A. Lozovsky
Marx and the Trade Unions


As the physical image of Karl Marx fades more and more into the past, the spiritual figure of this giant of thought and revolutionary action comes more and more vividly to the fore. Marx represents a whole world of ideas and images; he is unsurpassed as a theoretician, statesman, strategist and tactician of the class struggle. His brain was like a tremendous laboratory, which analytically and synthetically worked over facts and events, beginning with revolutions, wars, colonial revolts, pronunciamentos, peasant rebellions and parliamentary debates, and ending with strikes, demonstrations and even the smallest spontaneous economic and political actions.

Marx was not merely a person of encyclopaedic education, he was an independent dialectic thinker. He was not a scientist in the narrow, professorial sense of the word. He was an innovator, bold to the extreme, who fearlessly carried his thoughts to their logical conclusion. He was one of those thinkers (and there have been very few of them in the history of mankind) who with the minds of great geniuses looked into the future, and with the daring hands of revolutionaries and artists (“my work represents one artistic whole,” he wrote to Engels in 1865) pointed out the path of development from capitalism to communism.

Marx did not guess nor did he prophesy. He argued, analysed, dissected facts, exposed their inner connections and placed them in such a way that they themselves compelled definite conclusions. He placed Hegelian dialectics on its feet, he was never lost in the face of facts; always remaining firm, he knew exactly what he wanted in theory, in politics and in tactics.

Marx devoured an enormous number of books, deeply analysed facts and moulded them with his masterful mind, which to the very last days of his life continued to pour forth ever-new treasures for the international proletariat.

Marx was not a dry bookworm; he seethed with the great passion and ardour of a fighter. He disliked unnecessary words, glib but empty phrases, and fought against those who roamed in the “misty realm of philosophical phantasy” (Communist Manifesto, p. 32). Every phrase written by Marx, every one of his words lives to-day—so much life and passion is there in the works of this great scientist, the tireless destroyer of all pseudo-scientific authorities, the exposer of petty-bourgeois babblers, the merciless enemy of all pseudo-socialist schools, sects and groupings.

Marx did not like words devoid of content, phrases without deeds; physically he could not tolerate phrasemongers of socialism. His mind penetrated to the very essence of a question. He knew how to extract the main issues, the very essence from the tens of thousands of pages that he had read and from the hundreds of thousands of facts he had stored up; he was able to say much in few words.

Marx possessed the special ability of clothing his rich thought in scant but vivid language. This is why even to-day when one immerses oneself in the works of Marx one is bound to feel deeply moved. It is not only his major works that have retained their importance up to the present time; even his separate articles on vital questions, his notes and letters going far back to the nineteenth century, throw light on the path of the development of the labour movement in the twentieth century. The more one peruses the rich inheritance of Marx, the more vital it becomes, the more pronounced become the features of this great theoretician and organiser of the working class, the nearer and more comprehensible does he grow—he who gave his life for the purpose of converting the working class “from a class for others into a class for itself.”

Marx is multiform, but uniform and consistent in all that he said and did. Not in vain did he succinctly describe the distinguishing feature of his character as singleness of purpose. Only conditionally is it possible to separate some one question or group of questions from the whole of Marx’s work. However, it must be borne in mind at the outset that the inheritance that Marx left is the richest that any person ever left to his descendants, that it is monolithic and it is difficult to divide into separate parts.

It is especially difficult to separate from the depository of ideas and thoughts that Marx left that part which deals with the trade union movement and the economic struggle. Marx did not write any special books or pamphlet or textbook on this subject. His ideas on problems of the economic struggle and the rôle of the trade unions in the past, present and future can be found all through his works, especially in his practical work as leader of the International Workingmen’s Association.

Is it worth while to collect the opinions and ideas of Marx on questions of the trade unions ? Has he, admirers of textbooks and thick reference works might ask, a definite opinion on these problems? To this we can reply—indeed, it is worth while. The slightest, if serious, acquaintance with the works of Marx shows that although Marx did not write any thick books on the trade unions and although he did not frequently deal with this question, still the separate opinions expressed by him constitute a definite system, map out a definite line and give an absolutely definite understanding of the rôle and tasks of the trade unions in the general class struggle of the proletariat. It must be borne in mind that in these questions Marx also laid out new roads. The three sources of Marxism mentioned by Lenin (classical German philosophy, classical English political economy and French socialism) had to be mastered by Marx.

Marx first and foremost was thoroughly conversant with the sciences of his period. He built his teachings on the “solid foundation of human knowledge acquired under capitalism.” After having studied the laws of the development of human society, Marx

realised the inevitability of the development of capitalism leading to communism, and, what is most important, he proved this solely on the basis of the most exact, most detailed and most thorough study of this capitalist society, by completely mastering all that former sciences could give. All that had been created he analysed critically, not omitting a single point. All that the human mind had created he worked over, subjected to criticism, tested in the labour movement and drew conclusions that people with a limited bourgeois outlook, hidebound by bourgeois prejudices, could not draw. (Lenin.)

Marx was distinguished for his exceptional scientific conscientiousness, and in view of the fact that he had excellently mastered the method of dialectic materialism, his scientific works represent a splendid example of scientific foresight. Marx followed the first steps of the trade union movement in England, France and Germany, saw its strong and weak points, thought a great deal about all that was happening, found out just what the trade unions were, what were the limits of their action, what were the relations between economics and politics. He did all this with the accuracy, profundity and clarity so characteristic of him.

The basic idea in Marx’s conception of the economic struggle of the working class was the necessity of turning the working class into a class for itself, drawing the line between the working class and the bourgeoisie, uniting the working class, consolidating its forces, setting up the working class against the bourgeoisie. This idea is woven like a red thread into the entire texture of Marx’s writings and actions. It was also this idea that defined his point of view on the trade unions, the tasks confronting them and their rôle in the general class struggle of the proletariat.

But to turn the working class into a class for itself is possible only when the masses begin to understand the theory and tactics of the class struggle. Marx himself says that he did not invent the theory of the class struggle. In his letter to Weydemeyer, dated March 5, 1852, Marx writes:

What was new on my part was to prove the following: (1) that the existence of classes is connected only with definite historical phases in the development of production; (2) that the class struggle necessarily leads to the dictatorship of the proletariat; (3) that this dictatorship is itself only a transition to the abolition of all classes and to a classless society.

The merit of Marx consists further in the fact that he placed the theory of the class struggle on a firm economic basis, that from his economic analyses he drew political and tactical conclusions, that he waged a merciless struggle against all attempts to erect a bridge between classes, to screen the gulf between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat and to turn the working class ideologically and politically into an auxiliary weapon of the bourgeoisie.

Marx worked out the theory of wages, discovered the theory of surplus value, smashed the bourgeois, petty-bourgeois and semi-socialist theories (Adam Smith, Ricardo, Mill, Proudhon, Lassalle, etc.) concerning the price of labour, the proportional increase of prices of products in accordance with increases in wages, the iron law of wages, etc., and in this way created an economic and political basis for building class trade unions and a class trade union policy.

Further, Marx’s merits consist not only in the fact that he saw and exposed the class line that separates the proletariat from the bourgeoisie, but that he forged a theoretical and political weapon by means of which he found it possible consistently to defend this class position.

“Marx was before all else a revolutionary,” Engels said at Marx’s grave. (1) He was a revolutionary not only in philosophy, history and economics; he was a revolutionary in politics and tactics. With all his passion for books and original sources (his favourite pastime, as he himself declared, was to burrow in books), Marx would always lay aside his theoretical works the moment he was confronted with the slightest possibility for political action. He could not imagine life without a strenuous, passionate struggle for his views and principles. To the question: “What is your idea of happiness?” he replied: “To struggle.” It is precisely this feature that Engels particularly stressed in his funeral oration. “Marx was before all else a revolutionary,” he said.

His real mission in life was to contribute in one way or another to the overthrow of capitalist society and of the forms of government which it had brought into being, to contribute to the liberation of the present-day proletariat, which he was the first to make conscious of its own position and its needs, of the conditions under which it could win its freedom. Fighting was his element. And he fought with a passion, a tenacity and a success such as few could rival.

Marx combined in himself the outstanding theoretician and the great revolutionary. His life vocation was to rouse the oppressed against the oppressors. This vocation he expressed in the terse but incisive phrase: “I am a mortal enemy of capitalism.”

Trade Union problems do not occupy very much space in the vast Marxian heritage. However, here just as in other questions, we have every reason to examine carefully just what Marx did say. His distinction lies not only in the fact that he said something new in his time, but also in the fact that whatever was new in what he said is still applicable even on the fiftieth anniversary of his death. That is why Engels was right when he said that Marx’s name and his cause will survive the ages.



1. March 17, 1883. The Fourteenth of March, Martin Lawrence, Ltd.


Prev: Preface | Next: Chapter I