Leon Trotsky on the Trade Unions and their Role During the Decline of Capitalism

Reprinted below is an edited version of Leon Trotsky's essay "The Trade Unions in Britain" written in 1933. I removed sections relating to now obscure events, organizations and individuals of the early 20th century workers movement, which readers unfamiliar with the history of the Communist movement might find distracting and confusing. Trotsky's points apply in full force to the trade union bureaucracy in the capitalist countries of today, and will illuminate the reasons why the leaders of the TWU Local 100, despite their tough talk and posturing as principled fighters for the rights of the working class, sold out the union lock, stock and barrel the moment the capitalist state, as could and should have been expected, threatened them with fines and a possible jail term. The TWU bureaucracy sought to protect their own asses rather than fight for their membership, plain and simple. The bureaucrats stabbed the strike in the back, making a shady deal to end the strike, and ordering the workers to return to work without offering even the most superficial explanation as to why a hugely effective work stoppage should be brought to an end. Absolutely no explanation has been given as to what concessions were given by the TWU, or what concessions were made by the MTA (most probably, none at all). The mediator in the strike has imposed a complete censorship upon the TWU leaders who are forbidden to speak to the press about what, if anything, was agreed to at the bargaining table. This censorship, of course, will not apply to the MTA and Mayor Bloomberg, who will be bragging to all their capitalist friends about how they cowed the TWU leadership into making a complete surrender of all their positions on the eve of the decisive battle, without a shot being fired. News reports today imply that the MTA's final offer remains on the table, and even the fines that were levied against the TWU and its members remain as before! If this is true, then Toussaint has committed a betrayal of the TWU membership that stands unparalleled in the history of the TWU, and that's saying a lot!

It is still possible for the TWU membership to turn this situation around by demanding an immediate full meeting of the union, where Toussaint and the TWU Executive Board would be compelled to explain their betrayal. A vote should then be taken as to whether or not the strike should recommence, and a vote should then be taken to establish a strike committee capable of carrying out the program of the TWU membership against the MTA's naked strikebreaking attempt. This would be very difficult to do, no doubt; but it is the only way to prevent a huge defeat for the TWU, which is undoubtedly going to take place if Toussaint succeeds in shoving a contract laden with concessions down the throats of the TWU membership.

Without a revolutionary leadership in the trade unions dedicated to the struggle to overthrow the capitalist system, it will prove damned near impossible to wrest concessions from the capitalist class at this time in history. The trade union bureaucracy, burdened with their pro-capitalist philosophy of "business unionism", is more interested in proving their value as "responsible partners" of the capitalist class than they are in fighting for the interests of the workers the bureaucracy supposedly represents. The trade union bureaucracy of the AFL-CIO is trained to be more interested in ensuring the profitability of their industries than in guaranteeing the workers decent wages and benefits. Constantly waving the flag of the capitalist US in the face of the workers, supporting the rapacious wars of US imperialism, like the brutal war against Iraq, spouting anti-communist rhetoric at every opportunity - the AFL-CIO bureaucracy, by all these actions shows their undying allegiance to the capitalist ruling class of the United States, and their undying contempt for the workers of the world. Until this jingoistic, nationalistic, war-mongering, pro-capitalist AFL-CIO bureaucratic caste is driven out of the trade union movement by an upsurge of revolutionary struggle of the workers, led by a revolutionary Trotskyist party, we can expect that most trade union struggles will be sold out on the eve of victory, as has happened to the TWU strike. The workers have to learn that they will remain as helpless as sheep being driven into a slaughterhouse so long as they continue to remain loyal to the capitalist system and its representatives in the Republican and Democratic parties and the pro-capitalist AFL-CIO bureaucracy. To remain loyal to the capitalist class of the US and to the capitalist system itself is to ensure a future of continually declining standards of living, homelessness, poverty and war for the working people of the planet. To paraphrase Frederick Douglass: "Without revolutionary struggle, there can be no progress!"

"Workers of the World, Unite!"


Trotsky says all this way better than I do, so please, working man or woman, take a couple of minutes to read this brief essay by this great revolutionary leader that perfectly explains what the pro-capitalist trade union bureaucracy is, and why they are certain to lead us to defeat after defeat. I am sure that you will find it worthwhile. -- V


Original title: The Trade Unions in Britain

Written: by Trotsky, 1933;
Source: Communism and Syndicalism, by Leon Trotsky. A Labour Press Pamphlet, 1971;
Transcribed: by Andy Blunden.

Edited by Varlet from the version available on "Marxists Internet Archive"  http://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/works/1933/unions-britain.htm


The trade union question remains the most important question of working class policy[...]. [A] party’s inability to establish correct relations with the [working] class reveals itself most glaringly in the area of the trade union movement. That is why I consider it necessary to dwell on this question.

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, which in England lasted over a century, gave the trade unions tremendous authority among the workers. The decay of British capitalism, under the conditions of decline of the world capitalist system, undermined the basis for the reformist work of the trade unions. Capitalism can continue to maintain itself only by lowering the standard of living of the working class. Under these conditions trade unions can either transform themselves into revolutionary organisations or become lieutenants of capital in the intensified exploitation. of the workers. The trade union bureaucracy, which has satisfactorily solved its own social problem, took the second path. It turned all the 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.

From that point on, the most important task of the revolutionary party became the liberation of the workers from the reactionary influence of the trade union bureaucracy...

[T]he 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 road is seriously compromised 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 being in a blind alley. Meanwhile, the trade union bureaucracy persecutes the revolutionary workers ever more boldly, ever more impudently replacing internal democracy by the arbitrary action of a clique, in essence transforming the trade unions into some sort of concentration camp for the workers during the decline of capitalism.

Under these conditions, the thought easily arises: Is it not possible to bypass the trade unions? Is it not possible to replace them by some sort of fresh, uncorrupted organisation of the type of revolutionary trade unions, shop committees, soviets, and the like? The fundamental mistake of such attempts lies in that they reduce to organisational experiments the great political problem of how to free the masses from the influence of the trade union bureaucracy. It is not enough to offer the masses a new address. It is necessary to seek out the masses where they are and to lead them.

Impatient leftists sometimes say that it is absolutely impossible to win over the trade unions because the bureaucracy uses the organisations’ internal regimes for preserving its own interests, resorting to the basest machinations, repression and plain crookedness[...]. Why then waste time and energy? This argument reduces itself in reality to giving up the actual struggle to win the masses, using the corrupt character of the trade union bureaucracy as a pretext. This argument can be developed further: Why not abandon revolutionary work altogether, considering the repression and provocations on the part of the government bureaucracy? There exists no principled difference here, since the trade union bureaucracy has definitely 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 own help, or only 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 discreetly, 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 mean by this that the revolutionary party has any guarantee that the trade unions will be completely won over to the socialist revolution. The problem is not so simple. The trade union apparatus has attained for itself great independence from the masses. The bureaucracy is capable of retaining its positions a long time after the masses have turned against it. But it is precisely such a situation, where the masses are already hostile to the trade union bureaucracy but where the bureaucracy is still capable of misrepresenting the opinion of the organisation and of sabotaging new elections, that is most favourable for the creation of shop committees, workers’ councils, and other organisations for the immediate needs of any given moment. Even in Russia, where the trade unions did not have anything like the powerful traditions of the British trade unions, the October Revolution occurred with Mensheviks predominant in the administration of the trade unions. Having lost the masses, these administrations were still capable of sabotaging elections in the apparatus, although already powerless to sabotage the proletarian revolution.

It is absolutely necessary right now to prepare the minds of the advanced workers for the idea of creating shop committees and workers’ councils at the moment of a sharp change. But it would be the greatest mistake to “play around” in practice with the slogan of shop councils, consoling oneself, with this “Idea,” for the lack of real work and real influence in the trade unions. To counterpose to the existing trade unions the abstract idea of workers’ councils would mean setting against oneself not only the bureaucracy but also the masses, thus depriving oneself of the possibility of preparing the ground for the creation of workers’ councils.


Pseudo-Communists will, no doubt, refer to the last congress of trade unions, which declared that there could be no united front with Communists against fascism. It would he the greatest folly to accept this piece of wisdom as the final verdict of history. The trade union bureaucrats can permit themselves such boastful formulas only because they are not immediately threatened 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 onto this path even a certain portion of the apparatus. Contrariwise, if Communism should become a decisive force, threatening the General Councils with the loss of positions, honours, and income, [the trade union bureaucracy] [might very well - V] enter into a bloc with [the fascists] against the Communists. Thus, in August 1917, the Russian Mensheviks and Social-Revolutionaries together with the Bolsheviks repulsed General Kornilov [leader of the counterrevolutionary White Guard Army - V]. 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 the reformists were still strong, they spouted [...] about the impossibility of them making an alliance with a dictatorship either of the right or left.

The 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, the revolutionary party must know how to establish correct relations with the [working] class. This presupposes a policy of revolutionary realism, equally removed from opportunistic vagueness and sectarian aloofness. [...]

September 4, 1933