Theses on Revolutionary Interventions in Workplaces and Trade Unions

Introduction: Today, more so in the German-speaking countries than in other parts of the world, the subjectively revolutionary left is largely isolated from the working class. It has no basis in the workplaces and, as a consequence, it is not a relevant factor within the trade unions. For Marxist revolutionaries, this situation represents a dramatic weakness. There are a number of objective reasons for this situation: fascism, the Cold War, the "welfare state", social partnership, etc. This societal framework makes revolutionary work in the trade unions and the workplaces very difficult and must be taken into account when making decisions for or against this kind of work; it cannot be overcome in a voluntaristic manner. Nonetheless, the political work of the subjectively revolutionary left is not without relevance, even if it is difficult in the current situation to find a path in between ultra-left adventurism and opportunist primitiveness (referred to by Lenin as “handicraft methods”). We will summarize the results of our discussions in the form of theses.

1. Communists see a revolutionary working class as the only possible subject for smashing the bourgeois state and abolishing the capitalist system of exploitation. Therefore, establishing a basis within this class (in the workplaces, residential areas, trade unions, workers' committees, etc.) is a central goal for any revolutionary organization. The key sectors of the economy and the strategically important workplaces in which a large number of wage laborers are concentrated play an special role in this context, since it is here that the system can be struck at its core, the profits of the capitalist class. It is here that the potential for collective struggle of the workers is highest. Therefore, in principle and in the long-run, every revolutionary organization must be oriented towards building up a basis in these sectors, towards workplace interventions in these sectors.

2. Trade unions are, on the one hand, the most elementary form of proletarian class organization. They often represent a broad coalition of forces in defense of immediate class interests against capital, which can lead struggles and contribute to the development of class consciousness, making them ”schools of war for the workers” (F. Engels). On the other hand, working class politics which focus solely on trade unions have a tendency to remain trapped within capitalist logic and thus subordinate to it, limited to "realistic" policies of redistribution. Today, the vast majority of trade unions internationally are controlled by reformist, bureaucratic apparatuses; in the German-speaking countries this situation is especially obvious. These apparatuses function as capitalism's "political police" (L. Trotsky), attempting to nip any independent class activity in the bud. Despite all this, trade unions remain important points of reference for communists wherever they actually organize substantial groups of workers as a class in opposition to capitalist interests, whether they be single trade unions or unions with a specific political or religious orientation. In these cases, revolutionaries will in principle seek to disempower the bureaucracy, make the trade unions democratic and committed to class struggle, and revolutionize them.

3. However, this orientation towards revolutionizing trade unions remains in limbo if it is not based on a relevant amount of political influence in the workplaces. Today, the trade union structures and circles in the German-speaking countries normally do not have an active basis; they are dominated by shop stewards and union officials. Even if serveral of them are critical and some of them used to belong to the radical left, they are nonetheless trapped in a primitive, economist mindset and a logic of the trade unions’ rules. For a revolutionary, intervening into this milieu without a basis in the workplaces leads in the best case to a role as an advisor and helper. The possibility to make decisions about the political course will always lie in the hands of others. In this kind of intervention, the revolutionaries will be dependent on the good will of left reformist trade union officials or shop stewards. As has been clearly shown by the experiences of many subjective revolutionaries in the German-speaking countries in the last few decades, revolutionary intervention into trade union structures or left-wing trade union circles without a basis in the workplaces in all probability leads to being smothered in the bureaucratic apparatus or degenerating into a primitive trade union left. In order to follow developments in this milieu and to distribute political propaganda, it can make sense to participate in events of these structures (just like events of other currents of the left) – a continuous intervention, however, does not have a perspective under the aforementioned conditions.

4. Successful revolutionary interventions in workplaces may quickly pose the need for work in trade unions. Nonetheless, the primary goal of revolutionary politics is the intervention in the workplaces themselves and establishing a basis there. Given the current conditions in the German-speaking countries (far-reaching control over the trade unions by bureaucratic apparatuses, lack of a tradition of independent struggles in the working class), this goal is not easy to attain. It is fairly easy to be elected shop steward on the basis of a (politically unspecified) commitment to co-workers. Here there is a big danger of ending up a “well-liked” shop steward carrying out primitive, left-wing union policies, wearing oneself out with the odds and ends of shop steward routine. It is no coincidence that subjectively revolutionary organizations have often lost those comrades who ran as shop stewards because there was hardly a connection between this type of work and their task of building up a revolutionary organization, and the dual burden of both activities could not be shouldered in the long-run (especially for comrades with children). Given the limited strength of subjectively revolutionary groups, starting an intervention in a workplace and thus taking on the everyday feuds of the work environment must be carefully considered. Most importantly, it must be evaluated in relation to the central goal of building up a revolutionary organization. This means realistically assessing the opportunities in relation to the risks, because it will do the organization no good if an unplanned conflict in the workplace causes comrades to lose their jobs and their means of existence.

5. If a revolutionary organization with the necessary strength and political stability, following an assessment of the objective criteria, decides to begin a workplace intervention and thus to build up a political basis from the inside (which must always be an organizational as opposed to an individual decision), further questions and political snares are to be expected. The first question involves selecting a suitable workplace for an intervention in which one or more comrades work. Small workplaces are usually not worth the effort. A further criterion is whether there are starting points for revolutionary or at least class struggle agitation amongst the workers. Then it is important to not be too exposed in workplace conflicts too early on. The consequence could well be that the exposed comrade would be left standing in the rain by her or his colleagues, and a dismissal would leave the entire project nipped in the bud. Initially, there must be a defensive approach, building up support in the form of a group of co-workers who agree on central questions. What is important here is a basic line which is clearly against social partnership and for class struggle, as well as unity about democratic decision-making processes amongst the workers (transparency and independent activity instead of secret negotiations). Even when the formation of such a group is successful, early workplace conflicts should be avoided because in this case the group is in danger of being attacked by management and security etc., (possibly in cooperation with bureaucracy of the shop stewards and the trade unions, especially in big companies also by the police and secret services) at a stage when it is not yet capable of sufficiently protecting itself, and being broken up. Therefore, it is important to not let oneself be swept away by every first sign of a movement and then be shot down, but rather to run for a shop steward position (and thus to achieve at least some form of protection against dismissal) based on the support of the established group. Since only the chairperson of the shop stewards’ committee has the power to make decisions and only the first in the list of candidates can potentially be elected to this post, it is important for a comrade to take the first slot in the list, in order to avoid giving management the chance to buy off a candidate with less political consciousness. The work as a shop steward must, as already announced during the candidacy, avoid functioning as an intermediary and instead support independent activity. All meetings of the shop stewards’ committee must open to all workers. All decisions about the course of action towards management must be made by assemblies of workers, explicitly breaking from the bureaucratic and paternalistic routine of many workplaces. Clearly, building up an isolated and therefore generally short-lived opposition in a workplace is not the central goal for communists today; the central goal is building up a revolutionary organization. Every intervention in workplaces must be subordinate to this. This means that such interventions must be accompanied by general political propaganda amongst the workers (from the inside or the outside) in which the situation of specially oppressed sections of the working class (women, immigrants) is featured regularly, and that the intervention must be used as an example for the left and the workers' movement. Intervention in a sector must always be the responsibility of the revolutionary organization (and not only of those comrades directly involved), which means it requires regular discussions in the organization and systematic support from other responsible comrades.

6. If a revolutionary organization is not strong enough to provide the massive resources required for this type of workplace intervention and/or does not have comrades in sectors suitable for an intervention, interventions in workplace/proletarian milieus at a lower level of intensity can be considered. Just as interventions in left-wing trade union circles without a basis in the workplaces are a dead end, a one-time distribution of fliers in the case of workplace conflicts that break onto the scene spontaneously is not very promising. It is true that the workers at these actions are happy to take the fliers of left-wing groups, especially because hardly anything is ever distributed in front of workplaces and the material, besides being related to the conflict that concerns the people at the moment, has the lure of something exotic and interesting. But this is also the problem: the small left-wing group previously unknown to the workers and its "radical" propositions are too alien to really be taken seriously. Even if many of the workers are initially happy about this sign of solidarity from outside and some offer positive feedback, in the end they will trust the shop stewards they know. The left-wing groups have no possibility to follow up on the issue (once the conflict has openly erupted, it is too late to build up continuity) and the interventions and all the energy that went into them usually dissolve into thin air. In cases where important conflicts arise in workplaces or trade unions, where the revolutionary organization has access to the basis of the workers involved, interventions might make sense; However, their purpose is to gather experience and one must avoid the illusion of being able to attain influence within the working class via these interventions. This must be reflected in the character of the intervention (not the greatest amount of fliers but rather observing, discussing, offering more in-depth material).

7. When it comes to interventions in a workplace/proletarian environment, continuity is key if one wants to be taken seriously and become a political factor. If the conditions for intervening in a workplace are not given for a revolutionary organization, then continuous intervention from the outside in workplaces or other proletarian milieus can be a useful intermediate step. But without contacts within the specific workplace and thus without the possibility of acquiring inside information and receiving feedback, even the regular distribution of fliers etc. might very well be like banging one’s head against the wall. If the organization does have such contacts, then one of the conditions for continuous intervention in a particular workplace is met. However, further issues require clarification: Is the organization, given its strength and political stability, capable of seriously and continuously carrying out the intervention? What is the relationship between the resources required (production and distribution of political material, regular meetings with the contacts at the workplace, etc.) and the benefits generated in terms of building up the revolutionary organization (gathering experience in a workplace/proletarian milieu, drawing interested workers into the organization's periphery)? Does the mood of at least part of the workforce lend itself to revolutionary propaganda? Are there workers in the workplace interested in general social and political issues and open to contact with the radical left? Only such workers – and not those interested exclusively in questions pertaining to their trade union or the workplace itself – can potentially be integrated into a revolutionary organization in the current situation. Accordingly, besides questions directly affecting to the situation of wage laborers, revolutionary propaganda must systematically introduce general social and political issues into the workplace/proletarian milieu. Ultimately, any such intervention must be subordinate to building up a revolutionary organization.


Agreed at the founding conference of the RSO (May 2007)

Translation: Anke Hoorn (RSO Vienna)