Unions as centres of organisation

Submitted by SJW on 13 December, 2017 - 4:27 Author: Hal Draper

From Hal Draper's book Karl Marx's Theory of Revolution

The historical problem in the socialist movement [before Marx] was seeing the positive side of trade-unionism; there was never any lack of denunciation of the limitations, deficiencies, and faults of trade unions. The socialist orthodoxy that Marx overturned leaned exclusively on the latter.
[Marx, by contrast, argued] that “the working people, in the management of their colossal Trade Societies” also prove themselves “fit for administrative and political work”. This applies not only to the training of union officials — who sometimes become fit only to administer a labour market — but, in a larger sense, to the growth in organisational and administrative know-how that permeates far down into the ranks of a union with an actively participating membership.
Marx took care to point out to the Lassallean socialists... that:

“Combinations, together with the ‘Trade Unions’ growing out of them, are of the utmost importance not only as a means of organisation of the working class for struggle against the bourgeoisie — this importance being shown by the fact, inter alia, that even the workers in the United States cannot do without them despite voting rights and the republic — but in addition, in Prussia and Germany generally, the right to organise is a breach in police rule and bureaucratism ... in short, it is a measure to make ‘subjects’ come of age...”

In a draft resolution on “Trade Unions — Their Past, Present and Future” which Marx drew up for the 1866 congress of the [First] International, he wrote:
“Their past: Capital is concentrated social force, while the workman has only to dispose of his working force [labour power]. The contract between capital and labour can therefore never be struck on equitable terms, equitable even in the sense of a society which places the ownership of the material means of life and labour on one side and the vital productive energies on the opposite side. The only social power of the workmen is their number. The force of numbers, however, is broken by disunion. The disunion of the workmen is created and perpetuated by their unavoidable competition amongst themselves.

Trade Unions originally sprung up from the spontaneous attempts of workmen at removing or at least checking that competition, in order to conquer such terms of contract as might raise them at least above the condition of mere slaves. The immediate object of Trade Unions was therefore confined to everyday necessities, to expediencies for the obstruction of the incessant encroachments of capital, in one word, to questions of wages and time of labour. This activity of the Trade Unions is not only legitimate, it is necessary. It cannot be dispensed with so long as the present system of production lasts. On the contrary, it must be generalised by the formation and the combination of Trade Unions throughout all countries.

On the other hand, unconsciously to themselves, the Trade Unions were forming centres of organisation of the working class, as the mediaeval municipalities and communes did for the middle class. If the Trade Unions are required for the guerilla fights between capital and labour, they are still more important as organised agencies for superseding the very system of wages labour and capital rule.

Their present: Too exclusively bent upon the local and immediate struggles with capital, the Trade Unions have not yet fully understood their power of acting against the system of wages slavery itself. They therefore kept too much aloof from general social and political movements. Of late, however, they seem to awaken to some sense of their great historical mission...

Their future. Apart from their original purposes, they must now learn to act deliberately as organising centres of the working class in the broad interest of its complete emancipation.

They must aid every social and political movement tending in that direction. Considering themselves and acting as the champions and representatives of the whole working class, they cannot fail to enlist the non-society men into their ranks. They must look carefully after the interests rendered powerless by exceptional circumstances. They must convince the world at large that their efforts, far from being narrow and selfish, aim at the emancipation of the downtrodden millions....”
The kind of trade-unionism that Marx opposed had been strongly enough criticised in the International resolution of 1866... Business unionism is an apt description.

Business unionism needed little theory; bourgeois political economy provided more than enough for its purposes. It existed entirely within the confine of the ruling ideas of the ruling class. As a bourgeois enterprise, it took on the same shortsighted, blinkered concentration on considerations of immediate advantage that historically distinguished its masters.

One of the self-defeating forms of business unionism was the guildlike job trust. Many unions were shackled not only by bourgeois traditions but also by “workingmen’s traditions, inherited from their first tentative efforts at independent action, such as the exclusion, from ever so many old Trade Unions, of all applicants who have not gone through a regular apprenticeship; which means the breeding, by every such union, of its own blacklegs [scabs]”. “Then the dockers are raising an outcry against the immigration of foreign paupers (Russian Jews)”.

“In a country with such an old political and labour movement there is always a colossal heap of traditionally transmitted rubbish which has to be got rid of by degrees. There are the prejudices of the skilled unions... the petty jealousies of the various trades, which become accentuated in the hands and heads of leaders into outright hostility and battles behind the scenes; there are the clashing ambitions and intrigues of the leaders (and so on]...”

“The fools want to reform society to suit themselves but not to reform themselves to suit the development of society. They cling to their traditional superstition, which does them nothing but harm, instead of getting quit of the rubbish and thus doubling their numbers and their power and really becoming again what at present they daily become less — associations of all the workers in a trade against the capitalists. This, I think, will explain many things to you in the behaviour of these privileged workers”.

Later, at the time of the New Unionism movement in Britain, Engels wrote: “These new Trade Unions of unskilled men and women are totally different from the old organisations of the working-class aristocracy and cannot fall into the same conservative ways; they are too poor, too shaky and too much composed of unstable elements, for anyone of these unskilled people may change his trade any day. And they are organised under quite different circumstances — all the leading men and women are Socialists, and socialist agitators too.

“In them I see the real beginning of the movement here”.

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