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Why We Should Recognise the Unions: Marx and Engels’ Position on Trade Unionism as Expounded in the Works of Hal Draper

Sheila Cohen

From New Interventions, Vol.6 No.1, 1995

In the second volume of the massive multi-part work by the American Trotskyist Hal Draper, Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution, are hidden two chapters on the Marxist position on trade unionism which strike me as extremely significant for our understanding and assessment of this question. That these arguments appear to have suffered relative obscurity is illustrated by the absence of more than a cursory reference to them in one of the more major recent contributions to socialist theory on trade unionism, John Kelly’s Trade Unions and Socialist Politics (1988). In my view, this is a sin of omission. The sharpness and focus of Draper’s analysis of Marx and Engels’ work on trade union issues is signalled in the opening sentence of the first of the two chapters referred to:1

"A key to the nature of Marx’s conception of proletarian socialism is a seldom noted fact: Marx was the first leading figure in the history of socialism to adopt a position of suppport to trade unions and trade-unionism, on principle" (p.81).

What is significant about this opening statement is its recognition not only that Marx and Engels fully acknowledged the importance of trade union work in their historical period, but also that other socialists did not. In what follows, we will refer both to Draper’s own argument, and to the writings of Marx and Engels which he cites, to analyse more closely the two sides of this coin and their implications for trade unionism and socialism today. In other words, we will continue to examine the question of why Marx and Engels did, and why other socialists didn’t (and to a lesser extent, still don’t), take trade unionism seriously.

As Draper points out (pp.81-83) the almost universal hostility of early socialists to any and all aspects of trade union activity is something that we, schooled in the institutionalised position of trade unions in capitalist society, may find surprising today. With a few notable exceptions,2 some of the most famous leading socialists of the day totally repudiated trade unionism as not only irrelevant but positively harmful to the revolutionary cause, while anarchist P.J. Proudhon actually approved of police shooting strikers (seen as "enemies of small property").

So universal was this hostility that Marx was obliged to omit any reference to unions in his inaugural address to the First International in 1864, and even when he did introduce the question into his address to the International two years later, he had to be careful not to put too much emphasis on support for strikes, another "sore point" with the Proudhonists who controlled the particularly anti-trade union French section.

Class Nature of Trade Union Organisation
While one aspect of the early socialists’ disdain for trade unionism was their crippling doctrinal sectarianism (examined in more detail below), another and even more fundamental factor was their blindness to the centrality of the working class in the struggle for socialism. This factor is key to the question not only of why their contemporaries in the struggle did not, but why Marx and Engels did, place major emphasis in their writings and political activity on the issue of trade unionism.

Fundamentally, the direction which Marx and Engels consistently followed towards everyday trade union activity flowed from their focus on this as a form of class activity. As Draper points out (p.83), Marx was the first socialist thinker to develop a political theory based on "the primary role of class organization as such". In contrast, the perspectives of their fellow-revolutionaries of the day were directed either to a much wider forum than the working class – "the people", "humanity", or some other all-embracing category – or else to a narrower, self-defined elite of "correct" revolutionaries.

Draper sums up this fundamental contrast of perspectives succinctly when he comments on how "Marxism defines itself as proletarian socialism, as the socialism of a class, and not a socialism derived from a predilection for or a vision of a future social order" (p.83). In other words, Marx and Engels, unlike their contemporaries, saw the need to start where workers are, rather than where we might want them to be. It was this perspective which shaped the lifelong aversion to sectarianism that distinguished their writing and political activity from the contemporary "socialist" norm.

But, equally importantly, it meant that they were always aware, and supportive, of any tendency that would unify the working class and overcome the tendency towards division or "competition" among workers – and this preoccupation drew them inevitably towards the unions. As Draper puts it:

"... it is the role of trade unions in the beginnings of this process [of classwide organisation] that makes them the class organisations of the proletariat par excellence. This view has always put Marx’s theory at loggerheads with those socialists who considered themselves too revolutionary to bother with such unenlightened organizations as trade unions" (p.88).

Even Marxists Make Mistakes...
The primacy they consistently placed on the working class as the central force in fighting capitalism, then, and the need at all times to organise and unify that class, was what led Marx and Engels, as it were instinctively, in the direction of supporting trade unionism. However, this did not mean that their position was necessarily completely worked out – and their specific historically-located perspective led to a number of "errors" which have been duly identified by writers such as Kelly (op. cit) and Richard Hyman (Marxism and the Sociology of Trade Unionism, 1971) as a naively optimistic perspective on the revolutionary potential of trade unionism. In undertaking, here, a more supportive but still critical examination of Marx’s analysis of trade unionism, we will use the opportunity to develop some further ideas on this complex subject.

The conceptions held by Marx and Engels on trade unionism can be grouped into four main areas:

1. the (relative) permanence of trade unions as combinations and "schools of struggle";
2. the class implications of trade union organisation as operating against competition between workers;
3. trade unions as representing workers’ impulsion to struggle against all the "logical" odds;
4. bourgeois fear of, and hostility towards, trade unionism.

The first of these four areas, already referred to in the discussion of Marx and Engels’ focus on unions as potential organisers of class-wide struggles, leads us into the most obvious criticism of their analysis – that, paradoxically, their very focus on the trade union question led them towards the mistaken "optimism" referred to above on the question. Many key Marxist passages, perhaps most of all the famous rhetoric of the Communist Manifesto, can be read as indicating an uncontested progress from existing forms of trade union organisation to an explicit awareness of the need for class-wide, and thus revolutionary, struggle.

This basic misreading of the potential of trade unionism can be ascribed to the fact that, due to their own historical location, Marx and Engels were in a sense too close to the roots of trade unionism to be able fully to comprehend the basic dynamic of trade unionism within a capitalist society. To take one example of this relative lack of perspective – while Marx and Engels recognised, as in the third point above, that workers were impelled to struggle, they were constrained to justify that necessity in the context of a contemporary, primarily bourgeois argument that it was illogical for workers to strike because they would lose income. We examine the four areas identified above in the context of this perhaps inevitable historical myopia.

Schools of Struggle...
Probably the best-known Marxist recommendation for the value of trade union organisation is summed up in the famous phrase from the Communist Manifesto: "Now and again the workers are victorious, but only for a time. The real fruit of their battles lies, not in the immediate results, but in the ever-expanding union of the workers...."

While it is unlikely that Marx was literally referring to a mid-nineteenth century "One Big Union" with these words, they reflect the emphasis on the permanence of trade union organisation which for him was one of its key aspects. This permanence is pinpointed alongside the concept of combination with which Marx formulated his early thoughts on trade unionism as reflecting the common interests of workers in the face of the concentration of capital:

"Permanent combinations have been formed, ‘trades unions’, which serve as bulwarks for workers in their struggles with the employers ... the maintenance of wages, this common interest which they have against their boss, unites them in a common thought of resistance – combination."

Still in the same reference, the closing chapter of the 1847 Poverty of Philosophy, Marx goes on to explain: "If the first aim of resistance was merely the maintenance of wages, combinations, at first isolated, constitute themselves into groups as the capitalists in their turn unite for the purpose of repression, and in face of always united capital, the maintenance of the association becomes more necessary to them than that of wages" (quoted by Draper, p.86, my emphasis – SC)

Finally, Engels sums up the organisational significance of this process in his famous description of strikes as "the military school of the workingmen in which they prepare themselves for the great struggle which cannot be avoided.... And as schools of war, the Unions are unexcelled" (Condition of the Working Class in England, 1845, quoted by Draper, p.92)

This permanence, the ongoing nature of workers’ organisations as a weapon of struggle against an opposing class, is linked to the second of the two points listed above, Marx and Engels’ invocation of trade unionism as a crucial counter to the tendency towards competition between workers. Perhaps more of an issue in the 19th-century entrepreneurial environment, with fewer large concentrations of capital, than it might be today (rapidly though we are heading back in that direction), the question of competition is again to the fore in Engels’ analysis: "... what gives these Unions and the strikes arising from them their real importance is this, that they are the first attempt by the workers to abolish competition". Engels goes on to argue that since competition is "the vital nerve of the present social order", workers will be led "to abolish not only one kind of competition, but competition itself altogether, and that they will do" (Condition of the Working Class..., quoted by Draper, p.92).

This in itself uncontentious recognition of trade unionism as relating to the common rather than competing interests of workers is thus, as it were, expanded into the much less viable invocation of trade unionism as the basis, through its link with class-wide organisation, of revolution itself. In the thundering climax of the Communist Manifesto:

"The advance of industry, whose involuntary promoter is the bourgeoisie, replaces the isolation of the labourers, due to competition, by their revolutionary combination, due to association. What the bourgeoisie, therefore, produces, above all, is its own gravediggers. Its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable."

The links between trade union organisation, the proletariat’s development into a "class for itself" and the ensuing revolutionary uprising are clearly telescoped here for the purposes of propaganda. However, that both Marx and Engels had what in hindsight can be identified as an over-optimistic view of the revolutionary potential of trade union organisation is not here in doubt. What we do wish to challenge is, firstly, the "excuse" which this historically-based misapprehension has given many socialists for rejecting any potential for class awareness within everyday trade union activity; and secondly, the related pessimism to which Marx and Engels themselves were led by their own disappointment with the failure of their predictions to bear fruit in the context of the "bourgeois" horrors of mid- to late-nineteenth century trade unionism.

The Impulsion to Struggle...
Once again, we can return to the four aspects of Marxist theory on trade unionism listed above – in this case, the second two – to develop these points; the most important issue here being the nature and rationale of workers’ impulsion to struggle. As we briefly mentioned above, Marx and Engels were unable to fully articulate the meaning of this impulse and its expression in workers’ own forms of organisation – which, as Draper writes with a nice irony, workers continued to develop despite the "wise counsel" of the sectarians (pp.101-2). One reason for this failure was, as also mentioned, the contemporary argument that workers would only lose income through strike action and would therefore have no logical motive for organising to this end. As Draper puts it: "The workers’ propensity for trade union organisation was something of an economic mystery, during most of the nineteenth century, for the bourgeois economists and also for most of the socialists. Both proved very handily, over and over, that the workers could never gain anything by strikes and trade-union struggles; therefore it all made no sense" (p.90). In the aftermath of more than a century of such struggles, which, as Draper again points out, workers continued to wage despite "these near-unanimous assurances" of their uselessness, we have become more accustomed to accept that workers will continue to fight whatever the cost. Yet, understandably in the historical context, Marx and Engels were themselves, in some ways, equally at a loss in the face of this "mystery".

In grappling with the issue of why workers continue to struggle in the face of all the odds, Marx and Engels put forward two main explanations: the first couched in terms of what Draper terms the "humanistic impulse" and the second a more pragmatic economic theory, derived from Marx’s developed understanding of exploitation, which refers to the need for labour to push its value above the minimum limit to which capital will consistently attempt to drive it.

On the first point, Draper’s use of the term "humanistic" to sum up this particular rationale for struggle can perhaps be argued to underplay the crucial issue Engels is moving towards when he writes:

"It will be asked, ‘Why, then, do the workers strike in such cases, when the uselessness of such measures is so evident?’ Simply because they must protest against every reduction, even if dictated by necessity; because they feel bound to proclaim that they, as human beings, shall not be made to bow to social circumstances, but social conditions ought to yield to them as human beings...." (Engels, Condition of the Working Class..., quoted by Draper, p.91).

The "humanistic" aspect of workers’ motivation is, indeed, clear from these words (nor should it be underestimated); but at the same time it could be argued that Engels’ argument is a reflection of the impulsion to struggle that arises simply from the brute fact of exploitation, the inherent contradiction and clash of interests that lies at the heart of that central capitalist economic relation. At the base of the trade union activity that Marx and Engels consistently recognised as class activity, and thus instinctively followed all their lives, is the material reality that workers ultimately have to struggle, whatever the risks or their existing level of consciousness, because they have no choice.

And the Fear of the Bourgeoisie
This ineradicable impulse, or requirement, to struggle, and its expression in trade union organisation, has consistently been recognised by the bourgeoisie in their fear of and hostility to trade unionism. As socialists of today occasionally – and correctly – point out, the capitalist class has always been considerably more conscious, and defensive, of its interests than has our own.

Unfortunately, while Marx can perhaps be seen as expressing the irreducible nature of this impulse in one of the most famous Marxist phrases of all, that workers have "nothing to lose but their chains", he did not develop a fully-rounded theory of how a dynamic of materially-based trade union struggle can of itself raise wider questions of class and class interest. In some ways he appeared to have been reaching towards this view when he wrote in 1853 that: "Under certain circumstances, there is for the workman no other means of ascertaining whether he is or [is] not paid to the actual market value of his labour, but to strike or to threaten to do so" (untitled article, New York Tribune, 1853, quoted by Draper, p.93). But in fact, on the basis of his developing theory of exploitation, Marx paid more attention to the economic issue of the driving-down of wages (and thus increase of surplus value) than to any political implications that might arise from workers’ unavoidable struggles against this process. In the pamphlet Value, Price and Profit, which he wrote to establish his position on trade union struggles on the wage question, he argued that although "the general tendency of capitalistic production is to push the value of labour more or less to its minimum limit", we should raise the question: "is this saying that the working class ought to renounce their resistance against the encroachments of capital, and abandon their attempts at making the best of the occasional chances for their temporary improvement? If they did, they would be degraded to one level mass of broken wretches past salvation" (quoted by Draper, p.94).

What Marx seems to be saying here (perhaps influenced by the particular conditions of nineteenth-century England – although we are now, as already mentioned, approaching something like the same level of "immiseration") is that the only purpose of trade union struggle is to raise wages above the very lowest minimum – a "backs to the wall" process which at least to the late twentieth-century eye seems to overlook the complexity of workers’ ongoing struggle against exploitation.

It is not necessarily the minimum limit of the value of labour power which influences struggle – a point demonstrated in practice, when we consider that it is the "better-off", better-organised workers who have tended to lead the overall struggle against the assaults of capital. In locating the wages struggle at, as it were, the "borders" of the class – in making the general point that "trade unions work well as far as they counteract, if even temporarily, the tendency to a fall in the general rate of wages" (Notes for Value Price and Profit), Marx appears to open up a "gap" between this, as it were, residually economic role for trade unionism and the far wider future which he envisaged for trade unionism as "the means of organising the working class as a whole" (part of the passage quoted above).

This lack of a more complex awareness of the dynamic and dialectic of trade union struggle is, ironically, confirmed when we examine the very writings cited by Draper in support of the notion that Marx saw a link between class struggle and politics:

"... every movement in which the working class comes out as a class against the ruling class and tries to coerce them by ‘pressure from without’ is a political movement. For instance, the attempt in a particular factory or even in a particular trade to force a shorter working day out of individual capitalists by strikes, etc., is a purely economic movement. On the other hand the movement to force through an eight-hour, etc., law is a political movement. And in this way, out of the separate economic movements of the workers there grows up everywhere a political movement, that is to say, a movement of the class...." (Letter from Marx to Bolte, 1871, quoted by Draper, p.126).

Draper sums up this argument and similar points made by Marx with a reference to how "economic struggle on a class-wide scale merges into political struggle" (p.127). However, this puts the politicisation process, as it were, several steps further forward from the usual pattern of working-class struggle, which by its very nature begins with a particular section of the class and will concern only "narrow", not explicitly political interests. What it seems to me that Marx fails to recognise in these passages is the dynamic whereby such apparently limited, purely "economic" struggles can give rise, in a shifting, dialectical process, to the opening up of class-wide political perspectives for those involved. Clearly this is not an inevitable process, or we would be considerably further along the revolutionary road. But Marx’s apparent failure to evoke the crucial issue of a potential fusion between the "economic" and the "political" at all levels of struggle echoes, despite his life-long opposition to doctrinaire sectarianism, something of the privileging of the "political" which has dogged such sects and indeed the socialist analysis of trade unionism overall.

This criticism (made, of course, from the "privileged" viewpoint of more than a century’s worth of trade union incorporation) also chimes in with the critique of Marx’s over-optimistic forecast of the development of trade unionism into revolutionary activity, mentioned above. As also indicated, this "optimistic thesis" led in its turn, through some disillusionment with the failure of their early predictions, to a greater emphasis by Marx and Engels on the limitations of trade unionism. Such relative pessimism as to the potential of trade unionism was, of course, more than justified by the reactionary "business unionist" direction most unions had begun to take from the late 1860s onwards. However, some of Marx’s comments on the limitations of trade unionism, which to a certain extent anticipate these developments, point again to a somewhat mechanistic conception of the path of development between "economic" struggles and "political" understanding:

"Trade unions work well as centres of resistance against the encroachments of capital. They fail generally from limiting themselves to a guerilla war against the effects of the existing system, instead of simultaneously trying to change it...." (Value, Price and Profit).

A valid enough criticism – but one that is perhaps simplistic in its demand that "trade unions", as organisations3 which are themselves defined by capital, should take up arms against that system. Similarly, a somewhat mechanistic understanding of the relationship between trade union-based struggle and politics is indicated in the optimistic reaction by Marx to a series of strike failures in 1853:

"... should, as I suppose, the depression prove lasting, the work people will soon get the worst of it, and have to struggle – very unsuccessfully – against reduction [of wages]. But then their activity will soon be carried over to the political field, and the new organization of trades, gained in the strikes, will be of immense value to them" (untitled article, New York Tribune, 1853, quoted by Draper, p.123).

To envisage that strikers beaten back in the arena of industrial struggle would be inspired to turn to the "political field", as opposed to the frequent scenario in such cases of disillusion and demoralisation, is optimistic indeed – an optimism that can only turn to pessimism when such unrealistically-forecast leaps of consciousness fail to take place. But beyond this, it indicates a stance on the "limitations" of trade unionism which in fact fails to understand that a broader political perspective does not present itself spontaneously to workers, but grows, where it happens at all, directly out of the materially-based struggles in which they are immediately involved.

The advent of "business unionism" in the 1870s was not long in bringing to dominance the kind of limitations which Marx and Engels had most emphatically denounced. As Draper puts it in his account of this development: "The kind of trade-unionism that Marx opposed had been strongly enough criticized in the International resolution of 1866: the kind that systematically kept its efforts ‘narrow and selfish’ in the interest of specially favored sectors and enclaves of the working class; the kind that remained ‘too exclusively bent upon the local and immediate struggles with capital’..." (p.103).

This "kind" of trade unionism came increasingly into play with the dominance of the conservative craft unions during the period, and Marx and Engels were emphatic in their denunciation of it – a denunciation which, while richly deserved, again indicates rather too high an expectation of the political potential of trade unions as organisations, rather than as stemming from their members’ interests and struggles. For Engels, on one occasion at least, the critique of business unionism reached down from a bureaucratic leadership to the working class as a whole, with his condemnation of the fatal English "indifference to theory" which he identified as "one of the main reasons why the English working-class movement crawls along so slowly in spite of the splendid organization of the individual trades" (1875 Preface to The Peasant War In Germany, quoted by Draper, p.104).

Marx and Engels can hardly be criticised for decrying the relentless bourgeoisification of trade union leaderships during the 1870s. However, their disillusionment with this development and its contrast with the stirring revolutionary potential of earlier struggles can be argued to have led them into the over-simplifications of the "labour aristocracy thesis" which blames, as it were, "privileged workers" for the loss of political momentum within the unions. As Draper puts it: "The guild-like and job-trust aspects and forms of conservative trade-unionism did indeed suggest the pattern of privileged enclaves of better-off workers inside the bourgeois order; and this had fed the lively suspicion of the early socialists that trade unionism was an evil to be fought" (p.105).

This correspondence between adoption of the "labour aristocracy" thesis and the position of early anti-union socialists should in itself lead us to question the thesis; and in fact it is, of course, a deeply pessimistic position which suggests that incorporation and bureaucratisation are irrevocably built into the heart of trade union organisation and activity. However, the very contradictions which can analytically be shown to undermine the stasis suggested by the "labour aristocracy" thesis worked historically, in due time, to present a delighted Engels with the massive challenge to reactionary "business unionist" perspectives embodied in the New Unionism of the 1880s.

"The Direction He Kept Looking"
This development, which sadly came too late for Marx, was welcomed by Engels like a draught of water in the desert. Draper quotes his excited response: "These new Trades 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.... 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" (Letter to Lafargue, 1889, quoted by Draper, p.111).

In fact, as Draper points out, Engels’ instinctual leaning towards the undercurrents of working class struggle had ensured that he had never wholly dismissed the potential for an undermining of the "aristocracy":

"By the 1880s the English union movement was covered over with a bureaucratic crust that looked invincible, even though – or because – only some ten percent of the working class were organized. Engels’ interest lay in looking beyond this encrustation, toward the forces that would break through it; above all, he did not identify the crust with the class, nor the leaders with the labor movement as such, nor its bourgeoisified bureaucrats with the proletariat. The point is not to emxhibit Engels’ prescience – he was ever sanguine – but rather to stress the direction in which he kept looking"(p.110, my emphasis – SC).

Perhaps the key point about both Marx’s and Engels’ approach to the trade unions lies in this concluding phrase, "the direction in which [they] kept looking". The almost instinctive orientation of both Marx and Engels towards trade unionism belied, as we have seen, the "simon-pure" attitude of almost every other socialist tendency or grouping of the time in renouncing unions as a counter-revolutionary deviation. We have seen that in some ways Marx and Engels were unclear as to why they kept looking; and that the newness of their experience and their over-simplified expectation that trade union organisation and struggle would roll on automatically into a class-wide revolutionary perspective led them into some classic failures of understanding vis-à-vis the complex, shifting, contradictory nature of actual working-class struggle.

But we have also established that the central rationale of this "direction" was the focus on the working class as a class with the potential for an explicit recognition of its own class-wide interests. This focus on class itself contrasted, as we have seen, with the loftier invocations by the socialist secis of either "the people" as a whole or their own doctrinally correct sects; and it also meant that Marx and Engels had an almost radar-like awareness of any activity by that crucial constituency that would advance its progress from "class-in-itself to "class-for-itself". That is why Draper is able to identify so accurately Engels’ ability to see through the bureaucratic "encrustations" of business unionism in the face of his own despondency and contempt for the craft unions’ "bourgeois" manoeuvring; and it is also why he is able to pinpoint the equally important point that Engels did not fall into the obvious trap, common enough among socialists today, of conceiving "the trade unions" as one monolithic bloc with no internal dynamic of class struggle against reformist incorporation. In other words, he did not identify "the crust with the class, nor the leaders with the labor movement as such, nor its bourgeoisified bureaucrats with the proletariat", as Draper concludes his point (p.110).

"A Fossilised Sort of Ultimatism..."
The focus on the working class as the fundamental force in the struggle against capital; the recognition of the common interests of that class that had the potential, through struggle, to transform it from "class-in-itself" to "class-for-itself"; the orientation, through this focus, towards the potential of basic trade union struggles as an aspect of class activity; the repudiation of any form of reformist or bureaucratic incorporation which would stand in the way of that process – all these aspects of Marx and Engels’ analysis both followed from and led to their consistent awareness of where the class was, not where they might have liked it to be.

In this, paradoxically, they were constantly at odds with the leading socialist organisations of their day – all of whom declared their revolutionary purity with vigour, but none of whom were able to focus on the class realities which might or might not have led them to that goal. As Draper puts it with his customary asperity: "The sectism of the Hyndman group, like its similars, suggested a fossilized sort of ultimatism, as if it were saying to the class it purported to represent: Either you obey my certified-correct Revolutionary Program, or else I will punish you by withdrawing my benediction on your existence and will refuse to be contaminated by further association with your unsanctified activities" (pp.120-1).

One of the worst, and historically most unfortunate, examples of this kind of blindly sectarian approach to working-class organisations occurred in the German Lassallean group, traditionally hostile to trade unions. When "in the 1860s, trade unions started forming without the Lassalleans’ permission" (Draper, p.133), its members, faced with the prospect of a congress which had been called to set up a broad trade union movement in the country, at first decided to boycott the congress and then, when they were forced to reluctantly recognise its importance, to take it over. Marx, totally rejecting this tactic, wrote to the Lassalleans’ leader to "make clear to him that he must choose between the ‘sect’ and the ‘class’." A sect, Marx argued in his letter (written in 1868), "sees the justification for its existence and its point of honor not in what it has in common with the class movement but in the particular shibboleth which distinguishes it from the movement" (Letter to Schweitzer, 1868, quoted by Draper, p.124).

Still Only Too Relevant...
With this description, perhaps unfortunately, we are able to bring our analysis of the Marxist position on trade unionism – and Draper’s incisive account of it – up to date. In examining the above issues, we have of necessity been concerned not only with theory but with practice – the robust practice with which both Marx and Engels fought throughout their political lives to rebut the sectarian nonsense of the contemporary "socialist" groups and grapple with the realities of class consdousness as it stood. It was in this light, for example, that Marx went along (as Draper clearly demonstrates, pp.127-130) with the reformist machinations of the International, pulling his punches (see the earlier passage on the International, p.99) over his own revolutionary analysis, until it was clear that this would no longer serve any purpose – after which Marx and Engels referred to their break with the bureaucracy "only with satisfaction at having done their duty" (p.130).

In this, as in all their political work, both Marx and Engels were always guided by the class meaning, the ultimate implications, of working-class activity (at any level) and its potential in relation to the overall goal of class-for-itself consciousness and revolutionary transformation. Their understanding that any temporary "political correctness" was irrelevant to this process underscored all their activity. In contrast to the sectarians of their day, they were perfectly prepared to sacrifice programmatic purity to the aim of guiding the working class along the revolutionary road from the point where workers were actually at.

Unfortunately, as we have suggested, Marx and Engels’ consistent, and relevant, critiques of their socialist contemporaries are only too reminiscent of the tactics of many of the "revolutionary" organisations with which we are confronted today. The history of working-class activity and struggle for most of this century, if not beforehand, has been a melancholy document, not of working-class errors primarily, but of those of the left supposedly "leading" them; a predicament as true today as ever. In ushering Draper’s presentation of Marxist trade union theory into the present, we are forced to dwell on the continuing sectarian distortions of line-pushing "revolutionaries", and on their counterpart among those strands of neo-Marxism which ignore the working class altogether in favour of "Red-Green alliances" and similar arrangements, blithely oblivious to the daily realities of class struggle and worker organisation. Between them, these two "wings" of the existing left have combined to rule out most possibilities of a relevant socialist response to such realities.

Today, few who call themselves socialists (with the possible exception of the Socialist Party of Great Britain) would repudiate trade union activity to the extent of the early socialist groups. However, many still take up positions which echo that of the Social Democratic Federation when, for example, it insisted on unfurling the red flag at dock strike rallies despite the fact that, as Engels complained, "such an act would have ruined the whole movement, and, instead of gaining over the dockers, would have driven them back into the arms of the capitalists" (Interview with the Daily Chronicle, 1893, quoted by Draper, p.120). In other words, groups describing themselves as revolutionary will still tend to place themselves in a position of doctrinaire correctness from which they call to the class, rather than placing themselves where the class is – and this remains true even of the most class-oriented groups, who nevertheless concentrate on "revolutionary" party-building to the neglect of a more fundamental challenge to reformism.

In this way, on one side of the socialist fence, those worker activists understandably drawn towards organisations which describe themselves as revolutionary will tend to become separated from their own class and its activity. On the other, more "intellectual" side, a disdain for anything that smacks of materially-based or "economistic" struggles has produced a plethora of ideology from which bureaucratic trade union and Labour leaders are free to pluck their justifications for a politics based on "individual aspirations" or "social partnership". Both spring from the same failure (intentional or otherwise) to relate to the objective basis of working class struggles in the contradictions surrounding profitability and exploitation.

To identify this basis is to recognise two things: that working-class struggles will keep repeating themselves, through necessity, and that such struggles are not engendered by some kind of external political awareness but by that necessity, which is of course in itself profoundly political in reflecting the fundamental relations of capitalism. In this way, workers who would not conceive of themselves as "political" in any sense are hurled again and again into struggles which challenge not only the production relations of capital but, frequently, the whole state apparatus.

Draper describes this essentially contradictory process in one of the most significant passages in the chapters under consideration: "A great number of class struggles, even large-scale strikes, have been fought by workers ... who held nothing but immediate bread-and-butter aims, yet maintained consistent loyalty to class interests.... Thus a trade-unionist may be altogether non-revolutionary in subjective opinion, yet capable of following a class-struggle policy in action.... In this sense, a class-struggle policy tends to produce a socialist consciousness, through experience, even though it does not start with it" (pp.116-7). Recognition of this contradictory consciousness, signalling a potential for political awareness which grows out of working class struggle rather than being brought to that class by some external "politically correct" agency, was at the root of the consistent orientation of Marx and Engels towards basic, independent trade union struggles. Our aim as socialists should be to reach for one side of that contradictory consciousness – the instinctively revolutionary side evoked by grass-roots class struggle – and pull it, gently but determinedly, away from reformism and towards an explicitly "class-for-itself" perspective.

Despite all their historically-constructed misapprehensions as to the immediate revolutionary potential of trade unionism, this was the life work of Marx and Engels. We should be indebted to Hal Draper for deepening and elucidating our awareness of that work.


1. "Trade Unions and Class", Chapter 4, Hal Draper, Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution, Vol.2, Monthly Review Press, 1978.

2. Draper generously moves to rescue these from the obscurity which history has bequeathed them: William Thompson, for example, author of Labour Rewarded, which "gave a pioneer analysis of a socialist basis for supporting trade unions", and James Morrison, editor of the trade union paper The Pioneer – though "Morrison’s socialism was of a mild sort" (footnote, p.81). While Proudhon might be seen as a predictable example of this trait, a less obvious candidate is the much-admired Chartist Ernest Jones, who rejected trade unionism as a "fallacy" distracting workers from revolutionary struggle.

3. As opposed to the sections of their membership that may be involved in objectively class-based struggles – a crucial distinction too often ignored with the all-encompassing use of the term "trade unions".