A. Lozovsky
Marx and the Trade Unions

Chapter IV
Marx and the Trade Union Movement in England

The first half of the nineteenth century was characterised by rapid growth and development in the trade union movement in England. Immediately after the repeal, in 1824, of the law prohibiting labour associations, the trade unions emerged from underground and began to spread all over England. The British trade unions were narrow craft organisations and had only practical aims (shortening of the working day, increases in wages, etc.). Marx and Engels observed the development of the British labour movement during the course of many years. The first serious book of Engels was devoted to the condition of the working class in England; that brilliant work of Marx known as Capital, is built on an analysis of British economics and the British labour movement. Both Marx and Engels attached much significance to the British trade unions precisely because they waged a merciless struggle for improving the conditions of the workers, considering that “the condition of the working class is the real basis and starting point for all social movements to-day” (Engels).

Marx and Engels saw the narrow craft character of the trade unions, saw their narrow outlook, and yet they considered the trade unions a serious step forward along the road of development of the British, and not only the British, labour movement.

Something more is needed [Engels wrote] than Trade Unions and strikes to break the power of the ruling class. But what gives these unions and the strikes arising from them their real importance is this, that they are the first attempt of the workers to abolish competition. They imply the recognition of the fact that the supremacy of the bourgeoisie is based wholly upon the competition of the workers among themselves, i.e., upon their want of cohesion. And precisely because the unions direct themselves against the vital nerve centre of the present social order, however one-sidedly, in however narrow a way, are they so dangerous to this social order. The working men cannot attack the bourgeoisie, and with it, the whole existing order of society, at any sorer point than this. (1)

The main trouble of the British trade union movement of that period was the confused socialist outlook even of the most advanced leaders of that time. British socialism then was extremely lean and anaemic. Here is how Engels characterises the socialists of that period:

English socialism arose with Owen, a manufacturer, and proceeds therefore with great consideration towards the bourgeoisie and great injustice towards the proletariat in its methods, although it culminates in demanding the abolition of the class antagonism between bourgeoisie and proletariat.

The socialists are thoroughly tame and peaceable, accept our existing order, bad as it is, so far as to reject all other methods but that of winning public opinion.... They bemoan the demoralisation of the lower classes.... They understand, it is true, why the working mass is resentful against the bourgeoisie, but regard as unfruitful this class hatred which is, after all, the only moral incentive by which the worker can be brought nearer the goal. They preach instead a philanthropy and universal love far more unfruitful for the present state of England. They acknowledge only a psychological development, a development of man in the abstract, and wholly isolated from all relation to the past, whereas the whole world rests upon that past, the individual man included. Hence they are too abstract, too metaphysical, and accomplish little. (2)

This excellent characterisation of British socialism Engels supplements with an analysis of Chartism and the differentiation which occurred in British Chartism after the bloody events of 1839—42. Engels supposed that true socialism might develop out of Chartism. The Chartists are theoretically the more backward, the less developed, but they are genuine proletarians, true representatives of their class. (3) However, as Engels himself afterwards wrote, these predictions did not come true. British socialism during the whole of the nineteenth century remained just as abstractly fruitless as the socialism of the ’fifties.

Marx studied the economics and the struggle of classes in England, and occupied himself thoroughly with the labour movement, which “instinctively grew out of the very relationships of production on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.” (4)

The trade unions are a weapon for the struggle against the capitalists, and therefore the creation of trade unions signifies a serious step forward for the working class—this idea penetrates the whole of Marx’s Capital. Thus, for example, in an extensive description of the workers’ struggle for shorter working hours, Marx writes:

The formation since the close of 1865 of a trade union among the agricultural labourers, at first in Scotland, is a historic event. (5)

The great importance that Marx attached to the trade unions can be seen from the fact that he was the initiator of the idea of affiliating the trade unions to the First International and that he did very much in order to set up direct contacts with the local branches of the British trade unions. The attitude of some of the trade unions towards the First International can be seen from the following notes in the minutes of the General Council:

On February 21, 1865, a letter from the bricklayers was read in the General Council in which the former expressed the desire to join the International. On March 28, 1865, the deputation of the General Council reported on its visit to the shoemakers’ conference, which passed a resolution agreeing with the principles of the International Workingmen’s Association and pledged to “endeavour to spread its liberal and glorious ideas among our constituents.” On April 1, 1865, the Carpenters’ Union of Chelsea asked that deputies be sent to explain the principles of the International Association. Weston communicated on the deputation to the Miners’ Union. On April 3, 1866, the Executive Committee of the British Tailors’ Union “expressed kind feeling toward the Association and a promise to join it.” Then also the General Council heard a communication that the ribbon and small wares weavers of Coventry wished to join the I.W.A. On April 10, 1866, a communication was read that the West-End Bootmakers’ Society had granted the General Council one pound and that they proposed to appoint Odger as a delegate to the Congress. On April 17, 1866, the Society was accepted as a branch of the International Workingmen’s Association. Then also it was reported that Weston and Jung had been delegated to attend the meeting of the Plasterers Committee. On May 1, 1866, Jung reported on his and Lafargue’s visit to the local branch of the Operative Bricklayers. They had been most enthusiastically received and were given promises of support. On May 15, 1866, the Darlington section of the Amalgamated Tailors’ Union was admitted to the International. On July 17, 1866, a communication was read to the effect that the Hand-in-Hand Society of Coopers, who had agreed to join the International, assessed each member one shilling to defray the expenses of the Geneva Congress. At this same meeting it was reported that the meeting of cabinet-makers had been visited by a deputation from the International and had resolved to deduct one pound for defraying the expenses of the Congress. On August 17, 1866, a report was made that the London Society of Compositors had elected their secretary to the Geneva Congress. The Amalgamated Engineers’ Society declined the proposal to send a delegate to the Congress and refused to give permission for a deputation to visit its branches. (6)

This excerpt from the minutes is quite characteristic, considering that it reflects the interest felt among some of the trade unions for the First International. In the organ of Johann Philipp Becker, Vorbote, of May 1866, mention is made of five big unions which had completely affiliated to the International (up till then only individual trade union members had affiliated to the International), namely: the silk-ribbon weavers’ union, 1,000 members; the tailors’ union, 8,000 members; the boot-makers’ union, 9,000 members; the mechanics’ union and the sieve-makers’ union. In the July issue of that same magazine we read that the united delegates’ meeting of cabinet-makers of England and Manchester (the chairman of the meeting was Applegarth) had unanimously decided to recommend all of their locals to join the International.

In this same way the masons’ unions of London and Stratford joined the International, also many smaller societies, and finally, the Amalgamated Union of British Mechanics, with its membership of 33,000. The November issue of Vorbote informs its readers of the affiliation to the International of the Basketmakers’ Union of England (300 members) and the Navvy Workers’ Union (28,000 members). (7)

In the report written by Marx to the Basle Congress, it is said that the following resolution had been adopted at the General Congress of British Trade Unions recently held in Birmingham:

As the International Workingmen’s Association endeavours to consolidate and extend the interests of the toiling masses, which are everywhere identical, this Congress heartily recommends that association to the support of the workingmen of the United Kingdom, especially of all organised bodies, and strongly urges them to become affiliated to that body believing that the realisation of its principles would also conclude lasting peace between the nations of the earth. (8)

But it must be borne in mind that many of the trade unions refused to affiliate to the International. Thus, for example, when the General Council of the International Workingmen’s Association in October 1866 proposed that the London Trades Union Council affiliate to the International, and, in case of non-acceptance, that permission be granted the representatives of the International to come to its meeting and expound the views of the International Association, the London Trades Union Council refused. It is worth noting that at that time there was quite a large group of Englishmen in the General Council—Odger, Applegarth, Weston, Lucroft, etc., Odger being the President of the General Council. It is of interest also that Sydney and Beatrice Webb, historians of British trade unionism, in their two-volume Industrial Democracy do not devote even one line to the attitude of the British trade unions towards the First International, while in the History of Trade Unionism there is only one remark on this question. (9) But, in reality, we know that this question is no less important than the statutes of any union, or the opinion of bourgeois economists and British clergymen of the harm of trade unionism and the anti-religious character of the strike movement. However, these objective historians, who collected the statutes of all unions and the apprenticeship rules for several hundred years, who got out of the trade union archives material even of a secondary nature, did not seem to take note of the First International, which had its seat in London from 1864 to 1872. Such scientific blindness bears only too vividly a political character.

The Fabian historians of British trade unionism evidently thought that such a disdainful attitude towards Marx and the International Workingmen’s Association would be bound to lessen the merits of Marx and the First International. But they were mistaken and only once again proved that Marx and the First International were feared all along by the “near-socialist” intelligentsia.

Engels brilliantly characterised Fabian socialism, for he had observed the development of socialist and pseudo-socialist ideas in England for many decades. Here is what he wrote on January 18, 1893, to Sorge:

The Fabians here in London are a gang of careerists, who, however, have sense enough to realise the inevitability of a social revolution; but as they do not want to entrust this colossal work to the raw proletariat alone, they have deigned to take over its leadership. Fear of the revolution is their main principle. (10) They are ‘intellectuals’ par excellence.... Their socialism is municipal socialism; the commune, and not the nation, must, at least in the first stages, become the owner of the means of production. And their socialism they depict as the ultimate, but inevitable consequence of bourgeois liberalism. Hence their tactic: not to wage a determined fight against the Liberals as enemies; but to push them to socialist conclusions, i.e., to hoodwink them, to permeate liberalism with socialism … not to run socialist candidates against the Liberals, but to palm the former off on the latter, i.e., to have socialist candidates elected by fraud … and they do not, of course, understand that in playing this petty game they will either be deceived themselves or will defraud socialism.

The Fabians have published, along with all kinds of trash, a few good propagandist works, and this is the best that was done in this sphere by the English. But as soon as they return to their specific tactics, the glossing over of the class struggle—things get bad. They hate Marx and all of us fanatically on account of the class struggle....

This incisive characterisation of the Fabians explains also the scientific “impartiality” of the historians of the British labour movement. If “fear of the revolution is their basic principle,” it is not a bit surprising that the Fabians fanatically hate Marx, for he was a most enthusiastic fighter for the proletarian revolution. It was not without good reason that the British bourgeois press called Marx the “Red Terror Doctor.” (11)

The General Council of the First International was, as far as composition is concerned, heterogeneous to the extreme; a constant struggle was waged there on the main theoretical and political problems of the labour movement. The discussion organised by the General Council of the International Workingmen’s Association between Marx and Weston on the question of value, price and profit was very characteristic.

Early in November 1864, Marx wrote to Engels:

An old Owenist, Weston, to-day himself a manufacturer, a very nice and pleasant old man, submitted a programme exceedingly verbose and terribly confused. (12)

This “nice and pleasant man” brought in much confusion, and the General Council resolved to organise a discussion on this controversial question. On May 20, 1865, Marx wrote to Engels:

A special meeting of the International will be held to-night. A fine old scout, an old Owenist named Weston, a cabinet-maker, put up two points, which he had been constantly defending in The Beehive.

(1) That a general rate in the rise of the rate of wages cannot be of any advantage to the workers;

(2) that in view of this, etc., the trade unions have a harmful effect.

If these two theses, in which he alone of all the members of our society believes, were adopted, we should be in a bad fix, both on account of our local trade unions, as well as of the infection of strikes that has spread all over the Continent. On this occasion—since non-members will be permitted to the meeting—he will receive the support of a lone Englishman, who wrote a pamphlet in this same spirit. I, of course, am expected to refute him.

Naturally, I know the two main points beforehand:

(1) That wages determine the value of commodities;

(2) that if the capitalists to-day pay five shillings instead of four, they will to-morrow (enabled to do so by the increased demand) sell their commodities for five shillings instead of four. (13)

The discussions between Marx and Weston were recorded in the minutes of the General Council as follows:

On May 30, 1865, Weston read a paper on wages. Marx spoke, advancing his views, which were in contradiction with those of Weston. On June 27, 1865, Marx read the part of his report on wages in response to the report of Weston. On July 4, 1865, a debate was held on the question of the position of Weston and Marx. (14)

Much to our regret we do not have any details of the debates. However, we know what Marx said at these meetings. His report to the General Council on Value, Price and Profit corresponds to the chapter on this same subject in the first volume of Capital. Marx summed up Weston’s views in the following two points:

…firstly, that the amount of national production is a fixed thing, a constant quantity or magnitude, as the mathematicians would say; secondly, that the amount of real wages, that is to say, of wages as measured by the quantity of the commodities they can buy, is a fixed amount, a constant magnitude. (15)

This lean theory led to rich political conclusions. If changes in wages, increases or decreases, in no way influence the standard of living of the workers, then why waste money and energy on organising trade unions, preparing strikes, etc.? We again have before us Lassalle’s iron law clothed in the more learned frock of British bourgeois political economy. “The address Citizen Weston read to us might have been compressed into a nutshell,” Marx said when he began his speech. And, indeed, as Marx kept on analysing the “theory” of Weston, it appeared that even the nutshell grew quite empty. Marx, analysing the sophisms of bourgeois political economy, which had been defended by “kind old Weston,” draws the following theoretical and practical conclusions:

Firstly. A general rise in the rate of wages would result in a fall of the general rate of profit, but, broadly speaking, not affect the prices of commodities.

Secondly. The general tendency of capitalist production is not to raise, but to sink the average standard of wages.

Thirdly. Trade Unions work well as centres of resistance against the encroachments of capital. They fail partially from an injudicious use of their power. They fail generally from limiting themselves to a guerilla 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. (16)

To-day, fifty years after his death, this reply of Marx does not need any special commentary, for the ideas of Marx have become the property of millions. But imagine how difficult it must have been for Marx to carry on the discussion among the leadership of the International on a question which should have been absolutely clear to the leaders of the labour movement. If Marx did give such a scientific and seriously substantiated reply to Weston, it is because in all countries there had been much hesitation and confusion and many wrong theories precisely in connection with this question.

Naturally, the greater part of the British trade unions did not interest themselves with such problems and regarded the First International as an organisation not binding or compulsory for anyone. Marx and Engels saw how the leaders of the trade unions and the Chartist movement faded politically, how the bourgeoisie succeeded in taming the trade unions, turning them into an appendage of their bourgeois parties. Hence the leadership of the British labour movement was sharply criticised. In connection with the circumstance that one of the leaders of the Chartist movement began to preach collaboration between the workers and the bourgeoisie, Marx wrote on November 24, 1857, in his letter to Engels:

Jones plays a very silly part here, for as you know, long before the crisis he, without any definite intention other than to find a pretext for agitation during the period of quiet, planned the convocation of a Chartist conference … But now, instead of taking advantage of the crisis and replacing the poorly-planned pretext for agitation with real effective agitation, he sticks to his nonsense, shocks the workers with his preachments about collaboration with the bourgeoisie.... (17)

The “evolution” of Jones interested Marx and Engels very much. On October 7, 1858, Engels wrote to Marx:

The story about Jones is quite disgusting—after hearing this story one would almost have to believe that the British proletarian movement in its old traditionally Chartist form must completely perish before it can develop in a new life-sustaining form.... Besides, it seems to me that Jones’ new move in connection with the former more or less successful attempts at such an alliance is indeed connected with the fact that the British proletariat is becoming more and more bourgeoisifled, so that this most bourgeois of all nations in the end apparently wants to have a bourgeois aristocracy and a bourgeois proletariat alongside the bourgeoisie. For a nation that exploits the whole world, this as a matter of fact is more or less natural. (18)

Already in this letter Engels raises the question of the influence of the bourgeoisie over the proletariat and the reasons why the British workers were becoming bourgeoisified. Both Marx and Engels repeatedly return to this question.

On February 11, 1878, Marx wrote to W. Liebknecht:

Owing to the period of corruption which set in after 1848 the working class of England gradually became more and more demoralised and finally reached the state of a simple appendage of the “great” Liberal Party, i.e., the party of their own enslavers—the capitalists. The leadership of the working class of England has wholly passed into the hands of the corrupted leaders of the trade unions and the professional agitators. (19)

Thus Marx established the definite period, when the decline of the revolutionary mood in the trade unions and in the labour movement of England began.

This coincided with the decline of the Chartist movement.

Some of the trade unions were rather sympathetic to the launching of the First International, but others from the very outset regarded the International only as a possible source of material aid in cases of strikes. On February 25, 1865, Manx wrote to Engels:

As far as the London trade unions are concerned, we have a new affiliation every day, so that we shall become a force by and by. But henceforth also the difficulties will begin. (20)

The difficulties were these: that affiliation in no way proved that the trade unions had really come over to the platform of the First International. Marx realised this, yet he attached great significance to the affiliation of the trade unions to the International Workingmen’s Association. On January 15, 1866, he wrote to Kugelmann:

We have succeeded in drawing into the movement the one really big workers’ organisation, the English Trade Unions, which formerly concerned themselves exclusively with wage questions. (21)

However, Marx understood that the trade unions had not said their last word by far, and that collisions with the leaders of the trade unions were inevitable. Because a rumour spread among the British trade unions that the International Workingmen’s Association might render aid during strikes, some of the leaders, who had nothing at all to do with socialism, began to run to the International. On September 11, 1867, Marx wrote to Engels:

These British scoundrels among the trade unionists, for whom we went too ‘far’ now come running up to us. (22)

What they came running for is clear. They were interested in material aid only and nothing else. How Marx appraised the leaders of the English trade unions can also be seen from his letter to Kugelmann, in which he said the following:

…In England at the moment only the rural labour movement shows any advance; the industrial workers have first of all to get rid of their present leaders. When I denounced them at the Hague Congress, I knew that I was letting myself in for unpopularity, slander, etc., but such consequences have always been a matter of indifference to me. Here and there people are beginning to see that in making that denunciation I was only doing my duty. (23)

Wherein lies the cause of this state of the trade unions in England? Why did considerable sections of the workers become more and more bourgeois?

In the works of Engels we find brilliant pages devoted to a characterisation of the British labour movement. Here is what Engels writes to Bernstein on June 17, 1878:

The British labour movement is to-day and for many years has been working in a narrow circle of strikes for higher wages and shorter hours without finding a solution; besides, these strikes are looked upon not as an expedient and not as a means of propaganda and organisation but as an ultimate aim. The trade unions exclude on principle and by virtue of their statutes, all political action and consequently also the participation in the general activity of the working class as a class. The workers are divided politically into Conservatives and Liberal Radicals, into adherents of the ministry of Disraeli (Beaconsfield) and adherents of the Gladstone ministry. We can consequently speak about a labour movement here only in so far as strikes are waged here, which, whether successful or not, cannot lead the movement one step further. When such strikes, which moreover, during the last years of depression have often been called by the capitalists themselves, in order to have a pretext for closing down their factories, when such strikes, during which the working class does not move even one step forward, are magnified to the proportions of a world-historic struggle … then, in my opinion, this can only bring harm. We must not pass in silence over the fact that at the present moment no real labour movement, in the continental meaning of the word, exists here. (24)

Engels again returns to this question. To the question put by Kautsky, as to what the English workers thought of the colonial policy, Engels replies in his letter of September 12, 1882:

They think the same about this as they think about politics in general, the same that the bourgeoisie thinks about it. For there is no workers’ party here, there are only Conservative and Liberal Radicals and the workers also get their morale thanks to the British monopoly of the world and colonial markets. (25)

The causes that led Great Britain to such a state cannot last for ever. The special position occupied by England on the world market must come to an end. Engels made the political upward swing of the labour movement of England dependent on the loss by that country of its monopolist position on the world market. In his letter to Bebel on August 20, 1883, Engels wrote:

But a real working-class movement will develop here—unless something unexpected happens—only when the workers will begin to feel that the British world monopoly has been broken. Participation in the domination of the world market was and is the economic basis of the political nullity of the British workers. (26) Dragging along at the tail-end of the bourgeoisie in the economic exploitation of this monopoly, but always sharing in its profits, they naturally, from the political point of view, drag along at the tail-end of the ‘great Liberal Party’ which has thrown them some small sops, recognises trade unions and the right to strike, gave up the struggle for the unlimited working day and gave the bulk of the higher-paid workers the right to vote. But if America and the joint competition of the other industrial countries make a considerable breech in this monopoly (as far as iron is concerned, the time is not far off, but unfortunately in cotton this is not yet the case), you will see things moving here. (27)

Engels correctly prophesied the beginning of the radical turn in the labour movement of England; however, he could foresee what deep root the monopoly of England would take among the masses and how long and how dear the working class of England would have to pay for the privileged position which England had occupied for dozens of years on the world market. The leaders of the trade unions not only were and are today appendages of the bourgeois parties, but have turned into the bitterest enemies of the growing revolutionary labour movement. In his letter of December 8, 1882, Engels informs Marx about the following interesting fact:

Apropos the trade union deputation: when at the meeting of the ‘Possibilists’ the French had sung the Marseillaise in their honour, the honourable Shipton and his crew thought that they must meet the challenge and began to sing in unison ‘God Save the Queen.’ (28)

It is not surprising, then, that Marx and Engels felt hatred for those leaders of the trade unions who led the trade unions further and further away from their historical mission. He who wants to understand the modern trade union movement of England, the reasons why it lags behind and the methods of overcoming this backwardness, should study attentively what the founders of Marxism wrote about the bourgeoisification of the British proletariat, about the first steps and the further development of the trade unions.



1. Engels, Condition of the Working Class in England.

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

4. Marx, Capital, Vol. I.

5. Ibid.

6. Minutes of the General Council of the International Workingmen’s Association, Archives, Marx-Engels-Lenin Institute.

7. Gustav Jaeckh, Die Internationale, p. 13, Leipzig, 1904.

8. Minutes of the General Council of the International Workingmen’s Association, Archives, Marx-Engels-Lenin Institute.

9. Sec Sydney and Beatrice Webb, History of Trade Unionism. New ed. 1902, pp. 217-18.

10. Italics mine.—A. L.

11. Marx-Engels, Selected Letters (German ed.), p. 401.

12. Marx and Engels, Letters, Collected Works (German ed.), Part III, Vol. 3, p. 197.

13. Marx and Engels, Correspondence in the Socialist Movement of Marx and Engels, April, 1913, p. 147.

14. Minutes of General Council of I.W.A. Archives, Marx-Engels-Lenin Institute.

15. Marx, Value, Price and Profit, p. 10 (Allen & Unwin).

16. Ibid., pp. 93-94

17. Marx and Engels, Letters.

18. Marx and Engels, Collected Works (German ed.) Part III, Vol. 2, p. 339.

19. Archives of Marx and Engels, vol. V, p. 383, Marx-Engels-Lenin Institute, Moscow.

20. Marx and Engels, Collected Works (German ed.), Part III, Vol. 3, p. 233.

21. Marx, Letters to Kugelmann, with introduction by Lenin, p. 33. Martin Lawrence, Ltd.

22. Marx and Engels, Unedited letters in the Socialist Movement, May-June, 1914, p. 288.

23. Marx, Letters to Kugelmann. p. 135. Martin Lawrence, Ltd.

24. Archives of Marx and Engels, p. 136, Marx-Engels-Lenin Institute, Moscow, 1923.

25. Archives, Marx and Engels, pp. 203-04.

26. Italics mine.—A. L.

27. Archives, Marx and Engels, p. 225.

28. Marx and Engels, Collected Works (German ed.) Part III, Vol. 4, p. 510.


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