Tony Cliff & Donny Gluckstein

Marxism & Trade Union Struggle:
The General Strike of 1926


Chapter Three:
Lenin’s contribution on trade unions

THE STRENGTH of Lenin and the Bolsheviks was that they were able to enrich Marxist theory with their own experience and struggles. But their contribution to trade union questions did not go beyond the most general level. Before 1917 What Is To Be Done? was the only well-known work of Lenin dealing with the economic struggle. Lenin later insisted that the pamphlet, written in 1901–02, should not be seen out of the context of a definite historical milieu and the debates in which it was an intervention. Nevertheless it was very clear about the difference between the political work of the revolutionary party (at that time called Social Democracy) and the current function of Western trade unions. In regard to the latter Lenin wrote:

all they achieved was that the sellers of labour-power learned to sell their ‘commodity’ on better terms and to fight the purchasers over a purely commercial deal ... Social Democracy leads the struggle of the working class, not only for better terms for the sale of labour-power, but for the abolition of the social system that compels the propertyless to sell themselves to the rich. Social Democracy represents the working class, not in its relation to a given group of employers alone, but in its relation to all classes of modern society and to the state as an organised political force. [1]

In the years between What Is To Be Done? and the First World War Lenin returned to the issue of trade unionism. Again party/union relations were under debate, but this time Lenin wished to rebut the idea that unions should be neutral on political matters. The argument first arose in Germany’s Free Trade Unions. These had been set up by German Social Democrats but were now clamouring for an end to ‘political interference’. After much wrangling the following division of labour was agreed upon at a Congress of the Second International held in 1907:

Both the political and economic struggle of the working class are equally necessary for the complete liberation of the proletariat from the shackles of ideological, political and economic servitude. While it falls to [the parties of] Social Democracy to organise and lead the political struggles of the proletariat, so it is the task of union organisation to co-ordinate and lead the economic struggles of the working class. [2]

When this debate surfaced in Russia it was inevitably fairly abstract since no mass trade union movement existed after the 1905 revolution was smashed. The debate therefore turned on ideal party/union relations rather than real ones. The Bolshevik position was strongly against trade union neutrality or the concept of a division of labour between economic and political organisations. Lenin quoted approvingly a resolution passed by his organisation in 1907 which stated the following:

The Congress reminds party units and Social Democrats active in the trade unions, of one of the prime tasks of Social-Democratic activity in them, namely that of promoting the acceptance by the trade unions of the Social-Democratic Party’s ideological leadership, and also of establishing organisational ties with it. [3]

This position is the correct starting point for revolutionaries in the unions. They are not there merely to be good trade unionists, nor to preach from the sidelines, but to struggle for ideological leadership.

However this general position does not clarify the complications that arise when a conflict of interest emerges between the trade union bureaucracy and the rank and file. There are dangers of too great a concentration on official influence at the expense of the grass roots, or an abstentionist approach which leave the rank and file under the tutelage of the officials. These are issues we shall take up later.

When, on the outbreak of hostilities in August 1914, the leaders of the trade unions, together with those of most Social-Democratic and Labour parties, abandoned their internationalist rhetoric and backed a bloody imperialist war, Lenin looked for an explanation of the catastrophe. He found it in the theory of the aristocracy of labour, first sketched by Marx and Engels in relation to the British trade unions.

Lenin’s theory had very great strengths. It focussed on the devastating effect of the treachery of leaders and the importance of organisation. It tried to explain why it was that those workers who had enough class consciousness, sense of solidarity, and confidence in their own strengths to organise – in other words those who ought to have led the working class forward – were not playing the role of vanguard. This stress on leadership and organisation was necessary at a time when many socialists were abandoning both of these principles and adapting to the rightward lurch of the trade union and reformist bureaucracies.

In 1915, in an article entitled The Collapse of the International, Lenin explained reformism, or to use the word he coined, ‘opportunism’, thus:

The epoch of imperialism is one in which the world is divided among the ‘great’ privileged nations that oppress all other nations. Morsels of the loot obtained as a result of these privileges and this oppression undoubtedly fall to the share of certain sections of the petty-bourgeoisie and to the working-class aristocracy and bureaucracy. [4]

How big was the section of the working class which received ‘morsels of the loot’? Lenin says: ‘these strata ... form an insignificant minority of the proletariat and of the toiling masses.’ [5] And in line with this analysis Lenin defines reformism as ‘an alliance between a section of the workers and the bourgeoisie, directed against the mass of the proletariat.’ [6]

The economic foundation of the tiny ‘aristocracy of labour’ was to be found, according to Lenin, in imperialism and its super-profits. He wrote on 6 July 1920 in a preface to his book Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism:

Obviously out of such enormous super-profits (since they are obtained over and above the profits which capitalists squeeze out of the workers of their ‘own’ country) it is possible to bribe their labour leaders and an upper stratum of the labour aristocracy. And the capitalists of the ‘advanced’ countries do bribe them: they bribe them in a thousand different ways, direct and indirect, overt and covert.

This stratum of bourgeoisified workers or ‘labour aristocracy,’ who have become completely petty-bourgeois in their mode of life, in the amount of their earnings, and in their point of view, serve as the main support of the Second International, and, in our day, the principal social (not military) support of the bourgeoisie. They are the real agents of the bourgeoisie in the labour movement, the labour lieutenants of the capitalist class, the real carriers of reformism and chauvinism. [7]

Lenin’s assumption, that only a thin conservative crust of the proletariat benefited from the massive expansion of Western capitalism, was flawed. A capitalist economy works in such a way that its benefits, if any, cannot be confined to a single section of the working class. As Tony Cliff has written elsewhere:

The first question one has to ask in tackling Lenin’s analysis of this: How did the super-profits of, say, British companies in the colonies, lead to the ‘throwing of crumbs’ to the ‘aristocracy of labour’ in Britain? The answer to this question invalidates the whole of Lenin’s analysis of reformism ...

No capitalist says to the workers: ‘I have made high profits this year, so I am ready to give you higher wages.’

Imperialism, and the export of capital, can, of course, greatly affect the wages level in the industrial country by giving employment to many workers who produce the machines, rails, locomotives, etc., which make up the real content of the capital exported. This influence of the level of employment obviously affects the wages level generally. But why should it affect only the real wages of an ‘infinitesimal minority?’ Does the increase of employment possibilities, and decline in unemployment, lead to the rise of a small ‘aristocracy of labour’ while the condition of the masses of the working class is hardly affected at all? Are conditions of more or less full employment conducive to increasing differentials between skilled and unskilled workers? They are certainly not ... Indeed, everything that raises the standard of living of the mass of the workers, unskilled and semi-skilled, diminishes the difference between their standards and those of the skilled workers. The higher the general standard of living, including the educational level, the easier is it for unskilled workers to become semi-skilled or skilled. The financial burden of apprenticeship is more easily borne by better-off workers. And the easier it is for workers to learn a skill, the smaller is the wage differential between skilled and unskilled workers.

Again, one can argue that imperialism throws ‘crumbs’ to workers through the fact that it gets foodstuffs (and raw materials) extremely cheaply from the backward, colonial, countries. But this factor, again, affects the standard of living not only of a minority of the ‘aristocracy of labour’ but the whole of the working class of the industrial countries. To this extent, by raising general living standards, it diminishes differences between sections of this same working class. [8]

An economic analysis was only one part of Lenin’s theory. There were also important conclusions concerning trade unions. The fact that the economic roots of reformism go much deeper than a small layer of the working class meant that the effort to build a revolutionary socialist movement in the West was bound to meet with much greater difficulties than were encountered in Russia, that it demanded a hard and prolonged struggle. And of course no mass party, including a revolutionary party, could be completely immune from the influence of ideas current among the masses.

Lenin’s theory not only underestimated the strength of reformism, it misjudged its character. In an article written in October 1916, entitled Imperialism and the Split in Socialism, Lenin went on to elaborate further the nature of the ‘labour aristocracy’. He came perilously close to identifying it in Britain and Germany with the entire union membership, and hence discussing them as sold to the bourgeoisie:

In the nineteenth century the ‘mass organisations’ of the British trade unions were on the side of the bourgeois labour party. Marx and Engels did not reconcile themselves to it on this ground, but exposed it. They did not forget, firstly, that the trade-union organisations directly embrace a minority of the proletariat. In Britain then, as in Germany now, not more than one-fifth of the proletariat were organised.

Engels draws a distinction between the ‘bourgeois labour party’ of the old trade unions – the privileged minority – and the ‘lowest strata,’ the real majority, and he appeals to them as not infected with ‘bourgeois respectability’. This is the essence of Marxist tactics!

We cannot – nor can anybody else – calculate what portion of the proletariat is following and will follow the social-chauvinists and opportunists. It will be revealed only by the struggle, it will be definitely decided only by the socialist revolution. But we know for certain that the ‘defenders of the fatherland’ in the imperialist war represent only a minority. And it is therefore our duty, if we wish to remain Socialists, to go down lower and deeper, to the real masses. [9]

The identification of trade unionists with ‘labour aristocracy’ took a more crude form with the writings of Gregory Zinoviev, who was close to Lenin in the years 1910–17. In an article entitled The Social Roots of Opportunism (1915), Zinoviev singled out munitions workers as the most obvious example of those who ‘sell their birthright for a mess of pottage’ and ‘become a tool of reaction’:

Yet there can be no doubt as to the existence of a small layer of labour aristocrats to whom the cannon and munition kings do throw a bone occasionally from their rich feast of war profits. This minority made good wages even before the war and has enjoyed still higher wages during the war. All kinds of privileges were granted this minority before the war, also. During the course of the war these privileges have become far more valuable for these aristocrats of labour. it is sufficient to point out that this labour aristocracy has not been sent to the front in most cases. [10]

Events utterly confounded Zinoviev’s analysis. All over Europe precisely these munitions workers, in factories such as the DMW in Berlin, Putilov in Petrograd or Weir’s on Clydeside, spearheaded new forms of industrial militancy in the closing years of the war – leading, in Berlin and Petrograd, to revolution. This was at a time when other sections – ‘the lowest strata’ – were still quiescent.

Zinoviev’s analysis also suffered from over-simplicity, for he saw the roots of the labour bureaucracy as directly in the labour aristocracy:

The worker functionaries very often hail from the circles of the labour aristocracy. The labour bureaucracy and the labour aristocracy are blood brothers. [11]

The connection between the two was far more complex. Taken as a whole the theory tended to equate the bureaucracy with the labour aristocracy, which in turn was equivalent to the entire trade union membership. All this only obscured the different roles of each group and, if taken to its logical conclusion, would have suggested abandoning work in the existing trade unions. Speaking for the Russians in 1920 Radek admitted that ‘at the beginning of the war many of us thought that the trade union movement was finished.’ [12]

Lenin’s analysis, by counterposing ‘a minority, the aristocrats of labour ... the trade union membership’ to the ‘“virgin soil” represented by the “lowest mass” of the working class’, added to the confusion. One could come to the idea that trade union action which raises wages is in fact a veiled form of bribery. For although this was not Lenin’s intention, it would be possible to draw the ultra-left conclusion that the fight for reforms (such as higher wages) is an obstacle to progress since the working class may be bought off by them.

Lenin’s study of the origins of reformism was exceptionally valuable for wartime revolutionary socialism in that it cut right through the smokescreen and excuses with which the bulk of reformist leaders hoped to hide their treachery in supporting the war. It showed that they were in fact serving the capitalist class from within the workers’ movement. At the same time it did not succumb to the despair of many who, shaken by the apparent support of many workers for imperialism, abandoned faith in the working class as the means of revolutionary change.

Finally, the theory served as a knife to cut away the diseased portions of the Marxist movement, thus preserving the health of that principled section which remained. Nevertheless, it was a fairly blunt instrument and was only the most general guide for revolutionaries in Western Europe, who were faced with intricate and complex tactical decisions.


1. Lenin, vol. 5, p. 400.

2. Internationaler Sozialisten-Kongress zu Stuttgart, 1907 (Berlin 1907), p. 106.

3. Quoted in Lenin, On Britain (London 1959), p. 582.

4. Lenin, vol. 21, p. 223.

5. Lenin, vol. 21, p. 223.

6. Lenin, vol. 21, p. 242.

7. Lenin, vol. 22, pp. 193–4.

8. Tony Cliff, The Economic Roots of Reformism, in Tony Cliff, Neither Washington Nor Moscow (London 1982), pp. 110–111.

9. Lenin, On Britain, pp. 326–7.

10. Quoted in J. Riddell (ed.), Lenin’s Struggle for a Revolutionary International (New York 1984), pp. 492–3.

11. Quoted in Riddell, p. 482.

12. The Second Congress of the Communist International (London 1977), vol. 2, p. 62.

Last updated on 14 August 2014