Hal Draper


Marxism and the Trade Unions


I. Marxism and Trade Unions

I’ve been asked, in connection with this class, what there is to read on the subject of Marxism and the Trade Unions. And the answer is, perhaps surprisingly, virtually nothing. Now the reason I mention this is that, as Marxists like to say, that’s not accidental. At least one of the reasons for the total lack of literature on a subject which would seem to be at the very heart of the whole theory of Marxism is that, essentially, no Marxist group has ever carried on any systematic revolutionary work in trade unions.

What about the Bolsheviks? Well, I think Lenin would have, but unions were illegal in Czarist Russia. He didn’t have the opportunity, and of course he faced a different situation. Even so (and I’m not going to deal with this here), the whole problem of the activity and relationship of the Bolsheviks to whatever trade unions sprang up is important and interesting. But it was an illegal and conspiratorial situation hardly the typical one that we’re concerned with.

Is there anyone else? You may have heard the rumor that the German Socialist movement was Marxist in its early years, before the First World War. Did they ever carry on revolutionary Marxist work in the trade unions? In the most revolutionary days of the German socialist movement they carried on no revolutionary work in the trade unions that you could call such. How about Rosa Luxemburg? No, her position on this question was absolutely monstrous and completely contrary to that of Marx.

Here and there in the socialist movement there have been important experiences. Eugene Debs, for example, although of course he wasn’t doing it from the point of view of an application of a revolutionary Marxist theory to trade unions, came out of a militant and objectively revolutionary Marxist struggle in the trade unions. There are a couple of other examples, but nothing of any size.

We have here, then, a subject which is paradoxical. On the one hand, by its very nature, it raises the basic questions of Marxism, the relationship of Marxism to the labor movement. On the other hand, in a century nothing has been written on it and revolutionary Marxist work in trade unions could be put into a nutshell. And let me remind you of another fact about the trade union movement and the socialist movement. The simple idea of socialists favoring trade unions took most of a century to sink into the socialist movement. That is, before Marx there was a half a century of socialism – and how many socialists do you think there were in that period who were just in favor of trade unions? The answer is – none.

Now look at that for a moment. England is the home of trade unionism, is it not? Capitalism arises there first and with it, trade unionism. Socialism arises in England on an anti-trade union basis. Owenism was anti-trade union. More surprisingly, the Chartist movement was anti-trade union, and that includes also the revolutionary wing of Chartism. By anti-trade union I mean a negative attitude towards the trade union movement. In general, the attitude was, “the political movement is primary and the trade unions are just a lousy reform outfit that we’re really not interested in, because we’re interested in bigger game.”

In connection with that, incidentally, there’s a paradoxical historical point to be made. The Chartists were fighting for a series of political demands which they viewed as amounting to a social revolution. In fact, in hindsight, we know that all the planks of the charter which the Chartist movement was fighting for were later carried out by the bourgeoisie. The trade union movement, however, which they scorned, is still struggling – maybe not on the same level, but for the same things. Their program was not carried out by the bourgeoisie – couldn’t be, as a matter of fact. The difference, then, between being revolutionary for one’s time and being on a much lower level, flows not from the revolutionary fervor of the people involved, but from something else.

It is not only a question of movements before Marx’s time. Right through the 19th century you can look around anywhere and ask yourself: “Just who’s in favor of trade unions?” And the answer still is, with the exception of the Marxist movement, almost nobody. Only Marxism as a socialist theory was pro-trade union.

Now, the point that I’m interested in is not only that Marx was the first socialist to favor trade unions. The point is that Marxism was and is the only kind of socialism that establishes an integral link between socialism and the struggle for social revolution and trade unionism. That link does not exist for any other kind of socialism. In terms of socialist theory, Marxism is the only one which establishes an integral link between trade unionism and the social revolution which sees the trade union movement as a revolutionary fact, even if and when the trade unions themselves are not revolutionary.

Now, of course, by the end of the 19th century the trade unions had established themselves and everybody favored them. Once the thing gets established, it gets a lot of favor, but by that time that doesn’t mean very much. Because the trade unions fought for reforms, they were favored by all sorts of reformist currents. But, around the turn of the century, you get another facet of this. It’s no longer true that nobody except Marxists favors trade unions. What is still true, however, is that everybody who considers himself a revolutionary socialist has a negative attitude towards trade unions, with the exception of Marxists, on more or less the same grounds as the Chartists: “We’re revolutionaries, they’re a reform organization – what have we got to do with them?”

In every country, almost every type of would-be revolutionary – except, again, Marxists – has taken a negative attitude towards trade unions. This takes different forms. One peculiar form it took was syndicalism in France. This was a trade union movement – was it not? Yes and no. But it was a form of negative attitude towards the mass trade union movement. What I am talking about is also the basis for a long-standing British sectarianism which has sterilized Marxism in England for a century. That is, divided English socialism between reformist socialism on the one hand and sterile sectarians calling themselves Marxists on the other. And, of course, there’s the American Socialist Labor Party.

There are different ways of being negative towards the trade union movement. For example, the SLP in DeLeon’s days was not against trade unions at all. They were for revolutionary trade unions, the SLP’s trade unions, which are excellent trade unions with only one defect – they lack existence. In the early years of the Communist International there was a tremendous upsurge of the point of view that Lenin polemicized against in Left-Wing Communism – which on the trade unions meant a negative attitude towards the mass reformist trade unions.

So, outside of Marxism there has been no revolutionary socialism which has any theoretical basis for linking its revolutionary perspective with support for the trade union movement as it actually existed. The question is – why?

The answer, to begin with, is a very simple proposition, one which has never sunk into the Marxist movement: that only Marxism can establish a link between the trade union movement and a revolutionary socialist perspective, because only Marxism is based on a class view of the social struggle. What could be simpler than that? The class view of the social struggle is the A of the ABC of Marxism. Everybody knows it and yet nobody knows it – it is very rarely institutionalized with regard to the trade union movement. Until it is applied to the relationship between Marxism and the trade union movement, it is not really being understood. Let us see what is involved.

It has been said, quite rightly, that Marx did not invent the class struggle theory of history. What is distinctive about Marxism is that it, and it alone, bases its socialism on the class struggle. That, too, is a simple proposition which has more to it than meets the eye. Sects rival to Marxism saw socialism primarily as a set of ideas to propagandize. Marx did not.

How do you propagandize? In order to propagandize you have to find people to talk to. So you orient yourself in a particular direction. Different socialist or revolutionary sects have oriented themselves in different directions, and that is one way to differentiate between the sects. For example, the Bakunin anarchists oriented themselves to the declassé lumpen-elements, in theoretical theses as well as in practice. The Russian SRs oriented to the peasants, and the Fabians toward the middle class. Other socialist groups have oriented themselves to the intellectuals and intelligentsia, and still others to the working class. They oriented themselves in these directions because they believed that these were green fields for recruitment. Now, that is one way of looking at social sections. It is not the movement of a class itself which will re-make society – it is your “army.” And for the purpose of recruiting your army, you orient yourself to different sectors of society.

There is a difference between such orientations. For example, the first socialist to decide to adopt the working-class orientation was Saint-Simon. He was very clear in his mind – he was addressing himself to the working class, saying: “My ideas are right, you adopt them and then convince your boss to do what he should do in order to carry out the ideas of Saint-Simonism.”

Lassalle very consciously oriented himself to the working class because he believed the liberal bourgeoisie was hopeless. He oriented to the working class to recruit the Lassallean army. Che Guevara adopted a “class orientation” towards the Bolivian peasants; that did not mean he thought the Bolivian peasants were going to run his movement!

Now, that whole approach is completely alien to Marxism. For Marx and for Marx alone the significance of working class socialism was not simply that you orient to this class because you can get the most out of them, but that it is this class which, when it gets into motion, shakes the foundations of capitalist society. This is a statement about the working class which has no equivalent for these other orientations. This characteristic conception of working class socialism for Marx is not even of the same family as other class orientations. It is an entirely different view of working class socialism. It follows, therefore, that the primary aim of the Marxist movement is not the use of the working class as a recruitment ground of alienated people.

Marx’s approach is somewhat different. It starts from the point of view that the reason why the working class, once in motion, shakes the foundations of capitalist society is not basically psychological, but economic. That is, that capitalism cannot, in the long run, solve the economic problem of providing a human life for the masses.

You have heard that before, too. But put it in its place. This proposition provides the basis for the class approach to Marxism, and without it you have no class approach, and cannot have one. If it is not true, there is no reason not to be a good liberal.

This is of particular relevance today because of the frequency, in circles which consider themselves revolutionary, with which one runs into the idea that capitalism has shown it can solve the economic problem, and that therefore the tasks of socialism have to be viewed in some other way. Like what? The “quality of life,” alienation, etc. Nowadays there is a label which is applied to the Marxist approach; it is “consumerism.” The term involves a very negative attitude towards holding important such things as sending your kid to school or getting a raise in wages, and other “bourgeois” values.

In fact, the basis of the trade union movement, as long as it is a struggle for a more decent life for the masses of people, still remains essentially economic. And capitalism has not solved its economic problems. Anyone who believes it has must draw a couple of conclusions. One of them is that you can no longer base socialism on a class point of view. The petty-bourgeois ideologists like Marcuse and Max Nomad who have run down the working class because it is too much interested in getting these good things of life point with contempt at the workers. But, you may have noticed, in the ghetto riots of 3 years ago the blacks, in their resentment of capitalist society, did not rush to steal Marcuse’s books from the department store in order to improve their souls. As a matter of fact, they were degenerate enough that they went after TV sets – “consumerism.”

Looking for “The Meaning of Life” is a possible occupation only for those sectors of society for whom, literally, the economic problem has been solved, and who look at the problems of society from the point of view of their sector. That is why I do not hesitate to say that this point of view is an absolutely typical petty-bourgeois ideology.

One might ask at this point: what is the bearing of this on the non-economic struggles that take place in the trade union movement – around questions of the humanization of conditions in the plant? Aren’t these struggles around the “quality of life,” etc.? Sure they are. That is why I am not running them down as such. But, now, when you get to the question of the “quality of life” for workers on the assembly line, what are you talking about? You are talking about an economic situation where humanizing working conditions is a pure-and-simple question of surplus value for the capitalist. Such improvement of working conditions and its consequences on the quality of life must be paid for out of the capitalist pocket. The roots of these struggles are the same as those involved with wages – economic demands. They are called by different names – economic demands and non-economic demands – but from the point of view of the capitalist and the system, that distinction does not exist, because it costs money to humanize working conditions.

If it is true that capitalism has solved the economic problem, then the working class has been removed as the motor force of social change. However, consider the role of the reformist trade union leaders, who see labor’s goals as simply “more,” in the sense of Gompers. These reformists take the class struggle at its least common denominator. For 50 or 75 years now, socialists have pointed out that Gompers’ slogan was pure reformism, but that the reformist leaders who use it really don’t believe it themselves, and have been unable to carry it out consistently. Time and again, class collaborationist unions give up the struggle for “more” and settle for less, in order to keep the boss in business, or agree, as in World War II, to no-strike pledges. Only a Marxist revolutionary can mean it consistently. The struggle for more becomes revolutionary when it goes beyond the capabilities of the system to provide that “more.” That is the link between the Marxist fight for reforms and the revolutionary perspective. It depends on the root idea that the economic problems of the system cannot be solved by the system. The class struggle depends on this “more.” All that Marx claims is that in the course of this fight for “more” out of the system, regardless of what it does for the system, the struggle becomes, in the end, a revolutionary struggle. In the end; but not in the beginning. In the beginning it means a struggle for reforms and it means organizing on a low social and political level. From the point of view of Marx, that is what you have to do.

The class as a whole begins on a much lower level than the Marxist program itself, but the Marxist program says that this is revolutionary to begin with. From the beginning Marx puts the stress upon the basic goal – that the primary aim was to get the class as a whole moving, and that any such movement of the class as a whole was in itself and of itself progressive and revolutionary in its implications, because the class was. And this is true even if that class, as it begins moving, moves on a basis far from satisfactory to the Marxists or revolutionaries. That is the conception of the class struggle held by Marx and Engels in a completely thought-out and consistent way, and by very few others.

In this country, the trade unions are the only class organizations of the proletariat. Trade unions are class organizations par excellence because they organize only the members of a class and they organize them for the sole reason that they belong to that class. The class character of an organization does not depend on its ideas; it depends on its objective role and function in society.

For Marx, the First International was a working class movement because it organized workers. A socialist propaganda group is not a class organization. The problem for a socialist propaganda group, even of the best kind, is how to establish its relations with that real movement of the proletariat which is not yet socialist itself. Marx’s definition of “sectarian” was a mode of thought which counterposed the socialist propaganda group to the real movement of the proletariat, because that real movement of the proletariat was so backward.

In the U.S. in 1970 the working class is in motion only on a trade-union basis, and on a level which doesn’t satisfy us. It therefore provides a test for the last question I want to take up: Does a class collaborationist union carry on the class struggle?

The problem behind that question is the fundamental problem of building a Marxist movement: the relationship of the Marxist movement and the labor movement. Let me put it in its most extreme way. Take a lousy union like the Teamsters Union – scabbing on the Farmworkers Union, not very democratic, racist, etc.; or the Plumbers Union in New York: That union is carrying on the class struggle, from our point of view, at a very low level. The Teamsters carry on some of the most energetic social struggles in this country

The United States, in many respects, is the ideal country to take for these purposes. In the U.S. you have the combination of energetic, even violent, struggles on behalf of “more,” combined with some of the most disgusting and reactionary practices. Is a union in which the membership has practically no democratic rights at all carrying on the class struggle? Sure it is. You have got to get clear in your mind that there is a difference between the objective meaning of a class struggle and what we fight for in trade unions. They are not the same thing at all.

Time and again revolutionaries have been carried away by their hatred and disgust of the practices of the trade union movement – of its leadership, its bureaucracy. So we have a situation where Rosa Luxemburg, in The Party, the Mass Strike and the Trade Unions, gives no discussion of the problems of trade union work. Her whole career as a revolutionary socialist has no connection with trade union work whatsoever. When she was up against the problem after 1905–6 in Poland, where she was faced with the development of legal trade unions, Rosa Luxemburg’s party, and she herself, took the position that they were against the organization of legal mass reformist trade unions and for the organization only of trade unions under control of the party. As her biographer says, this was no doubt her reaction to having come through a decade of fighting in Germany against the Social Democratic trade union bureaucracy, which was one of the main sources of reformism. “Why should we organize in Poland the kind of movement which is giving us so much trouble in Germany?” The answer to this question wraps up everything we have been talking about. In Poland, as in Germany, those trade unions show the working class as it is in movement. The job of a revolutionary, therefore, is to choose between two standard approaches: that of ultimatistically counterposing, to the real condition of that class in movement, your revolutionary program (which is what Luxemburg did), or taking the entirely different line, saying, “We are revolutionaries; that is where the class is. Therefore, we go in there with our program supporting the struggles as they are taking place underneath the layer of the bureaucracy, in order to accomplish our ends – which are a series of things with regard to the trade union movement and a series of things with regard to the recruitment of trade unionists to our revolutionary party.”

And, if it is true, as is likely, that Luxemburg was not for building the kind of mass reformist trade unions such as she fought in Germany, it is also true that she had no conception of organizing a struggle inside the German trade union movement against the bureaucracy, just as she never put forward the conception of organizing a struggle inside the German party which she knew was getting lousier and lousier. That was where she failed. It is the revolutionary answer, therefore, which combines an approach to the working class where-it-is with a revolutionary perspective, without that debilitating dissent, too common among revolutionaries, with the state of the trade union movement.




[Response to a statement on the problems of the First International:]

The main problem with the First International, with respect to the subject we are concerned with here, was that it was an attempt to organize – not just within the same International but, nationally, within the same organizations which had to deal with each other – working class organizations which were on entirely different levels. So that you had trade unionists affiliating along with Proudhonist sects in France, etc. From that point of view, the lesson of the First International is a realization of the mistake of trying to organize, under one organizational roof, organizations which are on such disparate levels. That was the main problem of the First International with respect to the relationship of trade unions.

When the Second International, which was organized on the basis of the separation of trade unions and political organizations, was formed, the question came up of the relationship between the two types of organizations. And there the original sin came early. It was precipitated by the 1905 revolution in its impact on Germany and the question of a mass strike as raised by Luxemburg and others. When that spectre of a mass strike was raised in the trade unions, the trade union bureaucracy acted in a rotten manner. The problem then came up: What relationship do you establish between the unions and the socialist party? The solution of the party leadership – and this was a fateful moment for socialism – was a deal with the trade union leadership that the trade union structure was given a veto vote on any revolutionary action which might be undertaken by the party. That conception, which began the concept of neutrality in the trade unions, is a very important one for our purpose.

The leadership adopted the view that the trade union movement is parallel, so to speak: “The political movement is our barony. We decide in our barony, they decide in theirs.” But, of course, in actual life things don’t divide in that way. The left wing, represented by a motion by Kitschy against the proposed deal, urged the following: that the political party reserves to itself a free hand to direct its members inside the trade union movement. That was the idea that was foreign.

Marx, however, never had any trouble with that. There was a honeymoon period with the British labor leaders of the First International, which broke up when some of them started going over to the liberals. Marx had no hesitation in breaking with them (rather abusively as a matter of fact).

The test comes where there is a question of politics. What happened in the German Social Democratic Party was that, when a political gulf developed, a break with the bureaucracy was avoided at all cost. That is the sort of problem you run into – breaking with the tops in the labor movement, in order to carry on your political work below in the trade union movement. That is the fateful question in the Marxist movement with regard to the trade unions.

[Response to a question on which side of the class line is the Teamsters Union in Salinas, where that union is scabbing on the Farmworkers Union:]

Hal: You have to look at the situation historically if you are going to determine class roles. If you think the Teamsters are working for the growers, then your whole view of that situation is going to be skewed, because they are not. They are working for the Teamsters. A class-collaborationist union is one which works hand in hand with the employers. But that does not settle the question of their historic social role at all. In the case of Salinas, suppose the Teamsters won out and took over, and let’s say that 20 years from now, after our bitter feelings have died down, when we look to Salinas we see a union-organized area organized by the Teamsters. Time after time areas have been organized originally under the most terrible auspices, by real company unions which later got taken over by their membership and became real unions. The Teamsters have organized the trucking industry, and not simply for the trucking companies. They have serviced their members much better than some unions that are more democratic, have gotten tough and won benefits for their members at the same time as they have carried on their class-collaborationist activities. So you always have to ask yourself the question: What is my role as a revolutionist in this situation? Whom do I fight? What do I fight for?

In all of these cases it is still true that, until the trade union character of such organizations is completely quashed, the class struggle goes on. And this struggle cannot be repressed by the bureaucracy, as much as they try to fight it.

One’s conception of the meaning of the trade union movement has to be a very broad one, precisely because we’re talking about the class struggle. The trade union movement is not only the bureaucracy; in case after case it is not even some given organizational structure of the union. The trade union movement is a wider entity from the point of view of a Marxist than it appears either to the bureaucracy or the rank and file. For example, time after time trade union struggles have to emerge from, go beyond the immediate organizational structures of the trade unions. In the case of the no-strike pledge during World War II, class struggle was still carried on in the form of job actions. But when they went outside the structure of the trade unions, they didn’t go outside the trade union movement. The class struggle remained operative within that trade union movement. The typical trade union bureaucrat during this period had to go along with the class struggle, because, although the bureaucracy is the transmission belt for the influence of the bourgeoisie and the government in the labor movement, it is still the labor movement’s agency for that purpose. When push comes to shove, the class struggle has its impact upon the labor bureaucrats.

The point I am trying to make here is the objective role that the trade union movement is forced to play in the class struggle, regardless of the ideas it holds about its role.

[Responses on the question of the Teamsters, etc.:]

Hal: ...we get down to the question: What is the state of consciousness as a class of the Teamsters (not the Teamster bureaucracy)? Taking the teamsters as a sector of the working class – where are they at? Is it the bureaucracy that is holding them back from becoming a revolutionary union, or is it not true that if you were to assassinate the entire bureaucracy within the next 24 hours and institute complete democratic rights to elect a new bureaucracy, the membership still would not elect you or me?

Anne: When you discuss the problem of the Teamsters in Salinas, you are taking a very specific example. This does not negate the fact that the Teamsters are not merely in Salinas. The main drive of the two-million-member Teamsters Union is the thousands and thousands of job actions that go on day after day. Every day of the year workers on the job, in plants and offices, are engaged in class struggle in conflict with the employers. The bulk of the Teamsters’ activity is class struggle against the employers.

[Response to a question of borderline cases of unions: Where do you draw the line?]

Hal: In the case of unions, there are all sorts of borderline cases. It’s not just a question of undemocratic unions. There are all kinds of undemocratic unions where the class struggle still goes on. Even when a sweetheart contract has been negotiated--the class struggle begins in other fashions.

The horror story to end all horror stories is what happened when Hitler came to power, when the leadership of the trade unions begged Hitler to accept them as his trade union leadership. The interesting thing is that the Nazi regime said “No.” They could not accept any movement at all which maintained a vestige of independence, and which could act as a core for the crystallization of a real social struggle independent of the regime. Even when the union bureaucrats crawled on their bellies before Hitler, the state had to tell them: “No. It is not enough to crawl. The movement itself has to be destroyed.” That is the crux of it – the destruction of the movement.

Question: Granted, the leadership reflects the level of the membership. But, doesn’t the leadership itself play a role in accelerating or retarding the movement?

Hal: Of course the leadership retards and accelerates, but that is not unique to the trade union movement. It is also true of the socialist movement. My conclusion from that is that workers should go in there to fight inside that union. When they go in there, who is there to fight? The bureaucracy. There is the subjective element of the social situation in which that struggle takes place.

After you have gotten through saying all of this, what remains is the fact that all of these monstrous atrocities are not only the result of the prod of a bureaucracy. The bureaucracy, in its own way, is a reflection of the pressure that is coming from the outside. Even if the bureaucracy were removed, the outside pressures would still be there, with all of the consequences that implies.

(October 2, 1970)

Last updated on 26.9.2004