Foundations of Marxism’s View of Unions

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For Marx and Engels, the labor union struggle is necessary for the development of the working class, but must be considered as part of the development of the political and revolutionary struggle of workers. Maintaining that purely economic and local struggles should be overcome in the labor union struggle, Marx and Engels emphasize the role of labor unions in developing workers’ class consciousness and unions’ importance in developing the working class into a class capable of waging a holistic political struggle. Marxism reviews labor unions as a necessary tool that functions as schools of socialism and class struggle that nevertheless should overcome limited economic aims and transcend itself towards superior forms of struggle. 

Workers at a demonstration, banners read “Overthrow the Capitalist System” and “Fight for Noncontributory Unemployment Insurance

Marx and Engel’s writings on unions are scattered across many works, and their views on unions can be reviewed through principles they found most important in different forms of class struggle. The article “Marxist Union View: Complex and Critical” by Dan La Boltz, co-founder of the Teamsters union, investigates the historical development of Marx and Engels’ writings on unions. During Marx and Engels’ time, the country where trade union struggle first began to develop was in England. The reasons for this were the rapid progress of capitalist economic development in England and the fact that workers were able to gain the right to unionize in 1824. Engels, speaking of trade union struggle in The Conditions of the Working Class in 1844, particularly highlights the role of unions in developing the moral and fighting spirit: “[Workers] must protest against every [wage] reductions …; because they feel bound to proclaim that they, as human beings, shall not be made to bow to social circumstances, but social conditions ought to yield to them as human beings…” What Engels emphasizes is the preservation of being a social subject as a condition of being human, through labor struggle, and against the overwhelming social dominance of the bourgeoisie. Economically, trade union struggle keeps the exploitation of workers within certain bounds, although Engels suggests that more than trade unions and strikes are needed (La Boltz 2013, 14-15). In this work, the real importance of unions and strikes for Engels is that they are “the working class’s first attempt to abolish competition” (La Boltz 2013, 14-15).

In similar terms, in The Manifesto of the Communist Party, Marx and Engels write that class struggle sometimes brings gains and sometimes defeats, and note that the main achievement of the struggle is the developing solidarity amongst workers: “Now and then the workers are victorious, but only for a time. The real fruit of their battle lies, not in the immediate result, but in the ever-expanding union of the workers” (Marx and Engels 1975, 48). This is also emphasized in “Marx and the Trade Unions” by B.T. Randive, communist unionist and the general secretary of The Communist Party of India during 1948-50. He quotes Marx’ The Poverty of Philosophy, where Marx says when workers’ struggles first arose, the aims of the workers’ struggle were centered on salaries, but later on “maintenance of association becomes more necessary to them than…wages” (Randive 1986, 4). Hence, the expanding union of workers, and the formation of the working class as a class through this solidarity are more important gains of the movement than the singular achievements of the struggle. This solidarity, of course, goes hand in hand with the abolishment of capitalist competition among workers that Engels emphasizes. In this developing solidarity, unions and other forms of class struggle can in many times serve as the first practical challenge of capitalist ideology of competition and they share the same interests as a class. 

For Marx and Engels, the unions should not remain limited in their struggles both in terms of geographical limitation and in their aims. As organizations of the working class, they should strive to advance and represent the universal interests of this class. In his instructions to the delegates in the 1866 meeting of the International, Marx comments on the future of the trade unions. He writes that for “total emancipation,” unions must “aid every social and political movement tending in that direction”. Unions must see themselves as “champions and representatives of the whole working class, they cannot fail to enlist the non-society men into their ranks.” They should convince everyone that their aims are “far from being narrow – and selfish, aim at the emancipation of the downtrodden millions” (Marx 1866, 8). Hence, Marx states that unions should fight not only for their own members but also for the interests of the most oppressed and marginalized workers in society. They should not limit the aims of their actions only to their “members” but work for the most marginalized in the society. As such, unions should also take part in any political and social movement that aims towards social emancipation and demonstrate that their aims are universal.

In order for the working class to achieve this “total emancipation,” political organization of the working class as a class and its progress towards the revolutionary struggle with its independent parties is necessary. After the defeat of the 1848 revolutions, we see Marx emphasize this point in particular, in advocating for a worker’s party that represents the demands of the working class against the bourgeois democrats and takes action against private property (La Boltz 2013, 11). At the Hague Congress of the International in 1872, Marx notes:

“This constitution of the proletariat into a political party is indispensable to ensure the triumph of the social revolution and of its ultimate goal: the abolition of classes. As the lords of the land and capital always make use of their political privileges to defend and perpetuate their economic monopolies and to enslave labour, the conquest of political power becomes the great duty of the proletariat. ” (Randive 1986, 16)

That is, the independent political party of the working class is an indispensable step, and the fact that the bourgeoisie always uses political power for its own ends presents one of the reasons for the necessity for the proletariat to seize this power.

Two years before this, in The German Ideology, Marx and Engels expressed this necessity clearly. In this text, all of the struggles within the state, “between democracy, aristocracy and monarchy…the struggle for franchise, etc.” are seen as a reflection of the struggles between classes. They add: “every class which is struggling for mastery…must first conquer for itself political power in order to represent its interests in turn as the general interest” (Marx and Engels 1975, 160-161). The proletariat, like any class who would like to take power, must come to power with the seizure of political power, even if its own governance should aim to bring about the eventual disappearance of classes.

In Marx and the Trade Unions, Solomon Abramovich Lozovsky, a high-ranking member of the union of trade unions in the Soviet Union who also took a myriad of positions in the Bolshevik Party, looks at the 1872 Hague Congress of the International. Lozovsky draws attention to the following lines by Marx: “The consolidation of the workers’ forces attained in the economic struggle will also have to serve as a lever in the hands of this class for the struggle against the political power of its exploiters” (Lozovsky 1935, 21). The economic struggle here is taken as an instrument for the political struggle, which is regarded as a higher end. This is what Lozovsky calls the primacy of politics over economy, which he notes is the foundation of the approach of the Bolsheviks and the Comintern (Lozovsky 1935, 25). Still though, Lozovsky emphasizes that for Marx, the workers movement aims ultimately for “economic emancipation,” which means the revolutionary transformation of the entire mode of production (Lozovsky 1935, 22). 

In their own time, too, Marx and Engels were supporters of social movements that they thought represented the political interests of the working class. In England, suffrage was enacted in 1832 to exclude the working class. Workers united behind the Chartist movement to abolish the property criterion for suffrage. Both Marx and Engels were strong supporters of the Chartist movement and working class voting rights and they saw the Chartist movement as the political representative and union of the working class of the time (La Boltz 2013, 12-13).

While Engels criticizes the isolated state of the struggles of the trade unions in England, he describes the Chartist movement as the form of the struggle of the working class that starts from the consciousness of a class struggle and opposes the capitalist society in a holistic manner as a class. The working class united behind the Chartist movement was behind the achievement of the ten-hour working day law (La Boltz 2013, 15-16). This type of political movement represent a higher form of struggle than limited union struggles in that workers recognize their common interests as a class (achieve class consciousness) and challenge bourgeois political power in the state, which is the mechanism through which bourgeois establish and perpetuate their dominance. 

Although Marx and Engels highlight the positive aspects of the trade unions in these articles, they also observed how unions were institutionalized and became an apparatus of the bourgeoisie in their own time. In his analysis of the current situation of the unions in his instructions during the International’s meeting in 1866, Marx criticizes the trade unions’ confinement to local and immediate struggles and their isolation from general social and political movements in the society (Marx 1867, 7). In his article “Wage, Price and Profit,” Marx advises the trade unionists in England whose struggles are constrained to mere local, economic gains: “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 catchword ‘Abolition of the wage system’” (Randive 1986, 10). The revolutionary slogan is one that targets the main basis of worker exploitation and highlights that the ultimate aim must be achieved not only by local, workplace struggles, but by a revolution that targets the whole. Marx shows the same approach in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, when he describes salary increases as “better payment for the slave” and states that workers cannot gain their dignity as human beings until capitalist exploitation ends (Marx 1975, 80).

As early as the 1850s, the prospering of the trade unions especially in England and the tendency of the English working class to become “bourgeois” prompted Engels to write in the following lines: “The British proletariat is becoming more and more bourgeoisified… For a nation that exploits the whole world, this as a matter of fact is more or less natural.” Later in 1883, Engels described the same situation as follows: “Participation in the domination of the world market is was and is the economic basis of the political nullity of the British workers.” In addition, Engels states that the bourgeoisie’s recognition of unions and the small benefits it could provide the workers with the wealth they gain from international exploitation distracts the labor struggle from higher goals (La Boltz 2013, 17). So, as early as the 1850s, Engels recognized the pacifying influence of imperial profits on the labor movement in the West, and especially its bureaucratizing influence on labor unions. Later in the 1870s, Engels realizes that “once established, legalized and more or less accepted by the capitalist class, had become part of the political economy of the capitalist system serving to regulate wages” (La Boltz 2013, 33). This represents Engel’s view of how unions simply become a part of the functioning and continuity of the system, losing their oppositional functions.

Engels also saw that the “working class aristocracy,” representing workers who were able to obtain certain privileges, started guiding the working class towards more politically conservative goals (La Boltz 2013, 19). Seeing this trend in the trade unions, Marx also notes in a letter to Liebknecht in 1878 that “the leadership of the working class of England has passed into the hands of the corrupted union leaders and professional agitators.” The close relations of the trade unions with the bourgeoisie and bourgeois parties limit the struggle of the working class to regular cycles of strikes focused on salaries, which could not evolve into a higher movement that challenges the fundamental exploitative structure of capitalism. Along with these, Marx and Engels strongly denounced former trade unionists and representatives of the Chartist who joined the ranks of the bourgeois Liberal party (La Boltz 2013, 19).

As La Boltz puts it, Engels saw the solution to unions and working class losing its political force in the working class parting ways with the bourgeois parties, getting their representatives into parliament, and fighting with its class party to end the wage labor system (La Boltz 2013, 34). Engels writes at the end of his “Trade Unions,” also quoted by La Boltz: “For the full representation of Labour in Parliament, as well as for the preparation for the abolition of the wages-system, organisations will become necessary, not of separate Trades, but of the working class as a body” (Engels 1975, 377). So, for political representation as well, Engels points towards the unity of the working class. 

It is clear that today’s trade unions have a lot to learn from Marx and Engels. They show that unions, which are limited to economic gains and cannot overcome the limits of the daily struggle to comprehend and oppose the whole through political struggle, are in danger of becoming institutionalized into a tool of the bourgeoisie and an instrument of the system. Hence, there is a necessity for the working class to wage a holistic struggle, especially concerning changes that need to be achieved at the political level. 

This struggle can start from local, economic demands in union organizing, and in many cases it might need to. However, for Marx and Engels, unions need to move to higher levels of struggle in both consciousness and practice, towards struggles and aims that increasingly represent the whole of worker’s interests and target the whole of capitalist society. Unless the working class moves in this manner, Marx and Engels warn that local gains are always in danger of losing their importance. For example, workers in a workplace that received a salary increase as a result of a strike (or any other form of struggle) may lose their gains in a short time against a united bourgeois class that can increase prices by using its monopoly power, that is, that can create profit through inflation. For example, according to a recent EPI research, more than half of inflation in the US in 2020-2021 is due to increased profit margins (Bivens 2022). Here, a holistic and higher political goal can be represented in the struggle to pass a law that enacts increases to the minimum wage that corresponds to increases in inflation, or adjusts salaries based on the cost of living to have a dignified life. Reaching to this presupposes strong organization of workers, who in many cases first organize in their workplaces to develop on the level of practice and consciousness. This political struggle, still, needs to be taken as part of the ultimate ascend to power of the working class.

We have seen in this article that these principles also shape Marx and Engels’ views of unions. Not disdainful of the everyday and urgent economic demands for trade unions, Marx and Engels nevertheless do not treat them as the ultimate goal. Instead of economic gains, the important thing in this daily struggle is the development of the working class as a class, gaining the spirit of struggle, realizing itself as a political force and expanding the solidarity of workers. Workers are also able to abolish the competition among themselves in this struggle. Lastly, as Marx and Engels emphasized, in this struggle, workers are in the process of becoming active social subjects, taking into their own hands the forces that direct their life that seem independent of them and dominate them in the form of the laws of bourgeois economy.

La Boltz, D. (2013). The Marxist View of the Labor Unions: Complex and Critical. The Journal of Labor and Society, 16, 5–41.

Lozovsky, A. (1935). Marx and Trade Unions. International Publishers.

Marx, K. (n.d.). Instructions for the Delegates of the Provisional General Council. Retrieved 1866, from

Tucker, C. Robert. The Marx-Engels Reader. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1978

Marx, K., & Engels, F. (1975). Articles on Britain. Progress Publishers.

Randive, B. T. (1986). Marx and Trade Unions. The Marxist, 2(1).

Marx, K., & Engels, F. (1975). Articles on Britain. Progress Publishers. 

Bivens, J. (n.d.). Corporate profits have contributed disproportionately to inflation. how should policymakers respond? Economic Policy Institute. Retrieved January 11, 2023, from