Marx and Engels on trade unions


Marx and Engels, in between waging revolutionary war against capitalism and reaction – oh, and the odd spot of pub crawling in Soho – spent a great deal of time writing and analysing things. Yet there’s no one single piece about trade unions to look up. Even so, the issue litters all their vast writings, many of which were posthumously collected and published over the years in a range of compendiums in Moscow and Beijing. Sometimes these writings were originally in the form of books but also variously in private letters, journalism, speeches and resolutions. So finding these texts would be more like a lifetime’s endeavour than `a book at bedtime’!
Since he lived much longer than Marx, Engels was able to see for himself the development of mass trades unionism in Britain late in the 19th century and learn important lessons from this. Only a short while before he died, Engels wrote of the British unions that they were a “sleeping giant”, slow to rouse but powerfully ferocious when on the rampage. He had seen an early form of this in half a century before in Manchester. The effect of union activity was certainly powerful and the workers could not attack the existing order of society at “any sorer point than this”. But even in 1844, he thought that: “Something more is needed,” than unions and strikes to break the power of the ruling class.”
No-one admired the British trade union movement more than Engels. “As schools of war they are unexcelled”. The French, with their revolutionary tradition had it easy, for “what is death … in comparison with gradual starvation, with the daily sight of the starving family” in the massive and solid strikes of the British working class. Surely, he thought, a people that can endure so much “to bend one single bourgeoise (capitalist) will be able to break the power of the whole bourgeoisie”.
Marx posed the historical significance of trade union struggle sharply in his `The Poverty of Philosophy’. (The title of this work was a pun on a dreadful anarchistic thing called the `Philosophy of Poverty’!) Here the argument was that a rise in wages merely put up prices and strikes were a blind alley. But for Marx, trades unionism could take on a political character in the “veritable civil war” for higher wages. The notion that unions could just be hitched up to the revolutionary wagon was dismissed by Marx as naïve ultra-leftism. 
On the other side of the spectrum, right-leaning theorists in Germany twisted Marx’s economic thinking and put forward the notion of the `iron law of wages’. In essence this suggested that workers could never improve their lot no matter what they did; only winning elections could help. (Sounds familiar!) Marx countered that capitalism did operate a physical minimum, which kept workers alive, but that a social element also existed that reflected the balance of power between capital and labour – strikes could make a difference for a while at least. To make the most of this, we needed unions that were mass in character, not semi-political revolutionary organisations.
But, in `Value, Price and Profit’ Marx wrote that even if unions “work well as centres of resistance” they “fail generally by limiting themselves to a guerrilla war against the effects of the existing system”. In addition to their original tasks, trade unions needed to become “focal points for the organisation of the working class”, to rally around them even workers still outside of their ranks. Yet, collective agreements won by unions from employers could “only be considered a truce”. Unions did need to act politically, but Marx fought against piling unions and workers’ political parties into one heap. The aims might be the same but specific methods of working towards this needed to be recognised. 
Marx generally wrote at length about concrete examples of trade union struggle and the effect on working hours and wages and how this fed into labour legislation. He reported in 1853-4 for the New York Daily Tribune on the strike wave that swept Britain, culminating in the great Preston Lockout. Whilst his account of the London building trades lockout was sufficiently influential to help him found the International Workingmen’s Association, the first ever workers’ international body. (Unfortunately, it was the practice of the time to use the male gender to encompass all.)
Marx and Engels attached great importance to solidarity work in times of strikes. Indeed one attraction for British unions about the International was the possibility of stopping the importation of scab labour from the continent and they joined it in large numbers. Marx spent a great deal of effort nurturing the forces that he had temporarily welded together, at a time when the TUC was just a gleam in the eye of a few people. 
Yet, whilst Marx always saw the need to keep up with the actual demands of the day he also understood that the difficulty was that, fundamentally, the British trade unions still “concerned themselves exclusively with wage questions”. Engels also noted that the “workers also get their morale thanks to the British monopoly of the world and colonial markets”. Only when this faded would we see the beginnings of change. In the 20th century, Lenin extended the work of both Marx and Engels in looking at the relationship between the revolutionary movement and the trade unions – but that is another story!