed to the trade unions embracing millions of workers its own trade union organizations, most obedient to the leadership of the Comintern but separated by an abyss from the working class. No better favor could be done to the trade union bureaucracy. Had it disposed of the Order of the Garter it should have decorated all the leaders of the Comintern and the Profintern with it.
As was said, the trade unions now play not a progressive but a reactionary role. Nevertheless they still embrace millions of workers. One must not think that the workers are blind and do not see the change in the historic role of the trade unions. But what is to be done? The revolutionary way out compromised itself badly in the eyes of the Left wing of the workers by the zigzags and adventures of official communism. The workers say to themselves: the trade-unions are bad but without them it might be even worse. This is the psychology of an impasse. Meanwhile, the trade union bureaucracy persecutes the revolutionary workers ever more boldly, replacing ever more impudently inner democracy by the arbitrariness of cliques, transforming in essence the trade unions into some sort of concentration camps for the workers under declining capitalism.
Under these conditions the thought easily arises; is it not possible to skip over the trade-unions? Is it not possible to replace them by some sort of fresh, incorruptible organizations on the type of revolutionary trade unions, shop committees, Soviets and the like? The fundamental mistake of such attempts lies therein that a great political problem of how to free the masses from the influence of the trade-union bureaucracy is replaced by organizational experiments. It is insufficient to show the masses a new address. It is necessary to find the masses where they are and to lead them.
Impatient “lefts” sometimes say that it is in any case impossible to conquer the trade unions because the bureaucracy subjects the inner regime of the organization to its interests of self-preservation, resorting to the basest machinations, repressions and plain crookedness in the spirit of the parliamentary oligarchy of the time of the “rotten boroughs”. This argument signifies in reality the giving up of the actual struggle for the masses under the excuse of the corrupt character of the trade union bureaucracy. This argument can be developed further: should we no! abandon revolutionary work altogether because of repressions and provocations on the part of the government bureaucracy? There exists no principled difference here since the trade union bureaucracy has completely become a part of the capitalist apparatus, economic and governmental. It is absurd to think that it would be possible to work against the trade union bureaucracy with its aids, or even with its consent. Insofar as it defends itself by persecutions, violence, expulsions, frequently resorting to the assistance of government authorities, we must learn to work in the trade unions discretely finding a common language with the masses but not revealing ourselves prematurely to the bureaucracy. It is precisely in the present epoch when the reformist bureaucracy of the proletariat has transformed! itself into the economic police of capital, that revolutionary work in the trade unions, performed intelligently and systematically, may yield decisive results in a comparatively short time.
We do not at all want to say by this that a revolutionary party is assured of the complete capture of the trade unions for the purposes of the socialist overturn. The problem is not so simple. The trade union apparatus has attained a great independence from the masses. The bureaucracy is capable of retaining its positions a long time after the masses have turned against it. But precisely this situation, when the masses are already hostile to the trade union bureaucracy and the bureaucracy is still capable of misrepresenting the opinion of the organization and of sabotaging the re-elections, is most favorable for the creation of shop committees, workers’ councils and other organizations ad hoc, that is, for the Immediate needs of the given moment. Even in Russia, where the trade unions have not possessed by far the powerful traditions of the British trade unions, the October overthrow occurred with the predominance of the Mensheviks in the administration of the trade unions. Having lost the masses these administrations were still capable of sabotaging the re-election of the apparatus, although already powerless to sabotage the proletarian revolution.
It is absolutely necessary right now to prepare the mind of the advanced workers to the idea of the creation of shop committees and workers’ councils at the moment of a sharp change. But it would be the greatest mistake to “play” in practice with the slogan of shop councils comforting oneself with “this idea” because of the lack of real work and real influence in the trade unions. To counterpose to the existing trade unions the abstraction of workers’ councils would mean not only to set the bureaucracy against oneself but also the masses, and to deprive oneself thereby of the possibility of preparing the ground for the creation of workers’ councils.
In this the Comintern has gained not little experience: having created docile, that is, purely Communist trade unions it counterposed antagonistically its sections to the working masses and has thereby doomed itself to a complete impotence: this is one of the most important causes for the collapse of the German Communist party. Is it true, the British Communist Party, insofar as I am informed, opposes the slogan of workers’ councils under the present conditions.
Superficially this may seem like a realistic appraisal of the situation. In reality, the British Communist Party rejects only one form of political adventurism for another, more hysterical form. The theory and practice of social-Fascism and the rejection of the policy of the united front creates unsurmountable obstacles to the work in the trade unions, as each trade union is, by its very nature, an arena for a prolonged united front of revolutionary parties with reformist and non-party masses. Insofar as the British Communist Party proved incapable, even after the German tragedy of learning and re-arming itself anew, an alliance with it can only pull to the bottom the I.L.P. which has just recently entered into the period of revolutionary study.
Pseudo-Communists will, no doubt, refer to the last congress of trade unions which declared that there can be no united front with Communists against Fascism. It would be the greatest folly to accept this piece of wisdom as the final verdict of history. The trade-union bureaucrats permit themselves such boastful formulae only because they are not immediately threatened either by Fascism, or by Communism. When the hammer of Fascism is raised over the head of the trade unions then, with a correct policy of the revolutionary party, the trade union masses will show an irresistible urge for an alliance with the revolutionary wing and will carry with them to this path even a certain portion of the apparatus. On the contrary, if Communism should become a decisive force, threatening the General Council with the loss of positions, honors and income, Messrs. Citrin and Co. would undoubtedly enter into a bloc with Mosley and Co. against the Communists. Thus, in August 1917, the Mensheviks and Social-Revolutionaries together with the Bolsheviks repulsed general Kornilov. Two months later, in October, they were fighting hand in hand with the Kornilovists against the Bolsheviks. And in the first months of 1917, when Messrs. reformists were still strong they declaimed just like Citrin & Co. of the impossibility for thorn to make an alliance with a dictatorship either of the Right, or of the Left.
A revolutionary proletarian party must be welded together by a clear understanding of its historic tasks: this presupposes a scientifically based program. At the same time a revolutionary party must know how to establish correct relations with the class: this presupposes a policy of revolutionary realism, equally removed from opportunist vagueness and sectarian aloofness, From the point of view of both these criteria intrinsically connected, the I.L.P. should review its relation to the Comintern as well as to all other organization and tendencies within the working class. This concerns first of all the fate of the I.L.P. itself.
1. This article is in print, however, in a series of studies and documents published partly also in foreign languages. For the English comrades the publications of the American League (Pioneer Publishers) are of great importance. Whoever wishes to study seriously the ten year struggle of the Left Opposition for the reform and improvement of the Comintern must study all these documents.
Last updated on: 22 October 2015