Below is an interview done in collaboration with Croation Communist Iskra with members of the International Communist Party who are based in Italy and involved in the SICobas, a militant union that fights for class struggle principles rather than the corporatist arrangements that dominate unions in Italy. We publish this not only to spread awareness of this militant class movement, but to potentially provide insight into the task of building a classist labor movement in the USA and beyond.
QUESTIONS REGARDING THE SI COBAS
The party did not form the SICobas: the SICobas arose entirely independently of the party and there are no ties binding the two organizations. The party is not now, nor has it been in the past, in the SICobas executive.
How did the SI Cobas come to be formed?
The formation of the SICobas is described in the article “A Report on Rank and File Movements in Italy” published in The Communist Party No.1
What are some of the more recent struggles they have been involved in?
A survey of the SI Cobas’s recent struggles is included in the article ‘No “Christmas truce” for the struggles of the SI Cobas.: Against police and Confederates’, which is in The Communist Party, No.3
You are a territorial union instead of a “company” one. What does it mean inpractice? How are the SI Cobas different from the mainstream Italian unions, which are integrated into the State? What differentiates them from the other rank and file “base” unions?
The reasons why trade union organization on a territorial basis is to be preferred is explained in a leaflet, ‘For territorial reorganization of the working class’, which also appears in the first issue of The Communist Party.
What methods do you use in your struggles? Are you using “direct action” or are you also using lawyers and other legal means?
This and other fundamental questions are covered in the speech made by one of our comrades at the First SI Cobas conference, which can be found in The Communist Party, No.2.
Do you cooperate with other organizations in your struggles? I saw you had joint general strike with USI-AIT.
The SI Cobas doesn’t offer preferential status or collaborate on a permanent basis with any particular trade union. Indeed, during a strike, it has show that it is prepared to unite the forces at its disposal with those mobilized by other trade unions, supporting the principal of unity of action. This has happened in conjunction with other rank and file trade unions, as was the case during the last general strike on March 18 last year, when it organized alongside the CUB and the USI-AIT. But also with regards to mobilizations organized by the CGIL, the biggest of the Italian regime unions: on 14 November 2014 a thousand SI COBAS logistics workers joined the march organized by the FIOM, the CGIL metal-workers’ federation and the main trade union in the category. A month later, on 12 December, it saw to it that the general strike in the category within which the majority of its members are concentrated – logistics – coincided with the general strike of all categories proclaimed by the CGIL.
In our view the latter policy is the right practical policy, and it is classist, because by uniting the workers it means strikes acquire greater force and that is the initial condition needed for them to break free from the control of the regime unions. Thus uniting with the mobilizations of these unions doesn’t in fact strengthen them.
This policy has been rejected by the other rank and file unions, which have always boycotted strikes when called by the regime unions, and organized their own ones in competition with them, on different dates, thus weakening the workers’ mobilization.
In our eyes this practical policy adopted by the SI Cobas is one of the positive elements which distinguishes it form other rank and file trade unions, as we have explained on various occasions, for example during our speech at the first congress of the SI Cobas.
A big debate amongst proponents of class struggle unionism here in the USA is on the use of paid staff. Do the SI Cobas use paid staff and if so for what functions?
It is not a matter of principle at stake here: large trade unions will always need a certain number of full-time organizers. The prevalence of a conservative, self-serving trade-union bureaucracy isn’t therefore the cause of the conciliatory policies pursued by the union and of its betrayal, but the effect: the bulk of its members and organizers have not proved strong enough either to prevent the leaders from betraying or to get rid of them and replace them with leaders they can have faith in.
What does the organizational structure of the SI Cobas look like? How are decisions made?
The SI Cobas is a young trade union which wants to equip itself wit a more robust organizational structure. It is composed of committees [cordinamenti] and provincial and national executives. In the case of enterprises which are spread out over several sites across the country there are also Company National Committees. These organs are not always that effective
The Provincial Comittees are made up of delegates from the various forms in the province. The Committee elects a smaller group as its Executive. The provincial Committee is supposed to meet at least once a month and the Executive once a week.
As far as know there are a lot of immigrant workers in your union. What is the union’s position on the”European refugee crisis” and do you act somehow to help people arriving in Italy?
It is necessary to come up with a class, rather than a vaguely humanitarian, solution to the problem: the immigrants are workers and are doubly oppressed, as proletarians and as foreigners.
On 16 September the SI Cobas organization a national demonstration in solidarity with the the immigrants and refugees. We distributed this leaflet.
QUESTIONS REGARDING PARTY AND TRADE UNION IN THE USA
While in the USA the situation of the unions is radically different, are there any lessons to be learned from the experiences of the SI Cobas for militants in the United States who want to build class struggle unions and connect this with the struggle for a Communist programme? Are there any developments in the class struggle here that have caught your attention?
Communists do not pretend that the various forms within which the class struggle finds expression should conform to a fixed pattern. The history of class trade unionism has shown that the types of organization that most lend themselves to leading the working class against the bosses’ State are the ones to be preferred, thus those open to all workers, independently of their ideas, political beliefs, party membership and religious faith. For the same reason are to be prefigured industrial trade unions as compared to those of a particular trade; those of a category as compared to those a particular firm; and national as opposed to local ones. The vast majority of the base unions in Italy apply, or attempt to apply, these organizational models.
On the history of the American workers’ movement we are publishing a long study in our English review Communist Left. the 5th installment of which will appear in the forthcoming issue. The general conclusion of this study confirms what the American working class has often lacked in its history is not trade unions, and examples of great mobilizations and bravery, but a communist party which is, 1) firmly founded on the uncorrupted doctrine of revolutionary Marxism, 2) which is committed to tactics which are intransigently anti-opportunist, and which, 3) lives according to a corresponding type of internal organization which is centralised, fraternal and anti-personalistic.
QUESTIONS REGARDING PARTY AND TRADE UNION
In the USA many who identify with the Communist Left take a hard-line anti-union stance and argue that all unions inevitably become integrated into the state. The ICP, regarding the SI COBAs, takes a different stance. How did you did come to this political conclusion?
It is true that we have witnessed, since the end of the nineteenth century, the progressive submission of the trade unions to bourgeois ideology, to the nation and to the capitalist states, to the point that they participated in disciplining proletarians in two world wars and the defense of national capital in both peacetime and war. But this process, even if it has now become irreversible for many of the large existing trade unions, which have become virtually institutionalized as organs of the bourgeoisie, does not detract from the imperative necessity of workers’ defense against the growing pressure from the ruling class; this will lead to the rebirth of new trade unions freed from bourgeois conditioning. And in fact, we are seeing this rebirth. Whether they succeed in maintaining their independence will depend on the relative forces between the classes and the ability of capitalism to continue to hand out a few corrupting crumbs – something which today seems ever more unlikely.
What kind of political work does the ICP do within the SI COBAs? How does the organization work to politicize workers within the union?
This is the authentic Marxist position on the trade unions, summarized to the extreme:
The economic struggle is a necessary defensive and spontaneous response of those who sell their labor power: given the balance of forces between capitalists, who monopolize the means of production, and the destitute proletarians, if the latter stopped defending the level of wages and of working hours they would soon be reduced to conditions lower than those necessary for their own physical subsistence.
Because it soon became evident that this was not a matter of an individual dispute between single capitalist and working class citizens, but a clash between the opposing interests of two classes within society, from the very beginning trade union type organizations arose with the aim of defending more or less vast groups of workers.
These working class associations arose spontaneously, not through the will and intervention of a political party. The process by which the Marxist communist party, possessor of the doctrine and program of the working class, and the trade unions were born and developed was of no short duration, and though it happened side by side, it was not simultaneous as regards time and place. Over the course of the years there have often been situations in which the trade union movement and working class combativeness extended itself greatly on the level of economic demands, but there was minimal response to the communist party’s directives within the class.
To anticipate revolutionary or communist trade unions, as trade unions composed only of revolutionaries or communists, is to ignore the real historical revolutionary process. In the course of the transition from capitalist society to communism, that’s to say in the period when the dictatorship is exercised by the party, the wage-earning class abolishes itself. Where there are trade unions there is no communism, and vice-versa. The trade union emerges as and remains a product of bourgeois commercial society and remains subsumed within it, with many of its defects.
It is only when directed by the communist party that the trade union, functioning as a transmission belt between the party and the class in general, becomes a powerful and indispensable instrument for the revolutionary overthrow of bourgeois power; and, after the seizure of power by the party of the proletariat, for the reorganization of production and the distribution of goods.
How the communist party relates to the trade union movement has been definitively outlined by Marxism:
Marx – 1871, London Conference of First International: “… Considering, that against this collective power of the propertied classes the working class cannot act, as a class, except by constituting itself into a political party, distinct from, and opposed to, all old parties formed by the propertied classes; That this constitution of the working class into a political party is indispensable in order to ensure the triumph of the social revolution and its ultimate end – the abolition of classes; That the combination of forces which the working class has already effected by its economic struggles ought at the same time to serve as a lever for its struggles against the political power of landlords and capitalists The Conference recalls to the members of the International: That in the militant state of the working class, its economic movement and its political action are indissolubly united”.
In What is To Be Done (1901), Lenin wrote that Social-Democratic consciousness could only be brought to the workers from without. “The history of all countries shows that the working class, exclusively by its own effort, is able to develop only trade union consciousness, i.e., the conviction that it is necessary to combine in unions, fight the employers, and strive to compel the government to pass necessary labor legislation, etc.”.
The Communist Left – 1957, The Fundamentals of Revolutionary Communism: Syndicalists “are actually far removed from Marxist determinism, and the interaction which occurs between the economic and political spheres is a dead letter to them. Since they are individualist and voluntarist, they see revolution as an act of force which can only take place after an impossible act of consciousness. As Lenin demonstrated in What is To Be Done? they turn Marxism on its head. They treat consciousness and will as though they came from the inner-self, from the ‘person’, and thus, in one deft movement, they sweep away bourgeois State, class divisions, and class psychology. Since they are unable to understand the inevitable alternative – capitalist dictatorship or communist dictatorship – they evade the dilemma in the only way that is historically possible: by re-establishing the former”.
Therefore the specific and principle task of the party within the union is not to politicize workers. The communist party does not work to make the trade union a watered-down version of itself, nor, in the revolutionary process, does the party dissolve itself and blend in with the trade union.
The communist party, from outside, with the support of the communist fraction within the trade unions, which is composed of the minority of communists among the militants and members of the union, comes to conquer its leadership. The working class, as an army, is already organized in the trade unions: the party sets out to lead this army; first in its defensive economic struggle, and then, when the historical situation allows it, in its political and offensive struggle.
The guidelines for practical behavior that the party advocates inside the trade union, on how best to defend itself in a particular situation, entail no contradiction with the party’s task of reorganizing the forces of the proletarian class towards the general and vaster end of the struggle for communism.
Propagandizing the party’s general positions, the diffusion of its press, manifestos, invitations to public conferences, takes place, as in every other environment, but not at the same time s its trade union organizational work.
Only in this sense is “connecting class struggle unions with the struggle for a communist program” conceivable.
Some party comrades are militating within SICobas (as in other rank-and-file trade unions) and observing discipline to it: they bring their energy to bear as members and as communist sympathizers. Being known and respected, and openly declaring their allegiance to the international communist party, they regularly make the party’s point of view known within the trade union with respect to the struggle under way, denouncing any possible strategic errors and indicating the best way to obtain the hoped-for results. They perform the organizational and propaganda work of the trade union: being present on picket lines, distributing the union’s flyers, building links, and editing and distributing press releases.