Review: The unions were not anti-working class from their inception

Printer-friendly versionSend by email

In this series we have examined the struggle of the working class in Britain to organise itself against capitalism during the period of capitalism's ascendance, looking in particular at the growth of the trade unions as defensive organisations against the attacks of capital.

As we said at the start in WR 301, these articles are aimed at answering the popular argument in the anarchist milieu that the trade unions have always been reactionary. An article reprinted from the now defunct but still influential British paper Wildcat, expressing exactly these views, has recently appeared in the online library of libcom.org , so in this article we want to directly respond to this argument.

Why did workers create unions in the 19th century?

Wildcat's position is very simple: "the unions have sabotaged working class struggle since their inception."

Wildcat's version of history, which partly follows in the footsteps of John and Paula Zerzan, and Cajo Brendel, can easily be summed up. Back in the 18th century there were uncontrollable mobs, but in the early 19th century the working class movement reached a high point with the Luddites. From then on it was all downhill as the bourgeoisie ‘tamed' the workers' anger against capitalism by encouraging the creation of legalistic, pacifist trade unions and diverting workers' energies into parliamentary struggles for the vote.

The first problem with this argument is that it prompts the question: if the unions have always been reactionary why did workers ever create them in the first place? Why is it that, even today, while expressing their anger at the now reactionary unions' betrayals, and deep criticisms of this or that leader or union, workers still very often express the idea, especially in Britain, birthplace of trade unionism, that at some deep level the trade unions are still somehow ‘theirs', and therefore have to be defended?

The answer is: because the trade unions originally were theirs; they belonged to the workers, who built them to defend themselves against capital's attacks; fought for them; were persecuted, imprisoned and transported for the very act of belonging to them.

How did the working class in the 19th century not notice that the unions were, in fact, "sabotaging the working class struggle from their inception"? Although Wildcat doesn't say so, the logical conclusion from their argument is that the working class were somehow duped by the bourgeoisie into thinking that the unions were ‘their' organisations, when they were products of the bourgeoisie all along...

No, if the workers persisted in putting their energies into the building of trade unions, it was because this model of permanent mass organisation in the factories corresponded to their immediate and objective needs as a class, and they were prepared to invest all their energies in their defence against the bourgeoisie. And this is why, despite the betrayals of a union leadership which, yes, even in the mid-19th century, became deeply infected with opportunist and reformist ideas and practices (see WR 305), in this historical period the unions still expressed abundant proletarian life.

Was there an alternative to the unions?

For Wildcat the highly disciplined organisation and violent actions of the Luddites are the real alternative to the reactionary trade unions, even arguing that "Some kind of Luddite-style community organisation would be appropriate for workers in small, scattered work-places today."

But we need to put the Luddites in their proper historical context. As we showed in WR 301, in the early 19th century Luddism expressed the resistance of the skilled hand-loom weavers to the relentless advance of large-scale capitalist industry. Machine-breaking was a symptom of the weakness of this struggle, not strength, while the Luddites' clandestine organisation was an attempt to overcome the scattered nature of production in this declining sector, especially in conditions of heightened repression during wartime.

In contrast, it was the factory workers, especially in the textile industry, who increasingly took the lead in the workers' movement in this period, and whose struggles demonstrated an open, massive character; also highly disciplined but with very little violence, as in the first great cotton spinners' strike of 1818. Wildcat ignore all this, clinging to the argument that the only reason Luddism did not continue was that state repression had the effect of "opening up a space for parliamentarism and trade unionism, which was powerful enough to prevent a serious resurgence of Luddism." This is simplistic. But even Wildcat, which thinks that the Luddites are still a model to copy today, has to admit that this could only be relevant for small, scattered communities, when the working class today is precisely characterised by its concentration in massive urban and industrial areas, where its struggles tend to take on an open, mass character.

The violent actions of the Luddites against the state and employers are one of the main reasons why Wildcat sees them as a model to be followed today. But Wildcat generally downplays the importance for the working class of organisation; it wasn't violence which explains the success of the workers in spreading their struggles across the country during the 1842 general strike, as Wildcat suggests, but their organisation in local strike committees, mass pickets and ‘committees of public safety', and their unification at the national level through conferences of trade delegates to direct the struggles and give them explicit political objectives to gain the demands of the Peoples' Charter.

Significantly in the 1842 general strike there is also no evidence that the workers themselves saw any opposition between their own struggles and trade unionism; on the contrary, the delegates to the national conferences were trade unionists, active locally in their union branches and agitating in them for Chartist demands. And it was precisely the spectre of an alliance between trade unionism and Chartism that so terrified the bourgeoisie - see WR 216 and 304.

Wildcat rejects the struggle for reforms

Wildcat argues that as early as 1824 measures like the Combination Acts, which legalised some forms of organisation, merely enabled the recuperation of working class organisation by the middle class from the outside, citing as examples the use of the courts by early trade union leaderships.

For a start this rather neglects the Combination Acts of 1799 and 1800 which banned all forms of union organisation. Small unions had existed from before the Industrial Revolution, but the ruling class was concerned that a new more militant type of unionism was spreading to factories and mines in the Midlands and the North of England.

It also needs to be said that after the 1824 measures the bourgeoisie still found ways of attacking working class organisation, the Tolpuddle Martyrs, for example, were convicted of administering unlawful oaths.

But for Wildcat it wasn't just the trade unions that represented an attack on the working class at this time; the struggle for the vote in this period was also an expression of the invasion of bourgeois influence from the outside. So the Chartist movement, far from representing the first mass proletarian political party, was nothing but a "middle class movement dedicated to recuperating working class struggle. The intention of Chartism was always to divert working class anger into demands for an extension of the franchise."

As for the improvements in working and living standards won by the working class in his period, for example the restriction on child labour and working hours for women, these were nothing but "pre-emptive concessions to the working class designed to buy social peace in the long term."

So, to be clear, Wildcat's argument is that the whole struggle for reforms by the working class during the period of capitalism's progressive expansion was nothing but a bourgeois diversion from violent insurrection.

This radical-sounding argument is empty of historical method, and of any understanding of the conditions in which the working class was struggling. Given the condition of the great mass of the working class, it was still absolutely necessary to organise in order to struggle for improvements such as the limitation of the working day, as a precondition for the further development of the class struggle. Despite the growth of reformist illusions in the workers' movement, which the bourgeoisie of course did all it could to reinforce, the working class secured real economic and political benefits in this period, like extension of the franchise, legalisation of the unions and real wage rises at least for skilled workers. But even after the legal recognition of trade unions in the early 1870s, trade unionised workers were only a small minority of the class in Britain; vast sectors of the working class were still virtually unorganised, and only some parts of the class had the vote.

Wildcat dismisses the hard-fought gains made by the working class in this period, but more importantly dismisses the real struggle of the class to organise itself in a period when revolution was not yet on the historic agenda. Superficially Wildcat's arguments sound radical, and to those today who can see the very real reactionary nature of the trade unions everywhere it no doubt sounds very revolutionary to be told that in fact the trade unions have always acted in this way. But it hides not only a complete lack of historical method and understanding, but above all a disdain for the working class and its struggle against capitalism.

MH 1/10/07.