Karl Kautsky

Trades Unions and Socialism


Source: International Socialist Review, Vol.1 No.10, April 1901
Translated: E. Dietzgen.
Transcribed: Sally Ryan for marxists.org, 2000.

THE modern proletarian movement has two kinds of antagonists: one, the straightforward but brutal antagonists, propose to suppress and to crush it by force. This kind has already experienced so many defeats, its method has proved itself to be so abortive, that it is losing to-day, with the thinking and discerning capitalists themselves – at least for the time being – ever more of its credit. All the better does the other kind prosper that says: “Divide and rule,” which, since forcible means do not avail, seeks to weaken the proletarian movement by splitting it. These opponents to the rule of the proletariat pose as its friends; they are not brutal but “ethical,” and for this reason they are all the more dangerous. They artfully try to represent different proletarian organizations as being antagonistic; they appear as advocates of sections of the proletarian movement, in order to propagate distrust and even hatred against the entire movement. Some of these precious friends of labor avail themselves of national distinctions to incite workingmen against workingmen, others turn religious distinctions to the same account. However, the most intelligent and eminent among their number try to create discord between the trades union and the Social Democratic movement. These people always have in mind the example afforded by England. While on the continent of Europe the Social Democracy pushes ahead irresistibly and victoriously, in spite of special arbitrary legislation and of proscriptions, in spite of June butcheries and of bloody May weeks, the Chartist movement in England came to naught about the time when the trades unions were recovering ground, and so it happened that nowhere does the capitalist class wield to-day the political power more supreme than in England, the country possessing the most efficient, the most numerous the best organized, as well as the freest and most independent working class in the trades union movement. No wonder that this example should excite the envy of all wide-awake capitalist politicians and national economists on the continent of Europe and that their ardent efforts should be directed towards filling the reigning classes as well as the proletarians with enthusiasm for that English pattern.

It stands to reason that one nation can and should learn from others, as it can thereby save a great deal of costly experience. However, to learn from somebody does not mean simply to initiate that person slavishly, hut to profit by his experience and knowledge so as to make a sensible and free use of them. If there is a trades union to be organized effectively, it is indispensable to consult the English pattern. Of this nobody was earlier convinced than Marx who already in 1847 called attention to the English pattern of trades unions; and if the trades union movement in Germany and in Austria has developed so quickly, this is true, above all, to the “International” and to the Social Democracy, both of them influenced most powerfully by Marx’s teachings.

But if we have to determine the relation between trades unionism and Social Democracy, between trade and class organization, between economic and political struggles, in that case we can learn from the English nation only how that relation should not be.

Never has this become more evident than just at present, when in consequence of the collapse of the liberal party even the pretence of a political influence on the part of the English working class has disappeared and when English trades unionism is anxiously striving to promote the formation of a new independent workingmen’s party, in which endeavor it finds itself, however, most hampered by the instincts it itself has fostered, the instincts of trade egotism and of disregard of all efforts towards a more remote and higher aim. The present stage of the English trades union movement is the least suitable one to make its previously existing relation to politics appear in an ideal light.

It has often been remarked that the trades union movement, where it does not go hand in hand with an independent political movement, i.e., where it is not saturated with socialist thought, acquires somewhat the character of the bygone guilds.

It has also frequently been pointed out that this guild-like character shows itself first of all in that the workingmen organized in trades unions form and constitute, similar to the old-time Journeymen organized in guilds, an aristocracy of labor, which isolates itself from the unorganized workingmen, which raises itself above them, which pushes them down the deeper into the social mire, the quicker it elevates itself. Where, however, the trades union movement is at work in the closest intellectual contact with the political movement of an independent labor party, there the trades unionists come to be the chosen champions of the entire proletariat, there they improve, along with their own condition, that of their class. The increase of duties, resulting herefrom, is compensated by having the economic and political basis of their achievements rendered more solid than that of the achievements of a labor aristocracy. The more such an aristocracy of labor leaves the unskilled, unprotected, unorganized parts of the proletariat to shift economically for themselves, the more these come to be the breeding centers of scabs who stab organized labor in the back on every occasion and thus paralyze every decided action. On the other hand the workingmen organized in trades unions cannot constitute for themselves alone a political party, but always only one part, and indeed often a powerful one, of such a party. If they leave the unorganized workingmen to their own political resources instead of uniting with them in one political party, then the former must become the tail of a capitalist party that pretends to be friendly to the workingmen, hut which, no matter how it tries to protect the interests of its proletarian voters, can never muster the necessary courage in face of capitalism and is doomed to fail the sooner, the more the proletarian character of its followers clashes with its own capitalist notions – just as is manifested to us by the fate of the Liberal party in England.

Then again, of course, England also shows us how much the success of the Social Democracy stands in need of the foundation afforded by a powerful trades union movement. Though, as the writer of this article has been assured by people that have been Chartists themselves, there was a closer connection between Chartism and trades unionism than modern historians of trades unionism suppose, it is a fact that the time when Chartism flourished was one of depression for trades unions; Chartism had no strong and steady economic organizations to fall back upon, and that explains much of the unsteadiness and precariousness of its development.

Modern English socialism, however, placed itself in its beginnings in pretty strong opposition to the trades union movement; a stand that may be easily explained, considering the former conservative character of the trades unions; but which, nevertheless, was wrong and of no advantage to the English Social Democracy. But in the course of time the trades unionists have lost more and more their antipathies to socialism, and, vice versa, the socialists have ever more been losing their antipathies to trades unionism, so we find at an ever-increasing rate the same people at work in both camps, and therefore we may expect that slowly but surely a relation between the two movements will be established similar to the one that has always existed with us in the labor movement of Austria and Germany.

In view of all this we have not the slightest reason to look for outside patterns regarding the relation between trades injurious effect of splitting and weakening the latter, but it also curtails its chances of development.

We have compared the isolated trades unions to the journeymen’s organizations of old, – the guilds. What has become of the latter? They have disappeared along with the system of guilds without the least share on their part in surmounting this system. Their prosperity was linked most intimately with that of the masters of the guilds; the downfall of the latter meant that of the former. The same fate is menacing the isolated trade union; it can only prosper if the capitalist system of production at home continues to progress. Its progress is very closely bound with constant and swift enlargement of the capitalist sphere of power and exploitation. As soon as the industrial capital of a country has once reached the limit of its ability to expand briskly, then the time of decline sets in for the isolated trades unions. Such a decline manifests itself the same as with the journeymen’s associations of by-gone times, not in the decrease of their membership, but in that of their ability and desire to struggle. Instead of at the expense of their exploiters they rather try in partnership with them to sustain and to improve their economic condition by monopolistic isolation of their trade and by increased fleecing of the people at large.

Particularly in England, the industrial capital of which has already in many lines reached the limit of rapid expansion; we see signs of such reactionary tendencies, e.g., with its textile workers who not only frequently vote for the conservatives, but who are also reactionary in an economic sense, who rave about bi-metallism and child labor, etc.

In the most striking manner, however, the reactionary tendency of some isolated trades unions of England discloses itself in the trade alliances, which since 1890 have appeared now in one and then in another trade. These alliances are based upon agreements between a trades union and a combine of manufacturers, whereby the manufacturers agree to only employ members of the trade unions and these on their part pledge themselves to only work for the manufacturers belonging to the combine, i.e., only for those manufacturers that sell their products at the higher prices decided upon by the combine. In this way all competition against the combine will be rendered impossible. These trade alliances, which are praised by our bourgeois friends of labor as the commencement of harmony between capital and labor, propose therefore nothing less than to induce the workingmen to share in the scheme of the combines to raise prices and to exploit the public. They are expected to assist the manufacturers in fleecing the community and to receive in return a part of the booty. In this manner it is not any more the capitalist but the community that would become the enemy of the workingman, or rather of the aristocracy of labor, which has turned from an exploited person into an exploiter.

However, the innate incongruities between capital and labor are so great that we know of no trade alliance of any duration. These incongruities are frequently so great as to nip the endeavors towards the realization of a trade alliance in the bud. This is very fortunate for social development, for, could the trade alliances exist and grow, they would inflict incalculable harm. Consider, for example, the consequences, should the scheme to start a trade alliance in the coal-mining industry, as has been attempted, succeed and should the coal miners be turned into accomplices of the policy of the combine, into promoters of a coal famine – a maneuver particularly tempting under the sliding scale of wages. The entire balance of the workingmen would be compelled to declare war not only against the coal barons but as well against the coal miners! And what a prospect, if other orders of workingmen in important lines of industry followed suit; if in place of the struggle between capital and labor, we should witness the struggle between different monopolies in which workingmen in the pay of their organized masters would enter the field against their fellow workingmen!

Any independent labor movement would be impossible, and the labor aristocracy organized in trades unions would be chained most tightly to the capitalist class and forced on by its own interest to help the advancement of capitalist politics at home and abroad.

Of course we will not come to that pass, for the reason already stated, that, where the combines are the strongest there the antagonism against the workingmen is also the greatest; and also for the reason that the bourgeois friends of labor will never succeed in isolating the trades unions from the rest of the proletarian movement, or to keep up such isolation where it now exists. But, in consideration of the present raving about trade alliances, it is not amiss to picture a state in which they should prevail. Entirely different from these reactionary and futile attempts on the part of isolated unions to improve the economic condition of their members in countries already approaching stagnation of capitalist production, must be the endeavors of such trades unions as go hand in hand with a strong and class-conscious Social Democracy.

The more the development of capitalist commodity-production stagnates or free competition is crowded out by combines and trusts, the more a class-conscious labor movement will try not to impart by reactionary experiments a new artificial life to some lines of production; but it will endeavor to further economic development by replacing capitalist production for sale by socialist production for use. When, for instance, the coal miners, where they exclusively rely upon their trades union organization, place their hope upon a trade alliance with the coal barons, they will there, where they support the Social Democracy, strive for an increase of political power of the proletariat for its effective use for workingmen’s protective laws, and finally for the expropriation of the mines.

To-day already production for the commonwealth in the shape of production for state and community becomes a factor of steadily growing economic importance. To-day it is no longer the textile industry but the iron industry upon which the entire economic prosperity of a nation depends. If the latter prospers, new life pulsates through the entire social body; if it stagnates we have general depression. The iron industry, however, is again to a large extent dependent upon state and communal politics; state and street railroads, canalizations, army and navy orders, etc., exert a perceptible influence upon economic conditions. Modern states certainly exert this influence largely in idly wasting the means at hand, especially for militarism; they develop production, they employ the productive powers, but at the same time they permit civilization to be stunted; yes, in some countries like Italy, Russia and Austria militarism leads not only to a waste of products, but also of productive powers, and consequently to a shrinkage of production.

The more capitalism passes over from free competition to monopoly, the greater the number of its industrial branches that have become unable to develop adequately, the more the influence of state and community on the character and extent of production increases, the more necessary it will be for every class to gain influence on state and community, the more fatal will be the isolation of trade unions that prevents the proletariat from depending and promoting its interests effectively, the more indispensable it will be that the trades unionists are inspired with socialist discernment and socialist enthusiasm the more necessary, on the other hand, that the Social Democracy should be able to rely upon a numerous army of organized trades unionists, on which rest the deepest and firmest roots of its power.

The trades unions will not disappear along with the capitalist mode of production like the journeymen’s organizations vanished with the guilds. On the contrary, they will constitute the most energetic factors in surmounting the present mode of production and they will be the pillars on which the edifice of the socialist commonwealth will be erected.


Last updated on 23.11.2003