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The Trade Unions & Actually Existing Socialism: A Point of Comparison for the American Worker

“In 1934, the [Soviet Union] government abolished the existing national department of labor and turned its functions over to the All-Union Central Council of Trade Unions, it being taken for granted in a socialist regime that no group in the country is more competent or trustworthy to administer the nation’s labor laws than those persons most directly concerned, the workers themselves.

But imagine what a wild outcry such a proposal in the United States would wring from the reactionaries. The Soviet trade unions, in protecting the rights and welfare of the workers in the industries, have the power to issue regulations having the binding force of law, and for whose infraction careless or bureaucratic factory managers may be punished. To supervise the country’s great labor protective service the trade union movement has its own system of factory inspectors. Each factory council has a commission to attend to problems of local enforcement in the plant, mine, office, or railroad.

This is a concept utterly unthinkable in any capitalist system.”

– William Z. Foster, American Trade Unionism, pg. 331

This essay is an expansion of a chapter in a recent post, Actually Existing Socialism in Vietnam. The chapter, “Trade Unions & Actually Existing Socialism in Vietnam,” was one of the most discussed parts of the essay by readers of Return to the Source. Although the chapter began to address the fundamental distinction between trade unions in socialist countries versus capitalist countries, the essay’s particular focus on Vietnam limited the scope of discussion. Thus, it is our hope to expand on many of the points made in the chapter. Fragments of this chapter appear in this piece uncited.

In the United States, organized labor is under outright assault from the imperialist class. Devastated by so-called ‘right-to-work’ legislation and no-strike clauses written into contracts by management and conservative union leaders alike, state and local governments across the US have sought to deal trade unions a finishing blow.

The onslaught of anti-union governors provoked a strong, militant upsurge in union activism, from Wisconsin to Ohio to Florida. Many of these measures were defeated using a variety of tactics: In Wisconsin, it took a state Supreme Court ruling to overturn the worst provisions of Governor Scott Walker’s law stripping public workers of the right to collectively bargain. In Ohio, the AFL-CIO, the SEIU, and other unions spent a staggering $24 million to successfully defeat Governor John Kasich’s Issue 2, which similarly attacked the collective bargaining rights of public workers. In Florida, the unions defeated some of Governor Rick Scott’s attacks on organized labor through direct lobbying a tentative coalition of moderate Republicans and Democrats in the state legislature.

For all of the success stories, however, there are also revealing defeats that demonstrate the limits and failures of the reformist tactics embraced by most national and state trade union leaders. In Wisconsin, of course, the trade unions suffered a devastating blow when they lost the Scott Walker recall campaign, having spent $10.6 million on the effort. In Florida, the state Supreme Court upheld Governor Rick Scott’s wage-cut for state employees in a 5-4 decision that was tipped in the Governor’s favor by a justice that the unions endorsed in the 2012 general election!

These defeats have something in common, namely the reliance on purely reformist tactics by union leadership instead of resorting to more militant actions, particularly the strike. Criticizing this conservative trend in the trade unions in the US, however, is not the purpose of this piece. For the most up-to-date look at the American trade union movement, its flaws, and its potential for recovery, Return to the Source wholeheartedly recommends reading Joe Burns’ book, Reviving the Strike.

Instead, we briefly remind readers of the attacks and defeats suffered by American trade unions to make a point that should be obvious: Workers do not have even a semblance of ‘democracy’ or political power in a capitalist country. Relying on the democratic institutions in a capitalist country to affect change for workers proves fruitless time and time again, especially as conservative trade union leaders ‘bargain’ away the last vestiges of class-self-defense that workers have in the United States. Strikes, as Burns’ book points out, are the most effective weapon that workers have in capitalist relations of production, and abandoning that weapon in lieu of the ballot box is a poor trade, indeed. The proof, as it is said, is in the pudding.

However, there are countries and nations whose people have overthrown capitalism and created a dictatorship of the workers, in which working people become the ruling class and run the state and economy in the interests of the majority. Generally speaking, this is socialism, and it still exists in about 1/5 of the world despite the overthrow of the Soviet Union and most of the Socialist Bloc in the late-80s/early-90s.

In every major instance of actually existing socialism, trade unions have continued to play a role in the economy, albeit a drastically different role. Since most workers in the US are primarily familiar with trade unions as the most basic organization defending their wages, benefits, and rights, this begs an obvious question: If socialism is the class rule of the workers, why do trade unions continue to exist after the defeat of capitalism? Further still, what are the roles and continued significance of trade unions in socialism? And finally, how do they differ from trade unions under capitalism? Read the rest of this entry

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Actually Existing Socialism in Vietnam

Ho Chi Minh, leader of the Communist Party of Vietnam

At Return to the Source, we frequently use the term ‘actually existing socialism’ to describe various countries that we identify as socialist. The term specifies ‘actually existing’ to highlight the need to approach socialism from a materialist, rather than idealist perspective. We would define actually existing socialism as the material manifestation of the socialist ideal. Imperfect as it may be, it is the reality of what it takes to build socialism in a world dominated by imperialism.

But what does actually existing socialism mean for revolutionaries in the 21st century, long after the fall of most of the socialist bloc? Five countries – Cuba, China, Vietnam, Laos, and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) – survived the wave of counter-revolutions in the early 1990s, but their survival has forced them to make certain concessions and retreats to the market system in varying degrees.

Much to the dismay of many leftists, China, Vietnam and Laos have all pursued a path of development that emphasized the role of a heavily regulated market economy in continuing to build socialism. Cuba and the DPRK maintained planned economies more similar to the Soviet Union’s model, but even recently they have accepted strategic market reforms.

Though the market reforms of China and Vietnam have both led to tremendous economic growth, the actual implementation of these new economic policies is decidedly unique. For Trotskyites and left-communists, these market reforms are simply manifestations of state capitalist policies. However, a closer look reveals that these market reforms were deliberate policy decisions demanded by the masses to continue building socialism in a post-Soviet world. Read the rest of this entry

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