Book Review: Marx on Trade Unions
“Marx and the Trade Unions,” by A. Lozovsky, 5s. net, Martin Lawrence.
To declare that the struggle of the working class for emancipation ultimately turns upon the conquest of political power, is by no means to say that the matter is a purely political one. The class struggle is both political and economic in character, not merely in the sense that the need to gain control of the machinery of government is necessary, among other things, to acquire control of all economic resources, but also in the sense that the workers, if they are to fit themselves for the attainment of their emancipation, must carry on the struggle on the economic field under capitalism.
The Trade Union movement, despite its many shortcomings from the Socialist point of view, is the expression of the workers’ attack and resistance against the power of capital in the economic sphere of social activity. The present day Trade Unions may appear to many as reactionary organisations on account of many of their pro-capitalist ideas, besides the fact that the capitalist has largely adapted himself to their existence, but beneath the surface of this lies the dire necessity of the workers to carry on their day-to-day struggles through this or some form of economic organisation.
In the earlier days of capitalism’s history many and bitter were the struggles made by the workers for even the bare right to combine or associate in ever so small a way to discuss among themselves the conditions under which they were called upon to work for their masters. Those were the days when the combination laws existed, and when the mere association of workers was regarded by the employers as being, to quote one eminent authority, “in the nature of mutiny,’’ and as “destructive of the discipline necessary to the expansion of trade,” besides being an interference with the right of the employer “ to do what he liked with his own.”
From that attitude of mind it may be gathered what repression and persecution the early attempts at working-class economic organisation called forth. There were then no Knighthoods or Privy Councillorships doled out to Trade Union leaders as there are to-day. In the old days those who were prominent in such movements were often awarded “Government jobs ” and “ honours ” of a different kind. Their reward was free living accommodation, free dress, and a little spare time to reflect upon the “error of their ways”—in prison.
It is little more than a hundred years ago that the law connected with the prohibition of combination was relaxed, and the “right” of collective bargaining established. But like most rights granted by a ruling class to a subject class, the workers’ “right” to combine to discuss the terms of the sale of their labour-power has been foiled time and time again, not only by political enactments, but often in actual defiance of the law. In fact, and apart from recent history, in the year following the repeal of the combination laws, an unsuccessful attempt was made in Parliament to smash the act of repeal, whilst in 1834, ten years after the legal sanction was given to the Trade Unions, six agricultural labourers of Dorchester, whose “crime” was one of combining with others to secure wages amounting to something like ten shillings a week, were tried, imprisoned and deported, under the pretext of having administered unlawful oaths.
The deeply-laid fact is that the master class has never failed to realise that the association of the workers for economic purposes, i.e., for rates of wages, hours and general conditions of employment, is a source of danger to the power of capital over wage labour. To in any way challenge the right of the capitalist to exact his full tribute from the productivity of the workers is fundamentally regarded by the capitalist class as any similar challenge made by the serfs against the feudal lords of a few hundred years ago, or by the slaves of antiquity against the slave owners—as a challenge to be crushed, compromised with, or cajoled, as the circumstances determine.
The better-informed sections of the ruling class have clearly enough seen that once the right of the workers to some say in the matter of the sale of their labour-power is conceded, it is not a great distance to reach the concept that the workers may claim the right to the produce of their labour, and “to do what they like with their own.” Both Marx and Engels thoroughly appreciated the rise and development of the Trade Union movement, and their many statements on this aspect of working class activity should be studied by all who desire to reach the Socialist objective.
It is worth while mentioning that one of Marx’s most popular works, “Value, Price and Profit,” which contains a summary of his leading economic theories, arose from, and is based upon, the question of working-class economic action under capitalism.
Writing to Engels in 1865, Marx mentioned that—
A meeting of the International will be held to night. A fine old scout, an old Owenist named Weston, a cabinet-maker, put up two points, which he has been constantly defending in The Beehive.
(1) That a general rise in the rate of wages cannot be of any advantage to the workers.
(2) That in view of this, etc., the trade unions have a harmful effect. If these two theses, in which he alone of all the members of our society believes, were adopted, we should be in a bad fix, both on account of our local trade unions as well as of the infection of strikes that has spread all over the Continent.
Weston’s main points are thus summarised by Marx: —
(1) That wages determine the value of commodities.
(2) That if the capitalists to-day pay five shillings instead of four, they will to-morrow (enabled to do so by the increased demand) sell their commodities for five shillings instead of four.
Thus, the conclusion to be drawn from this false idea was the equally false and dangerous notion that the struggle of the workers to raise wages or prevent their fall, was useless. Of course, Marx exposed the absurdity of Weston’s theory, not only on the ground of general economic theory, but from actual historical happenings, which proved the opposite to the position Weston seriously thought to be the case. Marx proved that the workers can, and did, gain by an increase in wages and, further, that the capitalist cannot necessarily compensate himself for his loss in increased wages by charging higher prices for his products.
The International Working Men’s Association, founded in 1864, and in which both Marx and Engels were outstanding members, constantly stressed the importance of the workers’ need to carry on their struggles through the medium of the Trade Unions, but, at the same time, endeavoured to get the Unions to widen their outlook and broaden the basis of their activities.
At the Hague Congress of the International, held in 1872, Marx proposed a resolution “on the political activity of the proletariat,” and among many other points, stated that: —
The consolidation of the workers’ forces attained in the economic struggle will also have to serve as a lever in the hand of this class for the struggle against the political power of its exploiters. In view of the fact that the owners of the land and of capital always utilised their political privileges to guard and perpetuate their economic monopolies and to enslave labour, the conquest of political power comes to be the great task of the proletariat.
An important point worth noting is that although Marx saw and experienced no great readiness on the part of the workers to respond to the Socialist appeal, he did not on that account fail to back their efforts at trying to improve their lot through the Trade Union movement, not only in England, but all over the world. In fact, the International Working Men’s Association, acting largely under the influence of Marx, acquired a considerable amount of popularity because of its constant support of strikes and lock-outs.
Writing to Engels in 1867, Marx says:
Our International celebrated a great victory. We secured monetary aid for the striking bronze workers of Paris from the British trade unions. As soon as the bosses saw this they gave in. This business has caused a great deal of noise in the French papers, and we are now an established force in France.
But the popularity seems not to have been all one sided, for it came to be the slogan of the bourgeosie that strikes and other working-class activities were caused not by capitalist greed, but by the “wicked” and “malicious” International. Therefore did Marx have need to ironically comment in a report to the Fourth Congress of the International: —
The report of your General Council will mainly relate to the guerilla fights between Capital and Labour—we mean the strikes which, during the last year, have perturbed the Continent of Europe and were said to have sprung neither from the misery of the labourer nor from the despotism of the capitalist, but from secret intrigues of our Association.
At the base of all Marx’s views on this side of working-class organisation was his profound conviction that some sort of fight, however instinctive, has to be made if the working class is to prove worthy of its emancipation from wage slavery, and to prevent itself from becoming a permanent makeshift tool in the hands of the ruling class. The previously-mentioned work of Marx, “Value, Price and Profit” contains the following statement: —
In their attempts at reducing the working day to its former rational dimensions, or, where they cannot enforce legal fixation of a normal working day, at checking overwork by a rise of wages, a rise not only in proportion to the surplus time exacted, but in a greater proportion, working men fulfil only a duty to themselves and their race. They only set limits to the tyrannical usurpations of capital. Time is the room of human development. A man who has no free time to dispose of. whose whole lifetime, apart from the mere physical interruptions by sleep, meals and so forth, is absorbed by his labour for the capitalist, is less than a beast of burden. He is a mere machine for producing foreign wealth, broken in body and brutalised in mind. Yet the whole history of modern industry shows that capital, if not checked, will recklessly and ruthlessly work to cast down the whole working class to this utmost state of degradation.
Mr. Lozovsky has helped to make more widely known the part taken by Marx to prevent this downward trend of capitalism upon the working-class position. His many references from the history of Marx’s life’s work will reveal that the founders of the modern Socialist movement were far from being “armchair philosophers.” We recommend this work to all working-class students. Mr. Lozovsky’s flattery of the Stalin regime in Russia we may comment upon in the future. At the moment we are concerned with presenting the standpoint of Marx on the all-important subject of Trade Unions.
The pamphlet “Value, Price and Profit” is ‘ obtainable from this office, 6d. (post free, 7d.)