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

The antagonism between the unions and revolutionary Marxism

Thus, the historically antagonistic relationship between the revolutionary Marxist party and the trade unions—a phenomenon that has emerged wherever industrial capitalism has developed—is rooted in the objective characteristics of the trade union form. The Marxist party represents the working class in its historical capacity as the revolutionary antithesis to the production relations of capitalism. The trade unions ultimately base themselves on these very production relations.

What are some of the essential characteristics of the trade union form? In the first place, the trade unions organize workers according to particular crafts or branches of industry, that is, according to the requirements of the capitalist market for labor power. Thus, by their very nature, they do not represent the working class as a unified social and revolutionary force. Instead, they divide workers into various sectional interests, defined by the operation of the capitalist market, not the historical imperative to overcome that market. The unions, in essence, embody the working class in its aspect as an oppressed and exploited part of society, not as a revolutionary class.

For precisely this reason, the unions respond to technological progress in a reactionary manner. Either they seek to block it, in order to maintain existing employment and wage levels, or they abandon any defense of jobs and wages and collaborate in imposing new forms of production at the expense of their members. The unions cannot embrace technological progress, which serves the long-term historical interests of the working class, and at the same time defend the immediate conditions of workers, which are threatened by such progress, because this task can be accomplished only on the basis of a revolutionary socialist orientation. Such an orientation strives to mobilize the working class in defense of its immediate needs, while demonstrating to the workers at every point the need to abolish private ownership of the means of production and establish common ownership of technology and all the basic levers of economic life, so as to reorganize production in accord with human need, rather than profit.

Luxemburg, in Reform or Revolution, sums up the attitude of the unions to technological development as follows:

“Insofar as trade unions can intervene in the technical department of production, they can only oppose technical innovation. But here they do not act in the interest of the entire working class and its emancipation, which accord rather with technical progress and, therefore, with the interest of the isolated capitalist. They act here in a reactionary direction.” [1]

The unions must, moreover, seek to establish legal and binding agreements with the employers for the terms of the sale of labor power. In so far as they enforce these contracts, they enforce the principle of bourgeois legality, and seek to ensure stable and peaceful relations between employer and worker. Any insurgent movement of workers threatens these relations, and social revolution means the eradication of the very economic and social foundations upon which the unions are based.

What are the further implications of the acceptance of the status of workers as sellers of labor power? Inevitably it compels the unions to adapt themselves to the changing needs of capital for new forms of labor, based on higher levels of exploitation. When new methods and forms of capitalist production demand a new type of worker, without the safeguards of relatively secure employment, the eight hour day, firm job classifications, seniority, pensions, health benefits, etc.; when, instead, they demand flexible, part-time and temporary labor, where workers’ hours are dictated by the immediate needs of the employer, and wages and benefits remain at poverty levels, the unions must either supply these requirements of the market, or go out of business.

Historical experience has demonstrated, in practice, the organic antagonism of the trade unions to the class struggle and to social revolution. In this respect, the examples of Britain and Germany are most revealing, since the two countries provide the classical models of trade unionism. In Britain, the unions grew and flourished in the aftermath of the collapse of a revolutionary political movement of the working class, Chartism. They emerged as purely economic organizations and rapidly came under the political wing of the Liberal Party, the party of the manufacturing bourgeoisie. In Germany, the mass unions were founded by the Social Democracy. They officially adhered to the program of Marxism and emerged as instruments on the economic front of the mass socialist party. Yet, in both countries, the unions evolved as conservative defenders of the capitalist status quo.


Luxemburg, Reform or Revolution, New York, Pathfinder, p. 21