British workers and the Stalinist state "unions"

Submitted by martin on 5 September, 2009 - 1:56 Author: Sean Matgamna

Article from the magazine edition of Workers' Action (no.182, March 1981) urging that British unions break links with the official state-run "unions" of the Stalinist states and support independent unions there.


Taken together, the above two news items should make us angry and ashamed for our own trade unions. [They were an article in the Morning Star applauding Len Murray for "bridge-building" with the official USSR "unions", and a report that the independent union activist Vladimir Klebanov was ill as a result of forced drug treatment in the mental hospital in which he had been jailed for union activity].

Both appeared just as the Polish workers' movement was flaring into life, full-grown and militant from its beginning, last summer, when the Polish working class kicked aside the police-state 'unions' that had helped shackle them for the last third of a century and, proceeding to take on the bureaucrats' government, then created a real workers' movement in Poland once again. Throughout the bitter and dangerous struggle of the Polish workers to win the right to have free and self-governing trade unions, the British TUC maintained friendly contact and cooperation with the strike-breaking government unions. Even when millions of Polish workers had repudiated them, the TUC continued to recognise the anti-working class police-state 'unions' as genuine labour organisations. In the middle of the strike movement the TUC stubbornly refused to call off the scheduled visit of its delegates to the battlefield as guests of the scab 'unions' which were doing their best to help the Government beat down the insurgent workers. In the event the visit was called off by the Poles.

Our trade union movement maintains friendly contact with the police·state 'trade-union' apparatus of control over the working class which exists in the USSR. By its links with it, the TUC recognises this repressive apparatus as a trade union - which is to help sustain and spread a great lie. For what exist in the Stalinist states (except, for now, Poland), are not trade unions in any sense at all.

It is to preserve the monopoly of these misnamed 'trade unions' that working class militants like Klebanov and no doubt many others whose names we don 't know are tortured and murdered in the USSR and the other Stalinist states.

The only real trade unions we know of in Russia are those in which Vladimir Klebanov is a militant (though there may well exist other underground workers' organisations).

The official Russian 'trade unions' are no more trade unions than were the official trade unions in Poland, against which the workers revolted. They are even worse than those of Poland, because in the USSR the 'unions' are part of a regime which represses and controls the workers of the USSR with a cauterising totalitarian thoroughness that has not been experienced in its fully developed form in Poland since 1956 (if it ever fully existed there).

Seen in the light from Poland's Solidarnosc, the ties of the TUC and its constituent unions with the police state 'unions' in the various Stalinist states, the endorsement of the lie that they are real unions, is not merely scandalous but intolerable.

We must do something about it! But the official British labour movement does not seem to want to know about or concern itself with the conditions of the working class in the Stalinist states, or their struggles for basic liberties. and the right to form trade unions for self-defence against the bureaucratic state. From Bill Sirs on the right, who openly defended his 'colleagues', the strike-breaking Polish 'trade union' leaders, during the strikes, to Alex Kitson and Mick McGahey on the left, large sections of the British labour movement indulge in the pretence that the official 'trade unions' in the Stalinist states are real working class organisations — when in fact that they are part of a police-state 'Labour Front' apparatus for controlling and policing the working class and for preventing real trade unions and an independent working class movement developing.

It says everything about the nature of these 'unions' that their present leader in the USSR was transferred to this post from his previous job as head of the secret political police which tortures and jails and kills militants of the real trade unions such as Vladimir Klebanov. He merely moved from the general organisation for controlling and repressing the population to a specialised 'trade union' sub-section, dealing directly with the working class.

During the August 1980 strike movement, the then chairman of the Polish 'trade unions' Jan Sydlak, was one of the most outspoken and vicious of the bureaucrats in threatening the strikers and their helpers with tanks and slaughter.

He called publicly for them to be 'taught a lesson they would never forget'.

It is not just that many bureaucrats of our trade unions feel an impulse of solidarity for and have a real feeling of fellowship with the ruling Stalinist bureaucrats — though they obviously do. Nor just that many left wing officials are of a generally Stalinist persuasion — as are Kitson and McGahey.

Most importantly, the reason why they get away with it is that many rank and file militants, too, don't want to come out against the 'trade unions' in the Stalinist states and against the British trade union leaders who aid these police-state 'unions'. Many who consider themselves anti-Stalinist revolutionaries take the same view.

They would feel uncomfortable at having to say on this question something like what Margaret Thatcher and Frank Chapple say. This is understandable, but it is a really trivial consideration in a situation where the workers of the Stalinist states need our moral and practical support. We have a duty as basic as not crossing a picket line to give it to them.

To allow the noise made by the Chapples and Thatchers to force us into silence on the struggle of a big part of the world's working class is to sink into a blinkered national narrow-mindedness

As people who believe, with Marx and Engels, that the emancipation of the working class can only be achieved by the working class itself, we would be obliged to support any independent workers' movement against the police state even if we considered its politics to be seriously mistaken and wrong.

That a real labour movement should exist is much more important than any social transformations achieved apart from or against the working class. But in fact, as an Open Letter to Frank Chapple from six British Leyland shop stewards in Socialist Organiser no.25 showed in detail in relation to Poland, the Thatchers and Chapples are on a radically different wavelength from any real or likely workers' movement in the Stalinist states.

Some in the labour movement believe that contact with the 'institutions' of the states in the Stalinist bloc is a force for peace ('peaceful coexistence') and against war. If that view encourages the pretence (and the facts are too well known today to make such an attitude other than pretence) that the Stalinist states are not savagely oppressive; if it leads to ignoring the fact that the 'trade unions' there (and most other social institutions as well) have nothing in common with things of the same name in Britain; if it blinds us to the fact that they are 'anti-unions' and 'counter-unions' rather than working-class organisations ' — then it amounts to a craven siding with the oppressors against the oppressed in those states.

Yet other militants believe that socialists should refrain from stark condemnation and denunciation of the Stalinist regimes because they are relatively progressive and/or because socialists should defend the system of state-owned property in those states against any attempts by NATO to restore private ownership of the means of production.

This inhibition is of course found in Communist Party militants, who often may not know the full extent of the repression against the working class under Stalinism.

But many who do know about Stalinism, who are influenced by Trotsky, and who even commit themselves vaguely and abstractly to the working-class struggle against the Stalinist bureaucracy, are also inhibited. They recoil from the demand that the British workers' movement should have no dealings with the Stalinist labour fronts. For example, Socialist Challenge, which, in general, favours self-governing trade unions in the Stalinist states, nevertheless supported the scabbing TUC on the planned visit of its delegation to Poland last summer! Earlier it backed a controversial TUC invitation to the Russian political policeman who heads the Stalinist labour front in the USSR.

Why? It is not entirely clear, but it is probably connected to the fact that there was a bourgeois anti-USSR propaganda outcry in both cases. Yet something fundamental was involved, compared with which all that was unimportant: the attitude we try to get our own labour movement to take to the struggle of our class in the Stalinist states, and to their oppressors. To fudge that class issue, worse still to argue that our movement should have and maintain links with the anti-unions of the Stalinist states, with part of the apparatus that oppresses our people there, is to do the opposite of the work of Trotskyists — which is to fight for international working class solidarity with the real labour movements in the Stalinist states, or with their pioneers, like Klebanov.

To fear to call the Stalinists what they are for fear of chiming in with the reactionaries, and to endorse the links our own scabbing bureaucrats maintain with the Stalinist 'unions', is to adopt the stance of those 'Friends of the Soviet Union' who called Trotsky a reactionary for speaking out in the '30s.

What would Socialist Challenge have done in the '30s when it was often only right-wing outfits that were spreading accurate information — 'Trotskyist' information — about Russia? In Britain, for example, it was the 'Right Book Club' that published Victor Serge, Walter Krivitsky, etc.; and it was the 'Labour Book Club', during the coalition, in 1940, that published Anton Ciliga.

These comrades suffer from a dominating fear of anti-Sovietism which leads them in practice to leave the issue of the workers' movement to the Chapples. This amounts to playing Pontius Pilate with the affairs of our own class in the Stalinist states, and it is the sure way to allow the issue to be used to lead the mass of trade union members to anti-Soviet conclusions, and simultaneously to help keep many good militants entrenched in ignorant Stalinist or semi-Stalinist opposition to what Chapple and Thatcher support".

There is surely a more profound reason, though. look at the record. In June 1953 the USFI tendency's European sections refused to call for the withdrawal of the Russian Army which was shooting down the insurgent workers of East Berlin. They called instead for the withdrawal of both the US and Russian armies from Berlin, and by thus taking the issue to the 'higher' plane of bloc relationships, maintained their own fundamental position then of being advocates of one bloc.

That is, in real terms of politics and working-class struggle, they refused to side with the East Berlin workers, while generally, abstractly deploring Stalinism. It was a classic piece of centrist evasion.

The same segment of the USFI rejected the programme of a working-class anti-bureaucratic revolution in China (a 'political revolution') until 1967. The entire USFI today rejects that programme for Cuba.

The European majority has consistently rejected it for Vietnam (though reportedly some groups have reconsidered.) In their propaganda in favour of the PDP regime in Afghanistan, the minority around the SWP (USA) cited as one of that regime's merits that it had legalised trade unions — and neglected to mention that it forbade workers to strike. (See Intercontinental Press/Militant for the first six months of 1980). In other words, they accepted police-state labour-front-building by an aspirant totalitarian regime as genuine trade unionism, the labour-front apparatus for controlling the workers as organs of the working class.

All the USFI sections which uncritically support and endorse the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua (a genuinely radical petty bourgeois regime) make propaganda citing as a great merit of the Sandinistas that they are building trade unions. Yet if their firm belief that the Sandinistas will replicate the Cuban regime in Nicaragua proves to be true, then what the Sandinistas are building are their own labour-front organisations. For there to be any other possibility in the Sandinista union-organising drive, the membership would have to fight for genuine self-controlling unions independent of the state.

The USFI will not help anybody in Nicaragua (not to speak of Cuba) to understand this or fight for it. They themselves have simply abandoned the programme Trotsky proposed at the end of his life for the independence of the unions (see Trade Unions in the Epoch of Imperialist Decay and the Transitional Programme). The inability of the IMG and Socialist Challenge, faced with a hypocritical bourgeois outcry against TUC links with Stalinist 'trade unions', to know what is important, the complete collapse of any sense of proportion — that is an aspect of the politics of the undrainable swamp of Brandlerite confusion of which it is part. They seem to have forgotten which side of the line on these questions is the workers' side.

Trotsky would turn in his grave at the notion that attitudes such as those of Socialist Challenge have anything to do with the politics he fought and died for. Trotsky argued that the USSR was a 'degenerated workers' state' which should be defended against the military onslaughts of imperialism. So does Workers' Action. But that does not mean that we regard the USSR (or the other Stalinist states) under the bureaucracy as 'better'. Far from it. The bureaucratic USSR is only to be defended insofar as it is a product of the struggle against capitalism, and against being conquered by imperialism — not 'for itself'. In most respects it is the opposite of the ideal socialists strive for.

Its collectivism has more in common with the caricature evoked by enemies of socialism like Von Hayek than with what socialists want to achieve.

Trotsky took sides — and tried to get the international labour movement, whatever its given political coloration at that moment, to take sides — squarely with the workers of the USSR (and with the oppressed nations within the USSR, like the Ukrainians) against the totalitarian regime.

He never allowed the need to distance himself from the imperialist and pro-imperialist critics of the USSR to determine what he said. The Russian reality and the duty to tell the truth to the labour movement did that.

He did not hesitate to classify things and name them according to what they were. For example, for the last three years of his life at least he insistently repeated his belief that "Stalin 's political apparatus does not differ [from that in fascist countries] save in more unbridled savagery " (The Transitional Programme) Nor is it any different today, 40 years after an agent of that regime struck Trotsky down.

A major psychological reason why there is reluctance to call things like the Russian 'trade unions' by their proper names is probably the fear of thereby praising by implication the regime which our movement exists to fight — that of 'liberal' capitalism. There is probably a subconscious reluctance to face the facts about the Stalinist regimes, and their implications, because those regimes are so terrible compared with the political regimes in the historically privileged advanced capitalist countries that the latter seem almost good by comparison.

And of course, horror at the reality of the Stalinist regimes has, in the last four or five decades, led many one-time revolutionary socialists to 'reconciliation' with 'liberal' capitalism. But the choice is not confined to either Thatcher and Reagan or Brezhnev and Honeckers there is also the possibility of a working-class socialist democracy.

The programme of working-class democracy and revolutionary socialism is rooted in the incapacity of capitalism to satisfy the needs and aspirations of the working class. Capitalism periodically ravages the lives of working class people with slumps and wars, and it is now ravaging the lives of over two million working class families in Britain alone.

In many areas of the world it imposes its own forms of dictatorship. In social crises like Britain's present crisis it has time and again resorted to savage repression. It is now attempting, as yet in a limited way, to tie our own unions to the state. Now less than ever before is there a basis for any labour movement reconciliation with capitalism or its advocates.

In fact, irreconcilable working class and socialist opposition to our main enemy at home cannot be stable or politically serious if it is based on anything other than a clear and independent working class view of the world, and on the experience of all the struggles of the working class throughout the world.

Therefore we must not block out of our consciousness a real awareness of what our class faces under the Stalinist regimes. We must not mollify or console ourselves with half-conscious assumptions that the totalitarian Stalinist regimes are really not so bad, are really rather benevolent and paternalistic to those they deprive of civil rights and personal and group autonomy, and are not really dripping with the blood of workers who have dared to stand out against them.

They do really drip with workers' blood.

The inspiring rebirth of a labour movement in Poland now highlights and underlines the situation in the other Stalinist states. It highlights and underlines what our responsibilities are in this situation.

We must actively support the workers in Russia and the other Stalinist states, and that means opposing their oppressors in every way we can.

It means rousing the anger, the hatred and the active hostility of the labour movement against them.

It is, to repeat, as basic as not crossing a picket line. And as basic as the attitude one takes to those who do.

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