Max Shachtman


The Fight For Socialism


The Labor Unions and the Class Struggle

IN ALMOST every country, the workers have organized themselves into labor unions, embracing all the workers of a given craft or, in a more advanced stage, all the workers of a given industry. The worker soon learns that if he is by himself, not in an organization, he is an utterly helpless victim of capitalist greed. If the employer, especially the more powerful employer in the big industries, is able to deal with each worker separately, he can set almost any wage and working standard he pleases. If each worker offers himself singly on the labor market, he soon finds that other workers, especially when there is a large surplus of unemployed, will “underbid” him in an effort to get the job. To defend themselves from the efforts of the employer to lower wage and working standards, the workers find themselves forced to organize together, to represent themselves to the employers as a group and to bargain collectively. The formation of labor unions is therefore the first step naturally taken by the workers to organize themselves as a class.

How is this fact to be reconciled with the argument that there is no class struggle, no basic conflict of class interests, in capitalist society?

The most vigorous champions of this argument are the official spokesmen of labor, the leaders of the unions. (We are dealing here with the labor officialdom as it is today, and not as it should and will be.) The labor leaders will readily admit that there is a conflict between capital and labor. But, they say, this conflict need not exist. The conflicting interests can be composed and settled satisfactorily if both sides take a “reasonable attitude.” If there is a struggle, it can be moderated and eventually eliminated.

Why? Because both sides, capital and labor, have a fundamental interest in common: both want to continue and expand production. If industry produces, capital will be able to get its legitimate profit and labor will be assured of work and a fair day's pay for a fair day’s work. It is necessary, therefore, to convince the unreasonable capitalists to become reasonable (which means to pay a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work) and to restrain the unreasonable workers (which means to assure capital of its legitimate profit). Once the unreasonable have been made reasonable, the struggle can be done away with and both groups can live in harmony, to the benefit of all.

The conclusion, says labor officialdom, is that labor must pursue not the path of class struggle but the path of class collaboration. That is why it promotes such schemes as labor-management committees, joint production committees, standards of production, efficiency minimums, and in general follows a policy of bringing labor and capital together on the basis of recognizing “the rights of capital” and “the rights of labor.” The main job of the labor movement thereby becomes not the elimination of capitalism, but “making capitalism work.”

Capitalist Ideas in the Labor Movement

Fundamentally, these ideas of the labor offcialdom are capitalist ideas. It is entirely true that the capitalists do not see eye to eye with the labor leaders on every question, and often come into bitter conflict with them. But that is due primarily to the fact that the labor leaders, in order to hold their special position in society, strive to keep the labor unions alive and even to strengthen them. Without labor unions behind them, these leaders would be nobodies, without power, without influences, without privileges, without social position. In this sense, they are labor leaders. For this reason, they and the organizations they lead must have the support of every worker whenever they come into conflict with the capitalist class and its government.

But there is another aspect to the part played by the present labor officialdom. It leads the workers along the path of collaboration with the capitalists. It instills in the workers the idea that no matter how bad this or that capitalist may be, the capitalist system (which it usually calls the system of “free enterprise”) is fundamentally sound and must not be attacked. When workers do develop to the point of militant struggle against capitalism, the labor leaders intervene to restrain them or thwart their aims. In this sense, they are capitalistic labor leaders. For this reason, the workers must oppose their ideas at all times and seek to replace them with leaders who understand what capitalism is and who know how to fight it consciously in the interests of the working class.

If you bear in mind our analysis of capitalism, you will understand that the idea of collaboration of the classes is a basically capitalist idea. Certainly, both capital and labor are interested in maintaining and expanding production. But the interest of each of them is fundamentally different and exclusive.

Capital is interested in production for profit, labor in production for use. Capital is based upon a constantly increasing exploitation of labor, in order to maintain its profit; labor constantly resists this exploitation. There is and can be no such thing as a “legitimate profit,” inasmuch as all profit is derived from paying workers less than the value they add to the product. There is and can be no such thing as a “fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work,” inasmuch as wages are the payment for only one part of the day’s work, the other part of which the worker is compelled to contribute to the employer in the form of surplus-value, or profit.

Labor may collaborate with capital twenty-four hours in the day. It can outdo itself in the attempt to “maintain production,” to eliminate strikes and lockouts, to establish production schedules and efficiency standards. It can sit side by side with the capitalists in “labor-management committees” until it can sit no longer. But it cannot do away with a fundamental fact: capital always seeks to intensify the exploitation of labor by reducing wages, increasing the work-day, or speeding-up production, or by all three at once; and labor always seeks to raise its wage and working standards. Capital always seeks to increase its profits, which can be done only by exploiting labor; labor always seeks to resist exploitation, which can be done only at the expense of profits. These are fundamental economic facts. Under capitalism, nothing that all the capitalists, or the whole government, or all the labor leaders, or all the workers, or a combination of all these, will ever do, can succeed in wiping out these facts.

The capitalists, of course, hammer into the heads of the workers, from childhood on, that the laws of God and Man and Nature entitle them to a profit, especially a “legitimate” profit. They hammer into the heads of the workers that capitalism always did exist and always will. Maybe it should be improved a little, patched up and painted up here and there, but not eliminated. They hammer into the heads of the workers that there always have been people working for wages and there always will and must be such people; that it is so decreed by divinity and “human nature”; and that the best to be hoped for is the rule of a “fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work." They work hard at instilling these ideas into the heads of the people. If these ideas did not prevail, they could not retain their monstrous power for a week. What the labor leaders do is to spread essentially the same ideas.

However, there is a simple indication that the idea of class collaboration is as false as the idea of the class struggle is true. It lies in the very existence of the labor unions.

The organization of labor unions is based upon a revolutionary idea. This idea is that the workers should organize as a separate, distinct class, independent of the capitalists and all other classes. In organizing labor unions, the worker is not asked if he is for capitalism (or “free enterprise”) or against it; for socialism or against it; for the class struggle or against it. Even the most conservative and pro-capitalist labor official has one standard for organizing unions: is the candidate for membership a worker in the given trade or industry? If he is, he belongs; if he is not, he does not belong.

(Of course, there are some stupid and reactionary unions which exclude Negroes or apprentices from membership. But this does not change the basic principle with which we are dealing. For those that are admitted even to these unions must fulfill the basic requirement of being workers.)

The unions do not admit any capitalists to membership. Why not? Do not the labor leaders who preach class collaboration insist that some capitalists are “good” and “reasonable” and “friendly to labor”? If their ideas are valid, why not bring into the unions at least the “good” and “reasonable” and “friendly” capitalists? If they believe that labor and capital can work together in “joint management committees“ of industry for the benefit of both, then why cannot labor and capital belong to and work in the same union for the benefit of both? If there is no irreconcilable class struggle, why is a separate and independent organization of the working class necessary? If the interests of labor and capital are common, or if they can be harmonized, why can’t that be done in and by a common organization of workers and capitalists?

It is true that there are organizations which are based on this idea and act accordingly. But they are rightly called company unions. Every intelligent worker, and even the labor leaders, recognizes them as capitalist, anti-labor organizations. They strive to replace them with genuine, independent organizations of the workers, and of the workers alone. It is true, also, that the collaborationist policies of our capitalistic labor leaders tend, willy-nilly, little by little, to transform these independent labor organizations into company unions. But this does not alter the fact that the organization of workers into independent labor unions is a revolutionary act based upon the idea of the class struggle. If this is denied, the idea of an independent labor movement simply makes no sense. The labor leaders should then advocate the giving up of separate labor unions, or transforming them into company unions or joint organizations of labor and capital.

“Well,” it may be said, “if the unions are based upon the idea of the class struggle, isn’t that enough? Doesn’t that qualify them to solve the problems faced by the working class?”

No, not yet.

Why Unions Are Not Enough

In the first place, the unions are not conscious of this important fact. Except for a small percentage of their membership, they do not understand its significance, all that it implies. This reduces their effectiveness in the struggle to defend the interests of the working class. These interests can be properly defended only if there is a clear understanding of the nature of capitalist society and an organized struggle against capitalism.

The actual work of the unions is based upon an acceptance of capitalism. They are not organized for the purpose of liberating the working class from the condition of exploitation and oppression to which it is doomed under capitalism. Instead, they confine themselves to the attempt to raise the wages of the workers and obtain favorable social legislation while keeping the capitalist profit system. The longer capitalism is allowed to exist, the more acute become its problems. The more acute its problems, the stronger and more urgent its drive against the workers' living standard. The most that the unions can do – given the way they are now constituted and led – is to resist this drive, try to slow it down. If they remain committed to the capitalist system, the unions, and the workers in general, are limited to defensive actions and, in the long run, to defeat.

In the second place, the unions are dominated at present by a bureaucratic officialdom with a capitalist outlook. The labor bureaucracy occupies a special position in society. Taken as a whole – not this or that individual labor official – its standard of living and social outlook bring it closer to the middle classes than to the working class. Due to its leadership over a big social movement – the unions – it enjoys special privileges and powers in society.

To be sure, it does not want to see the labor movement destroyed, as happens under Fascism, because without a labor movement to represent and rest upon, its powers and privileges disappear and it is wiped out as a special group. At the same time, however, it can retain its special position only in so far as it keeps the labor movement tied to capitalism. If the labor movement were committed to a militant struggle against capitalism itself; if the labor movement were imbued with a socialist understanding of society; and above all, if the working class succeeded in replacing capitalism with a classless society – there would be no place for bureaucrats and exorbitantly-paid officials, and no place for special privileges of any kind. There would be no life-time officers, as some unions have. There would be no capitalistic salaries, as some officials have. There would be no autocratic powers, as some officials have arrogated to themselves. There would be no grafting, no financial manipulations, no investment of workers’ funds in capitalistic enterprises – all of which are so widespread nowadays in the labor movement. There would be no “upper classes" and “respectable society” for labor leaders to hobnob with, because there would be no class divisions of any kind.

That is why the labor officials (again, taken as a whole) are such vigorous opponents of socialism or a fight for socialism, opponents of militant class action against capitalism, and equally vigorous champions of capitalism (“free enterprise”) and collaboration with capitalists. Their special social position explains why the labor leaders are in favor, at one and the same time, of maintaining the capitalist government (if it tolerates a labor movement) and of maintaining the unions (if they are docile toward capitalism).

It should be obvious that under such a leadership, the labor unions cannot carry on an effective struggle for the defense of working-class interests, and cannot solve the fundamental problems of society.

In the third place, the class struggle is a political struggle, but the unions, by themselves, are not equipped to conduct it successfully. The problems of the workers cannot be solved in the form of a “better contract” between one local union and one employer, or even between one industrial union and a large capitalist combine.

To begin with, even if we think only in the most narrow “wage” terms, the most modest victory of the workers in one plant or industry depends upon the organized strength of the workers all over the country, in all the important plants and industries. In other words, the progress of any group of workers depends upon the strength and organization of their class, upon its ability to contend with the capitalists as a class.

But the struggle between the two is not confined to the economic field. The state, the government, is an instrument of the capitalist class in this struggle. It intervenes in the struggle more and more directly. The closer capitalism comes to collapse, the more frequently it breaks down – the more active and direct is the intervention of the government to “organize” it, to maintain it. The further capitalism moves toward monopoly, the closer it is intertwined with the machinery of the government. It is not an accident, and not a whim of some group of politicians, that the government and its agents are increasingly present and dominant in the economic life of the country. It is the inevitable result of a capitalist process.

Consequently, the attempt to solve labor’s problems on the purely economic field, yields fewer and fewer results. To solve their economic problems, the workers find themselves forced to go deeper into the political field, to engage in political action. Even such matters as wages, work-day and working conditions are no longer simply settled between one union and one employer. They must be taken up with the government, or one of its bureaus or boards, which have acquired the power to settle them. This serves to bring about a clearer understanding of the fact that the class struggle is a political struggle. The trouble is that the unions are not equipped for effective working-class political action.

Before we can proceed with this problem, it is necessary to examine the much-confused and much-misunderstood question of politics.

What Is Politics?

What does the word “politics” mean to the average worker? It brings to his mind a picture of graft, bribery and corruption. If he sees two men fighting madly to grab off a rich office-plum, he says, “That is politics for you.” If he sees a public figure (or sometimes a figure in the labor movement) doing something under-handed in order to line his pockets or to climb up the ladder of officialdom, he says, “That is politics.” If he sees a man getting a summons for speeding cancelled by telephoning a friendly ward-heeler, he says, “That is politics for you.” If he hears a labor leader shout, “We don’t want any politics in the unions,” he nods his head in agreement.

All this is based upon some of the realities of capitalist politics, which is always accompanied by rottenness, corruption, office-hunting and spoils. But it represents at the same time a fatal misconception of what political action really is. Before a decision can be made on what to do about politics, we should have a proper definition of it.

Politics deals with government power and the powers of government. Political action is any activity directed toward gaining influence or control over government. The basic aim of politics is state power.

Once this is fully understood, the working class can take a tremendous step toward solving its problems, especially in a country like the United States, where labor is so far behind in the question of politics. The road is then cleared for independent working-class political action. It is such action that the capitalist class fears more than anything else.

Often, the capitalists and their press say to the workers:

“Don’t get into politics. Politics is a terribly dirty business meant only for professional politicians. If there is any politics to be conducted, let us sinners conduct it. You should keep away from it. It is too complicated for you to understand. The best thing you can do, and the most you should do, is to vote for those who are suited to this sort of business.”

To be sure, politics as conducted by the capitalist politicians is usually dirty and sordid enough. But the reason why they give such pious advice to the workers is not that they want to keep labor’s hands nice and clean, and not even that they fear the cleansing influence of labor in politics. What they really worry about is that labor getting into politics means, eventually, labor’s control of government.

Inside, as well as outside, the labor movement, the same advice is usually heard. Union officials repeat, year-in and year-out: “No politics in the unions. The unions should keep out of politics.” What does this really mean?

The very early days of the labor movement were the very early days of capitalism. In that period, the unions were able to confine themselves pretty much to negotiating wage contracts with small, individual employers, especially where the unions represented only the highly-skilled crafts. The economic conditions of the workers could be improved, especially in a rich and growing country like the United States, without the unions concerning themselves greatly or primarily with the government or with political questions. About all they did was to advise their members, once a year, to vote for this “friend of labor” and against that “enemy of labor.” But even in giving this advice, no organized action was taken to mobilize the political power of labor as a class.

To talk about keeping the unions out of politics today is to talk the language of horse-and-buggy unionism. War, a vital problem of the working class, is a political question. Peace, no less vital a problem, is a political question. Taxation, a matter which affects the living standard of the workers more than it ever did before, is a political question. Democratic rights of all kinds, which labor finds itself forced to fight for more vigorously than ever before, is a political question. And even such elementary things as wage and working standards have become, as was pointed out before, political questions, that is, questions settled by government and its agencies. Whether they want to or not, the workers and their organizations are compelled to take an interest in politics and to engage in political action. Unions find themselves setting up local and national political action committees, which means that for the time the labor movement, at least large sections of it, are entering politics as a labor movement.

What, then, is meant by those labor leaders and “friends of labor” who continue to speak about keeping labor out of politics and politics out of the unions? It means what it has always meant: Keep labor out of working-class politics! Keep working-class politics out of the unions! It means: Continue to act as always in the past. In other words, workers should continue to support capitalist politics, for that is what they have been doing in the past. The motto of “No politics” has always meant, in the working class, no independent working-class politics.

If the correct definition of politics is borne in mind, it will readily be seen that the labor movement is constantly engaged in political action. When a union adopts a resolution to be sent to Congress, that is a political action. The union is seeking to influence political decisions. When a union organizes a meeting or demonstration in favor of or in opposition to the passage of a given bill before a local or federal legislature, that is a political action. When a union sends a delegation to the state capital or to Washington, that is a political action. When it. sends its representatives to argue a wage dispute before a governmental body, that is a political action. When it endorses a candidate for office, that is a political action. The fact is that the labor movement is involved in politics every day of the week. There is no escape from it. There is no need to escape from it. Politics, the struggle for political action, is a legitimate, inevitable and, more than that, an urgently necessary field of activity for the working class.

In that case, what is wrong? Two things.

First, the politics of the labor movement is still capitalist politics. The political activities of the unions are still directed toward supporting one of the capitalist parties or the other. Where they do not support such a party outright, they support one capitalist politician or another, on the ground that he is a “good man,” or a “friend of labor.”

In order to keep labor tied to their apron-strings, the capitalist parties always have a few politicians around who can be presented as “friends of labor,” especially when labor is discontented and shows signs of breaking away from the parties of capitalism. They say to the workers: “You may think that Smith is a reactionary, with an anti-labor record. But how can you think that about Jones, who is such a fine progressive, who has said and done so many good things for the workingman? At least, support Jones. And above all else, do not form a party of your own. That would be a class party, and there are no classes in this country.”

By heeding this cunning advice, the labor unions and the bulk of the working class confine their political activities to the capitalist parties. They do not organize to put labor itself in power, but only the "friends” of labor. At every crucial test, these “friends” prove to be what they always were, namely, defenders of capitalism. The defense of the interests of capitalism is, however, incompatible with the defense of the interests of the working class. Labor is already in politics, but because its politics are still capitalistic, it is not engaged in political action as a class for itself.

Labor Party and the Workers’ Government

Second, although labor is engaged in political action, it has not equipped itself with the most important instrument required for participation in politics. Labor has no party of its own. To meet the capitalists on the economic field under more favorable conditions, the workers very wisely organized a special machine, the labor unions. To deal with the capitalist class on the political field, it is also necessary to organize a special machine, a working-class political party.

The class struggle is a political struggle. It cannot be fought successfully by the workers unless they have a political weapon, which means, their own political party. The capitalist class has its own political organizations. It sees to it that they remain committed to its basic interests, the maintenance of the capitalist system. It sees to it that they remain under its control. It provides them with a press. It provides them with funds, running into millions of dollars each year. In some places, the capitalists are in direct control of these parties, in others, its agents and sworn friends are in direct control. Even if, under certain conditions, a “progressive” breaks through to a nomination and gets elected, the capitalist class still maintains control of the political machinery and is able to realize its aims in the end.

Why should not the workers have their own political party, which openly calls itself the party of the working class? The workers are the most numerous and most important class in society. They have the most representative and largest organizations in society, the labor unions, which outnumber by far the membership of all the capitalist and middle-class organizations put together.

That is not all. Labor leaders and “friends of labor” try to discourage the workers from forming a party of their own with the argument that the workers, and especially the labor unions, by themselves, do not form the absolute majority of the population, and therefore could not win in the contest with the existing parties.

An utterly false and misleading argument! The capitalist parties represent a far tinier minority of the population than do the labor unions. That does not prevent the labor leaders and the “friends” from supporting these parties. A working-pass party, with a correct program and leadership, could win the support of the overwhelming majority of the population. The main enemy of the working class is monopoly capitalism, represented by the big industrial and financial magnates. Why should not, why cannot, labor, in its fight against the monopolistic class, enlist the support of the poor farmers, of the lower middle classes, of the Negro people in town and country, who are also under the heel of monopoly capitalism? Why cannot labor draw up and carry on a serious fight for such a political program as would attract to it the support of these other people, together with whom labor makes up far more than a simple majority of the population? On what ground should we believe that the political support of these people will always go to the leadership of capitalism, but never to the leadership of labor?

Those who argue against independent political action by the workers, against an independent workers’ party, are tied in body and mind to the chariot of capitalist politics. They find no difficulty in believing that capitalism always can and should win the support of the farmers, the lower middle classes and the Negro people. But they have so little confidence in the working class in whose name they presume to speak, that they cannot conceive of it winning the support of the bulk at the people and acquiring the leadership of the nation. That a few thousand capitalists should run the country seems natural to them. That it should be run by millions of workers is inconceivable to them. In this way, as in all others, they show they are capitalistic labor leaders, not real working-class leaders.

The workers need a party of their own. To form it, is to issue the Declaration of Independence of the American working class. It is the first big step in breaking from the capitalist parties and capitalist politics, and toward independent working-class political action.

However, it is only the first step. A political party that does not proclaim its intention of taking government power, is not worthy of the name. A Labor Party which announced, as some so-called labor parties do, that its aims in politics is to support the candidates of the capitalist parties, could neither inspire the support it should have nor fulfill the task before it. A party that proclaims as its purpose the nomination of “good” candidates by the capitalist parties and their election with its aid, is a miserable bargaining agency, but not an Independent Labor Party. Its proclamation is a confession that the capitalist parties are so bankrupt and rotten, that their candidates can get support from the workers only if they also appear under the emblem of another party.

A Labor Party which announced that it had only a modest aim, like the election of a few candidates of its own, and nothing more, could not inspire serious support among the people. It could get such support and justify its existence in the eyes of the people only if it declared boldly that the capitalist parties are bankrupt, that it challenges them all along the line, that it aims at taking government power and reorganizing society to serve the interests of all the people instead of serving only the interests of the capitalist minority.

The formation of an independent workers’ party acquires great significance only if it proclaims the objective of a Workers’ Government.

What would be the program and purpose of a Workers’ Government? Would it simply be to put the workers in the offices now occupied by capitalist politicians and bureaucrats? Would it simply be to take over the responsibility for managing the affairs of the capitalist class? In that case, it would be a Workers’ Government only in name, and a capitalist government in reality. It would confuse the workers, and make it easy for capital to get back all its power.

This is not a mere assertion, it is a fact proved by experience. Twice in England, a Labor Government was in office; in Germany, in Austria, in Spain and in other countries, the same thing was true at different times. But in every one of these cases, the government failed to act in the interests of the working class. It left the power of the capitalists intact. It made no fundamental change. The position of the masses of the people was not sufficiently improved or not improved at all, because no bold steps were taken to remove the causes of the social evils produced by capitalism. The hopes of the people were disappointed. Their enthusiasm declined. The capitalist class thereupon found little difficulty in regaining all its political control by taking over the government directly. It either crushed the labor government by violence or simply dismissed it from office. In many cases, an outright reactionary or fascist government took control.

A Workers’ Government is needed not to protect the power and interests of the capitalists, but the power and interests of the workers, and of all the little people as a whole. We have already seen that political power – the government, the state – exists only to serve class interests. All the interests of the capitalist class are tied up with and based upon preserving their ownership and control of the means of production. Their whole power over society is based upon this ownership. It enables them to exploit and oppress the majority of the population. It results in growing social inequality, in unemployment, economic scarcity, insecurity and war. The maintenance of capitalist property is the basic principle of every capitalist government. To this principle, it subordinates everything else.

A Workers’ Government must have a basically different principle if it is to discharge its great obligation to those who placed it in power. To the evils of capitalism, it must oppose social progress and human welfare. To the interests of a ruling minority, it must oppose the interests of all humanity. Its aim must be to assure society a high, continuous level of production which will permit the cultural development of all, and which will not be broken periodically by convulsive crises; to assure abundance to all and peace among all the nations and peoples, so that the nightmare of insecurity is dispelled; to assure everyone freedom from physical and intellectual enslavement of any kind. Are not these the things that all the people long for?

Capitalist class rule has demonstrated to the hilt that it cannot, by its very nature, achieve this aim. Yet its achievement is not only necessary, but, as will be shown, it is quite possible. Now the question is: Once the workers have political power, once there is a Workers’ Government, what can and should it do to make this aim a living reality?

Max Shachtman

Marxist Writers’

Last updated on 23.4.2005