1980s >> 1983 >> no-942-february-1983

Marx and trade unions

Marx’s assessment that the English trade unionists involved in setting up the International Working Men’s Association were “real powers” was to be proved correct by the subsequent careers of some of them. Robert Appelgarth, for instance, played a very prominent role in presenting the evidence of the trade unions to the Royal Commission which had been set up to investigate them in 1867 and whose Report in 1869 paved the way for a further liberalisation of the law governing their activities. Howell, as Secretary of the TUC’s Parliamentary Committee from 1871-5, was the first General Secretary of the Trades Unions Congress, whose first congress had been held in Manchester, in June 1868. Thus Marx was dealing with some of the top British trade unionists of his day. Since in politics they were Liberals it may seem strange that Marx, as a revolutionary communist, should have been prepared to work with them. But, for him, what was important was not their politics but the fact that they were leading trade unionists, solidly implanted in the working class movement.

In other words. Marx’s participation in the IWMA was a resumption of the same strategy derived, through Engels, from the Chartist experience of the early 1840s which had motivated his earlier collaboration with Ernest Jones. Because he believed that out of the economic organisations of the working class would eventually evolve a conscious political movement for socialism, he was not too concerned about the political ideas of the trade union leaders he had agreed to work with. The development of the working class movement itself would, Marx believed somewhat over-optimistically, sooner or later put this right. The important thing at this stage for Marx was to set this movement in motion, to encourage independent working class trade union and political activity. When this did not happen, as became evident within a number of years. Marx severely criticised the union leaders for having sold out to the capitalist class and the Liberal Party.

In fact until the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 the activity of the IWMA was mainly of a trade union nature. Not all the members of the IWMA, particularly not the French workers, were convinced of the utility of trade unions and strikes and to Marx fell the task of providing a theoretical justification of trade unionism. Marx proved to be a worthy successor to Hodkingson and other earlier pro-working class writers, in whose tradition he must indeed have been regarded by the English trade unionists whose practice he was showing to be sound from an economic point of view (despite what the economic orthodoxy of the day claimed) and who called him “Dr. Marx” out of respect for his economic and historical knowledge. This is not to suggest that English trade unionists were incapable of themselves providing economic justifications for their activities. The Secretary of the London Consolidated Society of Bookbinders. Thomas Dunning (1799-1873), had written a book, published in 1860, Trades Unions and Strikes: Their Philosophy and Intention, which impressed both Marx and the leading British economist of the time, John Stuart Mill (1806-1873). Marx referred to it several times in his footnotes in Capital and, more extensively, in some notes which he did not in the end include in Volume 1 of Capital. In these notes he took up Dunning’s argument that the economic logic of trade unions was to ensure that the laws of supply and demand were “fairly” applied or, translated into Marx’s economic categories, to ensure that the workers were paid the value of their labour power, defined as the value of

the means of subsistence that is customarily held to be essential in a given state of society to enable the worker to exert his labour-power with the necessary degree of health, strength, vitality, etc and to perpetuate him self by producing replacements for himself.

Without trade unions, workers would tend to be paid less than this value:

. . . the value of labour-power constitutes the conscious and explicit foundation of the trade unions, whose importance for the English working class can scarcely be overestimated. The trade unions aim at nothing less than to prevent the reduction of wages below that level that is traditionally maintained in the various branches of industry. That is to say, they wish to prevent the price of labour-power from falling below its value.

“Abolition of the wages system”

Marx presented a particularly well-argued case for trade unionism in a reply to John Weston, an old Owenite and a member of the General Council of the IWMA. which took up two successive meetings of the Council in June 1865. [1] Weston had argued that trade union action to raise wages was pointless, even harmful, as wage increases only led to price increases or to wage cuts for other workers. Marx showed how Weston’s arguments were unsound: the level of wages did not affect the level of prices; the effect of a general increase in wages would be, after a readjustment of demand, a decrease in the rate of profit. Marx did, however, recognise that trade union action, including strikes, was basically only defensive and that if workers were not going to go on fighting a permanent rearguard action they should begin thinking in terms of abolishing the wages system altogether:

I think I have shown that their struggles for the standard of wages are incidents inseparable from the whole wages system, that in 99 cases out of 100 their efforts at raising wages are only efforts at maintaining the given value of labour, and that the necessity of debating their price with the capitalist is inherent to their condition of having to sell themselves as commodities. By cowardly giving way in their every-day conflict with capital, they would certainly disqualify themselves for the initiating of any large movement. At the same time, and quite apart from the general servitude involved in the wages system, the working class ought not to exaggerate to themselves the ultimate working of these every-day struggles. They ought not to forget that they are fighting with effects; that they are retarding the downward movement, but not changing its direction; that they are applying palliatives, not curing the malady. They ought, therefore, not to be exclusively absorbed in those unavoidable guerrilla fights incessantly springing up from the never-ceasing encroachments of capital or changes of the market. They ought to understand that, with all the miseries it imposes upon them, the present system simultaneously engenders the material conditions and the social forms necessary for an economical reconstruction of society. Instead of the conservative motto ‘A fair day’s wages for a fair day’s work!’ they ought to inscribe on their banner the revolutionary watchword. ‘Abolition of the wages system!’

Marx ended his talk by proposing a resolution. which the General Council adopted, the third clause of which declared:

Trades Unions work well as centres of resistance against the encroachments of capital. They fail partially from an injudicious use of their power. They fail generally from limiting themselves to a guerrilla war against the effects of the existing system, instead of simultaneously trying to change it, instead of 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.

The trade union question was also discussed at the first Congress of the IWMA in Geneva in September 1866. Marx drafted the “Instructions” for the General Council’s own delegation. The sixth section, headed “Trade Unions: Their Past. Present and Future”, gives a very clear idea of Marx’s hopes for the future evolution and role of the spontaneous economic organisations of the working class that trade unions were:

. . . unconsciously to themselves, the trade unions were forming centres of organization of the working class, as the medieval municipalities and communes did for the middle class. If the trade unions are required for the guerrilla fights between capital and labour, they are still more important as organized agencies for superseding the very system of wage labour and capital rule.

This characterisation of the trade unions as being the equivalent for the working class of what the medieval towns had been for the bourgeoisie Marx had already made on previous occasions, in the Poverty of Philosophy and in the series of articles in the New York Daily Tribune 1853-4 in which he referred to as his “history of strikes”. It is almost a syndicalist vision of the emancipation of the working class, except that Marx envisaged the trade unions playing a political role, converting themselves into, as it were, a mass political party of the working class, rather than remaining industrial organisations relying exclusively on industrial action to try to overthrow capitalism.

Marx’s participation in the British trade union movement was however not just confined to theorising. As we have said, until 1870 the IWMA was mainly concerned with trade union matters and has been accurately described as being during this period “an international trade union liaison committee”. [2] When a strike occurred in Britain and the employer imported blackleg labour from the Continent, the IWMA intervened, often successfully, with leaflets and speakers in the appropriate language, to persuade the continental workers not to break the strike. Similarly, when a strike occurred in Britain or on the Continent, the IWMA publicised it and raised funds from workers and trade unions in other countries to help the strikers and their families. Marx, as a member of the General Council, played his part in such activities, drafting for instance a leaflet addressed to German tailors concerning a strike.

Marx put the finishing touches to Capital, which was first published in German in Hamburg in September 1867, at a time when he was actively involved in the mainly trade union-type activities of the IWMA. This no doubt helped to give Capital a very pronounced pro-working class character. Marx only mentioned the trade unions in passing (since he planned to deal with the question in a separate volume, which never appeared, to be devoted to “Wage Labour”), but he did devote considerable space to another working class struggle: that to achieve a legally-enforceable maximum working day. As with trade unions. Marx was not content simply to describe and support this struggle. He also showed how the demand for a legal “normal working day” was justified even from a capitalist economic point of view.

There had been opposition to this demand also within the IWMA, once again from the French workers who, influenced by the ideas of Proudhon, had doubts about appealing to the capitalist state to protect the working class. In the “Instructions” he drafted for the General Council delegation to the 1866 Geneva congress of the IWMA Marx met this criticism head on. with regard to the legal limitation of child labour. The “more enlightened part of the working class”, he wrote.

know that, before everything else, the children and juvenile workers must be saved from the crushing effects of the present system. This can only be effected by converting social reason into social force, and, under given circumstances, there exists no other method of doing so, than through general laws, enforced by the power of the state. In enforcing such laws, the working class do not fortify governmental power. On the contrary, they transform that power, now used against them, into their own agency. They effect by a general act what they would vainly attempt by a multitude of isolated individual efforts.

Mere Marx appears, not so much as an early-day syndicalist, but as a reformist arguing that the condition of the working class could be improved under capitalism through the action of the existing state.

Class struggle over hours

But he was no more a reformist than he was a syndicalist. He did indeed believe that state intervention to limit the working day could bring about a real improvement in the condition of the working class and in Capital did not hesitate to say so:

  On the whole the working population, subject to the Factory Act, has greatly improved physically. All medical testimony agrees on this point, and personal observation at different times has convinced me of it (Chapter X “The Working Day”, Section 6. footnote).
To guard against false conclusions from the text, I ought here to remark that the English cotton industry, since it was placed under the Factory Act of 1850 with its regulations of labour-time, etc., must be regarded as the model industry of England. The English cotton operative is in every respect better off than his Continental counterpart in misery (Chapter X, Section 5. footnote).

This is a far cry from the absolute impoverishment of the working class under capitalism which some have read into Marx! Marx also had the highest regard for the government officials who enforced the Factory Acts in a strict and conscientious way, saying of one, Leonard Horner (1785- 1864) that “he rendered undying service to the English working-class” (Chapter IX. “The Rate of Surplus-Value”. Section 3, footnote).

It is important to understand why Marx thought that it was possible for factory legislation to improve working class conditions. It was not because state intervention generally — reformist political action, if you like — could bring about an improvement in working class living standards, but because, in this particular case, in the absence of state intervention, wages were being driven down below the value of the workers’ labour power. The parallel with trade union action was clear, and deliberate. Factory legislation was another way of ensuring that workers were paid the full value of the commodity they had to sell, their ability to work. If they had to work too long hours the workers were not being paid, in the words of the slogan Marx denounced as conservative, “a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work”.

Marx, basing himself on a leaflet produced by the building workers strike committee during the strike and lock-out of 1859-60, summarises the workers’ case for a shorter working day as follows:

You pay me for one day’s labour-power, whilst you use that of 3 days. That is against our contract and the law of exchanges. I demand, therefore, a working-day of normal length, and I demand it without any appeal to your heart, for in money matters sentiment is out of place . . . I demand the normal working-day because I, like every other seller, demand the value of my commodity (Chapter X, “The Working Day”, Section 1).

Since the capitalist employer is not prepared to accept this argument, insisting on his right to make maximum use of the commodity he has purchased, the struggle for a “normal” working day becomes a class struggle:

. . .  in the history of capitalist production, the determination of what is a working-day, presents itself as the result of a struggle, a struggle between collective capital, i.e., the class of capitalists, and collective labour, i.e., the working-class (ibid.).

Marx describes the course of this struggle in detail, from the first attempt at legal limitation initiated by Robert Owen in 1802 through the Acts of 1833 to the 1850 Act. in Section 6 of Chapter X of Capital entitled “The Struggle for the Normal Working-Day. Compulsory Limitation by Law of the Working-Time. The English Factory Acts, 1833 to 1864”. There is therefore no need for us to repeat that history here, but it must be emphasised that this was a purely defensive struggle:

  The history of the regulation of the working-day in certain branches of production, and the struggle still going on in others in regard to this regulation, prove conclusively that the isolated labourer, the labourer as ’free’ vendor of his labour-power, when capitalist production has once attained a certain stage, succumbs without any power of resistance (Chapter X. Section 7).
For ‘protection’ against ‘the serpent of their agonies’, the labourers must put their heads together, and. as a class, compel the passing of a law, an all-powerful social barrier that shall prevent the very workers from selling, by voluntary contract with capital, themselves and their families into slavery and death (ibid.).

This explains why state intervention in this domain was capable of bringing about a once-for-all improvement in conditions, but incapable of bringing about a continual improvement. Like trade union action, once it has improved conditions by raising workers’ wages to the value of their labour power, its role became purely defensive: to ensure that wages were not driven down below their value, in this case by over-work as a result of too long a working day. So factory legislation was subject to the same limitations as trade union action: it could only play a rearguard, defensive role against the encroachments of capital.

In fact, here too the working class had to run fast just to stay still. The capitalist employer sought to compensate for the shorter hours imposed on him by the law by making his workers work more intensively (harder and faster); which meant that the workers would eventually have to demand a further shortening of the working day to avoid being over-worked and so underpaid:

There cannot be the slightest doubt that the tendency that urges capital, so soon as a prolongation of the hours of labour is once for all forbidden, to compensate itself, by a systematic heightening of the intensity of labour, and to convert every improvement in machinery into a more perfect means of exhausting the workman, must soon lead to a state of things in which a reduction of the hours of labour will again be inevitable (Chapter XV, “Machinery and Modern Industry”, Section 3c).

Marx added, in a footnote, that “the agitation for a working-day of 8 hours has now [1867] begun in Lancashire among the factory operatives”. The Geneva Congress of the IWMA in 1866 had in fact already adopted the demand for an 8-hour day, following the example of the American trade unions.

Marx also explained, in the Preface to Capital, the space he had devoted to the Factory Acts by referring to the political, as well as economic, lesson they had for the continental ruling classes. The present epoch, he wrote, was that of the rise of the working class:

In England the process of social disintegration is palpable. When it has reached a certain point, it must re-act on the Continent. There it will take a form more brutal or more humane, according to the degree of development of the working-class itself. Apart from higher motives, therefore, their own most important interests dictate to the classes that are for the nonce the ruling ones, the removal of all legally removable hindrances to the free development of the working-class. For this reason, as well as others, I have given so large a space in this volume to the history, the details, and the results of English factory legislation.

In other words, the change-over to socialism would be less violent to the extent that the working class was better treated. In fact, Marx believed that, with the extension of the franchise as well, a peaceful capture of political power by the working class in England had become a distinct possibility.

But there was one argument in favour of a shorter working day and week which Marx did not use, even though it was as widespread in his day as it is now: that it would help reduce unemployment. Marx’s knowledge of the economies of capitalism led him to point out that the effect was more likely to be the opposite. A shorter working day, by increasing labour costs, would encourage the introduction of labour-saving machinery. As he told a meeting of the General Council of the IWMA in August 1868, which was discussing the question, the case for a shorter working day should be based, not so much on economic arguments, but simply on the need for workers as human beings to be healthy and to have more free time; so that they would be fit and educated enough to be able to carry through the advance in civilisation that the change-over from capitalism to communism would represent.

Marx thus provided a theoretical justification for what the working class movement in Britain was actually doing — trade union action to defend wages and demanding a legal maximum working day. This was in accordance with the role he and Engels had assigned to communist theoreticians in the Communist Manifesto:

The theoretical conclusions of the Communists . . . merely express, in general terms, actual relations springing from an existing class struggle, from an historical movement going on under our very eyes.

In this sense, a large part of Capital, Marx’s major work, can be said to be a theoretical reflection of the activity of the working class of his day in Britain.

Adam Buick


[1.] First published in 1898 by his daughter, Eleanor, and Aveling under the title Value, Price and Profit, which is the title under which it became a textbook for those calling themselves Marxists in the British working class movement. Its original title was Wages, Price and Profit, by which it is known in other countries and which is also used in some later English editions.

[2.] Collins and Abranisky, Karl Marx and the British Labour Movement, p.84.