The workers' struggle in ascendant capitalism

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The following quotation illustrates how Marx summarised the main features of the process leading to the formation of the first workers’ organisations: “The first attempts of workers to associate among them­selves always takes place in the form of combinations. Large-scale industry concentrates in one place a crowd of people unknown to one another. Competition divides their interests. But the maintenance of wages, this common interest that they have against their boss, unites them in a common thought of resistance – combination. Thus combination always has a double aim, that of stopping competition between workers, so that they can carry on general competition with the capitalist. If the first aim of resistance was merely the maintenance of wages, combination at first isolated, constitute themselves into groups as the capitalists in their turn unite for the purpose of repression, and in the face of always united capital, the maintenance of the association becomes more necessary to them than that of wages. This is so true that English economists are amazed to see the workers’ sacrifice a good part of their wages in favour of associations, which, in the eyes of these economists, are established solely in favour of wages. In England they have not stopped at partial combinations which have no other objective than a passing strike, and which disappear with it. Permanent combinations have been formed, trades unions which serve as ramparts for the workers in their struggles with their employers”, (Marx, The Poverty of Philosophy, pp. 149-50).

Trade unions appeared therefore as permanent organisations of the class whose purpose was to facilitate the organised resis­tance of the workers against capital. Products of economic conditions and instruments of a basically economic conflict, they were not, however, nor could they be (contrary to the assertions of the anarcho-syndicalists and the reformists) ‘a-political’ organisations.

Everything that has to do with the government of the state is political. Because the bourgeois state is the guarantor and defender of the relations that link capital to labour, any resistance to such relations is inevitably to the state, and therefore, a political struggle. Thus immediately following the last passage we quoted, Marx adds: “In this struggle - a veritable civil war - all the elements necessary for the coming battle unite and develop. Once it has reached this point, association takes on a political character...Economic conditions had first transformed the mass of the people of the country into workers. The combin­ation of capital has created for this mass a common sit­uation, common interests. This mass is thus already a class as against capital, but not yet for itself…But the struggle of class against class is a political struggle…Do not say that social movement excludes political movement. There is never a political movement which is not at the same time social”, (Marx, The Poverty of Philosophy, pp. 150 and 152).

But if it is quite obvious that the class struggle of the proletariat cannot help but bear a relationship to the govern­ment of the state, and hence is inevitably political in nature, we still have to find out what type of political struggle it is.

Indeed in the nineteenth century the historic reality of capit­alism in its full tide of expansion meant that the political struggle of the proletariat could take place on two different levels: on the one hand the struggle fought on the terrain of the bourgeois state itself for economic and political reforms, and on the other hand the preparation for revolutionary struggle, the destruction of the bourgeois state and of the society engendering it.


The nineteenth century was the apogee of capitalism’s historic­ally ascendant phase. The major economic powers extended capital’s domination, transforming the entire world in its own image. The English, French, American, and German capitalists invaded the world with their commodities, a world which offered ever-growing, and seemingly, inexhaustible markets for their production. It was the great era of imperialist expansion and industrial revolutions.

Within this historic framework, the amelioration of working class living conditions constituted objectively, not only a real possibility, but also in certain cases, a stimulant to capitalist development. Thus, for example, the victory won by the English working class in reducing working hours to ten hours per day in 1848, was a real gain for the working class (it was not immediately cancelled out by compulsory overtime), and it also provided a stimulus to the British economy. This is how Marx commented on this event in Wages, Price and Profit, illustrating the necessity and the possibility for economic reforms: “The official economists announced that ‘it would sound the death-knell of English industry’ (when the Ten-Hour Bill was obtained by the workers). They threatened a decrease of accumulation, rise of prices, loss of markets, stinting of production, consequent reaction upon wages, ultimate ruin. Well, what was the result? A rise in the money wages of the factory operatives, despite the curtailing of the working day, a great increase in the number of factory hands employed, a continuous fall in the prices of their products, a marvellous development in the productive powers of their labour, an unheard-of progressive expansion of the markets for their commodities”, (Marx, Wages, Price and Profit, Peking edition, pp. 13 and 14).

However the bourgeoisie never granted such reforms out of its own inclination. Any concession to the proletariat was made in the first place to the detriment of capitalist profit. Generally speaking it was only after the capitalists were goaded into realising the beneficial results such reforms produced (in terms of acting as a spur to capitalist growth) that they began to understand that it was in their interest to grant the prol­etariat reforms. It was, therefore, only as a result of implac­able struggle that the working class could wrest reforms from the ruling class. This was the nature of the defensive struggles of the proletariat in the nineteenth century.

Moreover, in this period of free-trade, the bourgeoisie govern­ed through Parliament. Here the different factions of the ruling class really confronted each other and decided on gov­ernment policies. For the working class, the right of universal suffrage constituted a real means of influencing the policies of the bourgeois state through its representatives in Parliament. Not that bourgeois Parliamentarians would make great cause with the specific demands coming from the representatives of the workers’ organisations. Within the terrain of the bourgeois state, the antagonism existing between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie could only ever be favourable to the ruling class. But the bourgeoisie in this epoch was still divided into more progressive and more reactionary factions. The modern bourgeoisie was still fighting against the representatives of the ruling class inherited from the old regime whose economic power remained, and against the most backward factions of its own class. In the words of The Communist Manifesto: “The organisation of the proletarians.... compels legislative recognition of particular interests of the workers, by taking advantage of the divisions among the bourgeoisie itself”, (Marx, The Communist Manifesto).

In this historic period then, the struggle for democratic political rights was a necessity for the proletariat. The winn­ing of universal suffrage, the right to form combinations and the parliamentary struggle itself, were political manifestations of the class struggle and formed an inseparable corollary to the struggle and organisation of the unions. Unionism and parliamentarism were specific forms in which the necessity and possibility of reformist struggles in ascendant capitalism were expressed.


The struggle for reforms was only one aspect of the proletarian struggle in the nineteenth century. The working class is an exploited class and consequently no reform whatsoever can bring about its emancipation. The deepest expression of proletarian struggle lives and flourishes in its struggle for the destruction of exploitation and not in its struggles to ameliorate its exploitation. “An oppressed class is the vital condition for every society founded on the antagonisms of classes. The emancipation of the oppressed class thus implies necessarily the creation of a new society”, (Marx, The Poverty of Philosophy).

Also proletarian revolutionaries did not see in the struggle for reforms the authentic perspective for the working class, nor even the form of struggle which could act as the essential focus for its activity. Imprisoned within its own limitations, the struggle for reforms could only result in the defence of exploitation itself. It was no longer a step towards the definitive emancipation of the working class but a new noose hanging round its neck. As much as Marx defended the necessity for reformist struggles, he just as energetically denounced the reformist tendencies that were trying to imprison the working class within that struggle, who “saw in the struggle for wages, only the struggle for wages” and did not see it as a school of struggle where the class was forging the weapons for its ultimate emancipation. He coined the term ‘parliamentary cretinism’ to describe the tendency in the workers’ movement which tried to create illus­ions in the possibilities of parliamentary struggle and put all their energies in parliamentary activity.

On the subject of reformist struggles, the Manifesto stated: “Now and then the workers are victorious, but only for a time. The real fruit of their battles lies, not in the immediate result, but in the ever-expanding union of the workers” (Marx, The Communist Manifesto). And in Wages, Price and Profit, he noted: “At the same time, and quite apart from the general servitude involved in the wages system, the working class ought not to exaggerate to themselves the ultimate working of these every-day struggles. They ought not to forget that they are fighting with effects, but not with the causes of those effects; that they are retarding the down­ward movement, but not changing its direction; that they are applying palliatives, not curing the malady. They ought, there­fore, not to be exclusively absorbed in these unavoidable guerrilla fights incessantly springing up from the never-ceasing encroachments of capital or changes in the market. They ought to understand that, with all the miseries it imposes upon them, the present system simultaneously engenders the material condi­tions and the social forms necessary for an economical recon­struction of society. 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 watchword, ‘Abolition of the wages system!’”, (Marx, Wages, Price and Profit, Peking edition, pp. 77-8).

Similarly, the Resolution passed by the 1st International regard­ing the unions, stated: “The immediate objective of the workers’ unions was always limited to the necessities of every-day struggles, to expedients against the incessant encroachments of capital, in a word, to questions about wages and hours of work. This activity is not only legitimate but also necessary”, but: “...the unions are far too exclusively occupied with local and immediate struggles against capital. They have not suf­ficiently understood their power to act against the system of wage-slavery itself. They have too often stood aside from the more generalised movements and political struggles…Apart from their immediate task of reacting against the aggra­vating manoeuvrings of capital, they must now act as organisational spearheads of the working class for the great goal of its radical emancipation. They must assist any social or political movement tending in this direction”, (Resolution on the Unions, their past, present and future, 1st Congress of the Internation­al Working Men’s Association, Geneva, 1866).

For revolutionaries in the nineteenth century, the systematic struggle of the class to win reforms and limit capitalist exploitation, and the understanding that this struggle was not an end in itself but a moment in the global revolutionary strug­gle, were complementary. The marxist workers’ parties which (parallel to the growing influence of the unions) developed in the second half of the nineteenth century and later formed the 2nd International, tended from the beginning not only to provide the working class with representatives for the parlia­mentary struggle, but also constituted the political driving force of the unions. It was these parties which, in the face of all the sectional and local struggles of the class, put forward the common interests of the whole proletariat as a global, historical, revolutionary class.

The ephemeral associations of the early times became under the union form permanent organisations, which in close collaboration with the mass parliamentary parties and organised around the systematic and progressive struggle for reforms, constituted the place where the proletariat was unified and developed its class consciousness.


But the fact that capitalism was at the height of its ascend­ant phase meant that its destruction by the communist revolu­tion was not yet on the historical agenda. With the expansion of the productive forces under the aegis of capitalist relations of production and the success of the parliamentary and trade unions struggles in obtaining real reforms favouring the work­ing class, the very idea of the communist revolution began to appear as a long term, even unattainable goal.

The dangers inherent in unionism and parliamentarism that Marx had denounced continued to develop and with the famous slogan “the end is nothing, the movement is everything”, the workers’ movement was over run by reformism. The workers’ leaders, at one time the representatives of the working class pitted against capitalist society, gradually became the representatives of capitalism working against the class. The trade union and parliamentary bureaucracy tended more and more to dominate proletarian organisations.

One of the clearest signs of this evolution was expressed in the tendency for political struggles to be isolated from economic struggles. While the party was coming to be thought of only as a parliamentary machine, so attempts were being made to make the unions purely economic organisations. Through the separat­ion of the political from the economic element in proletarian struggles, these organisations were being shaped for their integration into the rungs of the capitalist state.

The revolutionary left within the 2nd International led a daily battle against this general degeneration. Rosa Luxemburg, for example, stated: “There are not two different class struggles of the working class, an economic and a political one, but only one class struggle, which aims at one and the same time at the limit­ation of capitalist exploitation within bourgeois society, and at the abolition of exploitation together with bourge­ois society itself” (Rosa Luxemburg, The Mass Strike, the Political Party and the Trade Unions).

But the left could not manage to stem the tide. With the entry of capitalism into decadence the unions and parliamentary parties were flung without difficulty into the camp of the bourgeoisie.