A. Lozovsky
Marx and the Trade Unions

Chapter VII
Marx and the Struggle for the Partial Demands of the Working Class

Is there any sense in fighting for shorter hours, higher wages, etc? For scores of years this was the theoretical and political question that occupied the centre of the scientific and political struggle of Marx. To put the question this way would to-day seem very strange to us and even unworthy of any attention, but this is so because Marx accomplished tremendous scientific and political tasks in this direction. We have seen that Marx fought against Proudhon, Lassalle, and Weston, i.e., against the most distinguished representatives of French, German and English petty-bourgeois socialism, on the question of the usefulness of trade unions and strikes, on the question of what are wages, price and profit, etc. Proudhon, Lassalle and Weston took their theories from the British bourgeois economists, who proved in the name of science and God that the struggle of the trade unions to improve the conditions of the workers is at best futile, not to mention the fact that it violates every law of God and man.

In the first volume of Capital, Marx collected a rich bouquet of anti-labour arguments, decorated with high-sounding scientific phrases advanced by Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill, McCulloch, Ure, Bastiat, Sue, James, Stirling, Cairnes, Walker, etc. In order to show the extent to which these “scientific” arguments were imbued with the employers’ spirit, let me give a few quotations here:

All the capital through the haggling of the market will be equitably distributed among all labourers. Hence it is idle to suppose that the efforts of the capitalists to cheapen labour can have the smallest influence on its medium price. (McCulloch.)

There is supposed to be at any given instant a sum of wealth which is unconditionally devoted to the payment of wages of labour. This sum is not regarded as unalterable, for it is augmented by saving and increases with the progress of society; but it is reasoned upon as at any given moment a predetermined amount. More than that amount it is assumed that the wage-receiving class cannot possibly divide among them; that amount and no less they cannot but obtain. So that the sum to be divided being fixed, the wages of each depend solely on the divisor, the number of participants. (John Stuart Mill.)

That which pays for labour in every country is a certain portion of actually accumulated capital, which cannot be increased by conscious intervention of government, nor by the influence of public opinion, nor by combinations among workmen themselves. There is also in every country a certain number of labourers, and this number cannot be diminished by the proposed action of government nor by public opinion, nor by combinations among themselves. There is to be a division now among all these labourers of the portion of capital actually there present. (Perry.)

Should a union succeed in shutting out competition and so unnaturally raising wages and lowering profits in some particular trade a twofold reaction tends to restore the natural equilibrium. An increased population will add to the supply of labour, while a diminished wage fund will lessen the demand for it. The joint action of these two principles will, sooner or later, overcome the power of any arbitrary organisation and restore profits and wages to their natural level. (Stirling.)

Against these barriers trade unions must dash themselves in vain. They are not to be broken through or eluded by any combinations, however unusual; for they are barriers set by Nature herself. (Caimes.)

Trade unionism was confronted with the dilemma: whether it fails in its immediate aim, or it succeeds—the result would be unfavourable for the workers anyhow. If it fails in its demand for higher wages from the employer, then all organisational efforts, monetary expenditure and waste of energy will have been in vain; … while if it won, temporarily, an apparent success, then the final result would be still worse.

The violated natural laws will restore their authority through the medium of imminent reaction. The haughty mortal, who dares to counterpose his own personal will to divine influence, must inevitably be punished; his temporary prosperity vanishes, and he has to pay with long suffering for his transitory success. (James Stirling.) (1)

Briefly, the essence of all these professors’ discoveries actually leads to the following: “Trade Unions and strikes can be of no use to the class of hired workmen.” (Walker.) “Science knows no employers’ profits.” (Schultze von Delitsch.)

All these scientific arguments appear to us to-day simply comical; however, their propounders were the adepts of economic science of that period and their influence was so great that they even found their expression in the discussions organised by the General Council of the International Workingmen’s Association. Marx formulated the political meaning of these scientific arguments very briefly in his speech against Weston:

If, then, in enforcing a temporary rise of wages, the working men act foolishly, the capitalists, in enforcing a temporary fall of wages, would act not less foolishly. (2)

Marx realised the danger of these theoretics for the labour movement and therefore attacked the bourgeois economists and their socialist adherents with all the power of his mind and revolutionary passion. The first volume of Capital represents a crushing blow at the bourgeois authorities. Marx proved the falsity of the theory of the wages fund; he discovered the mystery of surplus value, he discovered the mystery of primitive accumulation, he proved by means of extensive and indisputable data how wages are determined, how value and surplus value are created, the difference between labour and labour power, etc. A theoretical dispute arose on the question of what the worker sells—his labour or his labour power—and the difference between labour and labour power. “Labour is the substance and the immanent measure of value, but has itself no value,” (3) Marx writes. Basing himself on this definition Marx exposes the mystery of wages and the mystery of surplus value—“This is the corner-stone of the whole economic system of Karl Marx” (Lenin). Marx writes: “If history took a long time to get at the bottom of the mystery of wages, nothing, on the other hand, is more easy to understand than the necessity, the raison d’étre, of the phenomenon.” (4)

To this it is necessary to add that even after the discovery of this mystery, the struggle around this question never ceased for a moment, for the definition of Marx “that surplus value is the direct aim and the determining motive for capitalist production” touches on class interests, and as the old saying goes, “if geometrical axioms affected the interests of the people, these axioms would surely be denied” (Lenin). The extent to which the question of surplus value called forth disputes can be seen from the fact that of all the shabby professors, not one could be found who did not try to oppose Marx, and while doing so, some consciously, others unconsciously, made a mess of it. Sydney and Beatrice Webb belong to the scientists who unconsciously made a mess of it. They claim that Marx and Lassalle had demanded the right to the full product of labour. Such distortion of the viewpoint of Marx roused the indignation of the Russian translator, who made the following footnote: “The authors have a wrong conception of Marx, who determinedly opposed the doctrine of the right of the worker to the whole product of his labour. See Critique of Gotha Programme” (5)

This modest note was written in 1898 by Lenin who translated this two-volume work of the Webbs in the village of Shushinsk, Minussinsky district (Siberia), together with N. Krupskaya.

Marx, in raising the banner of revolt against bourgeois economic science, knew that he dealt with serious problems: namely, will the working class follow theoretically and thus also politically in the footsteps of bourgeois political economy and politics, or will it forge its own theoretical weapon for the struggle against the ideology and policy of the capitalist class?

The problem of abstract theory became, as we see, a serious practical problem: is it necessary to set up trade unions, is it worth while to fight for shorter hours, what value has factory legislation for the working class?—in a word, the question of the significance of partial demands for the general class struggle of the proletariat was thus raised. Besides theory, the experiences acquired in the struggles of the masses answered his question. This is why Marx in Capital constantly refers to the living experiences acquired in the struggle. Marx writes:

The English factory workers were the champions, not only of the English, but of the modem working class generally, as their theorists were the first to throw down the gauntlet to the theory of Capital. (6)

The workers of the most advanced capitalist country of that period smashed, by means of their obdurate struggle, all statements of the bourgeois scientists. Marx, basing himself on experience and revolutionary theory, drove out all apologists of capital from the commanding heights of economic science.

Class trade union policy must have as its starting point the struggle for the shorter working day, for higher wages, the defence of female and child labour, extensive factory legislation, etc. However, in order to develop the struggle for these partial demands, one must understand their rôle and significance in the general class struggle of the proletariat. It is necessary to study the causes that gave rise to social legislation. In this respect Marx represents an astonishing phenomenon. He analysed a tremendous number of reports of English factory inspectors and all the anti-labour laws of England, Germany and France; he made a great issue of the problem of the eight-hour working day; he worked out principles to govern our attitude towards factory legislation, etc. It is sufficient to take the first volume of Capital, the major work of Marx, to see that the question of the purchase and sale of labour power, the value of labour power, the degree and forms of exploitation of labour power—are all given very much space. But Marx did not limit himself to devoting a great part of the first volume of Capital to the theoretical struggle against the bourgeois economists. Marx in this same volume of Capital gave a political reply to the question of what must be the attitude of the workers towards the struggle for their partial demands. In reply to the question of what the causes and sources of factory legislation are, Marx said:

We see that only against its will, and under the pressure of the masses, did the English Parliament give up the laws against Strikes and the Trade Unions, after it had itself, for five hundred years, held, with shameless egoism, the position of a permanent trades union of the capitalists against the labourers. (7)

Marx not only exposed the capitalist lust for exploiting the workers, for prohibiting association, prohibiting strikes, etc. From the very first days of his appearance on the political arena, he waged the struggle for the freedom of the unions, strikes, etc. This can be borne out by his literary-political activity, by all of his pamphlets, speeches and books even prior to the organisation of the International Workingmen’s Association and prior to the publication of the first volume of Capital. The Inaugural Address of the International Workingmen’s Association, drafted by Marx, begins with the following words:

Fellow Working Men. It is a great fact that the misery of the working masses has not diminished from 1848 to 1864. (8)

Then Marx writes the following about their conditions for getting labour legislation and its significance:

After a thirty years’ struggle, fought with most admirable perseverance, the English working classes, improving a momentous split between the landlords and the money-lords, succeeded in carrying the Ten Hours Bill. The immense physical, moral and intellectual benefits hence accruing to the factory operatives, half yearly chronicled in the reports of the inspectors of factories, are now acknowledged on all sides. Most of the Continental Governments had to accept the English Factory Act in more or less modified forms, and the English Parliament itself is every year compelled to enlarge its sphere of action.... Hence the Ten Hours Bill was not only a great practical success, it was the victory of a principle; it was the first time that in broad daylight the political economy of the middle class succumbed to the political economy of the working class. (9)

We saw how highly Marx valued the obdurate struggle of the workers for shorter hours and for other achievements in this field. Not because he overestimated labour legislation, but because he considered it necessary to fight determinedly against all underestimation of the struggle of the working masses for their immediate demands. Thus, the General Council of the International Workingmen’s Association, on the proposal of Marx, drew up the following agenda for the Geneva Congress on July 21, 1865:

(1) To consolidate, with the help of the Association, the efforts that are being made in the different countries for the struggle between Labour and Capital; (2) the trade unions, their past, present and future; (3) co-operative labour; (4) direct and indirect taxes; (5) shorter working hours; (6) female and child labour; (7) the Moscow invasion of Europe, and the restoration of an independent integral Poland; (8) the permanent armies, their influence on the interests of the working class.

From this we see that many of the points on the agenda are devoted to problems of the economic conditions of the working class. What is the reason for such an attitude towards the conditions of the working class? The reason is, as Engels wrote, that “the condition of the working class is the starting point of all social movements to-day.”

At the following meeting of the General Council, Marx, on behalf of a special commission, recommended to the Congress in Geneva that an inquiry be made into the condition of the working class according to the following scheme:

(1) Occupation; (2) age and sex of the employed; (3) number of employed; (4) hiring and wages; (4a) apprentices; (4b) wages, time or piece work, whether paid by middlemen—weekly, yearly, average earnings; (5) hours of work: hours of work in factories, hours of home work given out by small-scale employers, if the business is carried on in this way—night work, day work; (6) meal time and treatment; (7) conditions of places of work, overcrowding, ventilators, want of sunlight, use of gas light, etc., cleanliness; (8) nature of occupation; (9) effect of employment upon physical condition; (10) moral conditions, education; (11) character of trade, whether seasonal or more or less uniformly distributed over the year, whether output is destined principally for home or for foreign consumption.

This general table for inquiry was quite extensive and shows that Marx persistently worked on the question of the situation of the working class, and, contrary to the Proudhonists and Bakuninists, was interested in facts and not in declamations.

The programme of partial demands drafted by Marx for the Geneva Congress of the International Workingmen’s Association is of special interest. This programme of demands, which ends with the section Past, Present and Future of the Trade Unions (see chapter Rôle of the Trade Unions in the General Class Struggle of the Proletariat), includes the following questions, besides those concerning the organisational structure of the International Workingmen’s Association:

The formation of mutual aid societies; statistical investigation into the conditions of the working class in all countries, to be carried out by the workers themselves; a detailed list of questions for collecting statistical data; a chapter devoted to the shortening of working hours and the establishment of the eight-hour working day; the prohibition of night work for women; child labour to be limited to two hours, four hours and six hours for children and adolescents, according to different ages; schooling of children to consist of mental, physical and technical training, “combining for children and adolescents paid productive labour with mental training, bodily exercise and technical instruction.”

This same report devotes a special chapter to the creation of co-operatives. The report emphasises that the aim of the International Workingmen’s Association is to counteract the “intrigues of the capitalists, who are always prepared, in case of a strike or lock-out, to utilize foreign-born workers as a weapon with which to stifle the just demands of the native workers,” to “combine, unify and co-ordinate the still scattered efforts which are made in the different countries for the liberation of the working class, not only to develop among the workers of the different countries a sense of fraternity, but to get them to convert this sense into action, also to close their ranks for the purpose of forming an army of liberation.” If we take into account the fact that the report also contained a special section on direct and indirect taxes, a section on “the necessity of destroying Russian influence in Europe, on establishing the right of nations to self-determination and the restoration of Poland on a democratic and social basis,” a section on the “harmful influence of the standing armies,” and that this report contains the famous slogan: “He who does no work, neither shall he eat,” we get an idea of the nature of this document, which actually served as the starting point for programmes of concrete demands to be drafted in all capitalist countries.

Why did Marx consider it necessary to draw up such a detailed programme for the Geneva Congress? Why did he raise the economic demands of the proletariat as the central question? Marx himself explains this in his letter to Kugelmann, dated October 9, 1866, in the following way:

I deliberately restricted it (the programme) to those points which allow of immediate agreement and concerted action by the workers and give direct nourishment and impetus to the requirements of the class struggle and the organisation of the workers into a class. (10)

Marx again appears before us as statesman and tactician. His aim is to get the workers to agree to joint action, correctly seeing in this the prerequisite for “organising the workers into a class.” Here we are particularly struck by Marx’s great genius as a tactician who knows exactly what link to grasp during any given moment, under concrete circumstances, in order to rally the masses and lead them to battle. Our Communist Parties and revolutionary trade unions should learn more of this remarkable tactical art of Karl Marx.

The Geneva Congress of the International Workingmen’s Association resolved:

Limitation of the working day is a preliminary condition in the absence of which all further attempts at improvement and emancipation must prove abortive. We propose eight hours as the legal limit of the working day.

The slogan of the eight-hour working day, which afterwards came to be the slogan of the whole international proletariat, was raised at a time when in all capitalist countries, with the exception of England, the working day lasted as long as fourteen hours. We see that the First International raised slogans based on the general tendencies of development of the labour movement and not only on day-to-day questions of that period. We cannot but mention here that at the congresses of the Comintern and the R.I.L.U. there were Communists who came out against the seven-hour day on the ground that the working day in some countries and some industries lasts in reality nine to ten hours.

Marx attached exceptionally great significance to laws providing for the shortening of the working day and factory legislation, fighting against the Bakuninists, who wrote about the futility of factory legislation in the bulletin of the Jura Federation:

“The creation of a normal working day,” Marx writes, “is, therefore, the product of a protracted civil war, more or less dissembled between the capitalist class and the working class … (11) For ‘protection’ against the ‘serpent of their agonies’ the labourers must put their heads together, and, as a class, compel the passing of a law, an all-powerful social barrier that shall prevent the very workers from selling, by voluntary contract with capital, themselves and their families into slavery and death.” (12)

How remote this viewpoint of Marx on the labour laws is from the haughty (Marx would have said “transcendental”) declamations of the Bakuninists on the uselessness of labour laws!

The struggle of the Communists for partial demands, as well as their programme after seizing power, served as a pretext for the anarchists to accuse Marx and the Marxists of “bourgeois narrowness” and of giving up the revolution; they intentionally confused the critics of Marx with Marx, passing revisionism for Marxism. The anarchists placed the question of the State in the centre and from this angle vilified and slandered Marx and Marxism. It is very characteristic in this regard to note the “criticism” by the anarchist Cherkezov of the ten points in the Communist Manifesto which (according to Marx and Engels) the proletariat will have to carry out after the workers’ revolution as soon as it becomes the ruling class.


(1) Expropriation of landed property and application of all land rent to public purposes.

(4) Confiscation of the property of all emigrants and rebels.

(8) Compulsory labour for all.

(1) All land to the State! In Turkey the land is the property of the State of the Sultan, who hands over part of it to his loyal subjects.

(4) Old infamy, practised by all despots and oppressors.

(8) A shocking demand, borrowed from the Paraguayan Jesuits. (13)

I do not give here the other “profoundly critical” remarks of Cherkezov, who tries to prove that the Communist Manifesto is nothing more than literary plagiarism. This accusation is enough to prove the degree of “revolutionariness” of the stars of Russian anarchism, who consider the confiscation of the property of emigrants and rebels “an infamy.” To make the picture more complete, it is necessary to note also that this same Cherkezov raves against partial demands, arguing that demands like the eight-hour working day, the prohibition of paying wages in kind, the responsibility of the employer to compensate for the complete or partial disability of the workers, etc., are all “pieces of labour legislation of the bourgeois state, and have nothing in common with real socialism.”

This difference in attitude towards the struggle for the workers’ immediate demands was reflected both in the scientific and practical work of Marx and his Proudhonist and Bakuninist opponents. Marx collected his material with maximum persistence and built his conclusions on the firm basis of facts. Marx first of all analysed the situation and the facts, and only then drew his conclusions—a feature absolutely unknown to the Anarcho-Syndicalist theoreticians.

The great significance that Marx attached to the need for ascertaining the conditions of the working class can be seen from the detailed questionnaire for workers drawn up by him in 1880 and published in his preface in La Revue Socialiste of April 20, 1881. Marx says the following about this questionnaire:

Not a single government (monarchist or bourgeois-republican) has ever dared to make a serious investigation concerning the conditions of the French working class. Yet how many investigations relating to crises in agriculture, finances, industry, commerce and politics have been instituted.

The infamies of capitalist exploitation, exposed in the official investigations instituted by the British government; the legislation which these revelations compelled to be passed (limitation by law of the working day to ten hours, and the law concerning female and child labour, etc.), have made the French bourgeoisie still more fearful of the dangers which such an impartial and systematic investigation might conjure up.

In the hope that, perhaps, we might be able to induce the Republican government to follow the example of the monarchist government of England and also organise an extensive investigation into the deeds and misdeeds of capitalist exploitation, we shall endeavour to launch such a questionnaire with the meagre funds at our disposal. In this we hope to receive the support of all urban and rural workers, who realise that they alone, with full knowledge of the causes, can describe the misery which they endure, that they alone, and no redeemer sent by Providence, can energetically apply the remedies to the social maladies from which they suffer. We count also on the socialists of all schools, who, desiring social reforms, must know exactly and positively the conditions under which the working class, to which the future belongs, works and comes into motion.

This collection of labour data (Cahiers du travail) is the first task which socialist democracy must perform in order to prepare the social renovation. (14)

The questionnaire itself represents a carefully elaborated document, from all points of view, deserving the most serious study. Marx took the questions which had been raised by him in 1865 and 1866 as the basis of this questionnaire, but in view of the fact that he aimed at explaining to the workers and to the French socialists themselves the organic connections that existed between politics and economics—and this was and is the weakest spot in the revolutionary labour movement of France—he considerably extended the questionnaire, including also a number of leading questions. One hundred questions in the questionnaire cover the forms of wages, the length of the working day, labour protection, the cost of living, forms of settling conflicts, forms of mutual aid, forms of interference by the State authorities in the struggle between Labour and Capital, forms of voluntary and compulsory mutual aid societies, number and nature of resistance societies, character and duration of strikes, etc. Such a questionnaire which raised the question of labour protection laws and the intimate connection between economics and politics, etc., was of tremendous importance for the Proudhon-Blanquist traditions of the French labour movement. Serious investigation of conditions in at least a few scores of factories along the lines of this questionnaire could have given very valuable material for concretising the tactics of the revolutionary movement of that period; however, the questionnaire was published in a magazine with a circulation of 25,000 copies, and was afterwards forgotten.

Marx always paid close attention to what was going on in the midst of the working masses, and on the basis of this would verify his tactics. Friedrich Lessner, in his reminiscences, writes:

Marx always tried to come in contact with workers and to converse with them. The opinions of rank-and-file workers were of great interest to him!

Marx listened to what the workers had to say, tried to grasp their thoughts and see how they reacted to their surroundings. He realised that not all of his works could be understood by the average worker, but he knew that his teachings were the conscious expression of an unconscious historical process. Marx, when coming in contact with the workers, tested himself, and the force of his genius formulated just what the worker instinctively felt. Fighting for the workers’ partial demands, Marx knew the rôle that they played in the general class struggle of the proletariat. About this we read in the Communist Manifesto:

The Communists fight for the attainment of the immediate aims, for the enforcement of the momentary interests of the working class, but in the movement of the present they also represent and take care of the future of that movement. (15)

This is what explains the fact that Marx always kept level with the movement of his time and always put forward the actual slogans of the day.



1. See Capital, Vol. I, and Sydney and Beatrice Webb, Industrial Democracy.

2. Marx, Value, Price and Profit, p. 11.

3. Capital, Vol. 1, p. 588, Kerr, Chicago.

4. Ibid, Vol. 1, p. 592.

5. Theory and Practice of British Trade Unionism, Vol. 1, p. 325.

6. Capital, Vol. 1, p. 327, Kerr, Chicago.

7. Ibid., p. 813.

8. G. M. Stekloff: History of the First International, N.Y. and London, p. 439.

9.. Ibid., pp. 443—44.

10. Marx, Letters to Kugelmann, p. 39.

11. Marx, Capital, Vol. 1, Kerr, Chicago, p. 327.

12. Ibid., p. 330.

13. See Cherkezov, Forerunners of the International (Russian edition), “A Doctrine of Marxism” pp. 56-87, Moscow, 1912.

14. La Revue Socialiste, April 20, 1880, No. 4, pp. 193-94. Reprinted in Communist Internatioal No. 3/4, 1933, and in pamphlet form.

15. Communist Manifesto, p. 34. Martin Lawrence, Ltd.


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