Bureaucratism: Labour’s Enemy Within

Where does bureaucratism in the union movement come from? More to the point, how can we get rid of it? In an attempt to answer this question we interviewed the outspoken Dan Gallin, current Chair of the Global Labour Institute. Prior to holding this position, Gallin served 37 years as General Secretary of the International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant and Catering, Tobacco and Allied Workers’ Associations (IUF). He was also President of the International Federation of Workers’ Education Associations (IFWEA) from 1992-2003, and Director of the Organization and Representation Program of Women in Informal Employment Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO) from 2000-2002.

New Unionism: The union movement is the largest democratic force in the world today, by far. However, too many union members complain about bureaucratic behaviour at leadership level. Do you accept this is a problem, and, if so, what do you think are the root causes?

Dan Gallin: First, let’s get the problem in perspective. The level of bureaucracy in unions is constantly overstated. We have much less difficulty in this area than corporations do, for instance. Of course corporations are, by their very nature, top-down power structures – what could be less democratic than your average workplace? – and I cannot imagine anything as wasteful as some management bureaucracies. Similarly, think about bureaucracy in government, or in tri-partite bodies, or in non-governmental organisations. The difference is that unions, by their very structure and purpose, are consciously committed to internal democracy, and so failures are clearly seen as such. The basic structures of unionism are democratic and the internal struggle to assert and reassert democracy is always there. Trade unions have to deliver; there is a very short time span between demand and the delivery. Think of collective bargaining, for instance. Unions are constantly being held to account by their members.

NU: Are you trying to tell us there’s no real problem, then?

DG: No. I am not trying to minimize the problem. What I am saying is that bureaucracy is a pervasive feature of all institutional and organizational life. What, after all, is a bureaucracy? It is an administration, and all organizations need an administration. The problem arises when this administration develops a collective interest of its own, separate and eventually even opposed to the interests of the people it is supposed to serve.

This is serious enough in government, where the civil service constitutes a bureaucracy that can easily overreach its authority. In a democracy, the civil service is supposed to be the servant of the people. When it starts to act as its master, democracy is in danger.

In the trade union movement, the problem is even more serious because its administration, its own civil service if you wish, must represent people who have no other source of power than their organization. If this organization ceases to be responsive to their needs, they lose everything. An administration that builds its own power at the expense of the membership is betraying its trust – that is treason.

NU: If, as you say, trade unionism is inherently democratic, why is it that we hear these complaints about unions being run as dictatorships and/or oligarchies?

DG: Actually, there are not so many cases of this, in proportion. What happens is that we have some spectacular examples of organizations which degenerate and then become notorious. They are falsely represented as typical of the movement, most often in anti-union propaganda. But there is never any guarantee against an organization, even with the best democratic traditions, being hijacked by anti-democratic cliques or personalities.

The hijacking of the Russian revolution by the Communist bureaucracy led by Stalin is a classical example. After four or five short years, a vibrant, radically democratic, revolutionary mass movement started giving way to the rule of a bureaucracy which first asserted, then consolidated power by means of terror, police and military terror against its own people, on a scale not seen before in modern times. A whole new society with a bureaucratic ruling class!

How do these things happen? In order to work, democracy needs the active support of large masses of people at all times. In a union, this means the active participation of most of the membership. Democracy is not a state of being, it is an activity, it is in fact hard work, and it is a constant work in progress. You might say the same thing about freedom.

Most people are not able to maintain a high level of commitment over time. They are not organization professionals, they need to get on with their lives, as they should, so “democracy fatigue” might set in; especially after periods of great social stress. They might not pay attention to what happens in the organization for a time, routine sets in and the professionals take over. If the leaders are not trained in the right kind of politics, if they are not persons of the highest individual integrity, and if they are not supervised and controlled, they may start treating the organization as if it were their own property.

This is why it is the responsibility of every progressive and democratic trade union leadership to maintain constitutional and practical conditions in which membership participation and control is ensured and welcomed, without making conditions of participation too onerous for ordinary members.

NU: Just by way of clarification, can you explain what you mean by “trained in the right kind of politics”?

DG: Socialist politics, of course. And by that I mean the kind of politics based on the values that were at the origins of the labour movement and that made it great: solidarity, selflessness, respect for people, a sense of honour, and the modesty that comes with the awareness of being a soldier in the service of a great cause, a contempt for self-promotion, or “le refus de parvenir” as Monatte ((Pierre Monatte (1881-1960) A proofreader by profession, he was a leader of the French CGT when it was a revolutionary syndicalist organization and, in 1909, founded its journal, La vie Ouvrière. He was an anti-war internationalist during World War I., joined the French Communist Party in 1923 and was expelled in 1924 for opposing its bureaucratization. He then returned to revolutionary syndicalism, and in 1925 he founded La Révolution Prolétarienne, which is still being published. “Le refus de parvenir” means: “the refusal of social climbing”.)) called it.

NU: Do you think the Cold War contributed to bureaucratizing the movement?

DG: It certainly did. In a situation of extreme political polarization by outside forces, it is easy to lose sight of the original purpose of the exercise.

First, let us be clear what we are talking about. The Cold War was a conflict between States, between two blocs of States, led by the two superpowers of the time: the United States and the USSR, more or less from 1949 to 1989.

However, this conflict had nothing to do with a much older conflict within the labour movement. This earlier conflict arose after the October Revolution, when the Russian Communist Party created an International of its own and declared war on all other movements of the Left unless they accepted total subordination to its dictates. ((The Second Congress of the Comintern in 1920 agreed on ‘Twenty One Conditions‘, which formalised the beginning of ‘the great split’: a split which was to divide the labour movement for the rest of the century. Note in particular: ‘In the columns of the press, at public meetings, in the trades unions, in the co-operatives – wherever the members of the Communist International can gain admittance – it is necessary to brand not only the bourgeoisie but also its helpers, the reformists of every shade, systematically and pitilessly.’)) That conflict became unbridgeable once the Communist leadership had moved to imprison and execute activists of other Left tendencies in the territory under its control, including its own opponents and dissidents. Under Stalin, this became a systematic campaign of extermination, with hit men spreading out all over the world to assassinate opponents.

It is small wonder that a majority of the Left, of all tendencies, became “anti-Communist”, meaning that they organized to defend themselves as best as they could against Communist claims of hegemony and terror.

When Nazi Germany attacked the USSR in 1941, breaking the treaty it had signed two years previously, the USSR found itself part of the anti-fascist war-time alliance. Despite past history and experience, much of the Western trade-union movement, which was predominantly social-democratic, was ready for organizational unity with Soviet bloc labour organizations. The result was the World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU), which was founded in 1945. However, it lasted only four years as an inclusive organization of the world’s labour movement (though it continued, and still exists, as a Communist rump).

The unity on which the WFTU had been founded was the temporary unity of governments, not a unity of labour – none of the contentious issues between the Communists and everyone else on the Left had been resolved. When the unity of governments gave way to the rivalry between the US and the USSR for world power, the artificial top-down unity of the WFTU also broke apart.

What happened then was a race between the two blocs to secure the support – in fact, the control – of civil society organizations (labour, youth, students, women, etc.), with trade unions as prime targets.

And now comes the complicated part, which must be clearly understood. The Western governments and the non-Communist Left suddenly had the same enemy. The conflict between governments – the “Cold War” – and that earlier conflict within the labour movement, became superimposed. For some, they became indistinguishable.

This is how the war-time relationships which some socialists – and others – had formed with the political services of the US or UK governments (among others) to fight the Nazis continued seamlessly into the fight for a “free world”, against the new totalitarian menace.

In reality, we were of course still dealing with two different conflicts and two distinct interests. One was fighting Stalinism to defend working class interests, the other was fighting the USSR as a rival imperialism to that of the US. These are hardly compatible positions, but the most difficult thing to comprehend in politics, especially if you have the knife at your throat, is that the enemy of your enemy is not necessarily your friend!

Despite the apparent symmetry of the situation of the trade union movement within the two blocs, the reality was quite different. In the Soviet bloc, the trade union apparatus was part of the government structures of a police state, and a fairly subordinate structure at that. Dissidence was treated as a criminal offence or as a mental disorder. So in that context, the bureaucracy issue does not even arise in connection with the Cold War — the whole system had been thoroughly bureaucratized long before. In its first decades, that system was impossible to crack from within.

The situation in the West was much different: here a three-way battle was being fought between the advocates of an alignment on pro-American policies, the advocates and apologists for Soviet policies, and those who kept saying that neither option represented working class interests and that the labour movement should refuse to be aligned with either side.

Those of us who held the latter position believed that the lines of cleavage that mattered most in the world were not the vertical ones separating the two blocs, but the horizontal ones between the working class and the rulers of both systems, a fundamental division cutting across both blocs.

This was not an easy position to hold. The pressures to align and to conform were very strong. Having been put in charge of the AFL-CIO’s International Department by George Meany, ((George Meany (1894-1980), president of the American Federation of Labor from 1952 to 1955, then, following its merger with the Congress of Industrial Organizations, president of the united AFL-CIO from 1955 to 1979.)) Jay Lovestone ((Jay Lovestone (1906-1989), a founder of the American Communist Party, later leader of the Right-Wing opposition group (the pro-Bukharin faction) which dissolved in 1941. In 1943 Lovestone became international affairs director of the International Ladies Garment Workers’ Union and, in 1963, director of the international affairs department of the AFL-CIO. He held that position until 1974 and as the main architect of the collaboration of the AFL-CIO with the CIA. For more on Lovestone, see: A Covert Life: Jay Lovestone, Communist, Anti-Communist, and Spymaster by Ted Morgan (New York: Random House, 1999))) — the Dr. Strangelove ((Dr. Strangelove: the 1964 black comedy film by Stanley Kubrick, featuring a paranoiac American general launching a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union, hoping to thwart a Communist conspiracy to “sap and impurify” the “precious bodily fluids” of the American people with fluoridated water. The US president in the film is advised by a “mad scientist” type: Dr. Strangelove. )) of the labour movement — with his acolyte Irving Brown ((Irving Brown (1911-1989) , chief lieutenant and hatchet man for Lovestone since the 1930s, set ujp”anti-Communist” operations in the trade union movement, mostly in Europe, including the notorious Mediterranean Committee, organized with the help of gangsters in French, Italian and Greek ports. )) and the various AFL-CIO Institutes, were running around the world buying unions with US government money, in close cooperation with the CIA , and trying to destroy any organization or individuals that did not accept their line, whether Communist or not. They were not looking for allies, they were recruiting agents.

The Soviet bloc operators were doing the same for the other side, also backed by considerable diplomatic and financial resources. The result of this competition is not difficult to guess: it spread a culture of corruption, especially in Africa where the movement was weakest and most vulnerable, but also in parts of Asia, Latin America, Europe and the United States itself, where some labour leaders were co-opted into Cold War politics, although most had no idea what the International Department was up to, and did not much care until all these operations were exposed in the mid-1960s.

In that sense the Cold War was a very powerful factor of bureaucratization in the West: it created and strengthened corrupt leaderships who no longer had to take their memberships into account, it enforced political conformity, stifled discussion, suppressed dissent and isolated all radical opposition through ‘red baiting’.

NU: Some labour writers contend that the acceptance of Cold War politics, and anti-Communist purges by the leadership of the American labour movement, contributed to its paralysis during the conservative onslaught of recent years.

DG: Yes and no. It’s not that simple. True enough, after the anti-Communist purges in the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) and the merger with the American Federation of Labor (AFL) in 1955, the conservative elements of the AFL prevailed in the merged AFL-CIO. These people would later prove totally at a loss in the face of globalization and the conservative onslaught launched by Reagan, and continued by his successors, both Republican and Democrat.

But the problem with this story is that it exonerates the American Communist Party of any responsibility in these developments. The CP and its trade union activists are cast in the role of innocent victims. This overlooks the war the CP waged against all of the Left from its earliest days: first against the IWW and the socialists, then against the Trotskyists and against every other kind of radical group it didn’t control, and of course against most union leaderships, progressive or not. The CP did what it could to destroy the American Left and, like in Niemöller’s poem, ((Friedrich Niemöller (1892-1984), prominent German anti-Nazi theologian and Lutheran pastor. He is best known as the author of the following lines (and variations thereof):
First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a communist; Then they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist;
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a trade unionist;
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew;
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak out for me
)) when they came to get it there was nobody left to defend it.

This said, most conservative labour leaders didn’t need the Cold War in order to be ferociously anti-radical, super-patriotic and, eventually, helpless before the anti-labour campaigns of the Right. You have to remember that we’re dealing here with very stupid people. They may have been street-wise and cunning, but they knew nothing about the world and couldn’t think strategically. The roots of conservatism in the American union movement are very perceptively described by authors such as Daniel Fusfeld and Patricia Cayo Sexton. ((Daniel Fusfeld: The Rise and Repression of Radical Labor 1877-1918, Charles H. Kerr Publishing Company, Chicago, 1980 (ISBN 088286050X) and Patricia Cayo Sexton: The War on Labor and the Left – Understanding America’s Unique Conservatism, Westview Press, Boulder/San Francisco/Oxford, 1991 (ISBN 0813310636))) What the Cold War situation did, was to give people like Lovestone the opportunity to organize the right-wing of the American trade union bureaucracy as a base for a major international operation, and to isolate leaders of the labour Left, like Walter Reuther, ((Walter Reuther (1907-1970), leading organizer and after 1946 president of the United Auto Workers’ union, a Socialist Party member until 1939, president of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) in 1952, negotiated the merger with the American Federation of Labor in 1955, eventually clashed with Meany over the conservative policies of the AFL-CIO and formed a short-lived alternative center, the Alliance for Labor Action (1958–1972) with the Teamsters and a few smaller unions. On May 9, 1970, Reuther and his wife May were killed when their chartered plane crashed while on final approach to the airstrip near the union’s recreational and educational facility at Black Lake, Michigan. In October 1968, a year and a half before the fatal crash, Reuther and his brother Victor were almost killed in a small private plane as it approached Dulles airport. Both incidents are amazingly similar; the altimeter in the fatal crash was believed to have malfunctioned. When Victor Reuther was interviewed many years after the fatal crash he said, “I and other family members are convinced that both the fatal crash and the near fatal one in 1968 were not accidental.”)) Ralph Helstein ((Ralph Helstein (1908-1985), president of the United Pckinghouse Workers of America (UPWA) from 1946 to 1968. Under his leadership, the union, a CIO affiliate, became one of the most militant and democratic unions in the US. It organized the meat packing industry in the US and Canada and played a leading role in fighting for minority and women’s rights. When the UPWA merged with the Amalgamated Meat Cutters union in 1968, Helstein became vice president and special counsel. He worked with the union until 1972 and died in Chicago in 1985.)) and Pat Gorman, ((Patrick Emmet Gorman (1882-1980), a life-long socialist, International Secretary-Treasurer of the Amalgamated Meat Cutters and Butcher Workmen (AFL) from 1942 to 1976 (the Meat Cutters were an old socialist union which had a European constitution, where the secretary-treasurer, not the president, was the chief executive officer). Gorman opposed Meany on the Vietnam war and on many other political issues.)) as well as some good unions with a Communist history, like the ILWU and the UE.

NU: Did the Communists not at least denounce the clandestine right-wing operations the American unions were involved in?

DG: Not at all. Of course they would denounce operations like the overthrow of Arbenz in Guatemala, or of Goulart in Brazil, as examples of American imperialism in action, but there was never any exposure of the union involvement. The CIA and British government operations in the labour movement were blown open by Trotskyists and independent radicals in the mid-1960s. Then the New York Times picked up the story and it became a major scandal. But the CP had nothing to do with it at any stage. Afterwards, of course, everyone started writing about it.

NU: While all of this was happening in the US, bureaucratization must surely have been a growing problem in the European trade union movement as well?

DG: In Europe and elsewhere, for instance in Japan, the polarized politics of the Cold War also enforced political conformity and stifled dissent, but Europe is a complicated place with many political and trade union cultures, so generalizations are not very useful. In some countries Cold War politics played a major role in the labour movement, in others hardly at all.

Far more pervasive and general were the consequences of the war. Today it is hard to imagine the extent to which the historical labour movement had been destroyed, first by the rise of fascism in the 1920s and 1930s, then by the war itself, with the occupation of most of Europe by the Nazi armies and police. In most of Europe, the structures of the labour movement were wiped out, parties and unions of course, but also the entire institutional network that rooted the movement in society: welfare institutions, credit unions, co-ops, cultural and leisure time activities – everything.

Most of the leadership of the movement, right down to local level, had to go into exile, or into concentration camps, or died in the war. Many of the best people were lost. One of the important parties of the Socialist International, the Jewish Labour Bund, ((The General Jewish Labour Union of Lithuania, Poland and Russia, in Yiddish the Algemeyner Yidisher Arbeter Bund in Lite, Poyln un Rusland, generally called the Bund (from German: Bund, meaning federation or union) or the Jewish Labour Bund, was a Jewish political party and trade union in several European countries operating predominantly between the 1890s and the 1930s with remnants of the party still active in the United States, Canada, Australia, France and the United Kingdom. The Bund opposed Zionism and fought for the recognition of Jews as an autonomous cultural community within European countries. In this and in other respects, it was strongly influenced by the Austro-Marxist school of socialism, and was a left-socialist party in the context of the Labour and Socialist International. In WWII it was active in the resistance movement against the Nazi occupation in Poland and in Lithuania, one of its leaders, Marek Edelman, was a leader of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising in 1943, and later of the Workers’ Defense Committee (KOR) in 1976 and of the Solidarity movement. Two leaders of the Bund, Victor Alter and Henryk Erlich, who had sought refuge in the USSR after the German invasion, were executed in December 1941 in Moscow on Stalin’s orders.)) was destroyed entirely, together with the population that supported it. No one had imagined anything like this could happen, and those who had hoped that the end of WWII would usher in another period of social revolution, a re-play of 1918, had lost touch with reality.

Superficially, the unions emerged in a strong position – after all we were on the side of the victors, whereas big business had collaborated with fascism throughout Europe and had much to be forgiven for. In fact, labour was far weaker than it appeared, and far more dependent on the State than before the war. That too did not seem to be a problem at first, since most post-war governments were pro-labour in one way or another, but it did eventually lead to the loss of the political and material independence of the movement and, yes, it did promote bureaucratization.

Whereas the pre-war movement conceived of itself as a counter-culture and an alternative society, at least in principle, the post-war movement made its peace with the “social market economy” and demanded no more than a better life within the system (full employment, welfare, social protection, good wages and working conditions).

In that situation, the leadership of the movement became increasingly unwilling to maintain a whole network of flanking institutions. If you don’t want to change society then you don’t need to build an alternative counter-culture or an alternative economy. Think of all the money you can save. So the unions concentrated on their presumed “core business” – collective bargaining with “social partners” – the parties concentrated on elections, and the movement lost its roots in society, lost many of its think tanks and educational institutions, and lost its periphery, a sphere of influence and protection.

At the same time, you had the surge of prosperity in post-war Western Europe through the Marshall Plan. An exhausted working class, after the deprivation and the sufferings of the war, started to get its life back and became gradually more comfortable over the next thirty years. And why not? But as it played out, as a major political factor, it created a problem the movement couldn’t cope with, because it also coincided with the rise of media empires, with television, financed largely by advertising. Our movement was not ready to compete at that level. This is where we lost the communications war. We lost our press and any independent expressions of working class culture, with the long-term effect of losing the culture wars in the 1990s.

Many of the issues of the vanished civil society of labour eventually got taken over by others (feminists, environmentalists, human rights activists, etc.), but that’s another story.

Then, in countries like France, Italy and Greece, where the CP was dominant in the labour movement, the working class became hostage to Cold War politics and political positions, as well as labour alignments. They were frozen for about thirty or forty years. In some other countries, notably Germany, Cold War polarization also contributed to deadening the political debate and distorting trade union priorities.

Finally, European unions have become accustomed to State subsidies, in general for specific activities, such as education or participation in a host of official and quasi-official institutions and meetings. Today, in many countries, unions would be unable to function without the government subsidies they have become accustomed to.

So what do you get? A heavily bureaucratized and passive movement, initially led by survivors, then rapidly replaced by complacent and arrogant careerists who are happy to depend on the State. They administer the gains of past struggles but are unwilling to conduct any new ones, opposing any ideas they have not thought of themselves and believing that nothing must ever happen for the first time. That kind of leadership educates union members to be passive consumers of union services, not participants in struggle.

NU: You said before that, as far as Europe was concerned, generalizations were not very useful. Should we take that to include what you just said?

DG: You got me there. I think what I have tried to do is draw a common denominator, a composite picture which applies in general but not exactly in any one country. For example, in the Nordic countries, except for a short-lived split in Finland, the Cold War had hardly any impact at all. In Spain, where the labour movement emerged from a fascist regime only in the 1970s, rank-and-file democracy is a strongly-felt aspiration. All of Eastern Europe is a different situation again, and a very complicated situation, with many cross-currents. And of course there are always exceptions. There have been outstanding labour leaders like Otto Brenner, ((Otto Brenner (1907-1972), president of the German metal workers’ union IG Metall from 1956 to 1972. In 1931 Brenner left the Social-Democratic Party (SPD) which he had joined as a youth to join the Socialist Workers’ Party, founded by Left Socialists and dissident Communists, too late to prevent the seizure of power by Hitler. Brenner became active in the anti-Nazi resistance, was arrested in 1933, sentenced to two years’ prison and kept under police supervision until the end of the war. In 1945 Brenner re-joined the SPD and became active in the reconstruction of the trade union movement. At the head of the IG Metall he played a leading tole in the defense of democratic rights and against rearmament. In 1961, he was elected president of the International Metalworkers’ Federation.)) Wilhelm Gefeller ((Wilhelm Gefeller (1906-1983), president of the German chemical workers’ union IG Chemie from 1949 to 1969, one of the founders of the post-war German trade union movement, active in the SPD. Strong advocate of co-determination in German industry and at international level, and of democratic rights. President of the International Chemical and General Workers’ Unions (ICF) in the late 1960s.)) in Germany, Jack Jones ((James Larkin (Jack) Jones (1913-2009), general secretary of the Transport & General Workers’ Union (UK) from 1968 to 1978. Throughout his career he strove to increase the power and influence of shop stewards. In 1937 he joined the International Brigades in the Spanish civil war and was wounded in 1938. Jones was also Vice-President of the International Transport Workers Federation and, after his retirement, was a campaigner for pensioners’ rights. His autobiography, Union Man, was published in 1986.)) in Britain, André Renard ((André Renard (1911-1962), Belgian trade unionist, active in the resistance under Nazi occupation,created an illegal united trade union movement independent of political parties and advocated its extension to the entire country at liberation, but could not overcome the split between socialist and Catholic unions. Deputy General-Secretary of the socialist trade union center FGTB, leader of the six-week general strike in 1960-1961 against the austerity policies of the conservative government. A strong advocate for the autonomy of Wallonia (the French-speaking part of Belgium).)) in Belgium. So, one has to fine-tune every national situation. But some will recognize my descriptions and, as the saying goes, if the shoe fits, wear it.

Neither do I want to idealize the pre-war labour movement in Europe. There were too many entirely avoidable and disastrous defeats. The leading labour parties of Germany and Austria had armed militias ready to fight which were awaiting orders that never came. The French Popular Front government refused to support the Spanish Republicans in the civil war, who, had they won, would have changed the course of history. Not to speak of the catastrophic Communist policies, in Germany, in Spain, all over. One needs to reflect on these defeats and learn from them. But even so, the level of ambition in those days was higher.

NU: You were general secretary of the IUF for many years, and active in the international union movement. How does the international movement cope with the problem of bureaucratism?

DG: With difficulty. You have to realize that the international movement is yet another level removed from the rank-and-file: the actual members of international trade union organizations, in a statutory sense, are national unions, not individual workers, so the international organization will reflect to a very large extent the culture and practices of its affiliated unions, particularly the large affiliates.

So, structurally, it is almost inevitably bureaucratic. The politics of the leadership, basically the secretariat and the governing bodies, makes a big difference. You can have an organization with a deeply rooted culture of militancy and a democratic culture, which will do two things: first, ensure that democratic practices are respected and encouraged in the way it operates, within its own governing bodies, and, second, encourage democratic participation within its affiliates wherever it can, for example through its educational programs, in its publications, etc.

NU: And then you have the others…

DG: Indeed. Again, it is a question of politics, of how you interpret the situation and, consequently, how you evaluate the union response required. If you believe that “social partnership” is an accurate description of labour/management relations, and that social change occurs through conversations between political leaders and experts – “social dialogue” – then you will invest your resources and energies in a lobbying operation. The privileged counterparts in these conversations will be the bureaucrats of government organizations and of employers’ organizations. In meeting after meeting, you will be bargaining about words, and you will believe you have won a significant victory when you have changed a sentence in a statement. This can go on forever, and no one will ever know the difference. The workers who are members of such organizations don’t even know they exist.

NU: How can workers, at rank-and-file level, learn to tell the difference between useful and useless organizations? Where does usefulness become apparent?

DG: Very simple: workers certainly can tell the difference when they become involved in a conflict. When it comes to conflict, the differences are very quickly apparent. And whether our international sell-out artists like it or not, unions are about conflict. Either the international organization pulls out all stops and the saying “one for all, all for one”, (especially the second part) becomes a concrete reality, for as long as it takes, or else the international organization starts mediating instead of fighting, tries to minimize and kill the conflict, even sides with the employer just to be rid of the problem.

NU: How does this relate back to the issue of bureaucratism? Are you suggesting that bureaucracy and politics are related?

DG: They are, very much so. However, the relationship is not a mechanical one. For instance it would be simplistic and wrong to say that left-wing politics protects us against bureaucracy. If we are talking about the Communist tradition, the opposite is true, almost always, and this includes Maoism, which is actually an extreme form of Stalinism. People who come out of that school are often dangerous authoritarians. Even when they change their politics, they don’t necessarily change their methods.

And of course social-democracy has its own awesome bureaucratic traditions; even anarchist and syndicalist organizations, contrary to legend, can be run in extremely authoritarian and bureaucratic ways.

No, the only form of politics which is an effective antidote to bureaucratism is the kind of socialist politics that contains a strong element of radical democracy. This goes back to Marx himself, but despite appearances, this current was never dominant in the socialist movement. It surfaces from time to time, a person like Rosa Luxemburg would be fairly typical, there were others within the political families of the Left. Eugene Debs in the United States would be another example.

NU: That’s not a very broad political base. If that’s all we have, is the struggle against bureaucratism lost in advance?

DG: No, because in fact we have very much more. The politics of radical democracy respond to a very deep and fundamental need felt by workers. They keep coming back to this on their own, and they very often spontaneously develop democratic forms of organizing, of conducting struggles, of running their organizations. Rosa Luxemburg understood this. This aspiration is very strong. That is the basic reason why the labour movement has such a democratic culture, despite all the pressures to the contrary from the society that surrounds it… the “old shit”, as Marx called it. ((“…revolution is necessary, therefore, not only because the ruling class cannot be overthrown in any other way, but also because the class overthrowing it can only in a revolution succeed in ridding itself of all the old shit and become fitted to found society anew.” Karl Marx: The German Ideology, Part I: Feuerbach. Opposition of the Materialist and Idealist Outlook 1845.))

NU: Do you see workers’ desire for deeper forms of democracy extending from union HQ all the way down into the workplace?

DG: Yes, except I would put it the other way around, from the workplace – the “point of production”, as the IWW used to say – to union HQ. It has to start at the point of production. As I said, this is a very fundamental need of workers, and actually very often of people in general. Think of women’s movements or peasant’s movements – in all progressive mass movements there is this demand for transparency and accountability in the leadership.

The point is to nurture and strengthen the politics of radical democracy, the particular strand of socialist politics which I believe is the authentic Marxism, which insists that power, where it matters, always has to remain in the hands of the workers. Today this means almost all of society, since nearly everybody is part of the working class, whether they know it or not. To get there, you have to start from the bottom, the point of production, and then build democratic institutions, like democratic unions, impose democratic procedures at every level, democratize the decision-making mechanism in public administration. We don’t want to abolish bureaucracy if bureaucracy means administration, we all need administration and we want it to be honest, transparent and efficient, in our own organizations to start with, then in society at large. We want an administration built on our key values: justice and freedom. These will be the values of the society of the future – if we make it that far.

New Unionism is an approach being developed by unions who want to make change and set agendas, rather than just reacting to them. The New Unionism network brings together supporters of these principles and seeks to encourage wider involvement in the change process. The network has no formal structure, no officers, no policies or meetings. New Unionism can be reached at: enquiries@newunionism.net. Read other articles by New Unionism, or visit New Unionism's website.

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  1. john andrews said on October 4th, 2009 at 12:43am #

    Excellent piece.

    The cancer of bureaucracy, wherever it exists, is a sympton of the problem and not the problem itself, which is decision making.

    All bureacracies attempt to concentrate decision-making power in the hands of a tiny group of people, who then consolidate their power by means of rigid hierarchical structures – best exemplified by the bureaucracies of the military. The varioius junior and middle ranking ‘leaders’ who are employed to maintain discipline within the structure are chosen because of their all-consuming ambition and willingness to sell their own mothers for personal promotion. Democracy has no chance at all in these organisations.

    You hit the nail on the head in the final paragraph with these words:

    “The point is to nurture and strengthen the politics of radical democracy, the particular strand of socialist politics which I believe is the authentic Marxism, which insists that power, where it matters, always has to remain in the hands of the workers.”

    Real DECISION-MAKING authority has to be in the hands of the ordinary worker, the ordinary citizen. This depends on two essential conditions: firstly, that the ordinary worker/citizen is properly informed; and secondly that the ordinary worker/citizen has a simple but trustworthy means of casting her vote.

    Note also that this does not require leaders. Leaders are grossly overrated. It needs good administration and good information – neither of which require leaders.

  2. Michael Kenny said on October 4th, 2009 at 6:27am #

    The references to Europe are surprisingly accurate, due, perhaps, to the fact that Mr Gallin was born in Poland in 1931! He does, however, fall into the “nice Mr Lenin, nasty Mr Stalin” trap, painting the early years of the Soviet Union as an era of “flower child” innocence perverted by that nasty little Georgian man. Lenin and his handful of supporters seized power on 7 December 1917. On 20 December 1917 (already!), he created the Cheka, the first secret police. There followed a civil war that lasted until 1923, marked by incredible brutality on both sides and which left about 15 million people dead. At the same time, the various parts of the Russian Empire that tried to gain independence were attacked and most re-conquered. Not much sign of “a vibrant, radically democratic, revolutionary mass movement” there! Stalin didn’t “hijack” the Soviet Union. He just took up where Lenin left off.

  3. Mike Morin said on October 4th, 2009 at 10:10am #

    I am named after my great uncle, Mike Misenti, who worked and fought? his way from humble beginnings as a mason to President of the Building Trades Union, and later President of their Pension Fund, in the State of Connecticut (USA).

    Mike Misenti didn’t care what “his folks” were building, as long as they were building. That is my major complaint with Labor Unions, their need to self-perpetuate, and offer blind loyalty and complicity with less than optimal corporations/contractors and the latters’ self-interested profit motivated projects and industries that are sometimes, if not often, counter-productive to social/environmental goals..

    Don’t get me wrong, I consider the interests of workers of all “stripes” and the poor to be of the utmost importance. However, in this era of post-peak oil, climate change, inequality and the tensions that such brings, and the perception of hopelessness that are held by and for youth and for the children, it is necessary that we allocate scarce resources in the most optimal ways and means possible.

    We must recognize the fossil fuel age and the subsequent overshoot in automobile and airplane use as a historical exception that must be phased into perspective.

    If we want to conserve precious fossil fuels for priority uses such as solar assisted heating, cooking, electricity generation, cooling, agricultural inputs, durable products, necessary industrial processes, inter-community and inter-regional transport within a paradigm of relocalization for all communities and regions (moving towards self-sufficiency), and preserve the luxury and convenience of occasional automobile and airplane travel in a manner that adjusts for economic disruption, then we must plan and implement.

    We need to see the study and practice of Resource and Regional Planning beyond the historical complicity, and at best mitigation of, the irrational Capitalist growth paradigm that does not recognize and/or respect a finite planet whose limits that we are fast approaching. We must enter an era of Resource Allocation based on the explicit principles of meeting human needs, inclusion, equity, humanity, quality of life, environmental/public health and wellness, sustainability, economic democracy, and peace.

    The key to a bountiful green building economy is the reversal of the thirty, fifty, one hundred year trend of sprawl development in the United States.

    By rebuilding neighborhoods and reallocating goods and services to those renovated neighborhoods (made walkable, meaning that the great majority of Americans will be able to get what they need within walking distance of their homes), we can succeed.

    Such a tremendous dedication of resources will be a boom to the building trades and will create the effect of reducing automobile usage by 80% in the next 20 to 40 years. Neighborhood commercial, community and work/telecommute centers will be centrally placed in what are now alienating, automobile dependent, strictly residential areas, alleviating the problems associated with post-peak oil and climate change and bringing with it the quality of life associated
    with communities and neighborhoods, that most individuals and families currently lack.

    If we do this, we can take the opportunity to retrofit for weatherization, passive solar design (heating and cooling),
    electronic environmental controls, solar assisted hot water applications, limited PV and wind applications, etc.

    Also, if done correctly, we can make changes in ownership arrangements that are much more fair and just, and work towards an equitable distribution of wealth among neighborhoods.

    It is important that we fundamentally reassess our economic system and replace the current economic/finance system with one that targets the needs of the current residents, and not, for-profit speculation.

    Because of the terrible inflation of real and capital assets that is a product of the speculative modus operandi of the Capitalist system, it will be fundamentally necessary to reform our economic/financial system by consolidating private (while rededicating them as quasi-public) real and capital assets and equity and writing way down the “market value” of those assets.

    After completing that awesome task, we could proceed with a “plan and implement” economy dedicated to meeting the needs of the indigenous populations of all communities: inclusion, humanity, equity, quality of life, environmental/public health and wellness, sustainability, and peace.

    Mike Morin
    Eugene, OR, USA

  4. john andrews said on October 4th, 2009 at 11:14pm #


    I don’t think there’s much point in thinking too seriously about economic restructuring (essential though it is), until political restructuring is achieved.

    Our economic system is deliberately designed the way it is in order to benefit the tiny handful of elites who rule us. As far as they’re concerned, it works just fine. It’s not just that this particularly group of individuals need to be replaced, but the entire system that continually regenerates their kind. Until that happens hopes for significant economic reform is serious pie-in-the-sky.

  5. ajohnstone said on October 6th, 2009 at 1:37am #

    i can only second Michael Kenny’s point about Gallin’s misinterpretation of actual events in the Russian Revolution. Was it Stalin in 1917 , just four days after the Bolshevik seizure of power or was it , in fact , Sovnarkom which in the words of Neil Harding “unilaterally arrogated to itself legislative power simply by promulgating a decree to this effect. This was, effectively, a Bolshevik coup d’etat that made clear the government’s (and party’s) pre-eminence over the soviets and their executive organ. Increasingly, the Bolsheviks relied upon the appointment from above of commissars with plenipotentiary powers, and they split up and reconstituted fractious Soviets and intimidated political opponents.” [Leninism]

    I would go further than Gallin when he states “…the only form of politics which is an effective antidote to bureaucratism is the kind of socialist politics that contains a strong element of radical democracy…. Eugene Debs in the United States would be another example…” by saying that it is not simply concentrating on the issue of democracy but upon the whole concept of leadership and Debs was one union leader who indeed recognised this .
    “I am not a labor leader. I don’t want you to follow me or anyone else. If you are looking for a Moses to lead you out of the capitalist wilderness you will stay right where you are. I would not lead you into this promised land if I could, because if I could lead you in, someone else could lead you out.”
    And elsewhere he says :-
    “I never had much faith in leaders. I am willing to be charged with almost anything, rather than to be charged with being a leader. I am suspicious of leaders, and especially of the intellectual variety. Give me the rank and file every day in the week… I would be ashamed to admit that I had risen from the ranks. When I rise it will be with the ranks, and not from the ranks.”

    Democracy must be the basic principle of both the movement to establish socialism and of socialist society itself. If a majority of workers really were as incapable of understanding socialism as many on the Left maintain , then socialism would be impossible since, by its very nature , as a society based on voluntary cooperation, it can only come into being and work with the conscious consent and participation of the majority. Socialism just cannot be imposed from above by an elite as envisaged by the Left . Political action must be taken by the conscious majority, without depending upon leadership. It is upon the working class that the working class must rely for their emancipation. Working class emancipation necessarily excludes the role of political leadership. Even if it could be conceived of a leader-ridden working class displacing the capitalist class from power such an immature class would be helpless to undertake the responsibilities of democratic socialist society.

    Valuable work may be done by individuals, and this work may necessarily raise them to prominence, but it is not to individuals that the working class must look. The movement for freedom must be a working class movement. It must depend upon the working class vitality and intelligence and strength. Until the knowledge and experience of the working class are equal to the task of revolution there can be no emancipation for them.

    For the Trotskyist-Lenininist Left, all union activity ( and community struggles etc) should be mediated by the Party , whereas , the Party should be seen as just one mode of activity available to the working class to use in their struggles i.e. a tail to be wagged by the dog. It is NOT the Party’s task to lead the workers in struggle or to instruct its members on what to do in trade unions, , because class conscious workers and socialists are quite capable of making decisions for themselves.