On Leon Trotsky’s desk when he was murdered by a Stalinist assassin in August 1940 was a draft article, “Trade Unions in the Epoch of Imperialist Decay”. This unfinished text is helpful in understanding the Trade Union Congress’s outrageous decision to pass a pro‑war motion last week.
Trotsky begins, “There is one common feature in the development, or more correctly the degeneration, of modern trade union organisations in the entire world—it is their drawing closely to and growing together with the state power.”
He explains this by changes in the structure of capitalism in the imperialist epoch, above all the growing concentration of economic power.
“Monopoly capitalism does not rest on competition and free private initiative but on centralised command.” The big corporations and cartels and the state become increasingly interdependent.
The unions, Trotsky argues, become drawn into this nexus. “They have to confront a centralised capitalist adversary, intimately bound up with state power. Hence flows the need of the trade unions—insofar as they remain on reformist positions, ie, on positions of adapting themselves to private property—to adapt themselves to the capitalist state and to contend for its cooperation.”
The wars and revolutionary struggles to which imperialism gives rise accelerate this process, he wrote.
“The intensification of class contradictions within each country, the intensification of antagonisms between one country and another, produce a situation in which … social‑reformism must become transformed into social‑imperialism in order to prolong its existence.”
Trotsky gives the example of the efforts by rival union federations in the US to win the support of the Democrats. He might have added the appointment a few months earlier of the British trade union leader, Ernest Bevin, as minister of labour in Winston Churchill’s war cabinet.
Identification with “their” capitalist state is inherent in the nature of the union bureaucracy. Their role is to negotiate the terms on which workers are exploited by seeking class compromises. As a result, they receive privileges that alienate them from the workers they (mis)represent.
Seeing the state as representing the “national interest” and transcending the antagonism between labour and capital is the ultimate form of class compromise. Of course, the neoliberal era has seen the state often stepping back from economic intervention and largely ignoring trade union leaders.
As union power declined thanks to the offensive the bureaucracy failed to combat, they became desperate for a return for what is sometimes called “corporatism”. Every time jobs are threatened, union leaders, instead of organising a fightback, plead for government intervention.
They have been at it again recently demanding subsidies in exchange for new investment at BMW and Tata Steel.
Supporting the British imperialist state in its aggressive activities abroad is a logical extension of this class collaborationist approach. The union leaderships eagerly proclaimed their patriotic loyalty in both world wars. So last week’s vote falls into a larger pattern of “social‑imperialism”.
Partly this reflects sectional interests—the GMB, which proposed the motion, is very aggressive in asserting that it’s defending its members in the arms industry. As if collaborating in the current war drive is superior to fighting for investment in alternative forms of production.
But the trade union bureaucracy collectively is ideologically and materially committed to supporting “their” imperialism.
In both world wars this class collaboration was challenged by rank and file militants rebelling against the increased exploitation demanded by the war economy. Trotsky’s text, written as the second of these terrible struggles was unfolding, retains its relevance. He calls for “complete and unconditional independence of the trade unions in relation to the capitalist state” and “trade union democracy”.
Achieving this depends on developing rank and file organisation to allow workers to fight independently of the trade union officials who have been sabotaging the present strike wave. It also means, Trotsky emphasises, developing “revolutionary leadership” within the unions.