Mmegi Online :: The role of trade unions in politics [Part 3]
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Saturday 17 February 2018, 10:00 am.
The role of trade unions in politics [Part 3]

In this four part series COMRADE MOORE explores the role of unions in the larger struggle of the oppressed. In this last part he argues that Botswana needs a labour party to agitate for the interests of the oppressed.
By Staff Writer Sat 17 Feb 2018, 23:36 pm (GMT +2)
Mmegi Online :: The role of trade unions in politics [Part 3]

In the final analysis, the only solution is for revolutionary intellectuals and advanced sections of the working class to form a socialist party to challenge the entire capitalist edifice which is the bedrock of their exploitation and oppression. A 'workers' party' does not simply mean any groups of workers  without a working class ideology establishing 'their' own party, as Comrade Motshwarakgole seems to  think,  because that party would not necessarily articulate the interests and aspirations of the working class.  These are the lessons we must learn from the Labour Party in Britain, MDC in Zimbabwe which was the brainchild of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU)  or even MMD in Zambia where workers formed their parties but these parties turned out to be just as reactionary as the very capitalist governments they purported to challenge because they were not imbued with revolutionary theory.

MDC betrayed the workers of Zimbabwe even at its birth in 1999. There were two contradictory forces during the launch of MDC. While  revolutionary workers wanted an independent party to fight the neo-liberal policies of the Mugabe regime, reactionary forces made up of conservative members of ZCTU,  middle class organisations, the church and NGOs were inclined towards an abstract fight for 'democracy' i.e. bourgeois/liberal democracy. The latter group prevailed hence the movement spearheaded by the working class fighting the IMF's neo-liberal structural adjustment programme was hijacked by a party ready to compromise with neo-liberalism by supporting privatisation.  So yes, Tsvangarai is ideologically a 'puppet of the West' (as Mugabe dismisses him) whose agricultural policy has been dictated by the white settler bourgeoisie or commercial farmers. He is seen as the better of the two evils as Zimbabweans are fed up with Mugabe's tyranny and failures, not that he represents the interests of the working class in any shape or form.  When the only socialist MP elected on an MDC ticket Munyaradzi Gwisai put forward an alternative land programme he was attacked and threatened with expulsion from the organisation.  Because of its conservative outlook MDC attracted many white farmers to its side. Eddie Cross, a leading member of the Confederation of Zimbabwe Industries became the MDC's economic advisor. His policy is to speed up privatisation (of services like water and health) and meekly and vigorously implement the IMF conditionalities that are responsible for the current economic crisis.

However, it must be noted that when workers formed MDC in Zimbabwe,  MMD in Zambia, the Australian Labour Party and the Labour Party in Britain they were intervening in politics.  The idea was to elect trade union delegates to parliament in order to legislate laws and measures that would protect workers - something that industrial action was unable to achieve. However, this did not in any way advance the course of the workers except to bring about reformism within capitalist society. Unfortunately this strategy was based on the false premise that the power of the bourgeoisie resides in parliament. On the contrary, the power of the bourgeoisie resides in capital outside parliament and in fact capital controls the state and parliament itself.

 As Vladimir Lenin correctly observed, for a revolution or for revolutionary 'regime change' to take place workers need revolutionary theory.  The workers' slogan should be; 'revolutionary regime change' because not every regime change will deliver on the demands of the working class. Left to their own devices trade unions as mass organisations are incapacitated from playing that role.  The history of all revolutions has taught us that left to their own devices the workers, however revolutionary, cannot transcend trade unionism or economism.  Or as Rosa Luxemburg put it, 'the objective conditions of capitalist society transform the economic functions of the trade unions into a sort of labour of Sisyphus, which is nevertheless, indispensable' . The historical limits of trade union politics therefore is that it inherently amounts to 'bourgeois politics of the working class' , its consciousness cannot transcend  the boundaries of bourgeois ideology and consistently develop revolutionary consciousness. Only revolutionaries can make a revolution. That is, only a politically party made up exclusively of professional revolutionaries can deliver on the demands of the working class.

Put differently, the major weakness of the trade unions, according to Lenin, is ideological. Hence Lenin's insistence that 'without a revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement', indeed, there can be no revolutionary 'regime change'. It is the historical duty of revolutionary intellectuals to inject that revolutionary theory to the workers from outside through deliberate propaganda and agitation. Agitation means that revolutionaries must champion the daily struggles of the workers for better wages and conditions of service while propaganda is about imparting revolutionary theory or working class ideology to the workers.

Trade unions were created by the working class during the period of the peaceful development of capitalism - they are essentially defensive organisations of the workers to increase the price of labour in the labour market, and for the improvement of labour conditions. Revolutionary Marxists endeavourer by their influence to unite them with the political party of the proletariat. Revolutionary parties must set up cells within trade unions to win them to their side. Winning influence in trade unions and setting up party cells for them is particularly important as workers are the most consistent fighters for justice and true democracy and yet they do not develop revolutionary consciousness spontaneously on own their own.

While revolutionary activists must work in existing trade unions they must always be preserved as broad organisations of union members affiliated to different political parties. It is not advisable to try and bring them under the direction of a single party.  Indeed, to try to make all trade unionists BNF members would be dangerous and ill advised as it might narrow the dimensions of the trade union movement and thus weaken the solidarity of the workers themselves. This is not the same thing as saying that unions should steer clear of politics. It is important that the trade union movement forges strategic and tactical alliances and partnerships with progressive political parties such as the BNF and non-governmental organisations which have a common vision and minimum platform.   However, it is wrong to identify the interests of the party with the interests of the trade unions or to try and 'make the party responsible for individual acts of individual trade unions'.

The revolutionary party must define the content, forms and methods of its work in trade unions taking into account the nature of the problems prevailing in those organisations such as draconian trade union laws, the level of class consciousness and the traditions of class struggle in the country. This task has yet to be carried out by the revolutionaries in Botswana hence the relations of progressive political parties with trade unions remain tenuous. All BNF secretaries for labour seem to have failed to perform this task. The development of a syllabus for the workers must clearly define 'the content, forms and methods' of party work among trade unions.  In our view trade union organisation must be based on the principles of 'one industry - one union' and 'one country - one federation'!                                                 

The main thrust in trade unions is to fight for the immediate rights of the workers but they must be guided not to get bogged down in economism or limiting their activities to economic struggle and to prevent the unions from sliding into the illusion of class collaboration.  That means that they must combat false trade unionism spread by imperialist organisations like the CIA Afro-American Labour Centre and the BDP regime. While the economic struggle of the trade unions must not be belittled it is not an end in-itself, rather, it must be regarded as a component part of the revolutionary movement of the working class for democracy and socialism. Activists must fight for the unity of the trade union movement nationally and internationally.

Another factor which incapacitates trade unions from providing vanguard leadership of the workers  is the inherent contradictory  tendency of a  privileged bureaucratic layer or 'guild-like and job-trust' form of conservative trade unionism to emerge within the leadership of the labour movement.  In order to represent workers unions collect money from their members and hire full-time representatives, advocates, organisers and so on and eventually develop an apparatus which rivals, and sometimes exceeds large capitalist corporations with some union officials earning salaries many times higher than those of the workers they represent. This worker's bureaucracy which makes a career by representing the working class within the capitalist system develops a completely different social consciousness - different from the rank and file members and unavoidably embraces an ideology of reformism.  Because of its material privileges this bureaucratic stratum is always inclined towards compromising with the capitalist system, rather than transforming it. The recent reports of corruption within the BTU leadership and the manner in which some unions are venturing into profit-making businesses are examples of this malaise which  eventually acts as a break on the revolutionary transformation of the trade unions. Oligarchic tendencies seem to be more deeply ingrained in trade unions than in political parties. Michels explains why:

"When the leaders are not persons of means and when they have no other source of income, they hold firmly to their positions for economic reasons coming to regard the functions they exercise as theirs by inalienable rights. Especially this is true of manual workers, who since becoming leaders have lost an aptitude for their former occupations".

The rank and file trade union members also come to accept incumbent leaders as having a 'customary right' to office and behave as though they owe them a sacred duty of gratitude to keep re-electing them into office. The stage is then set for union leaders to impose their own policies on the organisation, including those disapproved by the majority. Lacking experience and knowledge, the ordinary members fail to challenge the leadership hence oligarchic control of the unions breeds mass apathy on the part of ordinary workers. Some of the trade union leaders in Botswana  have been in their leadership positions since the 1970s and have accumulated so much wealth that they are, in many ways, now part and parcel of the ruling capitalist classes which the ordinary workers ironically want to overthrow. Apparently some earn salaries higher than those of university lecturers.  

Many years ago Ernest Jones, in the name of the revolutionary wing of Chartism, denounced the 'aristocracy of labour' - a tendency for more skilled trades to join unions and for better paid layers to dominate trade union membership and push for higher wages and assume a more reactionary character, while the vast majority of the poorest workers remain un-unionised;

'It is said I am setting the labourers against the skilled merchants - the low-paid trades against the high-paid. Do we fight against class-government? Well, then - there is class-government in our ranks, and we ought to fight against it too. Do we fight against aristocratic privilege? Well, then - there is aristocratic privilege of the vilest die among the high-paid trades, and we ought to fight against it too. The aristocracy of labour must be broken down, the same way as any other aristocracies. If we don't, when you have established democracy, these men will canny the Reaction' .

In advanced capitalist countries the labour aristocracy became the basis for workers' incorporation into the structures of capitalist ruling classes, particularly in the era of imperialism. In the process, Marxist elements in trade unions were sidelined and elbowed out of unions in countries like Britain and Germany.   The aristocratic stratification inside the proletariat and fossilisation of the trade union structure into business unions makes the role of a disciplined vanguard socialist party made up of professional revolutionaries even more imperative in the fight against the system of private property.  We will not be surprised if some of the leaders of conservative trade unions turn out to be breeding grounds for the BDP leadership and even contest parliamentary elections under the banner of the BDP in 2014. 

It is the duty of the most class conscious trade union leaders and the vanguard party to fight against trade union tendencies towards bureaucratism, corruption and self-seeking petty squabbling and promote their role as well-springs of solidarity and emancipation.  A vanguard workers' party must foster working class solidarity nationally and internationally, widen workers' horizons, bring them to the side of the youth, the poor and disadvantaged members of the society.

In his pamphlet Where is Britain Going? in 1925 Trotsky argued that the radicalisation of the unions is blocked by corrupt and conservative and bureaucratic union officials. Having acquired the authority over the membership union leaders are used to assist capitalism in taming and controlling the more radical workers. The state and industry deliberately turn the leadership into its political force or ally for helping to discipline its members, making them junior partners in the productive processes e.g. through offering workers shares and paying the union officials higher salaries and wages.  However, a few of the most politically conscious workers in trade unions can develop into professional revolutionaries in collaboration with revolutionary intellectuals.

The value and importance of trade unions was summed up in the famous Communist Manifesto: 'Now and again the workers are victorious, but only for a time. The real fruit of their battles lies, not in the immediate results, but in the ever-expanding union of workers'. Workers have to defend the collective bargaining contract everyday on the shop floor otherwise management would whittle away gains made at the bargaining table. However, the importance of trade unions goes beyond the fact that they are means of organisation of the working class for struggle against the bourgeoisie. Unions are capable of greater victories than simple everyday guerrilla struggles for better wages and conditions of service. While the struggle for bread and butter issues


is important unions are capable of spreading working class solidarity against the common enemy - the whole class of capitalist employers.

Strong unions can help to organise the unorganised working class, create a stronger more militant working class, foster greater class consciousness.  The first draft resolution on 'Trade Unions - their Past, Present and Future' drawn up by Karl Marx for the 1866 congress of the International asserted that, 'capital is a concentrated social force, while the workman has only to dispose of his working force (labour power). The contract between capital and labour can therefore never be struck on equitable terms, equitable even in the sense of a society which places the ownership of the material means of life and labour on the opposite side and the vital productive energies of the opposite side. The only social power of the workmen is their number. The force of numbers, however is broken by disunion. The disunion of the workingmen is created and perpetuated by their unavoidable competition amongst themselves' .

Trade unions have their genesis in the workers' spontaneous attempt to check competition amongst themselves hence their activities were initially confined to countering the incessant encroachment of capital. These everyday questions of wages, time, labour  and conditions of service render trade union activity not only legitimate but necessary because as long as the exploitative capitalist system exits that role of the trade unions cannot be dispensed with. Unions grow and even form federations with unions in other countries. However initially unconsciously to the workers themselves the trade unions evolve into centres of organisation of the working class - a role reminiscent of the role played by mediaeval municipalities and communes relative to the bourgeoisie.

While unions are a necessity for the guerrilla fights between labour and capital they have a much higher role of functioning as agencies for superseding the very system of wage slavery and capitalist rule. Unions that have not yet transcended  their status as 'a class-in-itself' to 'a class-for-itself'  remain narrowly blinkered and bent upon the local and immediate struggles with capital or are content with negotiating  the terms of the sale of their labour power to capital within the framework of the capitalist system. This kind of conservative unionism regards the trade union as merely a haggler over the sale of labour power within the high walls of the capitalist system, a kind of merchant of labour. Their activities do not in any way pose a threat to the system itself. They distance themselves from political involvement.   They therefore keep aloof from general social and political movements in society.

In the absence of a vanguard socialist party in Botswana it is critically important for trade unions to be aware the class character of all the political parties in the country for purposes of forging strategic partnerships with parties or coalitions of parties that are genuinely progressive and pro-labour in their political orientation and programmes.

For the benefit of reactionary trade union leaders we describe briefly the class character of the main political parties in Botswana. Themba Joina's Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin movement (MELS) is little more than a crude caricature of some Marxist ideas that have been poorly internalized and applied to the historically specific conditions of Botswana. This is a Stalinist movement which has proved too harmful to the cause of the working class.  Anyone who is familiar with the damage Joseph Stalin inflicted to the cause of Marxism-Leninism will shudder at the very thought of a movement that still believes in lumping together Marx, Engels and Lenin with Stalin - so many years after the collapse of Stalinist regimes in Russia and  Eastern Europe. Not surprisingly, the average citizen correctly dismisses MELS and its President for life Themba Joina as nothing more than the laughing stock of Botswana politics. 

The BDP is a party that originally represented the interests of traditional ruling petty bourgeois classes or chiefs, cattle barons and the emergent petty-bourgeoisie - newspaper reporters, court clerks, teachers (20 percent of the first cabinet were teachers), the colonial ruling classes, the white settler bourgeoisie (farmers and industrialists). 

This was a block of privileged reactionary feudal  and tribal forces, the comprador  and bureaucratic bourgeoisie and foreign imperialist agents. In the 1960s this ruling class was only a 'miniscule petty-bourgeoisie' , according to Jack Parson.  In the context of nationalism where the common enemy is a clearly identifiable white colonial regime the class character of the political parties tends to be somewhat disguised. To the ordinary people, including the workers and peasants, all political parties opposed to colonial rule appear to be articulating their interests.

Jack Parson observes that this 'miniscule petty bourgeoisie' managed to use  state power to transform itself into 'a national bourgeoisie' in one generation. Today they wallow in ill-acquired wealth while the masses they purport to represent are mired in abject poverty in the midst of plenty.  This is a party which has presided over the most uneven distribution of wealth in the world. It has earned  Botswana the dubious distinction of outshining countries like Brazil in the uneven distribution of wealth and the yawning gap between the haves and have-nots.  Any trade union leadership which regards this kind of government as a neutral referee is itself reactionary and delaying the consciousness of the workers it purports to lead. 

The BDP regime has jumped onto the neo-liberal globalisation bandwagon  by privatising public utilities and commoditising public services to the detriment of the workers conditions of living. BOFEPUSU in their 2013 May Day message rejects privatisation because it 'results in unemployment and intensification of the exploitation of workers'. They further distance themselves from the commoditisation of social services ('the workers' social wage') which they regard as 'one of the biggest achievements of the working class'.

Like the BDP the BCP is also essentially not 'a party of choice' , but  from class perspective, 'a party of business'.  For instance, in their original Democratic Development Programme (DDP) the party asserts that, the 'BCP accepts the positive role of privatization releasing private sector and individual initiatives in Botswana's economy' as  long as it is 'properly handled'.   Interestingly, the Saleshandos have been caught up in allegations of sleeping with the enemy in terms of  shady business  deals, not just with the ruling classes, but directly with the Khama family.

Although the BCP leader furiously  and feverishly denies these allegations they  might ultimately signal the beginning of the end of his political career as leader of the BCP.  There was a certain air of inevitability about these allegations because the BCP  leadership is made up of businesspeople  and a good number of them live comfortably in Phakalane, just like the BDP, where the super-rich exploiters of the workers live.

The BCP leadership is constituted by the reactionary wing that was in the BNF prior to the 1998 split.  At that time the BNF was divided into basically two ideological wings - the reactionary wing led by Vice President Dingake and the progressive wing led by BNF leader Dr Koma. The BNF's good showing in the 1994 general election where it garnered 37percent of the national votes had struck terror into the hearts of the capitalists and they started hatching plots to destabilise the BNF.   The reactionary wing in the BNF led by Dingake colluded with the ruling classes to  hijack the leadership of the BNF at the 1998  congress ahead of the 1999 general election which the BNF was poised to win.  Louis Nchindo of De Beers - a company which had bankrolled nearly every BDP election since independence, invited the reactionary wing of the BNF to a secret meeting in Israel where a strategy was apparently hatched for them to either hijack the BNF leadership or split the party and ruin its chances of winning the 1999 general elections. Allegations were flying thick and fast that this reactionary wing had been funded by the capitalists to the tune of P3m to betray the struggle. The ruling classes were scarred by the spectacular performance  and growth of the BNF in the general elections from a mere 12 percent of the national votes cast in 1974 to a massive 37 percent in 1994. When the strategy to take over the structures of the BNF so that in the event that the BNF won the 1999 general election power should be in the hands of a reactionary wing of the BNF committed to the perpetuation of essentially capitalist policies failed, these reactionary elements  broke away and formed the BCP.  This severely weakened the BNF and denied it the historic opportunity to take over the reigns of power for the first time and its share of the national votes cast dropped from 37 percent to 25 percent in 1999.

The BCP has since its formation behaved like spoilers by rejecting all attempts by the BNF and other significant opposition parties to forge a united front with it ( for example, the 1999 Botswana Alliance Movement umbrella body, the 2003 Electoral Pact and now the 2012 Umbrella for Democratic Change).  They split opposition votes on behalf of the BDP regime and this may well be  the greatest obstacle  to UDC 's attempt to wrestle power from the BDP in 2014. Those who vote for the BCP are unsuspecting  accomplices in delaying their own liberation. Unless civil society institutions, including trade unions, put pressure on the BCP to desist from deliberately or objectively helping the BDP to stay in power this nation may have to endure yet another five years of Khama's dictatorship after the 2014 elections.

The first BCP leader Michael Dingake claimed that the main difference between the BNF and the BCP is that the BCP are 'pragmatists', while the BNF are 'theorist' i.e. Marxist theorists - adding that 'Batswana will never be Marxists'. The BCP dismisses the BNF's socialist oriented policies as being 'outdated' and yet they (BCP) are strongly wedded to the long discredited capitalist trickle-down economics in which the promotion of a small middle class is seen as the engine of development and the basis for eradicating poverty and unemployment.  Parties that are hostile to socialism are not friends of the workers.  It is this anti-socialist ideological stance of the BCP which has endeared to 'New' Labour  party in Britain which has abandoned all pretences of representing the working class and openly embraces neo-liberal economic policies, particularly under Tony Blair's leadership. 'Old' Labour was leftist in its ideological orientation and was allied to the BNF.  The above observations are not exhaustive in defining the BCP as a party of business.

Their policy documents articulate mainly the class interests of the rich, and nowhere in their policies do they challenge the capitalist edifice on which the plight of the workers is anchored - all they do is to claim that they can implement capitalist policies better than the BDP, which is clearly a dream of  monumental proportions. Put differently, in their political programme the BCP commits itself only to the redistribution of the means of consumption - progressive taxation, increasing wages etc but is remarkably silent on the critical issue of the redistribution of  the means of production - land, factories, banks etc which shape and determine consumption patterns. And yet it is the exclusion of the workers from the ownership of the means of production which lies at the heart of their poverty and exploitation. The extreme and radical economic inequalities in Botswana dictate that any party which is serious about addressing the needs of the workers and delivering on the principles of  social justice and egalitarianism must have a clear stand on the take over of  some of the most important  means of production by the workers. Unfortunately, on this score, the BCP political programme is is found wanting.

On the other hand, the BNF was founded as a spokesperson of a coalition of anti-imperialist, patriotic and progressive and democratic  forces constituted by the working class, the exploited peasantry and other categories of the working people, such as the youth and small business people.  For this coalition of classes 46 years in-dependent Botswana has not brought any significant changes in their material living conditions. That is why the BNF believes in a form of popular democracy best captured in its proposal of a House of Representatives (replacing the advisory Ntlo ya Dikgosi)  which will represent and give legislative powers to institutions of civil society such as representatives of trade unions, religious organisations, ethnic groups and traditional authorities.

The fact that the BNF's political programme  recognises public, cooperative, private and parastatal ownership of the means of production is indicative of a commitment not just to the redistribution of  the means of consumption, but  much more importantly,  also a commitment to the redistribution of the means of production.  As far as the BNF is concerned Batswana can only be said to be enjoying the fruits of their independence when we have secured the greatest happiness for the greatest number of our people which is only achievable when the main means of production are restored to the workers and peasants. Until that goal is achieved for the struggling and toiling masses of our people it is not yet Uhuru! However over the years the BNF has somewhat drifted to the centre of the political pendulum.  Finally, we can  state with a degree of certainty that Uhuru can only come in 2014 if all the  major political parties and trade unions e.g. the BCP, BFTU and BOFEPUSU joined the Umbrella for Democratic Change which does not in any way threaten the independence and autonomy of its cooperating partners.

If these democratic and patriotic  forces refuse to come on board they will be giving the BDP another undeserved lease of life and prolonging the suffering of the very working classes they purport to represent.


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