Workplace & Trade Unions

Marxism and the Trade Unions

31 May 2022

By Jeremy Dewar

THE MARXIST analysis of the trade unions starts with an understanding of the inequality hidden within, but fundamental to the labour contract. Capitalism creates two interdependent but fundamentally opposed classes: the capitalists who own the means of production and capital; and the proletariat, who are doubly free, free from formal slavery and feudal serfdom and also ‘free’ in the sense that they have nothing to sell, except their ability to work.

While both need to agree to an employment contract, it is for different reasons—the capitalist in order to extract surplus (unpaid) labour, the source of surplus value (profit); the worker in order to feed, clothe and house themselves and their family. The capitalists’ ownership of the main means of production (factories, transport, warehouses, oil and gas fields, mines) as well as competition between workers for jobs and pay means that capitalist and worker are only ‘equals’ in the most formal legal sense. The capitalist can name their price; the worker must accept what’s on offer.

Marx and Engels
Like all commodities (goods and services produced for sale on the market) the value of labour power (i.e. wages) is based on the amount of socially necessary labour time required to create that labour power. In this instance, that means ‘the number and extent of [the worker’s] so-called necessary requirements’, including housing, clothing, energy and food, but also the cost of raising and educating the next generation of workers.

This is what Marx called the ‘minimum wage’, below which the worker is unable to recover sufficiently to work the following day, week or year. Marx noted that it is possible to raise this wage over time through collective struggle. Indeed there was a tendency for the working class to do just that through forming combinations, which counteracted the competition between workers by introducing solidarity.

This marked the birth of the trade unions. At first, they used clandestine and even terrorist methods to enforce their strikes and sabotage of the bosses’ means of production. Trade union organisation provided the first step of the working class from an objective ‘class in itself’ within capitalism to a ‘class for itself’, conscious of its needs and aims. Illegalised and repressed, after a certain point the conquest of legal status was vital for their further growth.

Engels referred to strikes, as ‘the military school of the working class’. Marx and Engels deepened their work with the trade union leaders in the First International (1864–76), but here they began to note the limitations of the unions:

‘Trade unions work well as centres of resistance against the encroachments of capital […] they fail generally from limiting themselves to a guerrilla war against the effects of the existing system, instead of simultaneously trying to change it, instead of using their organised forces as a lever for the final emancipation of the working class, that is to say the ultimate abolition of the wages system.’

In other words, the old trade union slogan ‘a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay’ ignores the fact that all wage labour is exploited labour. Only the overthrow of capitalist property relations through social revolution can finally free the working class from wage slavery. The trade unions, to reach their historic potential, need to become ‘schools for socialism’—and for this there needs to be a conscious socialist intervention into the unions, i.e. the intervention of a revolutionary political party.

Luxemburg and Lenin
This theoretical breakthrough was further developed by the next generation of Marxists. Rosa Luxemburg made the first important contribution, noting the development of the mass strike in Belgium in 1902 and Russia in the 1905 revolution. She argued that general strikes could be used not merely for defensive aims but also for a strategic offensive, such as winning universal suffrage, or even revolution.

This did not mean that Luxemburg ignored the significance of economic strikes. In accordance with Marx she argued that ‘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’. To break this cycle of partial victory followed by gradual erosion of any gains won, revolutionaries must fight for leadership of the unions.

But a battle ensued with the leadership of the German unions, in particular Carl Legien. An unofficial division of labour between the unions, which commanded the economic struggle, and the workers’ Social-Democratic Party (SPD), which led the political struggle, had been established by its leader August Bebel and shielded the union leaders from criticism.

In her pamphlet The Mass Strike, The Political Party and the Trade Unions, Luxemburg observed ‘an antagonism between the social democracy and a certain part of the trade union officials, which is however, at the same time an antagonism within the trade unions between this part of the trade union leaders and the proletarian mass organised in the trade unions.’ The task to rebuild a ‘bridge’ between the party and the unions therefore should not be ‘at the very spot where the distance is greatest’ but rather from ‘below, amongst the organised proletarian masses’.

We can still see this bureaucracy today, calling off strikes, conceding without a fight, overturning democratic decisions and expelling militants, all while paying themselves huge amounts in wages, perks and privileges. Luxemburg’s analysis paved the way for the tactic of the rank and file movement, starting from the fight for control of strikes and democratic reforms—tasks that are still burning today.

For Luxemburg, the trade union bureaucracy was a product of the ‘specialisation of professional activity’, which gave the officials a ‘naturally restricted horizon’. But Lenin disagreed. He returned to the writings of Engels, who had observed that the working class ‘have, to an extent, shared in the benefits of [England’s world] monopoly’. This was why ‘there has been no socialism in England’ for decades. But this was no equal dividend; a ‘privileged minority pocket most’ while ‘the great mass had at least a temporary share now and then’.

This idea of a ‘privileged minority’, which Engels came to call an ‘aristocracy of labour’, was disproportionately represented in the unions because of their ability to strike better bargains based on the scarcity of their specialist skills and generally higher productivity. This gave Lenin the key to understanding the material basis for the class collaboration of the trade union bureaucracy—and the means of their overthrow.

In an environment of Tsarist repression, Lenin and the Bolsheviks turned their attention to the great factories, such as the Putilov works in St Petersburg. Not only did they struggle to build the unions, which were illegal under the Tsar, but they also fought for leadership and militant tactics, while building party cells in the factories, distributing bulletins and newspapers and establishing propaganda circles among the workers.

At the height of the 1917 revolution, they built and participated in factory committees as well as the soviets, mass workers’ councils uniting all workers, in and outside the trade unions, in struggle on the basis of workers’ democracy, with all parties claiming to represent all sectors of the oppressed masses able to operate openly. The soviets represented the highest form of workers’ organisation, providing the basis for a revolutionary workers’ government, and were essential to the success of the social revolution in Russia and the expropriation of the bourgeoisie.

Comintern and Trotsky
While the reformist parties handed back control of the enterprises to the bourgeoisie after the February 1917 overthrow of the Tsar, the Bolsheviks gradually gained leadership of the soviets, arguing ‘all power to the soviets’, and in the factory committees by waging a struggle for ‘workers control’ over production. This fought for the workers’ right to inspect the factory’s finances and operations, control internal discipline, hours and hiring, and sack abusive or corrupt managers. Workers’ militia guarded the factories and workers gains.

The Communist International, which had been established in 1919 to openly combat the treacherous Second International, via its congresses and the Red International of Labour Unions (RILU), sought to codify these programmatic gains and export them. Taken together, they formed a bridge from the unions’ economic battles to the fight for socialism.

RILU drew in not just the left wing of the socialist parties but also syndicalists, who had set up separate unions in opposition to the mainstream unions. This led to two important political battles. The first was to establish that communists should not artificially cut themselves off from the masses in tiny ‘red’ unions but link up with other militants inside the existing mass unions in opposition movements, seeking to ensure their healthy development.

The other dispute was over whether the unions should be politically neutral, or if revolutionaries should aim to win them to the closest possible, democratic unity with the party, be it reformist mass parties based on the working class like the Labour Party or where one existed, the revolutionary party itself.

Syndicalists argue to keep politics and parties ‘out of the union’ as a principle, as do the reformist union bureaucrats when it suits them. However, Lenin and Trotsky argued that this approach simply let the reformist leaders off the hook, offering them an open door to pose unchallenged as the workers’ leaders. Furthermore, it means the unions stand aside from great political struggles and the struggle for power, i.e. a workers government. There is no avoiding politics; not all workers are in unions, and not all politics can be done through trade union forms of struggle.

The Spanish revolution proved beyond doubt that this was the case when the syndicalist union leaders threw off this ‘principle’ at the decisive moment and joined the bourgeois republican government, which promptly returned private property to its ‘owners’ and disarmed the workers’ militia.

As the Comintern degenerated after Lenin’s death in 1924, Trotsky clashed with Stalin and Zinoviev over tactics in the British general strike in 1926. The latter urged the young CPGB to abandon their fight for control of the running of the strike and its aims, i.e. not to allow the strike to become the start of a revolution. Trotsky said the British party should keep up their pressure on the union leaders and seek to turn the strike into an overtly political struggle over who is ‘master of the house’: the bourgeoisie or the proletariat.

Instead, the Stalinists demanded loyalty to the reformist leaders and heaped praise on the TUC ‘lefts’. This led to union leaders calling off the general strike, and the miners’ isolation and defeat, with the lefts meekly conceding to the right wing leaders. Trotsky drew the lesson that the bureaucratic caste ties were stronger than the lefts’ loyalty to the rank and file. Criticism of and demands upon the left bureaucrats, while preparing for a break with them, were essential.

Trotsky’s final contribution on the trade union question lay unfinished on his desk when he was murdered in 1940. In Trade Unions in the Epoch of Imperialist Decay, he observed that, under monopoly conditions, the giant enterprises tended to incorporate the unions and at the same time draw ever closer to the state. This could be seen in almost every combatant country—and in the colonies—when trade union ‘ministers’ patriotically took posts in war cabinets. The independence of the unions from the corporations and the state was paramount if workers were not to be herded by their own leaders into the imperialists’ war machine.

We can see from this brief overview that there is a clear thread uniting the great Marxists in their understanding of the unions and their resulting programmatic conclusions. As the unions developed from spontaneous combines into the giant bureaucratic machines that they are today, so did Marxists’ understanding of and tactics towards the unions. Many if not all of their conclusions are still highly relevant today.

At the heart of this analysis lies a dialectical understanding of the unions as both indispensable vehicles for the struggle over surplus value and as policing mechanisms to control and divert the working class in these struggles. By ceaseless struggle against the reformist bureaucracy, by organising the most downtrodden sections of workers and by linking their strikes to the overthrow of capitalism with the slogan of workers’ control, communists can patiently win the great mass of workers to revolution. But this requires the active intervention of a revolutionary party.

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