Tony Cliff & Donny Gluckstein

Marxism & Trade Union Struggle:
The General Strike of 1926


Chapter Two:
Marxism, bureaucracy and the trade unions

OFTEN WHEN people write about the trade unions – and this includes many Marxists – they present them as static and outside the changing stream of history. There are many and various kinds of trade unions. They change all the time. But basically their nature and mode of operation is determined by whether they are an outgrowth of a revolutionary period, or of ‘normal’ capitalism.

What Marx and Engels wrote on unions during the Chartist movement and up to 1848 was radically different from what they wrote two, three or four decades later. There is far more detailed discussion about the role of the trade unions in their earlier writings than in the latter.

In 1844 Engels wrote in The Condition of the Working Class in England that unions try to abolish competition among workers; but competition is ‘the vital nerve of the present social order.’ Hence the trade union struggle leads inevitably to the struggle against capitalism as a system: it seeks ‘to abolish not only one kind of competition but competition itself altogether, and that they will do.’ [1]

Strikes are guerrilla actions against capitalism that can lead to total war against the system. ‘The incredible frequency of those strikes proves best of all to what extent the social war has broken out all over England,’ writes Engels. Strikes are skirmishes, ‘they are the military school of the working men in which they prepare themselves for the great struggle which cannot be avoided ... and as schools of war the unions are unexcelled.’ [2]

The same argument, that the trade unions do change from organising resistance against capital to the final assault on capitalist power, appears again and again in Marx and Engels’ early writings. Marx, in The Poverty of Philosophy (1847) stated:

If the first aim of resistance was merely the maintenance of wages, combinations, at first isolated, constitute themselves into groups as the capitalists in their turn unite for the purpose of repression, and in face of always united capital, the maintenance of the association becomes more necessary to them than that of wages. This is so true that English economists are amazed to see the workers sacrifice a good part of their wages in favour of associations, which, in the eyes of these economists, are established solely in favour of wages. In this struggle – a veritable civil war – all the elements necessary for a coming battle unite and develop. Once it has reached this point association takes on a political character. [3]

In The German Ideology, completed shortly before this, Marx and Engels had written:

... even a minority of workers who combine and go on strike very soon find themselves compelled to act in a revolutionary way – a fact [one] could have learned from the 1842 uprising in England and from the earlier Welsh uprising of 1839, in which year the revolutionary excitement among the workers first found comprehensive expression in the ‘sacred month’, which was proclaimed simultaneously with a general arming of the people. [4]

This refers to events connected with Chartism. When parliament rejected the first Chartist Petition in July 1839, the Chartists made a call for a general strike (’sacred month’). At the beginning of November 1839 a rising of miners took place in South Wales which was crushed by police and troops. In August 1842, after the second petition was rejected by parliament, spontaneous actions of workers took place in many industrial centres in the country, which turned into a general strike – the first in history.

At its height, the General Strike of 1842 involved up to half-a-million workers and covered an area which stretched from Dundee and the Scottish coalfields to South Wales and Cornwall. It lasted twice the length of the 1926 General Strike. [5]

Until the 1905 strikes occurred in Russia, the 1842 strike had involved more workers than any the world had seen. It started in a comparatively small area of south-east Lancashire, in Stalybridge. It engulfed towns and industrial villages east of Manchester, and then Manchester itself. From there it spread to the rest of Lancashire and to Cheshire and Yorkshire. Soon it was reaching out to Lancaster, Norwich, Carlisle and other towns so that it eventually stretched from Dundee to Somerset and South Wales.

The methods the workers used to spread the strike were those of mass flying pickets. They called them ‘turn-outs’: workers of one factory would march to another factory and turn out its workers.

The strike blended economic and political demands.

It raised the sights of the trade union and labour movement. From demands of an every day, trade-union character, limited to individual trades, it went forward to pose class aims. Its unification of wage demands with the demand for universal suffrage raised working-class struggle to the level of class struggle for the revolutionary transformation of society. [6]

In the conditions of the time the workers’ demand for universal suffrage meant a revolutionary challenge to the capitalist social system. As the Lord Chief Justice stated during one of the trials of strikers in 1842: ‘If those who had no property should have powers to make laws, it would necessarily lead to the destruction of those who had property.’ [7]

The formal organisation of the strike foreshadowed the soviets of 1905 and 1917. Trade conferences were established to unify the various trades and groupings of strikers. These were organised in all parts of the country. The situation in Manchester was described thus:

There were the general mass meetings with thousands attending, followed by mass meetings of particular trades: loom weavers, mechanics; the trades conferences of certain trades – the power loom weavers, the mechanics, the various trades and mill hands; then finally, the general trades conference. Each stage led to a higher one, leading to the central trades conference. [8]

The trades conferences were more than the usual strike committees: they

organised and ran communities, outfaced local magistrates and army commanders, issued permits to work, ensured policing, collected and distributed food, and brought together mass meetings by which entire populations were involved in determining the course of the strike. [9]

Two decades after those events Marx and Engels saw the trade unions as having a far narrower horizon, oriented on narrow and short-sighted goals, incapable of facilitating the march to socialism. In Wages, Price and Profit (1865), Marx wrote:

At the same time, and quite apart from the general servitude involved in the wage system, the working class ought not to exaggerate to themselves the ultimate working of these everyday struggles. They ought not to forget that they are fighting with effects, but not with the causes of those 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 these unavoidable guerrilla fights incessantly springing up from the never-ceasing encroachments of capital or changes of the market. Instead of the conservative motto, ‘A fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work!’ they ought to inscribe on their banner the revolutionary watchword, ‘Abolition of the wages system!’

... 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 organised forces as a lever for the final emancipation of the working class, the ultimate abolition of the wages system. [10]

Then in 1871, at the London Conference of the First International, Marx stated:

... in England, the trade unions have existed for half a century, and the great majority of the workers are outside of the trade unions, (which) are an aristocratic minority. The poorest workers do not belong to them; the great mass of workers whom economic development daily drives out of the countryside into the cities remain outside the trade unions for a long time and the wretchedest (part of the) mass never gets into them ... The same goes for the workers born in the East End of London: one out of ten belongs to the trade unions. Peasants and day-labourers never join these (trade-union) societies. [11]

During the preparations for the conference, Engels had written to an Italian comrade along the same lines. In England, he wrote,

The trade-union movement, among all the big, strong and rich trade unions, has become more of an obstacle to the general movement than an instrument of its progress; and outside of the trade unions there are an immense mass of workers in London who have kept quite a distance away from the political movement for several years, and as a result are very ignorant. [12]

The differing statements of Marx and Engels on the trade unions between 1844–47 and 1865–71 reflected changes in the nature of the unions themselves. The later craft unions were dominated by bureaucracy, imbued with bourgeois ideas, supported the Liberals or Conservatives and depended for their survival on the defence of sectional interests in battles against other workers. They were not the same as the unions that participated in the 1842 general strike or supported Chartism.

The same pattern appears in Lenin’s writings. One finds that at a time of revolution, he sees a much more direct tie between the economic, trade union struggle of workers and the political struggle than there is at other times. Thus the actions of workers in a spontaneous strike movement in the Putilov Works in Petrograd at the beginning of January 1905 were a demonstration for Lenin of workers’ ‘revolutionary instinct’:

One is struck by the amazingly rapid shift from the purely economic to the political ground, by the tremendous solidarity and energy displayed by hundreds of thousands of proletarians – and all this, notwithstanding the fact that conscious Social-Democratic [meaning here revolutionary socialist] influence is lacking or is but slightly evident. [13]

Later, during the 1905 revolution, Lenin wrote that ‘the working class is instinctively, spontaneously, Social-Democratic’ [14] – again meaning revolutionary socialist, for this was before the majority of the Social-Democratic parties showed their reformist colors.

Rosa Luxemburg agreed. Writing in the heady days of this first Russian revolution she too stated that the struggle for economic reforms could spill over spontaneously into revolutionary action, but that this could happen ‘only in the sultry air of the period of revolution.’ [15]

At other, non-revolutionary times Lenin emphasised the great distance between trade union consciousness and revolutionary consciousness:

the spontaneous development of the working-class movement leads to its subordination to bourgeois ideology ... for the spontaneous working-class movement is trade unionism ... and trade unionism means the ideological enslavement of the workers to the bourgeoisie. [16]

Without the intervention of the revolutionary party the workers could not cross the abyss between the fight against individual capitalists and the fight against the social system. [A]

It is clear that trade unions which grow in a revolution are qualitatively different to those that rise in ‘normal’ times. Complications arise when the ‘normal’ trade unions, with their sectionalism and bureaucracy, enter a pre-revolutionary or revolutionary period, as we shall see. But first let us elaborate on the character of unions in non-revolutionary times. These organisations both unite and divide workers. The theoretical maximum unity trade unionism could achieve would be a single organisation covering the entire working class – the ‘One Big Union’ which was the dream of some socialist activists. But this never had the prospect of becoming reality, for the very name trade unionism implies sectionalism.

If the aim of all organised workers was the abolition of the wages system, then of course their common interests could be expressed through one body. But the task of trade unions is different. It is to defend workers’ interests within capitalist relations of production, within the wages system. The unions exist to improve the terms on which workers are exploited, not to put an end to exploitation. As workers in various industries earn different wages, work under different conditions, the unions unite workers into distinct groups and keep each group apart from one another. The geography of trade unionism matches the geography of capitalism. Here there are low wages, there an increase in track speed or unsafe working conditions. In no way could the same negotiations with the employers cover teachers and miners. Hence there is no place for teachers in the miners’ union or miners in the teachers’.

The role of the bureaucracy is rooted in the narrow economistic and sectional nature of the trade unions. A division of labour emerges between the mass of workers and the person who spends his or her time bargaining with the employers. The union official is a mediator between workers and employers. It is this role which reinforces his or her authority within the union. These are the managers of discontent.

The effect ... is to isolate him from those he represents. He is removed from the discipline of the shop floor, from its dirt and dangers, from the immediate conflicts with the foreman and manager, from the fellowship of his workmates, to the very different environment of an office. Even if he is not paid more than his members, his earnings no longer depend on the ups and downs of capitalist production – they no longer involve working overtime, nor are they vulnerable to short-time or lay-offs. If a plant is closed, the official who negotiates the redundancies will not get the sack. Constantly closeted with management, he comes to see negotiation, compromise, the reconciliation of capital and labour as the very stuff of trade unionism. Struggle appears as a disruption of the bargaining process, a nuisance and an inconvenience, which may threaten the accumulated funds of the union. Organisation becomes an end in itself, threatening even the limited goal of improving the terms on which the worker is exploited. [17]

Basically the bureaucracy balances between the two main classes in capitalist society – the employers and the workers. The trade union officials are neither employers nor workers. Union offices may employ large numbers of people, but, unlike a capitalist employer, it is not this that gives the union official his or her economic and social status. On the other hand the union official does not suffer like the mass of workers from low wages, being pushed around by the employers, job insecurity and so on.

The trade union bureaucracy is a distinct, basically conservative, social formation. Like the God Janus it presents two faces: it balances between the employers and the workers. It holds back and controls workers’ struggle, but it has a vital interest not to push the collabouration with employers and state to a point where it makes the unions completely impotent. For the official is not an independent arbitrator. If the union fails entirely to articulate members’ grievances, this will lead eventually either to effective internal challenges to the leadership, or to membership apathy and organisational disintegration, with members moving to a rival union. If the union bureaucracy strays too far into the bourgeois camp it will lose its base. The bureaucracy has an interest in preserving the union organisation which is the source of their income and their social status.

The trade union official balances between different sections of the union’s own membership. He keeps in check the advanced sections of the union who are the more active and rebellious by relying on those who are more passive, apathetic or ignorant. The official also strengthens his hold on the union by juxtaposing it to other unions. The presence of many different unions in an industry – and therefore the difficulty of organising totally united action – provides the officials of each with a convenient alibi for their own inactivity.

The pressure from employers and state on the one hand, and rank-and-file workers on the other, does not remain in equilibrium. The relative strength of the internal and external forces bearing upon the union shifts and fluctuates. In certain periods the pressure from below is of overriding effect; in others the pressure from the capitalists and the state predominates. On occasion both sets of pressures may be comparatively weak, allowing a large measure of autonomy to the trade union bureaucrat. At other times both may be powerful and the bureaucracy appears trapped between irreconcilable forces. But the bureaucracy always tries to pursue its own needs and so in no case can it be trusted to truly represent those it speaks for.

Of course the bureaucracy is not homogeneous. Union officials in different industries find themselves under varying pressures from below and above. Again, ideologically, union officials are not the same. The division between left and right-wing union officials is significant. Splits in the bureaucracy – between unions or within a union – can weaken its conservative influence.

The fundamental fact, however, overriding all differences between bureaucrats, is that they belong to a conservative social stratum, which, especially at times of radical crisis – as in the 1926 General Strike – makes the differences between left and right-wing bureaucrats secondary. At such times all sections of the bureaucracy seek to curb and control workers’ militancy.

When we say that the trade union bureaucracy has a dual role, that it vacillates between the employers and workers, we have also to be specific about the parameters of this vacillation. Elsewhere Tony Cliff deals with this:

The union bureaucracy is both reformist and cowardly. Hence its ridiculously impotent and wretched position. It dreams of reforms but fears to settle accounts in real earnest with the state (which not only refuses to grant reforms but even withdraws those already granted) and it also fears the rank-and-file struggle which alone can deliver reforms. The union bureaucrats are afraid of losing their own privileges vis-à-vis the rank-and-file. Their fear of the mass struggle is much greater than their abhorrence of state control of the unions. At all decisive moments the union bureaucracy is bound to side with the state, but in the meantime it vacillates. [18]

This does not mean that all trade union officials are born bureaucrats from the start. Indeed many win popularity and rise to high office in the unions through their earlier effectiveness as working-class fighters. And this does not apply just to left-wing union officials.

Ernest Bevin was one of the strongest right-wing figures in the trade union movement in the 1920s and 1930s. He played a central role in the 1926 General Strike and its sell-out. Yet even Bevin had established his position by past militancy. His biographer records that during the pre-war Labour Unrest:

Bevin played a leading part in making Bristol a stronghold of the Dockers’ Union ... Elected to the Trades Council by the dockers, he put new life into the trade union movement throughout the city. [19]

His national reputation was based on two achievements in 1920: leadership of the Council of Action to prevent British military intervention in Soviet Russia and his defence of workers’ rights at the ‘Shaw Inquiry’ into dock labour: ‘The position which he won as the “dockers’ King’s Counsel” opened the way for him to carry through the amalgamation which set up the Transport and General Workers’ Union’. [20]

Whatever militant past a union official may have, if he or she acts as guardian of the union apparatus and mediator between workers and bosses for a prolonged period, the habits of bureaucratic thinking must inevitably creep in. Indeed, a militant past may provide just the credibility needed to make a bureaucrat’s control of the union all the more effective.

The most important lessons concerning the relationship between the trade unions and the struggle for socialism have been learned in the process of struggle itself – including in particular the 1926 General Strike. Before looking at the General Strike itself, it is useful to set these out here.

Today, as in 1926, the trade union question is the most important issue for revolutionary socialists in Britain as well as in the majority of the old capitalist countries. Socialists who see as their aim the leading of the working class to power can carry out this revolutionary mission only by winning the majority of the working class and thereby their mass organisations, primarily their trade unions.

But the revolutionary party is not the same as a trade union. It does not recruit, like a union, on the basis of separate industries or trades. It is a minority, defined by the common political outlook of its members, who are bound by unity of action and organisation. Unions work by a different set of criteria. For them the larger the mass of their membership, the better able they are to fulfil their task effectively. As Trotsky wrote:

The trade union embraces broad masses of workers, at different levels. The broader these masses, the closer is the trade union to accomplishing its task. But what the organisation gains in breadth it inevitably loses in depth. Opportunist, nationalist, religious tendencies in the trade unions and their leadership express the fact that the trade unions embrace not only the vanguard but also heavy reserves. The weak side of the unions thus comes from their strong side. [21]

Thus when revolutionaries approach the trade union question they have to bear the following points in mind. In normal conditions the working class is far from homogeneous. It is only in periods of revolutionary upheaval that the class can achieve a common goal and common socialist consciousness. In such situations, although many unorganised workers may join unions, there is no guarantee that unions will be the chief or the leading mass collective organisations. Trade unions may be supplemented or even supplanted by new organisations – the workers’ committees or soviets, which are better adapted to leading a struggle for power.

From this one could draw the conclusion that since the mass of workers can be consciously revolutionary only at the time of revolution, the task of the Marxist party up to that point is to limit itself to pure propaganda and abstain from partial struggles of the trade union sort. This is obviously false, since a revolution does not appear spontaneously, but is itself a product of class struggle. Therefore the workers will have to fight countless limited and indirect battles within the system before they are ready to overthrow capitalism and the system itself is weak enough to be finally defeated. Equally it is only through such struggles that the party can be built to the point where it is able to lead the revolution to a successful conclusion.

If one rejects the limitation of Marxist action to propaganda alone and decides for intervention, what choices are there? The party can encourage the self-activity of the rank and file; or the workers can be used as a ginger group to pressurise union leaders to act on their behalf. The latter choice is dangerous. To believe that pressure from below can force union leaders on to a revolutionary path is to misunderstand the nature of the bureaucracy, to spread illusions in it, and to blunt workers’ consciousness and action. Trade union leaders may be induced to obey some wishes of the rank and file, but they will never be able to substitute for the collective action of the masses. The self-activity of the workers is therefore paramount.

In leading workers’ struggles, the revolutionary party must have its priorities clear. It must start from the basic contradiction under capitalism: the contradiction between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. It must also take into account a secondary contradiction – that between the trade union bureaucracy and the mass of workers – and a third: the division inside the bureaucracy because of its dual nature. Pulled in different directions by the force of the two major classes in society – the bosses and the workers – arguments develop among the bureaucrats.

These arguments open the door to common action between a revolutionary party leading sections of the rank and file, and the trade union bureaucracy – both the left wing and sometimes the right. This common action can be useful in developing the working-class struggle, for although even the most left elements of the bureaucracy remain unreliable and unstable, a temporary alliance of revolutionaries with them can weaken the hold of the bureaucracy as a whole. A revolutionary party must know how to exploit the division between left and right bureaucrats, between those who are prepared to make militant speeches (even if they will not act upon them) and those who are openly wedded to conciliation at all times. Through using this division the independence, initiative and self-confidence of the rank and file may be strengthened, on one condition: the party must make clear that the rank and file cannot trust the left officials or put their faith in radical rhetoric. The party must always remind trade unionists that even if bureaucrats put themselves at the head of a movement of insurgent workers, they do so in order better to control that movement.

An alliance with left bureaucrats is only a means to broad action. Even the best and most radical speeches should never become a substitute for the action of the mass of workers themselves. Such an alliance, like every other tactic in the trade union field, must be judged by one criterion, and one criterion only – whether it raises the activity, and hence the confidence and consciousness of the workers.

To raise the power of the rank-and-file workers one has to fight for internal democracy in the unions. The degree of internal democracy varies considerably from one union to another. Issues such as the content of the union rulebook or the organisational tradition of the union are important. Therefore the revolutionary party must propose radical safeguards against the bureaucracy: for the regular election of officials and the right to recall them, for their wages to be dependent on the wages in the industry, and so on. Nonetheless the best trade union constitution in the world can remain no more than a scrap of paper if it is not based on the activity of the members.

Revolutionaries cannot be indifferent to the tendency of the trade unions to be incorporated into the capitalist state – a tendency sometimes accentuated by crisis, as during world wars. The fact that complete independence of the unions from the bourgeoisie and its state cannot be achieved without revolution does not mean that the level of this dependence cannot be pushed back here and now.

The improvement of workers’ conditions within capitalism – not the overthrow of capitalism – is the common guideline of trade union activity in normal times. In reality unions tacitly accept the framework set by the system and tend either to exclude political issues from discussion or to support reformist political parties that do not challenge the present order of society.

This tendency cannot be ignored by revolutionaries, whose approach to trade union work differs markedly from that of reformists. The latter argue that they are for gradual change and against revolution. But because they wish to improve conditions under capitalism they can move forward only when the system is healthy enough to grant concessions. When the economy is in decline reformists prove themselves very poor fighters for reform and often undermine what gains have been made in the past. Revolutionaries, by contrast, are for both reform and revolution. They are fighting for gains inside capitalism and for overthrowing capitalism. It is through struggle within the system that workers’ consciousness of their own interests is built up. This prepares elements in the class for the time when, inevitably, the system falls into crisis and revolutionary leadership is necessary.

The relationship between the fight for reforms and revolution was well expressed in the slogan of the Petrograd Soviet in 1905: ‘Eight hours and a gun!’ The demand for a shorter working day was wedded to a challenge to the armed force of the Russian state. Rarely have the mass of British workers made such a direct connection between reform and revolution, but this does not mean that here and now Marxists should not fight to politicise workers’ struggles and the unions.

The revolutionary party must strive to transform the unions into socialist organisations. This must be fought. for even though it can be consummated only at the time of revolution. The campaign to raise politics in unions should go on here and now, and if one cannot win over the trade union movement as a whole, or even an individual union, one can convert a minority to socialist ideas – whether it be the branch activists, a section of a union or individuals in a workplace.

A revolutionary party puts emphasis on the activity of the trade union members. It consistently adheres to the idea that the working class cannot change society unless it changes itself in the struggle – that socialism will come from below. But this does not signify that in the meantime, prior to the revolution, the party does not fight for changes in the personnel of the trade union machine. One cannot denounce the leadership of a trade union unless one is ready to challenge it and replace it. However for a revolutionary to stand for office in a union, especially full-time office, a clear and definite rule must apply. First of all it must be understood that the decision to become a shop steward, trade union branch official, member of a trades council or its secretary, depends on whether, by doing so, it assists the activity of the rank and file, or removes obstacles to this. Union office cannot substitute for this activity. The decisive factor in looking for any union position, therefore, is the possibility of raising the level of combativity of the workers one represents.

The aim of the revolutionary party is to mobilise the working class, and as a by-product to gain influence over the mass organisations of the class, above all the trade unions. But this cannot be fully achieved except at the time of a revolution. It is a mistake to think that the mass of trade unionists can be won, or the official apparatus substantially remoulded rapidly to reflect changes in workers’ consciousness before the turmoil of revolution. Such a false position could lead either to a propagandist view of union work (trying to win workers to Marxism without intervening in struggle) or to accommodation with the bureaucracy (trying to conquer or influence the top positions).

This does not mean that revolutionaries wait with folded arms till the glorious day comes along. Intervention at every stage is a vital necessity. To the extent that revolutionaries win influence over a number of workers, this must reflect itself in changes in the physiognomy of the union, and in the selection of new leaders. The risk of being sucked in by the machine is great, but abstentionism is not the answer. Instead there must be collective control by the party over the individual and his or her subordination to the party cell in the workplace or the local party branch. There must be a constant effort to control all union officials, and above all those who belong to the party.

In any case, whether the union official is a member of the revolutionary party or a left official supported by the party, the struggle for the election of any official should supplement and not supplant the activity of the workers. Elections in the union should enhance the power of the rank and file, and not substitute for it.

The revolutionary attitude to all union officials should follow the line expressed by the Clyde Workers’ Committee in November 1915:

We will support the officials just so long as they rightly represent the workers, but we will act independently immediately they misrepresent them. [22]

Trotsky also put it well when he wrote:

‘With the masses – always; with the vacillating leaders – sometimes, but only so long as they stand at the head of the masses.’ It is necessary to make use of vacillating leaders while the masses are pushing them ahead, without for a moment abandoning criticism of these leaders. [23]

Above all a revolutionary party should never forget that the fight for socialism has everything to do with the daily battle at the workplace, against the boss and the bureaucrats, and very little to do with what happens away from it, whether in the electoral field of the unions, or even more so in that of parliament.


1. Friedrich Engels, The Condition of the Working Class in England (1844), in Marx and Engels, Collected Works (London 1975 onwards), vol. 4, p. 507.

2. Engels, p. 512.

3. Karl Marx, The Poverty of Philosophy (1847), in Marx and Engels, Collected Works, vol. 6, pp. 210-211.

4. Marx and Engels, The German Ideology, in Collected Works, vol. 5, pp. 204–5.

5. M. Jenkins, The General Strike of 1842 (London 1980), p. 21.

6. Jenkins, p. 23.

7. Jenkins, p. 15.

8. Jenkins, p. 148.

9. J. Foster, introduction to Jenkins, The General Strike of 1842, p. 13.

10. Marx, Wages, Price and Profit (1865), in Marx and Engels, Selected Works (Moscow 1958), vol. 1, pp. 446–7.

11. Quoted in Hal Draper, Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution (London 1978), vol. 2, p. 107.

12. Quoted in Draper, vol. 2, p. 107.

13. Vladimir Lenin, Collected Works (Moscow 1965), vol. 8, p. 92.

14. Lenin, vol. 10, p. 32.

15. Rosa Luxemburg, The Mass Strike (London 1964), p. 48.

16. Lenin, vol. 5, p. 384.

17. Alex Callinicos, The Rank and File Movement Today, in International Socialism, second series, no. 17, p. 5.

18. Tony Cliff, On Perspectives, in International Socialism, first series, no. 36.

19. A. Bullock, The Life and Times of Ernest Bevin (London 1960), vol. 1, p. 31.

20. Bullock, vol. 1, p. 116.

21. Trotsky, Writings 1932–3 (New York 1972), p. 170.

22. Clyde Workers Committee leaflet in the Beveridge Collection, British Library of Political and Economic Science, section 3, item 5.

23. Trotsky, Writings on Britain (London 1974), vol. 2, p. 191.


A. Writers on Marxism and the trade unions have often noted the contrast between Marx’s attitudes in the 1840s and 1860s, or Lenin’s views before and during the 1905 revolution. However these differences have often been inadequately explained. Examples of this weakness are A. Losovsky’s Marx and the Trade Unions (New York 1936) and R. Hyman, Marxism and the Sociology of Trade Unionism (London 1971). The latter talks of Marxists such as Marx, Lenin and Trotsky as having either an ‘optimistic’ or ‘pessimistic’ approach. But the explanation for the difference between Marx in 1848 or the 1860s, for example, is not his mood, but the change in the class struggle itself. In 1848 the British unions were a threat to the survival of the capitalist system. In the 1860s they were not. The change was not in Marx’s emotional or intellectual make-up, but in the consciousness and fighting strength of the class. It is this that determines the nature of the trade unions.

Last updated on 14 August 2014