WHEN Karl Marx entered on his political activities, the trade unions of the working class had just started coming into existence. Their emergence was an anathema to the capitalist rulers, and they were banned in many countries.
Those who thought of socialism in those days- the utopian socialists, the petty bourgeois socialists and others-did not understand the importance of this form of working class organisation. Some of them were openly opposed to trade unions, considering them to be useless and harmful, while others demanded a ban on strikes for being harmful to social development and interests.
Others still saw in the trade unions and strike the exclusive instrument of social change. But they would not go beyond economic struggle and abjured all politics on principle, as compromise with the existing order. None of these viewpoints understood the link of the trade union struggle with the struggle for the emancipation of the working class and society from capitalist bondage and with the struggle for the capture of political power by the working class.
This was because they did not understand the content of the modern class struggle and the role of the working class as the leading force of the socialist revolution.
For Marx, the working class was the only revolutionary class facing the capitalist class. In the Communist Manifesto he said: “Of all the classes that stand face to face with the bourgeoisie today, the proletariat alone is a really revolutionary class. The other classes decay and finally disappear in the face of modern industry, the proletariat is its special and essential product.”
Every activity of this class was therefore, important for Marx-activity in which the class got consciousness to move forward. The formation of trade unions and the trade union movement were important steps in the formation of a class, a common class-consciousness. The superior organisation- the political party of the working class could not be formed and expanded in isolation from this practical struggle involving the large mass of workers. That is why the statutes of the International Working Men’s Association provided for affiliation of trade unions and other organisations of the working class, along with individual membership.
In the conduct of the historic International Working Men’s Association, as well as after its dissolution, Marx continued to attach due importance to the trade unions in the revolutionary struggle of the working class and at the same time exposed the leadership which severed this link.
The aim of the International Working Men’s Association, in the eyes of Marx, was not only to unite the trade unions for daily struggles and international cooperation. The trade unions, of course, achieved primary importance because they represented the direct class activity of the working class. The real aim was to work for the political unification of the international working class movement in the struggle for social emancipation – political organisation of the working class. It was arrived at by focusing on organisation which, in the words of Engels, “would demonstrate bodily, so to speak, the international character of the socialist movement, both to the workers themselves and to the bourgeois and to the Governments-for the encouragement and strengthening of the proletariat, for striking fears into the hearts of its enemies.” (Selected Works, vol. 3, page 82). To achieve this purpose it was necessary to pay close attention to the trade union movement.
Marx had to unite the various manifestations of working class unrest- of which the trade union movement was one- and by continuous struggle teach the others of the vital importance of the trade union movement in the struggle for socialism. It was a prolonged battle waged in the International Working Men’s Association.
It was a battle, which was later in continued against trade union reformism, which diverted the working class from its final aims. That battle had to be picked up by Lenin and later on carried on by the Communist International and communist parties. This fight against bourgeois influence in the trade unions has had to be carried on today also in almost all capitalist countries, including the newly liberated countries.
The type of united front that had to be forged out of the different manifestations can be seen from the following from Engels regarding the International Working Men’s Association: “Its aim was to weld together into one huge army all the fighting forces of the working class of Europe and America….
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Courtesy: The Marxist