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Lenin Club: Draft Thesis on the Trade Union Question

In 1934, the Lenin Club presented draft thesis on the situation in South Africa. This is what the Club (both majority and minority) wrote about the trade union question. This is part of our collection on Marxism and Black Struggle.

Left Voice

August 25, 2020
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Leon Trotsky and C.L.R. James (Illustration: Sou Mi)

The position of the Trade Unions in South Africa reflects the backwardness of the South African worker. All the Unions are under the control of reformist leaders. Furthermore, the Unions are stultified and pacified by a blanket of industrial legislation which aims at settling disputes by mutual agreement instead of by direct action. Most of the Unions, and this is the most important point to keep in mind, are the close preserves of the while aristocracy of Labour. Natives are debarred or discouraged from entering these Unions and are in the majority of cases completely unorganised and helpless against the continual attacks on their meagre standard of living.

The majority of Trade Unions in the Cape are affiliated to the Cape Federation of Labour Unions, while those in the northern Provinces, as well as a few in the Cape, are affiliated to the Trades and Labour Council. The Cape Unions follow a more liberal policy in connection with non-Europeans, and in the majority of Unions in the Cape it is permissable for Natives to join. Unfortunately, this cannot be said of the Transvaal, Free State, or Natal.

On the other hand, the Cape Federation of Labour Unions is, in general, one of the most reactionary bodies that ever existed in the ranks of the working-class. In no way does it advance beyond the American Federation of Labour, for even the reformist, yellow Trade Union International (the Amsterdam International) is for the Cape, as for the American Federation, too revolutionary.

When we examine the Trade Union policy of the two existing Workers’ Parties, the South African Labour Party (S.A.L.P.) and the Communist Party, we see the same erroneous and harmful attitude as towards the Native problem in general, that of the S.A.L.P, being chauvinist and that of the C.P. being separatist and sectarian. The policy of the S.A.L.P., a policy of white Trade Unionism, barring the way for Natives in the existing Trade Unions, is not only most detrimental to the interests of the whole working class of South Africa, which includes both white and black workers, but is even against the interests of the white workers organised in the white Trade Unions. […]

While we must emphasize the fact that some good work was done in the Trade Unions by the CP for a number of years prior to 1928, and this should be remembered and appreciated, we must also say frankly that with its entry upon a new “ultra-left” road, the road of adventurism, its policy of the “Third Period”, the “Native Republics”, the “Red Trade Unions”, and more especially its Trade Union policy, has been since 1928 most harmful and disastrous. Its views on Trade Unionism found expression in the slogans, “Out of the Trade Unions”, “For New Revolutionary Trade Unions”, a policy contrary to the interests of the working class. It is a policy of despair, of pessimism, and corresponds with the general loss of faith in the masses by the Communist Parties, the Comintern, and the Profintern. […] This policy of detaching the best elements from the masses means isolating these revolutionary workers on the one side, and abandoning the great bulk of the workers to the full influence of the Trade Union bureaucracy on the other side. It is not difficult to see how harmful to the interests of the working class such a policy is.

What Shall Be the Attitude of the New Party to the Trade Unions?

The new Revolutionary Party will be able to defeat the existing Trade Union bureaucracy and wrest from them the leadership, only when it has learned how to win the confidence of the masses. This cannot be achieved by detaching the most class-conscious element from the masses, but by participating in the daily struggle of the masses,

In their daily needs and hopes. […]

1. The economic struggle should follow the slogans of increase in wages, improvement of labour conditions, and the defence of the fundamental rights and interests of the workers.

2. We must be clear on this point that this cannot be achieved by class collaboration, which is the policy of opportunism and bureaucracy. While not entirely rejecting collective bargaining, we must point out to the workers the relatively slight value of this, and keep in mind the fact that the capitalists are always violating the collective contracts whenever it is to their advantage. Therefore, the fundamental policy of the Trade Unions must be direct action.

3. The problem of unemployment must engage our close attention. The capitalists are continually trying to split the workers; they pit those who are still employed against their unemployed comrades. But unemployment menaces every workerand therefore the struggle must be directed against its causes. For this is a matter of life and death and we must rally both the employed and the unemployed, skilled and unskilled in the Unions into one united, solid, fighting body.

4. For the same sound reason, the unity of the workers, we must above all fight for the abolition of the “Colour Bar.” We must point out to the workers the deadly danger of division, which is in the interests of the capitalists only, and the pressing need of unity of black and white in the Trade Unions. We must fight for equality of labour and conditions and equal pay to equal work independent of race or sex.

5. We stand for a united Trade Union movement of all workers irrespective of race, colour, creed or sex. It is the duty of every member of ours in the Trade Unions to agitate for the removal of the Colour Bar where such exists. But, until such time as this can be achieved, we must organize into separate bodies all those who are actually debarred from joining the existing Trade Unions. Under no circumstances, however, do we regard such purely Native Trade Unions as opposition Trade Unions or as a goal in themselves. They are only a step towards the amalgamation of all the Trade Unions, black and white, into one central organisation of Trade Unions of all the workers of South Africa.

6. But while conducting or participating in the fight for the improvement of the conditions of labour, for raising the standard of living of the workers, and soon, we should always bear in mind that it is impossible to solve all these problems within the frame of the capitalist system. While gradually forcing concessions from the ruling classes, compelling them to enact social legislation, we shall ever and again point out to the workers that only the overthrow of Capitalism and the establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat can solve the social question.

Source: South African History Online

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