Marx and Engels: The role of the unions

One year on, the current strike wave shows no sign of abating. Striking workers have shown enormous resilience in fighting to defend their living standards and working conditions, often challenging the low expectations of their union leaders. At the same time, Keir Starmer’s Labour has nailed its colours to the capitalists’ mast, against the interests of strikers and the working class in general. At this crucial time, as part of the debate about how to strengthen trade union organisation and working-class political representation, we reprint an edited article by PETER TAAFFE which first appeared in Socialism Today, issue No.98, February 2006, in which he reviewed a book on Marx and Engels and the trade unions, with very relevant lessons for the struggle today.

Marx and Engels on the Trade Unions

Edited by Kenneth Lapides

Published by International Publishers (New York)

This book is essential reading for all those who wish to understand the role of the trade unions and the tasks of socialists within them. Although first published in 1987, containing the works of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels on this issue, it has great contemporary relevance.

Written in the nineteenth century, inevitably parts of the book are dated. However, in the main, the freshness with which Marx and Engels approach the real movement of the working class is evident. What has not dated is the method of analysis of these two great socialist teachers, their almost unerring ability to put their finger on the pulse of the working-class movement at each stage, not just in Britain but internationally.

To read extracts from Engels’s classic, The Condition of the Working Class in England (1845), is to marvel once more at how the 24-year-old author illuminated so many aspects of the conditions and the outlook of the working class then and later. Engels knew his way around documents and libraries but this was not enough, as he indicated in his introduction to this book. Addressing the British workers, he writes: “I have not been satisfied with this [study of documents], I wanted more than a mere abstract knowledge of my subject, I wanted to see you in your homes, to observe you in your everyday life, to chat with you on conditions and grievances, to witness your struggles against the social and political power of your oppressors. I have done so”.

In these few lines is how all socialists, but particularly the new generation entering the struggle for the first time, should proceed in analysing and helping to provide a lever for the more developed sections of the working class in its struggle against capitalism. Not for Marx and Engels the role of ‘teachers’ from on high. For instance, Marx wrote: “We do not confront the world in a doctrinaire way with a new principle: Here is the truth, kneel down before it! We develop new principles for the world out of the world’s own principles. We do not say to the world: Cease your struggles, they are foolish; we will give you the true slogan of struggle. We merely show the world what it is really fighting for, and consciousness is something that it has to acquire, even if it does not want to”. (Letter to Arnold Ruge, September 1843)

It is this approach that runs like a red thread through the analysis of Marx and Engels on the trade unions. In the first section of the book, Trade Unions and Revolution (1844–1848), the inhuman conditions confronting the industrial working class at the time are described and condemned in powerfully written lines by Engels. We learn about the Chartists, the great general strike of 1842, the resort to lock-outs, and the vital role and development of the trade unions in confronting the capitalists. He denounces the “absolute power of the lord of the factory in his little state”.

In describing the role of the trade unions Engels also touches on the character of the British working class, how it differed at that time, for instance, from the German and American workers. He deals with the general conditions of the working class and how it arrived at a trade union and political consciousness. The different routes and the manner in which it does this is partly conditioned by national factors, differences in the economy, the proportion of workers, etc. He comments: “The incredible frequency of these strikes proves best of all to what extent the social war has broken out over all England”.

Striking lessons

On strikes in general and how they develop the working class, he writes: “These strikes, at first skirmishes, sometimes result in weighty struggles; they decide nothing, it is true, but they are the strongest proof that the decisive battle between bourgeoisie and proletariat is approaching. They are the military school of the working-men in which they prepare for the great struggles which cannot be avoided”. Engels was premature in expecting the ‘decisive battle’ between labour and capital, at that stage, as he later conceded. But his and Marx’s analysis of how struggle fuses together the working class retains all its force today.

In relation to the unions, he says they are “schools of war”, in which, “the unions are unexcelled. In them is developed the peculiar courage of the English. It is said on the continent that the English, and especially the working-men, are cowardly, that they cannot carry out a revolution because, unlike the French, they do not riot at intervals, because they apparently accept the bourgeois regime so quietly. This is a complete mistake. The English working class are second to none in courage; they are quite as restless as the French, but they fight differently”.

Engels also describes the cold cruelty of the British ruling class in this ‘war’. It uses every device, including eviction from company houses: “This measure was carried out with revolting cruelty. The sick, the feeble, old men and little children, even women in child-birth, were mercilessly turned from their beds and cast into the roadside ditches. One agent dragged by the hair from her bed, and into the street, a woman in the pangs of childbirth”.

In the cauldron of the rise of industrial capitalism in England, so too developed trade unions that were blooded in brutal battles with capital. Given that a big layer of the new generation in the workplace does not yet even understand the basic idea of trade unionism, the very simple but profound description by Marx and Engels on the role of the working class and of trade unions bears repetition today. Engels writes: “Large-scale industry concentrates in one place a crowd of people unknown to one another. Competition divides their interests. But the maintenance of wages, this common interest which they have against their boss, unites them in a common thought of resistance – combination”.

Of course, because of de-industrialisation, the same conditions do not pertain to the working class en masse as perhaps in the nineteenth century (although there is still a substantial industrial working class in Britain). Nevertheless, neo-liberalism has ensured the destruction of the conditions of previously ‘privileged’ layers who perhaps did not even consider themselves part of the working class, such as civil servants, teachers, etc. Marx and Engels also answer the nineteenth century pro-capitalist arguments – which have been repeated recently, for instance in the miners’ strikes of the 1980s – that workers cannot ‘afford’ to strike or finance trade unions: “The workers are right to laugh at the clever bourgeois schoolmasters who reckon up to them what this civil war is costing them in fallen, injured, and financial sacrifices. He who wants to beat his adversary will not discuss with him the costs of the war”.

On concessions dragged out of the capitalists Engels writes: “Messrs the bourgeois and their economists are so gracious as to allow in the minimum wage, that is, in the minimum life… [but] it must in contrast appear to them as shameful as incomprehensible that the workers reckon in this minimum a little of the costs of war against the bourgeoisie and that out of their revolutionary activity they even make the maximum of their enjoyment of life”. In the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels wrote: “Now and then the workers are victorious, but only for a time. The real fruits of their battles lie, not in their immediate result, but in the ever-expanding union of the workers”.

Political struggle

Arising from this struggle inevitably is politics, the generalised struggle of the working class as a whole: “Every class struggle is a political struggle. And that union, to attain which the burghers of the Middle Ages, with their miserable highways, required centuries, the modern proletarians, thanks to railways, achieve in a few years”. With modern technology, mobile phones, the internet, etc, what took years in the nineteenth century can be achieved in a much shorter period today. However, as in the past, this requires leadership and organisation which avoids the pitfalls of opportunism on the one side and sectarianism, a doctrinaire approach, on the other.

The correct method of Marx and Engels is particularly brought out in the sections, Trade Unions and the First International (1859-1872), Socialist Sectarians (1868-1875), on the problems of the US labour movement, as well as the analysis of Engels on the London dock strike of 1888 and the problems of the labour movement at the beginning of the last decade of the nineteenth century.

Marx was the greatest theoretician of the working class but his practical work in the construction of the First International – The International Working Men’s Association (IWMA) – was vital in laying the basis for the rise of the workers’ movement both then and after its demise. Engels described the formation of the IWMA as Marx’s “crowning achievement”. What is brought out in the extracts from his and Engels’s writings is the necessity for implacable firmness on principled, political and theoretical points while showing the greatest flexibility on trying to facilitate real steps forward both in the trade unions and also politically of the mass of the working class.

There are some very important parallels with the tasks confronting socialists and Marxists today in these pages. The First International, through the work of Marx and Engels, brought together English trade unionists, European socialists, and even the anarchists like Mikhail Bakunin. But Marx always tried to point the trade unions towards a generalised struggle against capitalism while supporting all their struggles on a day-to-day basis. For instance, in his fourth annual report to the First International’s general council in 1868, he states that the IWMA “has not been hatched by a sect or a theory. It is the spontaneous growth of the proletarian movement, which itself is the offspring of the natural and irrepressible tendencies of modern society”. He also states: “If the trade unions are required for the guerrilla fights between capital and labour, they are still more important as organised agencies for superseding the very system of wage labour and capital rule”.

But, even while collaborating with the trade union leaders at the time, he also points to their limitations as well as those of the trade unions as a whole: “Too exclusively bent on the local and immediate struggles with capital, the trade unions have not yet fully understood their power of acting against the system of wage slavery itself. They therefore kept too much aloof from general social and political movements”. Is this not the characteristic of many of the trade union leaders today? Their members increasingly disillusioned with the Labour Party, they nevertheless refuse to draw the obvious conclusion of seeking and constructing a political alternative. Some may distance themselves from the Labour Party but still retreat into a neutral, so-called ‘non-political’, stance which ultimately undermines the trade unions and their members’ real interests.

International solidarity

In this book, Marx and Engels point to the rise of an aristocracy of labour, particularly amongst skilled workers, whose living standards rose during the economic upswing which followed the collapse of Chartism in the 1840s. This term, ‘the aristocracy of labour’, was usually associated with the exclusive character of the trade unions – concentrating on the skilled trades to the exclusion of the great mass of unskilled exploited workers – in the late nineteenth century. But, as this book reveals, the term was in use even by early socialist writers and was familiar to Marx and Engels as early as the 1840s.

Through the First International and subsequently, Marx and Engels attempted to break this down, supporting all strikes, acting as a co-ordinating centre, and trying to persuade the trade unions to broaden their base. In one report to the general council of the IWMA, Marx makes the point, “it was not the International that threw the workmen into strikes, but, on the contrary, it was the strikes that threw the workmen into the International”.

Marx showed the vital role played by the First International in solidarity action: “One of the commonest forms of the movement for emancipation is that of strikes. Formerly, when a strike took place in one country it was defeated by the importation of workmen from another. The International has nearly stopped all that. It receives information of the intended strike, it spreads that information among its members, who at once see that for them the seat of the struggle must be forbidden ground”.

How far the trade unions need to travel today to reach the position of the IWMA more than 150 years ago! The Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) does more, it seems, than the ‘mighty’ trade union apparatus in publicising and eliciting solidarity for strikes in a country, continent and worldwide. The privileged trade union officialdom, in the main, is at home in committees, participating in the drawing up of weighty reports, suggesting pious resolutions for parliaments, but not through class action through picket lines, sympathetic strikes, organising immigrant workers, etc.

A typical case was the recent dispute in Irish Ferries, in which East European immigrant labour was used in an attempt to break union conditions and even the unions themselves. The European maritime union leaders did undertake solidarity action. This was not true of the trade union leaders as a whole who, in the main, are dilatory in organising it. Through solidarity action, especially the efforts of the Socialist Party in Ireland and its MP, Joe Higgins, as well as solidarity action supported by the Socialist Party in England and Wales, the employers did not win a complete victory.

Half a million immigrant workers have entered Britain, Sweden and Ireland in the last 18 months to two years, the overwhelming majority without union organisation and prepared to work for drastically reduced pay and conditions. It is vital that the trade union movement acts like the First International by spreading “information among its members, who at once see that for them the seat of the struggle must be forbidden ground”. Polish and other Eastern European workers should be organised, both in their home countries and, when they come to Britain and the rest of Europe, should be recruited immediately into union organisation.

The extracts from Marx’s Capital and other works in this book, particularly on the struggle over the working day, have a very topical ring about them. In this era of neo-liberalism, how strikingly contemporary is the following comment? “The general tendency of capitalist production is not to raise, but to sink the average standard of wages… Trade unions work well as centres of resistance against the encroachments of capital [unfortunately, not the case under right-wing leaderships – PT]. They fail partially from an injudicious use of their power. 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…”.

Marx correctly described the struggle between labour and capital over the working day as a “civil war” unfolding over 50 years. This resulted in legislation restricting the amount of time workers were forced to spend in the workplace. Capitalism is described by Marx as the “vampire [which] will not lose his hold on [the worker] ‘so long as there is a muscle, a nerve, a drop of blood to be exploited’.”

Democratic organisation

The chapter on Socialist Sectarians is remarkable for bringing out not just the role of the working class but the different tactics that must be employed in different stages of the struggle if socialists and Marxists are to link up successfully with mass movements of the working class. It must be remembered that when Marx is dealing with ‘sects’ he is not primarily concerned with the size of such organisations – although this was a factor – but in their abstract, incorrect tactics, their generally denunciatory and lecturing approach towards the working class. People like Ferdinand Lasalle in Germany – who Marx praised for taking the working-class movement forward – had substantial forces behind him but had a false approach to trade unions. The same applied to Pierre Proudhon, the inspiration for anarchism in France, as well as many others.

In relation to the German workers and trade unions, Marx makes the pertinent comment in arguing against over-centralised mass organisations: “Centralist organisation, although very useful for secret societies and sectarian movements, goes against the nature of trade unions. Even if it were possible – I state outright that it is impossible – it would not be desirable, and least of all in Germany. Here where the worker’s life is regulated from childhood on by bureaucracy and he himself believes in the authorities, in the bodies appointed over him, he must be taught before all else to walk by himself”. Stifling bureaucracy, which is still the hallmark of trade unions in Britain and throughout the world today, is a barrier to the working class learning to “walk by itself”.

Organisation and leadership is vital, but not as a substitute – as some small sectarian organisations in Britain unfortunately believe – for initiative and spontaneity by workers in struggle. The role of socialists and Marxists in the trade unions is to encourage this tendency of workers to act by themselves while helping to provide, where necessary, the ideological and material means for the working class itself to organise and defeat the employers and their system.

Throughout the later writings of Engels is the theme of the opposition of Marx and himself to an ultimatist or one-sided approach to the struggles of the working class. Also the need for political action is a constant theme. Engels, after the death of Marx, pointed towards steps to be taken that would move the mass of the working class into action. He pointed out in 1883: “And – apart from the unexpected – a really general workers’ movement will come into existence here only when the workers feel that England’s world monopoly is broken”.

He denounced the trade union leaders for acting as the tail of “the ‘great Liberal Party’, the party led by the manufacturers”. Today, the ‘manufacturers’ are not represented by the Liberal Democrats at least directly, and in any case do not have the clout of their counterparts in the nineteenth century. But the equivalent of the ‘great Liberal Party’ then is the three main capitalist parties in Britain today, particularly New Labour. Engels constantly writes of the need for the “formation of a workers’ party”.

Steps forward

While Marx and Engels were meticulous on points of theory – read Marx’s criticism of Lasalle for his false idea of an “iron law of wages” – they nevertheless welcomed all genuine steps forward, even of a layer of the working class. For instance, Engels welcomed the formation of the Knights of Labor in the USA following the end of the American civil war. This encompassed 100,000 workers at one stage and Engels fervently hoped it would lead to the development of a US labour party.

This did not materialise because, amongst other factors, the expansion of US capitalism towards the west, with land provided for the most energetic, acted as a safety valve for American capitalism and undermined the development of a nationwide labour movement. Only when this came to an end at the close of the nineteenth century did the labour movement begin to take on national proportions, particularly in the first decade of the twentieth century.

While Engels understood that the objective situation was a barrier to the development, in Britain in particular, to a broad-based mass political party of the working class, he never stopped advocating this and supported all steps, limited though they were, towards the achievement of this goal. In relation to the US, he demonstrated the hostility of genuine Marxism to sectarianism of all kinds: “It is far more important that the movement should spread, proceed harmoniously, take root and embrace as much as possible the whole American proletariat than that it should start and proceed, from the beginning, on theoretically perfectly correct lines. There is no better road to theoretical clearness of comprehension than to learn by one’s own mistakes”.

He further adds: “The great thing is to get the working class to move as a class; that once obtained, they will soon find the right direction, and all who resist… will be left out in the cold with small sects of their own”.

In relation to England and Britain as a whole, he states at the time of the upsurge of ‘New Unionism’ that: “A large class, like a great nation, never learns better or quicker than by undergoing the consequence of its own mistakes. And for all the faults committed in past, present and future, the revival of the East End of London remains one of the greatest and most fruitful facts of this… and glad and proud I am to have lived to see it”.

New workers’ party

Engels’ analysis of this period is rich, detailed, and very useful even today for those who wish to understand strategy and tactics in relation to the working-class movement. It is particularly important in England and Wales today in view of the discussion underway on the need for a new mass workers’ party. Writing about the Social Democratic Federation (SDF), formally ‘Marxist’ but denounced by Marx when he was alive, he writes: “The English Social Democratic Federation is, and acts, only like a small sect. It is an exclusive body. It has not understood how to take the lead of the working-class movement generally, and to direct it towards socialism. It has turned Marxism into an orthodoxy. Thus it insisted upon John Burns unfurling the red flag at the dock strike, where such an act would have ruined the whole movement, and, instead of gaining over the dockers, would have driven them back into the arms of the capitalists”.

Engels was fulminating here against the SDF’s ultimatumism towards the movement at that stage. This malady eventually led to its shipwreck and collapse.

At the same time, he did not hesitate to criticise the opportunist trade union leaders of the time, denouncing for instance the “bourgeois labour party”, as he described the right-wing trade union leaders at the time (how apt this is for those who are still propping up New Labour today), to the exclusivity of the skilled trade unions, as well as the naivety and mistaken tactics of the dockers and gas workers at different stages of their strikes.

He also unequivocally welcomed all attempts by the working class, no matter how small, to act independently. For instance, he writes: “The gas workers now have the most powerful organisation in Ireland and will put up their own candidates in the next election…”. He would have been denounced by some of our socialist sectarians today in, for instance, Respect and the Socialist Workers’ Party, who insist on a very centralised organisation, controlled by themselves of course, which would exclude trade unionists who see the need, as an initial step, to stand independently against the capitalist parties, particularly New Labour. There are comments like this and many more which make this book invaluable.

Its real relevance, however, is that the conditions observed by Engels which led to the development of the Labour Party in the latter part of the nineteenth and early part of the twentieth centuries are now maturing. New Labour is the equivalent of the Liberal Party then. New Unionism, which paved the way for the formation of the Labour Party, was created by the terrible poverty, the equivalent of neo-liberal capitalism today. The same conditions will produce like results.

Those who may be a bit disconcerted today by the big task of creating a new mass party in Britain only have to read Engels’s comments: “One is indeed driven to despair by these English workers with their sense of imaginary national superiority, with their essentially bourgeois ideas and viewpoints, with their ‘practical’ narrow-mindedness, with the parliamentary corruption which has seriously affected the leaders. But things are moving nonetheless. The only thing is that the ‘practical’ English will be the last to arrive, but when they do arrive their contribution will weigh quite heavy in the scale”.