A common misconception is that trade unions are a critical part of Marx’s theory of revolution. I’m here to convince you that is not the case, and the presence of unions in the First International was merely a temporary and doomed-to-fail alliance of convenience.
The First and Second Internationals
The International was formed on 28 September 1864 as an alliance between a wide array of left-wing statist, mutualist, and anarchist organizations. These three competing visions had many disagreements throughout the organization’s history. While there were some victories, such as the 8-hour work day, Baukinin accused Marx of being an authoritarian, and Marx believed Baukinin was naive. They split 8 years later into two different organizations, one following Baukinin and the other following Marx.
There was a major split between different unions, some followed Baukinin, and some followed Marx following the collapse of the First International.
They tried to come back together again during the Second International, but there was such a large divide between reformists and revolutionaries which led to many reformist organizations leaving in 1896.
These Internationals could never have continued to exist for a long period of time. The Reformists and anarchists (particularly Baukanin) believed Marxism would inevitably lead to totalitarianism, while Marxists believed they had the only real answer.
Where Trade Unions fit in Marxism
There are precious few quotes about trade unions in Marx’s writings. Perhaps the most notable one is:
Trade unions work well as centres of resistance against the encroachments of capital. They fall partially from an injudicious use of their power. They fail generally from limiting themselves to a guerrilla war against the effect of the existing system, instead of simultaneously trying to change it, instead of using their organised forces as a lever for the final emancipation of the working class, that is to say the ultimate abolition of the wages system.
Which fits in with the rest of his writings. The abolition of the wage system is Marx’s goal of working with unions. The goal of unions is to improve wages and working conditions. As working conditions improve (the goal of labor unions), fewer people are going to be interested in a violent revolution. For this reason, these two goals are incompatible.
Marx saw unions as a convenient way to bring people over to his school of thought because if he had been able to change their methods towards revolution instead of incrementalism, he would have been able to spread his ideas around the world.
At the end of the day, the majority of trade unions are inherently incrementalist in their nature and theoretically opposed to Marxism. Marx’s attempt to bring unions over to his side failed, and the two sides have never joined again.
Marx, Karl. “Value, Price, and Profit.” Economic Manuscripts: Value, Price and Profit, https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1865/value-price-profit/ch03.htm.