A. Lozovsky
Marx and the Trade Unions

Chapter I
Rôle of the Trade Unions in the General Class Struggle of the Proletariat

Marx began to think politically in the epoch when trade unions had just come into being. He became a Communist at a time when in some countries the trade unions had only begun to crystallise out of various mutual aid societies (France), while in other countries (England) the trade unions waged economic strikes and struggles for the right of suffrage. He found only embryonic forms of organisation, extremely primitive, variegated in their ideology and composition, bearing all the birthmarks of their origin. The greatness of Marx consists precisely in the fact that he realised that this represented only the first steps of the infant working class and that it was impossible to judge the historical rôle of the given organisation and the path of its development from these primitive forms of the movement.

Marx, first and foremost, considered the trade unions organising centres, centres for collecting the forces of the workers, organisations for giving the workers an elementary class training. What was most important for Marx? The fact that the scattered workers, competing with one another, were now beginning to close their ranks and come out jointly. In this he saw a guarantee that the working class would develop into an independent power. Marx and Engels repeatedly refer in their works to the idea that the trade unions are schools of solidarity, schools of socialism. A great deal is said on this question, particularly in their correspondence, where a number of questions which they could not raise in the international social press in view of the low level of the movement were raised more frankly and sharply.

The trade unions are schools of socialism. But Marx does not confine himself to formulas. He develops his idea, he approaches the problem of trade unions from all angles. Karl Marx was the author of the resolution on the question of the past, present and future of the trade unions, adopted at the Geneva Congress of the First International. What, then, is the past of the trade unions?

Capital is concentrated social power, while the worker has only his individual labour power at his disposal. Therefore the agreement between Capital and Labour can never be based on just terms, just not even in the sense of a society that places on one side the possession of the material means of life and production, and on the opposite side sets down the live productive forces. The only social force possessed by the workers is their numerical strength. This force, however, is impaired by the absence of unity. The lack of unity among the workers is caused by the inevitable competition among themselves, and is maintained by it. The trade unions developed originally out of the spontaneous attempts of the workers to do away with this competition, or at least to restrict it, for the purpose of obtaining at least such contractual conditions as would raise them above the status of bare slaves.

The immediate aim of the trade unions, therefore, was limited to waging the day-to-day struggle against Capital, as a means of defence against the continuous abuses of the latter, i.e., questions concerning wages and working hours. This activity of the trade unions is not only justified, but also necessary. It is not advisable to dispense with it so long as the present system of production exists. On the contrary, it must become general by means of creating and uniting the trade unions in all countries.

On the other hand, the trade unions, without being aware of it, became the focal points for the organisation of the working class, just as the medieval municipalities and communities became such for the bourgeoisie. If trade unions have become indispensable for the guerilla fight between Capital and Labour, they are even more important as organised bodies to promote the abolition of the very system of wage labour. (1)

In this resolution a number of questions deserve special attention, particularly those concerning the origin and significance of the trade unions. Marx emphasises that the trade unions without being aware of it, became the focal points for the organisation of the working class, just as the medieval municipalities and communities became such for the bourgeoisie.

This comparison bears witness to the fact that Marx considered the trade unions not only “focal points” for the economic organisations; for the municipalities and communities in the Middle Ages were a weapon of the bourgeoisie in their struggle against feudalism, a weapon for the political struggle against the medieval system. Marx did not limit himself to this comparison, and already in this part of the resolution he says that the trade unions are “even more important as organised means to promote the abolition of the very system of wage labour.” From this we see that Marx attached great political significance to the trade unions, that he regarded them least of all as neutral organisations, as non-political organisations. Every time that the trade unions closed themselves up in a narrow corporative framework, Marx would come out in sharp, lashing criticism of them.

This same Geneva Congress of the First International characterised the trade union movement of that period in the second part of that resolution, entitled Their Present:

The trade unions hitherto concentrated their attention too exclusively on the local and direct struggle against Capital. They have not yet completely realised their power to attack the very system of wage slavery and present-day methods of production. This is why they kept aloof from social and political movements. However, lately they are evidently awakening and beginning to understand their great historical mission, as can be seen, for example, from their participation in the recent political movement in England, from their higher conception of their functions in the United States and from the following resolution adopted at the enlarged conference of trade union delegates recently held at Sheffield:

“This Conference, fully approving of all the efforts made by the International Workingmen’s Association to unite the workers of all countries into one fraternal union, urgently recommends the different societies whose representatives are present at the Conference to join the International, in the conviction that this is necessary for the progress and welfare of the whole working class.” (2)

In this part of the resolution we already see sharp criticism of all the trade unions that divorce themselves from politics, and here the significance of the trade unions that begin to understand their great historical mission is sharply emphasised. If we consider the level of the trade union movement during the ’sixties, we shall realise the high plane on which Marx’s appreciation of the trade union movement of his time stood. Marx, while understanding the extreme youth of the trade unions, did not consider it possible to make any kind of political concessions to them. He placed not only economic problems before them, but also general class tasks.

But Marx did not limit himself to defining the past and the present of the trade unions. In this resolution he says the following about their future:

In addition to their original tasks, the trade unions must now learn how to act consciously as focal points for organising the working class in the greater interests of its complete emancipation. They must support every social and political movement directed towards this aim. By considering themselves champions and representatives of the whole working class, and acting accordingly, the trade unions must succeed in rallying round themselves all workers still outside their ranks. They must carefully safeguard the interests of the workers in the poorest-paid trades, as, for example, the farm labourers, who due to especially unfavourable circumstances have been deprived of their power of resistance. They must convince the whole world that their efforts are far from narrow and egoistic, but on the contrary, are directed towards the emancipation of the down-trodden masses. (3)

Here it is necessary to call attention to the fact that Marx again stresses the significance of the trade unions as organising centres of the working class. It is extremely important to note that the tasks set before the trade unions are: The struggle for the complete emancipation of the working class, the support of every social-political movement of the proletariat and the drawing of all workers into their ranks. Already in 1866 Marx emphasised the importance for the trade unions of defending the interests of the lower-paid workers, for example, the agricultural labourers.

He expected the trade unions not to be “narrow and egoistic,” that “their activities be directed towards emancipating the oppressed millions.” This resolution was written sixty-nine years ago. But can it be said that it has now become antiquated, that these tasks are not the tasks of the trade unions in the capitalist countries to-day? By no means. Here, the basic tasks of the trade unions in the capitalist countries are mapped out with the clearness and concentration so characteristic of Marx. Nevertheless, Marx does not limit himself to this.

The question of the relationship between economics and politics was continuously before Marx and the First International, led by him, and he had to defend his point of view on this relationship against the Bakuninists, the adherents of Lassalle, and the trade unionists, etc. This is why he frequently came back to this question. In this connection his resolution adopted at the 1871 London Conference of the International Workingmen’s Association is very characteristic and instructive. Here we read the following:

In the presence of an unbridled reaction which violently crushes every effort at emancipation on the part of the working men, and pretends to maintain by brute force the distinction of classes and the political domination of the propertied classes resulting from it;

considering that against this collective power of the propertied classes the working class cannot act, as a class, except by constituting itself into a political party, distinct from, and opposed to, all old parties formed by the propertied classes;

that this constitution of the working class into a political party is indispensable in order to ensure the triumph of the social revolution and its ultimate end—the abolition of classes;

that the combination of forces which the working class has already effected by its economical struggles ought at the same time to serve as a lever for its struggles against the political power of landlords and capitalists;

the Conference recalls to the members of the International:

That in the militant state of the working class, its economic movement and its political action are indissolubly united. (4)

This resolution, from the point of view of clarity and forcefulness, is one of the classics in which the literary-political inheritance of Marx abounds. In this resolution the idea is again expressed that the trade unions must serve as a powerful lever in the hands of the working class for the struggle against the system of exploitation. To all the attempts of the Bakuninists to dissociate, to separate economics from politics, to set off one against the other, the First International replies that in the plan of struggle of the working class the economic movement and political activity are inseparably intertwined.

Two months after this, in his letter to Bolte, Marx again raises the question of the relationship between politics and economics, and it is here that he defines the rôle of the economic struggle in the general class struggle of the proletariat. Marx writes:

The ‘political movement’ (5) of the working class naturally has as its final aim the conquest of ‘political power’ for it [the working class.—Ed.]; for this a ‘previous organisation’ of the working class, an organisation developed to a certain degree, is naturally necessary, which grows out of its economic forces themselves.

But on the other hand every movement in which the working class, as a class, opposes the ruling classes and seeks to compel them by ‘pressure from without’ is a ‘political movement’ For example, the attempt to obtain forcibly from individual capitalists a shortening of working hours in some individual factory or some individual trade by means of a strike, etc., is a purely economic movement. On the other hand a movement forcibly to obtain an eight-hour law, etc., is a political movement.

And in this way a political movement grows everywhere out of the individual economic movement of the workers, i.e., a movement of the class to gain its ends in a general form, a form which possesses compelling force in a general social sense. If these movements presuppose a certain previous organisation, they in their turn are just as much means of developing the organisation.

Marx speaks of a “previous organisation of the working class,” links up the purely economic movement with the political and the conditions for one movement developing into another,

i.e., he sets forth precisely that which after his death was completely and intentionally forgotten and distorted by international reformism.

It was necessary not only to give an answer to the question of the significance of the economic struggle, but also on the mutual relationship between the economic and political organisations of the working class. The decision of the Hague Congress of the International Workingmen’s Association (held September 2 to 7, 1872), is very characteristic in this regard. The Hague Congress, upon the proposal of Marx, adopted a resolution “on the political activity of the proletariat.” In this resolution we read that in its struggle against the collective power of the possessing classes, the proletariat can take action, as a class, only after having organised its own political party as opposed to all the old parties founded by the possessing classes. Such organisation of the proletariat into a political party is necessary to ensure the victory of the social revolution and its ultimate aim—the abolition of classes.

The consolidation of the workers’ forces attained in the economic struggle will also have to serve as a lever in the hands of this class for the struggle against the political power of its exploiters. In view of the fact that the owners of the land and of capital always utilised their political privileges to guard and perpetuate their economic monopolies and to enslave labour, the conquest of political power comes to be the great task of the proletariat. (6)

After the Congress was closed Marx delivered a speech at a meeting, in which he emphasised the essence of the decisions that had been adopted. What then, in Marx’s opinion, is most important in the decisions of the Hague Congress, which, as is well known, was the culminating point in the development of the First International?

The Hague Congress carried out some important work. It announced the necessity for the struggle of the working class both on the political and economic basis against the old disintegrating society.

We have to recognise that in most Continental countries, force will have to be the lever of the revolution. It is to force that in due time the workers will have to appeal if the dominion of labour is at long last to be established. (7)

Again we see the rôle of the economic struggle in the general class struggle of the proletariat clearly and concisely defined. The trade unions must be “a lever” in the hands of the working class “for the struggle against the political power of its exploiters.”

The question of the relationship between the economic and political struggle is the central question in the teachings of Marx. Therefore it is still less excusable for some of the Soviet historians to have taken such a thoughtless and slovenly attitude towards this question. Such a slovenly attitude was manifested by G.M. Stekloff in his book devoted to the First International. Comrade Stekloff writes that Marx in his commentary on the statutes of the International Workingmen’s Association gave the following formulation: “The political struggle, as a means, is subordinated to the economic struggle of the proletariat.” Furthermore, Comrade Stekloff tries to “justify” the author of this formulation, but he gets confused, for it would have been difficult to “justify” Marx had he actually written anything like this. Let us take Chapter III of this book of Comrade Stekloff, and here in the preamble set forth in full we read the following:

The economic emancipation of the working classes is, therefore, the great end to which every political movement ought to be subordinate as a means. (8)

This is what Marx wrote. But are the economic emancipation of the working class and the economic struggle of the working class one and the same thing? If Marx had written what is ascribed to him by Comrade Stekloff, he would have been a vulgar Proudhonist, and we should have had to wage a struggle against him, for this would have meant the primacy of the economic struggle over the political. However, Marx, as we see, did not write anything of the kind. He wrote that the political movement must be wholly subordinated to the great aim of the economic emancipation of the proletariat. This formulation of Marx’s is irreproachable, for political activity is not an aim, but a means for the achievement of the aim. It is necessary determinedly to condemn such a thoughtless and politically harmful attitude towards the great teacher of international communism.

Karl Marx felt the pulse of the masses, he knew how to speak to them at every given moment. It will be very instructive in this connection to compare the Communist Manifesto (1847) and the Inaugural Address of the First International, written seventeen years later. The Inaugural Address of the First International is a document calling for the united front, aimed at rallying those strata and organisations of the working class which were not then ripe for communism. There is not even a word mentioned about communism in the whole of the Inaugural Address, but at the same time it is a document communist to the core. John Commons, an historian of the labour movement in the United States, wrote that the “Inaugural Address was a trade union document, not a Communist Manifesto.” (9) Such an appraisal is doubly wrong, because it is not the form but the content that defines the character of the Inaugural Address. The Inaugural Address really raises as the major problems the economic conditions of the workers, labour legislation, etc., but in this document Marx also emphasises that “the winning of political power has come to be the great duty of the working class,” and then approaches the question of the Party, approaching it, however, in a special way. Here is what Marx wrote:

One element of success they possess—numbers: but numbers weigh only in the balance if united by combination and led by knowledge. Past experience has shown how disregard of that bond of brotherhood which ought to exist between the workmen of different countries and incite them to stand firmly by each other in all their struggles for emancipation, will be chastised by the common discomfiture of their incoherent efforts. (10)

This is an unusual formulation for Marx. The working masses organised in the union are understood by Marx in a threefold manner: the masses organised in the trade union, the masses organised in the political party and the masses organised in the International. The formula about the leading rôle of knowledge is also unusual. What knowledge does he refer to? Is it to the leading rôle of university science? Is it to the leading rôle of the professors and academicians? By no means. Here knowledge is the pseudonym of communism. Marx intentionally used such words and formulations in order to penetrate more deeply into the midst of the masses:

Its [the International Workingmen’s Association—Ed.] aim, wrote Engels, was to weld together into one huge army all the fighting forces of the working class of Europe and America.... The International was bound to have a programme which would not shut the door on the English trades’ unions, the French, Belgian, Italian and Spanish Proudhonists and the German Lassalleans. (11)

It was very difficult [writes Marx] to present the matter in such a way that our view might appear in a form acceptable to the present position taken by the labour movement.... Time must elapse before the re-awakened movement will permit of the former boldness of language. (12)

Marx refers here to the form of exposing views, and not to their essence: when reference was made to the principle, to the essence of communist views, he was irreconcilable and unmerciful, but when it was a question of form, he manifested surpassing flexibility and ability to give the same content in various ways. This is what explains the “trade union language” of the Inaugural Address, the most remarkable document after the Communist Manifesto. This is how Marx, with one and the same aim in view—to imbue the labour movement with communist consciousness—changed forms and methods of approaching the masses, depending upon the level of the movement and the character of the working class organisations of the given period.

To define correctly the relationship between the economic and political struggle means to define correctly the relationship between the trade unions and the Party. While attaching tremendous significance to the economic struggle of the proletariat and the trade unions, Marx always stressed the primacy of politics over economics, i.e., stressed that which has been taken as a basis in the whole of the work of the Bolshevik Party and the Communist International.

When we speak about the primacy of politics over economics, it does not mean the turning of the trade unions into a political party or the adoption by the trade unions of a purely party programme, or the abolition of all differences between the trade unions and the party. No, this is not what Marx said. Marx emphasised the significance of the trade unions as organisational centres for the broad working masses, and fought against piling the party and the trade unions into one heap. He believed that the political and economic organisations of the proletariat have one and the same aim (the economic emancipation of the proletariat), but each applies its own specific methods in fighting for this aim. He understood primacy over economics in such a way that, in the first instance, he placed the political all-class tasks of the trade unions higher than the private corporative tasks, and secondly, that the political party of the proletariat must define the economic tasks and lead the trade union organisation itself.



1. Resolution of the I.W.A. on Trade Unions, Geneva, 1866.

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

4. Resolutions of the Conference of Delegates of the International Workingmen’s Association, Assembled at London from 17th to 23rd September, 1871. London, International Printing Office, 1871, p. 3. From the archives of the Marx-Engels-Lenin Institute, Moscow Ed.

5. Words in quotation marks are in English in the original German text.

6. Excerpt from James Guillaume, Documents et Souvenirs (L’International). My Italics.—A. L.

7. I quote from G. M. Stekloff. History of The First International, p. 241. (Martin Lawrence, London; International Publishers, New York.)—A. L.

8. Ibid, p. 49.

9. J. R. Commons, History of Labour in the United States, p. 205.

10. G. M. Stekloff, History of The First International, p. 445. (Italics mine.—A. L.)

11. Preface of Engels to the Communist Manifesto. Marx-Engels-Lenin Institute edition of the Communist Manifesto, Martin Lawrence, London; p. 44.

12. Marx and Engels Collected Works, (German ed.) part III, vol. 3, p. 199.


Prev: Introduction | Next: Chapter II