Statement of the International Committee of the Fourth International
Globalization and the International Working Class

Marxism and the trade union question

The Marxist movement has a long and rich record of theoretical and political discussion on the trade unions, and their inherent limitations. The Spartacist League makes no study of this record. Instead, it attributes to Marxism a rosy assessment of trade unions and their supposed revolutionary potential, which is entirely unwarranted from the standpoint of Marxist doctrine and, moreover, flies in the face of the long and bitter practical experience of the working class with the unions.

The Spartacist League summed up its conception of the relation of the Marxist movement to the trade unions in an article published in Workers Vanguard in July 1993 entitled “Workers League vs. the Unions.” They declared that “for communists,” the “fundamental aim in the labor movement” is “to transform the unions into a tool of the revolutionary will of the proletariat.”

Spartacist’s claim is radically false. Revolutionary Marxists have never considered their “fundamental aim” to be turning the unions into instruments of the revolutionary struggle of the working class. On the contrary, the greatest Marxist leaders and theoreticians have insisted that the unions, by their very nature, can at best serve as defensive organizations of the working class, seeking to obtain the best possible wages and working conditions within the framework of the capitalist system. Whatever tactics revolutionary Marxists advocated for intervening in the unions, they emphasized, as a matter of principle and revolutionary strategy, the narrow and limited scope of trade union struggle. They sought to educate workers on the need to construct independent political parties, based on the perspective of socialist internationalism, to fight for political power and the abolition of the wages system.

The Spartacists’ attempt to cut Marx down to their own size produces laughable results. At one point they counterpose to “parochial, nationally limited trade unionism” the need for “an internationalist class-struggle perspective.” (Emphasis in the original). According to Spartacist, the vehicle for carrying out such a perspective is not a socialist political party of the working class, but rather the trade unions, somehow transformed from organizations that have historically embraced nationalism and class collaboration into their internationalist and revolutionary opposite.

Next comes the following astounding sentence: “Indeed, one of the reasons for the establishment of the First International founded by Karl Marx was to organize trade-union solidarity between workers in Britain and continental Europe.”

In other words, Marx founded the First International, not as the international revolutionary party of the working class, to which the unions would be entirely subordinate, but rather as a means for building the unions and coordinating their activities on a European-wide scale. Thus Spartacist recasts Marx in its own image, reducing him to a trade union administrator.

We have already seen the theoretical blunders of Spartacist on the question of the wages struggle. It is also necessary to note the essentially ahistorical method which they employ in citing the “iron law of wages” controversy from the 1860s, in order to attack the IC’s analysis some 140 years later. It is an example of the failure to consider political questions from the standpoint of their historical context and evolution that is so characteristic of the formal and anti-Marxist method of Spartacist, and petty-bourgeois “leftism” in general.

After all, Marx and Engels were writing about the economic struggle in the period of the first flush of trade unionism, when capitalist industry was growing rapidly in England, and was just beginning to develop on the Continent. The modern nation state structure of Europe and North America was still in the process of formation, and the mass socialist parties of the Second International were still the music of the future. The working class was just beginning, in a mass way, to make its experience with the trade unions, and while their essential limitations could be grasped from a scientific understanding of the class relations of capitalist society, the future evolution of the unions could not be predicted with complete precision.

An entire historical epoch has passed since then. Capitalism has evolved from free competition to monopoly capitalism and imperialism. Two world wars, the Russian revolution, the rise of Stalinism, the triumph of fascism in Europe, the collapse of the Soviet Union and decades of trade union reformism and corporatism have transpired. One would have to be a hopeless doctrinaire, a la Spartacist, without an inkling of the historical materialist method, to proceed as if these great historical events and experiences had no bearing on Marxism’s assessment of trade unionism today. Indeed, even within their own lifetimes, Marx and Engels became increasingly scathing in their estimation of trade unionism and categorical as to its organic opposition to revolutionary socialism.

As a serious review of the writings of the most important Marxist theoreticians makes clear, Spartacist’s notion that the basic task of socialists is to transform the unions into instruments of revolutionary struggle is a wild departure from Marxist doctrine. Indeed, Marx and Engels stressed that the unions, by virtue of their essential economic function, did not oppose the wages system, but rather helped enforce it.

What is this economic function? By means of the trade union form of organization, workers in a particular branch of industry combine their forces in order to obtain the most favorable possible terms for the sale of their labor power to the capitalists. On the one hand, this is an attempt by the workers to defend their position vis a vis the employers. But at the same time, resting as it does on the foundation of the wages system, it is a means of enforcing the capitalist law of wages, i.e., affecting the labor market so as to keep wages, at any given time, at approximately the full market value of labor power.

Thus Marx wrote in Volume One of Capital: “The trade unions aim at nothing less than to prevent the reduction of wages below the level that is traditionally maintained in the various branches of industry. That is to say, they wish to prevent the price of labor-power from falling below its value...” [1]

Engels, in an article entitled “The Wages System”(1881), wrote: “The law of wages is not upset by the struggles of the trades unions. On the contrary, it is enforced by them.” [2]

The same idea was elaborated in greater detail by Rosa Luxemburg in her 1899 polemic against Bernsteinian revisionism, Reform or Revolution:

“But the fact is that the principal function of trade unions...consists in providing the workers with a means of realizing the capitalist law of wages, that is to say, the sale of their labor power at current market prices. Trade unions enable the proletariat to utilize, at each instant, the conjuncture of the market. But these conjunctures....remain outside the sphere of influence of the trade unions. Trade unions cannot suppress the law of wages. Under the most favorable circumstances, the best they can do is to impose on capitalist exploitation the ‘normal’ limits of the moment. They have not, however, the power to suppress exploitation itself, not even gradually...

“This much may be said about the purely economic side of the ‘struggle of the rate of wages against the rate of profit,’ as Bernstein labels the activity of the trade union. It does not take place in the blue of the sky. It takes place within the well defined framework of the law of wages. The law of wages is not shattered but applied by trade union activity.” [3]

By ignoring and implicitly denying the law of wages under capitalism, and attributing to the trade unions unlimited possibilities for improving wages, the Spartacists, notwithstanding their indulgence in revolutionary-sounding rhetoric, deny the objective necessity for socialist revolution and the building of a political party of the working class based on Marxism. For if workers, by means of trade union struggle, can drive their wages ever higher, why should they embark on the struggle for power and the abolition of capitalism? At best, socialism becomes a moral desideratum, and scientific socialism is replaced by a new version of utopianism.

The Spartacist League is not entirely oblivious to the reformist logic of its position. Thus, in the manner of all eclectic pretenders to Marxism, it includes a passage in its attack on the Socialist Equality Party and the ICFI aimed at providing itself with a theoretical cover. “There are, of course,” the Spartacists write, “limits to what can be gained through trade-union struggle, however militant. As their labor costs rise beyond a certain point, capitalists will respond by retrenching (i.e., shutting down less profitable operations), introducing new labor-saving technology as well as shifting some operations to low-wage countries.” [4]

In fact, this allusion to the law of wages is theoretically flawed. It suggests that the introduction of new technology to reduce the proportion of labor power to fixed capital is simply a contingent aspect of capitalist production, merely a defensive response to rising wages. While it is true that capitalists employ new technology for the specific and conscious purpose of undermining the wages struggle of workers, that is only one aspect of the matter. As Marx and Engels explained, as early as the Communist Manifesto, the constant revolutionizing of the production process is an inherent feature of capitalism, dictated not only by the pressure of the working class, but by the competition between rival capitalists which is an essential feature of the capitalist market.

But even more illuminating of the basic method of Spartacist—that is, subjectivism—is what immediately follows the above quoted sentence:

“The labor bureaucracy points to the ability of the capitalists to counter union gains by such means in order to argue that the workers must accept existing, or even worse, conditions without a fight, while laying the blame on workers in other countries for ‘stealing American jobs.’”

Thus, having alluded to a fundamental and objective feature of trade unionism, which renders it incapable of permanently raising the wages of the working class, Spartacist rushes to place the blame, not on trade unionism as such, but rather on the nefarious motives of trade union officials. The SEP would be the last to dispute the rotten character and base motives of the union leaders, but the fact remains that workers’ struggles, in so far as they remain restricted to the form of trade unionism, can find no means of overcoming the basic tendency of capitalist production to drive down workers’ wages and working conditions. This is what Spartacist seeks to obscure.

The theoretical insight into trade unionism provided by the Marxist analysis of capitalist production relations, and the scientific conclusions drawn from decades of historical experience, demonstrate that the trade union form of organization organically evolves in a manner hostile to the class struggle. The fact that trade unions arose historically out of the class struggle does not mean that they provide an adequate means for prosecuting that struggle. On the contrary, their essential role as instruments through which workers collectively bargain to sell their labor power, and the forms of organization attendant to that role, inexorably drive them to adopt a standpoint of class collaboration and conciliation.


Cited in Marx and Engels on the Trade Unions, Kenneth Lapides, editor, New York, Praeger, p. 89


Ibid, p. 105


Luxemburg, Reform or Revolution, New York, Pathfinder, pp. 20-21 and 43


Workers Vanguard, January 24, 1997