By John F. Conway. “Democracy leads the struggle of the working class not only for better terms for the sale of labour power, but for the abolition of the social system that compels the propertyless to sell themselves to the rich…Trade unionist politics of the working class is precisely bourgeois politics of the working class.” — V. I. Lenin, What Is To Be Done?
Lenin’s famous booklet, What Is To Be Done?, is considered the blueprint for his successful leadership of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 in Russia. He was writing in 1902 and the working class was on the rise. From the mid-1800s to the 1940s the working classes of the advanced capitalist nations engaged in two struggles. One was the narrow economic battle for collective bargaining rights to improve the terms and conditions of work — which led to the trade union movement. The other was the general political campaign for the abolition of capitalism and the establishment of a socialist society — which led to communist, socialist and social democratic political parties.
What Lenin consistently argued — as Marx had, and as every militant political leader of the working class continued to argue to the present day — was that the working class had to remain keenly aware that the economic fight within capitalism through trade unions, though immensely important, must never be allowed to divert the working class from the general struggle for socialism.
Socialism was never achieved in the advanced capitalist societies. The socialist victory in industrially backward Russia became so distorted under Stalin, after both the death of Lenin and Trotsky’s purge and murder, that it tended to discredit the promise of socialism for many. Nevertheless, great gains were made as the capitalist ruling classes embraced the welfare state — if only to prevent the victory of working class political parties. The construction of the welfare state accelerated after the Great Depression and World War II, largely because working class parties either won power or came very close to winning power in the industrial world: the victories of the Labour Party in 1945 in Great Britain and of the CCF in Saskatchewan in 1944; the near victories of the Communist Parties of France and Italy after the war; the rise to power throughout western Europe of social democratic parties.
Add to this the rise of the Soviet Union as an international contender for ideological support for socialism and against capitalism as an economic system, and the pace of the reform of capitalism was astonishing from 1945 to 1980.
Yet Capitalist ideological hegemony, and political and economic power, remained dominant in the western, industrialized world. When the Soviet Union imploded in 1991 and turned to capitalism, and the Chinese revolution embraced capitalism to become the industrial workshop of the now capitalist world, socialism was dead as a viable alternative.
As you look around you today, the things that you take for granted as part of our good life were won by the political struggles of the working class and its allies: free health care; free K to 12 public education; minimum wages; labour standards; the health and safety regulation of work places; workers’ compensation; employment insurance; the Canada Pension plan — the list goes on and on. Each of these gains was first proposed and then fought for by the working class and its organizations — the trade unions and the political parties the working class founded or helped to found.
Even our democratic system was won only after long and bitter, sometimes bloody, struggles in which the working classes played the central role. When the capitalist democratic revolutions overthrew aristocratic tyranny in the 18th and 19th centuries (with the mass support of an armed working class), they established a democracy of the propertied. Only men with property of a certain value could vote.
The agitations in Great Britain leading to the Reform Act of 1832 — agitations which came very close to a general insurrection — reluctantly added men who rented property of a certain value as also eligible to vote: this meant that one in seven men could vote. Further agitations led to the Reform Act of 1867 which extended the vote to all male householders. Universal suffrage for men in Great Britain was not won until 1918, when all men of 21 got the vote. True universal suffrage was achieved in 1928 when all men and women of 21 got the vote. Canada largely followed Great Britain on the suffrage issue. True universal suffrage was won in Canada in 1960 when all aboriginals under treaty were finally granted the franchise.
The historical record is clear. Democracy was never given freely by the capitalist ruling classes; it had to be taken from them, just as all other reforms had to be taken by struggle.
Beginning in the 1980s, and accelerating after the fall of the Soviet Union, the international capitalist ruling classes again dominated the world as they had in the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries. The reformist mask of capitalism was discarded, and a vicious neo-liberal “take-back” campaign began. The era of neo-liberal globalization was proclaimed as the justification for a relentless attack on the welfare state and the trade unions — a relentless attack on the working classes of the world.
As technology advanced, factories in high wage areas were closed and redistributed around the globe to low wage areas. Unions were faced with massive layoffs, and contract demands from employers included a whole variety of concessions to cheapen the costs of labour in order to achieve global competitiveness. Unions were compelled to take wage cuts, to accept benefit reductions or eliminations, to accept two-tier wage and benefit packages (one “grandfathering” existing workers with existing wages and benefits, the other for new hires with lower wages and fewer benefits).
Besides this attack on trade unions, capitalist political parties (which now included the formerly pro-labour social democratic parties) proclaimed that the new era of global capitalist competitiveness demanded massive cuts to the welfare state.
This campaign against the trade unions and the welfare state has been going on for over 25 years now, and continues to get worse and worse as the numbers of broken unions and discarded social programs mount each day.
Canada’s working class is on the ropes. Its major institutions — the trade unions — are reeling from successive defeats. The number of union members in Canada is in serious decline, from 35 per cent in the 1980s to 28 per cent today. The Canadian Auto Workers — Canada’s largest, most successful and most militant union — is in a state of collapse as cuts in the auto industry force it to its knees. The CAW, which denounced concession bargaining and proclaimed it would never, ever go down that road, has now fully embraced concession bargaining and two-tier contracts in the name of the “investment competitiveness” of its bosses.
These are dark days for the trade union movement, days of defeat, concessions, and cap-in-hand pleas to the bosses. If the trade union movement continues down this road, it will only get worse — the concessions demanded by capitalism will never end until the working class is powerless and on its knees.
The political clout of the working class in Canada is at its lowest ebb since prior to the Great Depression. The NDP has bought into neo-liberal ideological hegemony, and has essentially become just another capitalist political party. Unorganized workers feel less and less sympathy for trade unions desperately trying to salvage their entitlements while leaving the unorganized to their fate. Public sympathy for unions is very low since unions appear only concerned about the narrow economic interests of their existing members.
What should the working class and its last remaining institution — the trade unions — do at this juncture?
Perhaps the trade unions should learn from history. What did trade unions do during the Great Depression, the last time capitalists tried to use an economic crisis to crush the modest gains the working class had made? The only power of the working class is its own self-organization. And that is what the trade unions and socialist activists did in the 1930s — they commenced a massive organizing drive of the unorganized; they fought strikes over demanded concessions; they occupied closed factories in solidarity with laid-off workers; they organized the unemployed and the poor; and they produced that great slogan of solidarity — “an injury to one is an injury to all,” and actually acted on it.
Today unions are not doing much of this. They say they want to do it, they pass resolutions and make speeches about doing it, but they are not acting. As they accept concessions involving two tiers, they are fracturing their own internal solidarity. As they ignore the plight — except for pious, self-congratulatory resolutions passed at conventions — of the unorganized and the poor, they fracture the solidarity of the class as a whole.
The only way the working class ever obtained any effective power was through mass self-organization.
That was true in 1850, and it is even more true in 2008.
John Conway teaches at the University of Regina. This article, which originally appeared in Planet S, is reprinted by permission of the author.