Trade Unionism from the Formal Subsumption of Labor to Proletarian Dictatorship

Trade Unionism from the Formal Subsumption of Labor to Proletarian Dictatorship

Michael Hough

Two historic points are intimately conjoined: the origin of capitalism and the elaboration of the dictatorship of the proletariat. Before radically restructuring society in its image, capital converted the existing actors of pre-capitalist modes of production as and when it found them into agents of the capital-wage labor relation (“Capital therefore presupposes wage labor; wage labor presupposes capital. They condition each other; each brings the other into existence” [1]), even though the mode of labor did not undergo any discernible transformation because the existing social bases of the existing classes– peasant/landlord, slave/slaveowner, journeyman/master– remained unchanged. With the proliferation of this primitive capital accumulation a specifically capitalist mode of production (social division of labor, mass manufacture, etc.) developed, and was characterized by the violent birth of an ever-growing permanent class of wage laborers, with no other social basis and with nothing but their commodified labor-power to sell. Trade unionism emerged as the content of the class struggles of wage laborers under the capitalist social relation. The mutual encroachments of wage labor-capital concerning wages, hours and working conditions compelled the class of wage laborers to accumulate dead class struggles in mock complement to the accumulation of dead labor by the capitalists [2] and generate permanent trade unions. With ever larger factories drawing ever larger numbers of the population into the process of capital accumulation as wage laborers and forcing the submission of all social life to this process, trade unionism developed in the advanced-industrial nations from a practice (resistance/demands), substance (concerted/mass actions) and structure (the human architecture of representatives selected from among co-participants in labor’s class struggles that articulate and define, consolidate and defend material gains) into the accumulation of dead class struggles as permanent trade unions, and finally, in the historic moment that the conditions of the real subsumption of labor under capital had matured in each nation while the accumulation of experience by the working-class matured in tandem, a single center of resistance as trade union center was produced when the class struggles of wage laborers under the capitalist social relation took place in a specifically capitalist society.

Prior to 1917, Lenin’s conception of labor’s class struggles was only ever implied through his derivative political positions (What Is To Be Done?), but with the consolidation of Soviet power, he explicitly defined the content of labor’s class struggles under conditions of proletarian dictatorship (Left-Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder). This is the reverse trajectory from that of the leading figures of the first and second clusters of permanent trade union formations in America for whom a definition of labor’s class struggles under the capitalist social relation was explicit while the content of the emancipation of labor was only ever implied:

“On Peter J. McGuire’s death, W.J. Shields, General President [United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners] in 1886-1888, wrote: ‘He understood that the trade union movement was a great democratic training school of the workers, where not only parliamentary procedure is taught, but the method of trade union necessity in its deep, simple sense’. That understanding was McGuire’s greatest gift to his fellow workers” (Brooks, The Road to Dignity, p.57)

“Being a school of communism in general, the trade unions must, in particular, be a school for training the whole mass of workers, and eventually all working people, in the art of managing socialist industry (and gradually also agriculture)”  (Lenin, Role and Function of the Trade Unions Under the New Economic Policy)

I ‘School of Democratic Training’

Following the proliferation of wage laborers was the proliferation of competition among wage laborers, driven by their recent expropriation and proletarianization to struggle against each other as sellers of the commodity labor-power rather than quarrel with the owners of capital. Marx placed the moment of genesis of trade unionism with the impulse to overcome this competition between wage laborers [3], which further cemented the permanent class of wage laborers– the working-class, the proletariat– as a class-in-itself. Organizing against the damaging effects of inner-class competition was the first act of working-class solidarity, and the precondition for the practice, substance and structure of trade unionism to develop as the content of labor’s class struggles under the capitalist social relation.

II ‘School of Parliamentary Procedure’

Consolidated as a permanent class of capitalist society and compelled to struggle with personified capital over wages, hours and the organization, terms and conditions of work imposed and demanded by employers of wage labor, the practice, substance and structure of trade unionism generated temporary, semi-permanent and eventually permanent trade unions—organs which structurally embody dead class struggles, tangible accumulations or depositories of the historic memory and experience of labor’s class struggles as part of a new practice of permanent resistance. At the level of specific workplaces, employers, industries and sectors, the workers’ practice of resistance/demands and substance of concerted/mass actions secretes organic leaders, a human architecture selected and distilled from among co-participants in labor’s class struggles, becoming the trade union structure (bureaucracy). As both a material gain derived from and a representation of labor’s class struggles, the trade union administers the social and physical fact of labor’s accumulated class struggles in the workplace and in the class, requiring the workers to define its methods. The union-form is a class organ unique to the proletariat, and creating their internal regimes required wage laborers to develop a unique ethics and means of decision-making in the course of the real-existing class struggle. The effect of worker behaviors on the collective effort to win new or protect past material gains from employers was the primary device in establishing trade union norms. Behavior which would inhibit the extraction of new material gains or harm efforts to defend past gains and existing conditions (scabbing, snitching, shirking) became the biggest sins, while behavior which facilitated the struggle to win new or protect past gains (solidarity, discipline, sacrifice) became the highest virtues. Codification of trade union norms and internal regimes in the trade union constitution and by-laws was a defining characteristic of the historic moment that the working-class generated permanent trade unions; it was the codification of the workers’ practice of permanent resistance.

III ‘School of Trade Union Necessity’

A mandate of legitimacy is conferred upon the organic leaders of labor’s class struggles selected to become the human architecture of the trade union structure, a legitimacy born from the act of articulation and definition of material gains from the workers’ spontaneous resistance to and contingent demands of capital and manifestations of concerted/mass actions (strikes, boycotts, demonstrations, etc.) which leads these organic leaders selected in the struggle to become the agents of the consolidation and defense of these material gains as the trade union structure (bureaucracy). Trade union discipline derives from this legitimacy and provides the basis for the fundamental relation between trade union members and leaders. Legitimacy is distinct from trust, faith and fear—though it may contain elements of each. The establishment of trade union norms and trade union discipline were concurrent; violators of proletarian ethics and decision-making, be it perpetually lapsed dues-payers or scabs or stool pigeons or wreckers (splitters, secessionists, alternatively known as dual unionists), could be subject to sanctions and penalties ranging from fines to expulsion or social-physical destruction according to circumstances. Centralization of judicial-legislative-executive functions in the progressively higher or greater mandates of labor’s chosen representatives throughout the trade union structure/bureaucracy, from local union officers to the highest committees of national and International unions as decided in the conventions of workers’ delegates, was both a precondition and manifestation of legitimacy—as legitimacy can only be born in the course of the real-existing class struggles of organized and organizing labor. The innate capacity of the working-class to organize, centralize and reproduce its class ethics, decision-making and discipline in the lived experience of its class struggles with organized and unorganized capital is the implied content of the emancipation of labor expressed in the early AF of L [4].

IV ‘School of War’ (Engels)

The dynamic of trade union discipline, its inherently voluntary centralizing tendencies, particularly as it is produced and reproduced in the course of the real-existing class struggle was recognized by Engels with his description of the trade unions as ‘schools of war’ [5]. Manifestations of labor’s class struggles, manifestations of concerted/mass actions as the substance of trade unionism (strikes, boycotts, demonstrations, etc.), are both a social and physical struggle between the personifications of wage labor and capital. Organized and organizing labor requires discipline as a condition of the struggle and as a condition of situational victory or defeat, to consolidate and defend newly won material gains or in the orderly retreat to maintain as much of their organization and current conditions as possible. The companion to the articulation and definition, consolidation and defense of material gains is organized force, class violence. Hangman’s methods within the trade union structure (assassination of Yablonski, disappearance of Hoffa), subversion of state power or armed insurrection (Homestead, Battle of Blair Mountain, Bloody Harlan) and various expressions of barracks unionism (McNamara brothers, Colorado mine wars) all express the inherent tendency toward organized force– class violence– as companion to the practice, substance and structure of trade unionism as the content of labor’s class struggles; a tendency reflected in the generation of organs of workers’ control/power which reaches its most developed form in the dictatorship of the proletariat [6].

V ‘School of Communism’ (Lenin)

Intervention by the workers’ political party in labor’s class struggles seeks to establish organic leadership in the class by receiving a mandate of legitimacy—evident in the historic experiences of the French socialists and the Paris Commune, the German socialists under Bismarck’s anti-socialist law and the Russian socialists in the 1905 revolution. Transubstantiation of the organs of workers’ control/power (self-defense guards, worker’s councils, occupation committees, etc.) by the workers’ party through its influence on a (greater or lesser) fraction of labor’s human architecture selected and distilled from among co-participants in labor’s class struggles who articulate and define, consolidate and defend state power as material gain is the act of construction of a workers’ state as proletarian dictatorship. Following its inauguration, the “revolutionary experiences and the needs of the masses showed that the unions not only are not superfluous after the social revolution but that they are the pillars of the dictatorship of the proletariat” [7], in which the trade unions as working schools of administration in control and power, perpetually constitute and reconstitute the structure of the workers’ state and imbue it with legitimacy for the duration of the proletarian dictatorship.


[1] Karl Marx, Wage Labor and Capital (1935 ed.), International Publishers, p.32

[2] “Capital is dead labor, which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labor, and lives the more, the more labor it sucks” (Marx)

“The capitalist has the advantage of past accumulations; the laborer, unassisted by combinations, has not” (The Carpenter, Vol. I number 1, May 1881)

[3] Karl Marx, Instructions for the Delegates of the Provisional General Council of the International Workingmen’s Association (1866)

[4] “It was the feudal system that rendered the capital system possible. It is the capitalistic system that will make it possible for the people to establish for themselves a government (by and through the power and efforts of well-organized trade unions) of, for and by the people in the full sense of the word.” – Louis Berliner, ‘Trade Unions and Trusts’, American Federationist Vol.V #1 (1898)

[5] “These strikes, at first skirmishes, sometimes result in weighty struggles; they decide nothing, it is true, but they are the strongest proof that the decisive battle between bourgeoisie and proletariat is approaching. They are the military school of the workingmen in which they prepare themselves for the great struggle which cannot be avoided.… And as schools of war, the Unions are unexcelled.” – Friedrich Engels, The Condition of the Working-Class in England (1845)

[6] “. . . the class struggle necessarily leads to the dictatorship of the proletariat. . .” – Marx, Letter to Joseph Weydemeyer March 5, 1852

[7] A.S. Lozovsky, The Role of the Labor Unions in the Russian Revolution (1920)