Trade unionism, Marx & Chavez

Posted on February 11, 2018


Some time ago, Irvin Jim, general secretary of South Africa’s largest trade union, the National Union of Metalworkers (Numsa), declared that the union was “Marxist-Leninist”, a label that belongs in the political and not union arena. He has now announced that Numsa has resolved to build “Workers’ Party structures”. At the same time a “socialist” model is hinted at, with Numsa declaring itself in solidarity with the “Bolivarian revolution of Venezuela”.

The union hails the claimed contribution to the working class and the poor of Venezuela’s late former president “Comandante” Hugo Chavez. In this regard, Numsa, minus the red berets, has adopted verbally the same ideological positions claimed earlier by the populist Economic Freedom Fighters.

However, this ill-defined “Marxist-Leninist” label is also claimed by the South African Communist Party (SACP) and, as mistakenly as Numsa, by several Cosatu unions. And these groups have, at various times, also hailed “President, Comrade, Hugo Chavez” for his claimed contribution to the working class.

But Numsa has added the formation of a workers’ party to this equation, highlighting several worrying questions about not only what Numsa and other unions should be, but, more generally, about the uncritical support often given to proclaimed socialists who may not qualify for that description. Such support is usually based on blind emotion rather than rational analysis.

Venezuela is a case in point. Chavez was an army officer who seems personally to have wanted to end the gross inequalities that persist the world over. He was elected president in 1999 after he had led a failed coup, went to jail, and was seen by many among Venezuela’s workers and the poor as a martyr to the cause of democracy and equality; he would do for the oppressed and exploited what they had not done for themselves. So it was that another political messiah stepped onto the stage.

Yet the very philosopher and activist in whose name Numsa, Chavez and others claim — and claimed — to act, Karl Marx, maintained that it was only the self emancipation of the working class that could result in the true democratic control of society. Real control by the majority of all facets of their lives — an extension of democracy from the bottom up — is what writers such as Marx called socialism.

Chavez may have been well intentioned and certainly made elaborate promises in sometimes six-hour long harangues on national television after he became president. He also, in his early years in power, became increasingly popular as he introduced free education, health care and cheaper food, much of this relying on imports.

It was all paid for from an oil price bonanza. Venezuela, with among the world’s greatest oil reserves, was awash with petrodollars. Having nationalised the oil industry, Chavez spent petrodollars with abandon, financing several grandiose projects that faltered and failed when the oil price fell and the bonanza ended. By then, much of the country’s agricultural sector was ruined, swamped by imports that could no longer be afforded. The same applied to other sectors as well.

Of course, the populist actions of Chavez, especially the nationalisation of the oil industry, were bitterly opposed by vested interests, including the United States. But much of the damage done to the Venezuelan economy, and which continues, as a result, to harm the workers and the poor, was inflicted by the capricious behaviour and decisions of an autocratic, if well meaning, leader.

However, because Chavez chose the path of nationalisation, this still tends to be hailed by many on the Left — and condemned by many of the Right — as socialism. Yet nationalisation — state control — is what the German autocrat and imperialist Count Otto von Bismarck referred to as “state socialism” when, in the 19th Century, he nationalised the tobacco industry and the railways.

Nationalisation clearly does not equal socialism. It is an act of governments, of politicians and of political parties. In parliamentary democracies, state control of an industry may be supported by trade unions and their members, who see that they can then gain greater leverage on the government as employer through the power of their votes.

But to blur the distinction between trade unions — voluntary associations of workers who come together irrespective gender, ethnicity, religion or political persuasion — and political parties is dangerous. It implies the “conveyor belt” system employed in regions such as the former Soviet Union. There unions were the bottom tier of a hierarchy that led through party structures to the the top bureaucracy or even to a single leader said to represent “the people”. It was — and is — a grotesque caricature of socialism where the essential element is democracy.

Trade unions are the reserve army of those whose labour is exploited and who, in organised formations, posses extraordinary potential power. As such they are always targets, both for employers, including governments, that wish to weaken or control them and, in parliamentary democracies, for political parties that wish to use their economic and voting power.

So there is a long history of employers setting up “sweetheart” unions in individual industries while political parties work to gain the allegiance or affiliation of unions and their federations or persuade unions to be “non-political”. In Europe, for example, this resulted in labour federations that were allied to Labour parties, Communist parties and Christian parties, all claiming to be democratic and adhering to trade union principles, but, in fact, divided on ideological and religious lines.

These are the lessons that should be borne in mind not only by Numsa, but by the whole labour movement that is today more weakened than it has been in decades. Unions need to rebuild their democratic shopfloor structures while, by all means, encouraging and supporting, acting as catalysts, for the formation of new structures capable of extending democracy rather than simply repeating the errors of the past.