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Trade Unions and socialism

Dear Editors

After reading a number of SPGB statements on the unions, among them the SPGB Executive Committee's appeal to trade unionists (Socialist Standard, September 2009), I wonder if you could devote some space to further explaining your position on the role of unions in the revolutionary process.

I am prompted to raise this question by certain things I have read in Marx on the same question, among others the statement in Value, Price and Profit, where he speaks of the unions “using their organized forces as a lever for the final emancipation of the working class, that is to say, the ultimate abolition of the wages system”. Similarly with Marx's contention that “only the trade unions are thus able to represent a real working-class party, and to form a bulwark against the power of capital”.

The second statement, with its emphasis on “only the trade unions”, is taken from Marx's 1869 interview with the German trade unionist Hamann, as quoted by Karl Kautsky in his 1909 article, “Sects or Class Parties”,  which is posted to the Marxist Internet Archive. Kautsky also said there is no reason to doubt the accuracy of Marx's statement to Hamann.  I also know the importance Daniel De Leon and the Socialist Labor Party in America attach to it.  (See, for example, De Leon's articles, ”A Brace of Specimens, Even 'Neater'“ and “With Marx for Text”, both of which are posted to the Daniel De Leon Internet Archive.)

By “union” you will understand that I do not infer today's unions, which are as unfit on the economic field as your country's Labor Party is on the political, but unionism as Marx envisioned a union aiming at “abolition of the wages system.”  Frankly, I cannot reconcile my understanding of the SPGB's position on this question with these statements from Marx, and would like to see a Socialist Standard article devoted to clarifying the SPGB's position on the union question and how it relates to the Marx passages cited here.

BERNARD BORTNICK (SLP Member), Dallas, Texas.


As can be seen from the quote in Kautsky’s article Marx was talking about the existing, non-revolutionary unions:

The trade unions should never be affiliated with or made dependent upon a political society if they are to fulfil the object for which they were formed. If this happens it means their death blow. The trade unions are the schools for Socialism, the workers are there educated up to Socialism by means of the incessant struggle against capitalism which is being carried on before their eyes. All political parties, be they what they may, can hold sway over the mass of the workers for only a time: the trade unions, on the other hand, capture them permanently; only the trade unions are thus able to represent a real working-class party, and to form a bulwark against the power of capital. The greater mass of the workers conceive the necessity of bettering their material position whatever political party they may belong to. Once the material position of the worker has improved, he can then devote himself to the better education of his children; his wife and children need not go to the factory, and he himself can pay some attention to his own mental education, he can the better see to his physique. He becomes a Socialist without knowing it.” (Translation by Zelda Kahan for the July 1909 issue of the Social Democrat, theoretical journal of the SDF),

We can agree with Kautsky that there is no reason to suppose that Marx did not say something like this, as it conforms to his strategy of the time of working within the International Working Men’s Association to encourage a trade union consciousness amongst workers to develop into a socialist political consciousness. His advice to the existing unions to organise workers irrespective of their political opinions and to avoid being linked to a political party is sound (it is our view too). What he says about unions being the only real defence workers have under capitalism against “the power of capital” is also true.

We cannot see that this passage can be interpreted as Marx advocating a syndicalist approach. If it wasn’t for his other writings of the period urging workers and their unions to aim also at the abolition of the wages system he might rather be thought to be advocating here a trade-union based party like the Labour Party in Britain was at the beginning.

In any case, events did not confirm the optimistic view Marx expressed here that the trade unions would be “schools for Socialism”. Kautsky correctly makes the point about this that England showed that the existence of trade unions “alone is insufficient to convert the worker to Socialism ‘without him knowing it’; that they do not necessarily bring Socialist conviction home to the worker because of  ‘the incessant struggle against capitalism which is being carried on before their eyes’. Only a scrap of this struggle is really being pursued daily, and this scrap is not even always sufficient to indicate the real meaning of the whole struggle.” Hence the need for a socialist organisation to point out that meaning.

But this is not a reason for socialists to oppose the existing unions. They are organisations that can, in a limited way, defend the wages and working conditions of their members. That is why our members join them and work with their fellow workers to get what can be got out of employers. Inside them, we advocate a class approach, internal democracy, non-affiliation to a political party (our members refuse to pay the levy to the Labour Party) while of course also arguing that the only framework within which the problems facing workers can be lastingly solved is socialism and the abolition of the wages system.

We have never seen the point of trying to organise a socialist or revolutionary union to rival the existing unions. Since the vast majority of workers today are non-socialists such a union would be small and ineffective. The non-revolutionary position of the existing unions (“a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay”) is a reflection, not the cause, of the non-revolutionary ideas of their members. However, when more and more workers come to be socialists the unions will be transformed.

In fact, we envisage workers, once they have become socialist, organising both politically and economically to bring in socialism. Politically to wrest political control from the parties of capitalism. Economically, to keep production going during and immediately after the changeover from capitalism to socialism. We don’t envisage the socialist revolution being purely electoral and parliamentary (if that’s what you were thinking). – Editors.

John Maclean

Dear Editors

It was with interest that I recently read on the SPGB Blog that the SPGB recognised one positive achievement of Lenin in that he helped to get Russia out of the bloody capitalist First World War (
Although I recognise that Scotland's John MacLean  was not in the "Impossibilist" tradition (although he was once a member of the Social Democratic Federation),   I write to ask if the SPGB  recognised the vigorous anti-war work of John Maclean?
Harry McShane, of the CPGB, wrote in his book that John Maclean was persecuted to the extent of exhaustion and eventually dying of pneumonia.   McShane wrote that "....The authorities hated him more than any other man. He was jailed five times; the first time was in 1915, and he spent four of his remaining eight years in prison.   When he was out of jail he was followed everywhere by plain-clothes policemen. They were more frightened of his revolutionary stand than of the shop-stewards...."  (Harry McShane, No Mean Fighter, page 151)
Just being curious, but did the Socialist Standard of the time make any mention of John Maclean during the First World War?

J. MELROSE,  Glasgow


We can’t find any mention of John Maclean in the Socialist Standards of the war period, but no doubt we would have respected him for the anti-war position he took up as that was what our members were doing and suffering from it too, also being sent to prison.

We did not think much of his Scottish republicanism and said so in an article on the party he founded in the October 1925 Socialist Standard from which here is an extract:

“A correspondent sends us the Manifesto of the Scottish Workers' Republican Party, and asks for our opinion of it. The object of the Party, founded by the late John Maclean, is a Workers' Republic for Scotland. The Manifesto sets out the slave position of the working class, and urges that the workers must carry through the Social Revolution.

The chief fallacy of their position is their insistence upon a Scottish Workers' Republic. This demand is both reactionary and Utopian. The struggle of the workers of the United Kingdom must be a united one. The workers are under the domination of a class who rule by the use of a political machine which is the chief governing instrument for England, Scotland, Wales, etc. To appeal to the workers of Scotland for a Scottish Workers' Republic is to arouse and foster the narrow spirit of Nationalism, so well used by our masters. Economically the demand is Utopian, as the development of capitalism has made countries more and more dependent on each other, both through the specialisation of industry or agriculture, and also by the force controlled by the Great Powers to suppress or control the smaller nations.

The history of " independent " Hungary, Poland, and the Balkan States shows that the realisation of " political independence " by a country leaves the workers' conditions untouched and actually worsens them in many cases.

The appeal to the worker in this Manifesto to "rally to the cause of a Workers' Republic for Scotland" is made "so that we might win you away from the service of the imperialist gang who direct their activities from London" If the worker is to be won for Socialism, it is by getting him to understand the principles of Socialism, and not by appealing to him to concentrate on Scottish affairs. Socialism is international.”

This is still our position in face of those today who seek to revive the idea of a “Scottish Workers’ Republic” - Editors.