Women on strike in the US, 1948 Women on strike in the US, 1948. Photo: Kheel Centre, Flickr

John Westmoreland charts the history of revolutionary and socialist thinking about trade-union struggles and the forms of working-class consciousness

Before Marx and Engels, none of the socialist theorists or groupings argued for consistent work in the emerging trade unions. When trade unions emerged in Britain, they went beyond the trade societies that defended craft skills and petitioned their masters over pay. Trade unions ‘combined’ as workers standing together and striking together over pay.

Early trade unions faced opposition from the bosses and the state. Trade unionism was criminalised in the 1799 Combinations Act. It took tremendous courage and energy to form trade unions, and they were, from the start, political. They were an important part of the Peterloo protests for democracy in 1819. So trade unionism at the root confronted the bosses and the state.

The lack of interest in trade unions reflected the elitism of early socialist attitudes that thought heroic leadership and militarism was the force for change, rather than the revolutionary potential of working-class collectivism.

The revolutionary implications of workers’ self-activity through trade-union organisation were only explained when Karl Marx and Frederick Engels appeared on the scene. And, sadly, despite the consistent efforts of Marx and Engels to persuade the movement that trade unions were important in preparing the ground for social revolution, the majority of socialist organisations saw trade unions as little more than recruiting grounds for their own (much more significant) party.

Utopians and the working class

Most socialist thinkers before Marx placed their emphasis on propaganda. The arguments for socialism were simple, and once the majority agreed with them, revolution would follow. Heroic actions, from planting bombs to assassinating reactionary ministers, would awaken the oppressed masses and revolution would follow. The working class was appreciated as an oppressed class that needed liberating, but was seen as too uneducated to be at the forefront of the revolution. The emphasis, therefore, was on propaganda, and if the workers did not engage with it that was a further sign of their ignorance. This is not to say that early socialist thinkers did not make a contribution to the movement. Charles Fourier, Saint-Simon and Robert Owen all contributed to the corpus of socialist ideology and practice, but their socialism was utopian. They knew what the socialist future might look like, but they didn’t know how to get there.

In their way, these early utopian socialists actually laid the groundwork for reformist thinkers later on, who also rejected the working class as the agent of revolutionary change. Robert Owen, for example, helped to found the co-operative movement in Britain, and also attempted to build a general trade union, the Grand National Consolidated Trade Union, in 1834. The GNCTU, on paper, had thousands of members, but when strikes broke out, it proved to be bureaucratic and ineffectual. Neither did it make an impact on the Chartist movement that emerged in 1838.

There are no shortcuts in creating workers’ organisation, and building on the existing trade unions would have connected Owen and his followers with the real, everyday struggle that workers were fighting. But, once again, the workers needed to be told what was best, rather than listening to the much more informed view about where the parameters of the workers’ struggle lay. Like cooperativism, trade unions were seen by the Owenites as ameliorating the poverty of working class life, rather than fighting an all-out battle for change.

Utopianism, the socialism of the mind, could only see the workers as the objects of history, to be led by sound argument and directed by those who had reached a higher political understanding. The working-class cart, trade unions and all, would be pulled along by the intellectual horse. Socialist theory, however, often didn’t connect with the workers who had to look at the back end of the horse.

Contrast the approach of the Utopians with the approach taken by Engels after he moved to Manchester, which was the largest industrial city in the world at the time. Engels went out to meet the working class, and, astonishing intellectual that he was, to learn from them!

Engels marvelled at the persistence of workers who fought against vicious opposition from the bosses and their government to form trade unions and fight back. Engels saw that the economic fight for wages was, at the same time, a fight for workers to be treated as human beings, rather than as mere appendages to a machine. Some socialists trivialised trade-union struggle, because they were not overtly political and did not make revolutionary demands. Furthermore, strikes were generally defeated, and striking cost the workers money in lost pay.

Engels was critical of this elitism and cut straight to the revolutionary kernel that is in every strike:

‘It will be asked, Why, then, do the workers strike when the uselessness of such measures is so evident? Simply because they must protest against every reduction in their pay … because they feel bound to proclaim that they, as human beings, shall not be made to bow to economic and social circumstances, but these conditions ought to yield to them as human beings.’

And yet, Engels was also clear that trade unionism alone wasn’t enough to effect revolutionary change. Workers who went on strike came to realise that their own collective power needed to go beyond their dispute with the employer. The whole machinery of the capitalist order confronted them, the law, the courts, and in the case of the Chartists, the army. Workers needed to unite across the entire class to turn back the state. Nevertheless, striking did have revolutionary potential because it took on the system at its core: the right of the capitalists to make profit through exploiting labour.

As Engels argued:

‘What gives these unions and the strikes arising from them their real importance is this, that they are the first attempt of the workers to abolish competition between workers. And precisely because the unions direct themselves against this, the vital nerve of the present social order, however one-sidedly, in however narrow a way, are they so dangerous to this social order.’

Engels wrote these words in 1845, and they are as true today as they were then.

For Marxists then, the trade unions are the training ground for social revolution because they unite workers and their interests against the capitalists and their interests. They confront the bosses on the battlefield that is most important to them: the economy. And the economy is where the class struggle is fought out. Workers who go on strike, and draw the conclusion that striking is not enough, seek to form a political leadership rooted in the reality of capitalist production. A Marxist party seeks to unite and empower that leadership.

Thus, Marxism at its foundation is centred on the idea that working-class organisation and the fighting capacity of the workers is the real agency for political change. The active participation of revolutionary socialists in the trade-union movement is essential. We celebrate every advance and analyse the setbacks, while all the time seeking to integrate that analysis into the movement. A revolutionary party in the working class has to be the memory of the class so that the lessons of the struggle are always at hand.

Syndicalism: The false dawn of trade-union power

In the early twentieth century, attitudes to trade unionism changed for the better as syndicalist movements sprang up around the capitalist world. The roots of syndicalism lay in the formation of new trade unions that organised unskilled, unionised workers.

In Britain a wave of struggle known as the ‘New Unionism’ took off a bit earlier when a swathe of unskilled workers struck, joined trade unions and fought back in a spectacular human-rights campaign that covered pay and conditions, women’s rights and health and safety. Most importantly, workers came out together. In East London, dockers and gas workers came out, as did the famous Bryant and May match girls. Workers demonstrated by marching into central London. Eleanor Marx, the daughter of Karl, took part in the East London strikes as an organiser and political agitator, and fought to politicise the strikes and maximise their impact.

The syndicalist idea of achieving change by getting the working class into one big union took root and became popular on an international scale. The French CGT trade-union confederation was founded in 1895. In the USA, miners and railwaymen were unionised, and in 1894, US miners called a general strike that covered a number of states. The visible power of the working class had a huge impact on the left, and syndicalism was the result.

Syndicalists saw trade-union power as revolutionary in and of itself. They argued that if the workers could all join one big union and overcome their sectional formations, a general strike could be called that would confront state power, and revolution would follow. Syndicalism was a massive improvement on the timid approach of the skills-based trade unions, already bogged down in bureaucracy. However, syndicalism had a revolutionary potential that was never realised.

In Europe, syndicalism took off most spectacularly in France between 1900 and 1914, but the ideas that dominated these new, extremely combative unions were not Marxist. When workers start to become organised they don’t immediately go to the library and plough through Marxist tracts. If there is not an organised Marxist current helping to build the unions, it is all too easy for workers to grab any ideas that are available.

In the case of the French syndicalists, the ideas that dominated were those of the anarchists. The CGT’s vice secretary was Émile Pouget, who espoused the politics of anarcho-syndicalism. This was a form of crude workerism that denied the need for political organisation, and asserted that workers needed no political leadership. The problem with this, as Marx observed, is that the ideas in workers’ heads are dominated by the ideas of the ruling class, such as racism and sexism, and it is the job of socialists to contest these ideas.

The syndicalist unions in Europe, and the inspiring International Workers of the World in the USA, known to history as ‘the Wobblies’, gave a fascinating view of mass worker organisations engaged in often violent struggles. But, sad to say, even when workers challenged state power, they failed to take it. This was because, as Marx and Engels insisted, trade unions are a training ground in which revolutionary strategy and tactics must be learned, but they are not a revolutionary combat organisation. The bus to the demonstration should not be confused with the demonstration itself.

In Britain, syndicalism was not dominated by anarchism and was part of a political current that led to the upsurge in struggle after the end of war in 1918. The General Strike of 1926 was to be a testing ground for British syndicalism. At the centre of the General Strike was the Welsh miners’ leader A.J. Cook. Cook was a member of the Independent Labour Party and had worked with the Welsh miners’ leader Noah Ablett to write the influential syndicalist pamphlet The Miners’ Next Step in 1912. Cook was a brilliant speaker and organiser, and played a crucial role in launching the General Strike by forcing the leaden-footed bureaucrats at the TUC to call it. The strike was in defence of the miners in the first instance, but it tapped into a mood of anger against the Conservative government of Stanley Baldwin.

The potential of the strike was revolutionary. On 5 May 1926, over one and a half million strikers came out. There were strikers from ‘John O’Groats to Land’s End’. The strike did not drag on and lead to demoralisation, far from it. There were more workers on strike when it was called off after nine days than there were at the beginning. So why did it fail?

The General Strike failed because, and this is the main criticism of syndicalism, no thought and preparation had gone in about what to do when the strike ran up against concerted state power. It’s not as if the state was winning at the end of the nine days; their scabbing operation run by Winston Churchill was a flop. However, Churchill did see the revolutionary potential of the strike. We must not forget this was just eight years after mass strikes in Russia had led to a workers’ revolution there. Churchill played up the threat of revolution, while the TUC played it down. Churchill called the TUC’s bluff by suggesting they were conspiring to overthrow the elected government and that they were Bolsheviks. It was a challenge that was always going to make the bureaucracy back down.

Cook was immediately isolated. The TUC called off the strike, but the miners stayed out and were eventually starved back to work. The defeat was a terrible tragedy because it could have won, if there had been a leadership at rank-and-file level that could have answered the political challenge of Churchill. Cook was one of the outstanding trade-union leaders Britain ever had, and the strike was the greatest there has been in this country. But it failed because the decisive power in the workers’ movement was bureaucratic, and Cook himself was locked into that role. Building a political rank and file of the best militants was a vital issue then and is now, precisely because the leadership workers need to win has to be integrated into the class at rank-and-file level. A leadership that must be prepared to go beyond the compromises and half measures and fight all out, as Churchill wanted for his side.

Today, left-wing trade-union leaders enjoy celebrity status. And we all cheer leaders like Mick Lynch to the rafters when he chops down some media hack or government minister. But we are fighting a political battle against a government and opposition that puts the market and profits before peoples’ lives. They are, as the Tory conference reminded us, fanatics. They will not be defeated by compromises with union leaders.

Labourism – holding back the struggle

Marx and Engels did not witness the accommodation of the trade unions into the political system, which took place after the Labour Party was formed in 1900, and the TUC broke from the liberals. Britain was the foremost capitalist power in the world at this time. It was an imperial power with the resources of finance, propaganda and sheer state-directed force to crush serious working-class opposition. When necessary, the government could grant reforms that would both buy off the union leadership, and gain political credibility for the government. Before we look at the role that the Labour Party and trade-union leaders play in holding back workers’ struggle, it is worth looking at the contradictions Marx identified in workers’ consciousness.

For Marx and Engels, it seemed as if the growth of trade unions in Europe and the USA would continue, and that at some point the quantity of organised workers would lead to a change in their revolutionary quality. In this sense Marx and Engels anticipated syndicalism.

Marx looked forward to trade-union organisation becoming international and wrote that around the world trade unions were ‘forming centres of organisation’ conducting ‘guerrilla fights between capital and labour’, and that they were ‘important as organising agencies for superseding the very system of capitalist rule’. Again, an accurate description of the coming syndicalist movement.

However, Marx could see that the ‘guerrilla wars’ that trade unions fought against capital were fought over limited economic demands, and he never confused basic working-class solidarity with revolutionary class consciousness.  He distinguished between trade-union consciousness that sought to ameliorate working conditions, and class consciousness where the working class in itself becomes a class for itself.

Marx saw pre-revolutionary trade-union consciousness as contradictory, and, argued that the working class can only play the revolutionary role it is capable of, if that contradiction is understood and overcome. The contradiction reflects the reality of workers’ lives: fear on the one hand, and anger on the other. For example, workers are only too aware of the precarity of their employment, but are angry about their exploitation. They are made aware, every day, that the capitalists have power, but also think of ways to challenge that power. The question is always whether to fight or leave it for another day. Only when workers’ anger is greater than their fear do they fight back. The contradiction between fear and anger is the contradiction between the past and the future.

Marx explained working-class fear in terms of the weight of past defeats. If a big strike gets defeated, other workers doubt their own power. This is reinforced by the media and conservative-bureaucratic layers in the unions themselves. Workers have to shake off all the ideological rubbish of the past if they are to overcome their fear and win. As Marx very aptly put it: ‘The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living.’

Shaking off the weight of the ‘dead generations’ is crucial when workers fight. And this leads us to the question of Labourism, by which we mean the reformist idea that change can only come through parliament, an idea peddled by the Labour Party and the trade-union leaders. Labourism has become the dominant political force in working-class politics because it plays on the contradictory consciousness of the working class in the opposite way to Marx.

For Labour, working-class fear has to be emphasised. Workers thinking of going on strike are reminded of past defeats. In this way, Labour leaders carry out an indispensable service for the capitalists. By playing on workers’ fears and lack of confidence, the Labour leaders are able to divert working-class anger into the safer channels of parliament: ‘Don’t waste your time striking, vote Labour!’ This is what Neil Kinnock told workers after Thatcher defeated the miners. Starmer has taken this to a new level by forbidding Labour MPs to go on picket lines.

The trade-union bureaucracy is the other half of Labour’s double act. Trade-union bureaucrats, whether left or right wing, have to manage the trade union: its offices, finances, legal services and recruitment. It has existed for over a hundred years as a form of Labour management, and like most managers, they like to be free from the interventions of angry workers impatient for change. The activity of the bureaucracy centres around meetings with management and resolving disputes, and by giving striking workers less than they went out for.

At a time when poverty in Britain is the worst it has been since 1945, and when public-sector workers have come out on strike in droves to defend pay and our public services, it is surely astonishing that the TUC has been invisible – or is it? History tells us this is exactly what we should expect. The bureaucracy is a layer of managers. Desk-sitting, paper-pushing pleaders for a return to normality. They stand ever ready to meet with government or opposition leaders, and shrink from offering a lead that might give workers confidence. In short, the level of the crisis of capitalism is in direct proportion to TUC abstention.

The bureaucracy weighs on the consciousness of workers in an extremely negative way. It has a vested interest in not letting strikes ‘get out of hand’, whereas Marxists want the opposite. Trade-union leaders want the working class to be forever dissatisfied about pay and conditions, but fearful of taking meaningful action. This formula gives the bureaucracy their power, and prevents workers from becoming class conscious.

Tomorrow can be better than today

Luckily for our side, history might be moving in our direction in a very serious way. Two things are important. The nature of capitalism is increasingly being revealed. Everywhere the market treads, chaos and catastrophe are never far behind. Climate catastrophe seems to be paralleled by social decay. War and imperialism are championed by politicians who are in turn revealed as liars and charlatans. As politics at the top moves towards populism and authoritarianism, the consensus at the bottom is moving to the left on a whole range of issues.

This means that the anger to fear ratio in the working class is moving in our favour. Although we should expect the intensity of its expression to fluctuate, for example, the election of a Labour government can change things. But one thing is becoming crystal clear, capitalism is out of control, and in order to avert disaster, radical action is needed. Workers’ power is associated with necessary democratic change in the minds of growing numbers in the working class.

The sanctimonious rhetoric of Labour politicians who talk about change for the voters while promising no change to the bosses is not going to cut it. This brings us to the extremely important role revolutionary socialists have to play. Marxists understand that the revolution is not inevitable, it has to be fought for. The past says workers’ revolution in Britain is impossible, but who says the future has to be like the past?

Revolutionaries are forever in the dilemma of working for the revolution that they don’t know for sure is going to happen. This is a contradiction in our heads that affects how we engage with other workers and has to be resolved for us to have an impact. Here, passivity is the enemy. We resolve this contradiction when we fight like hell in the day-to-day struggles as if revolution is around the next corner, even if we think it might not be.

Antonio Gramsci summed up the attitude that Marxists active in the struggle must take. Gramsci said that we should be both pessimistic and optimistic at the same time, with ‘pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will.’ This is good advice. We are always in the struggle for change as the most enthusiastic participants, and yet always rooted in a political reality that doesn’t betray the workers with false promises of jam tomorrow.

Therefore, our optimism is important for both the fighting capacity of the working class and for the integration of Marxist politics into the class. And we have to make the same connection that Engels and Marx did: the revolutionary seed in every strike provides fabulous gains for humanity once that seed bears fruit.

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John Westmoreland

John is a history teacher and UCU rep. He is an active member of the People's Assembly and writes regularly for Counterfire.

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