Why Unions Are Good — But Not Good Enough

For socialists, unions are paradoxical organizations. On the one hand, unions are essential for creating a workers' organization that can oppose capital and challenge it for power. But they are also an insufficient vehicle for mobilizing those workers to transform the world.

A man and child in the doorway of a French trade union office, circa 1915. Hulton Archive / Getty

Marx and Engels wrote extensively about the unions of their time, although never systematically. The majority of their writings on unions responded to concrete labor struggles of their time. From their earliest works, they grasped unions’ necessity and limitations in creating a working-class agent capable of advancing class struggle against the bourgeoisie. This departed from previous variants of socialism, often based in idealized views of rebuilding a rapidly eroding community of artisanal producers, which did not emphasize class organization or class struggle.

Writing in The Condition of the Working Class in England about emerging forms of unionism, Engels observed that even though workers’ primary struggles were over material issues such as wages, they pointed to a deeper social and political conflict:

What gives these Unions and the strikes arising from them their real importance is this, that they are the first attempt of the workers to abolish competition. They im­ ply the recognition of the fact that the supremacy of the bourgeoisie is based wholly upon the competition of the workers among themselves; i.e., upon their want of cohesion. And precisely because the Unions direct themselves against the vital nerve of the present social order, however one-sidedly, in however narrow a way, are they so dangerous to this social order.

At the same time, Engels saw that, even as union struggles “[kept alive] the opposition of the workers to the … omnipotence of the bourgeoisie,” so too did they “[compel] the admission that something more is needed than Trades Unions and strikes to break the power of the ruling class.”

Here Engels articulates the crux of the problem. First, unions are essential for working-class formation, creating a collective actor both opposed to the bourgeoisie and capable of challenging it for power. Second, they are an insufficient vehicle for creating and mobilizing that collective actor.

Marx and Engels understood that unions are essential to working-class formation because, under capitalism, the system of “free labor,” where individual workers sell their labor power to an employer for a wage, fragments relations between workers and makes them compete with each other. As described in the Communist Manifesto, the bourgeoisie “has left no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous ‘cash payment,’” leaving workers “exposed to all the vicissitudes of competition, to all the fluctuations of the market.”

While workers organized based on other collective identities, such as race, ethnicity, or religion, only unions could unite them as workers against the source of their exploitation — the bourgeoisie. Unions serve “as organized agencies for superseding the very system of wage labor and capital rule.”

But just as unions could allow the proletariat to take shape and challenge the bourgeoisie for power, Marx and Engels also saw that they were a partial, imperfect vehicle for doing so for two reasons.

First, unions’ fundamentally defensive role, protecting workers against employers’ efforts to drive a competitive race to the bottom, meant that they limited themselves “to a guerrilla war against the effects of the existing system, instead of simultaneously trying to change it.”

Thus, even militant trade unions found themselves struggling for “a fair day’s work for a fair day’s wage” without challenging the bourgeoisie’s fundamental power, particularly the wage labor system. And some layers of the trade union officialdom were content to fight for privileges for their small segment of the working class, leaving most workers behind.

Second, unions’ focus on wages and workplace issues tended to reinforce a division between economic and political struggles. This division was explicit with the more conservative “old” unions in Britain, which “bar[red] all political action on principle and in their charters.”

But even with more progressive formations, such as the early nineteenth century’s Chartists, or the late nineteenth century’s “new” unions, Marx and Engels saw that the transition from workplace struggles to politics was not automatic.

For one, it varied across national contexts. Engels observed that French workers were much more likely to mobilize politically, while English workers “fight, not against the Government, but directly against the bourgeoisie.” But beyond national variation, they saw a recurring pattern of division, separating economic and political struggles by organization.

Reflecting on the early to mid-nineteenth century English working-class movement, Engels noted a threefold divide between “socially-based” Chartists, “politically-based” Socialists, and conservative, craft-based trade unions. While the Chartists were “purely a working-men’s [sic] cause freed from all bourgeois elements,” they remained “theoretically the more backward, the less developed.” Socialists may have been more theoretically sophisticated, but their bourgeois origins made it difficult to “amalgamate completely with the working class.”

Although young Engels thought an alliance of Chartism and socialism was underway, the alliance proved elusive. By the 1870s, Marx opined that politically, the English working class was “nothing more than the tail of the great Liberal Party, i.e., henchmen of the capitalists.”

Likewise, Engels had soured on the English working class. Both saw promise in the militant worker protest in the United States at the time, seeing the seeds of a nascent labor party. But that too fell short.

Thus, unions failed in Marx and Engels’s central task: the formation of “a political organization of the working class as a whole.”

Marx and Engels’s sober analyses of unions’ concrete difficulties in moving from economic to political struggles stood at odds with many of their theoretical pronouncements, where this transition seemed inevitable. While they noted in the Manifesto that the “organization of the proletarians into a class, and, consequently, into a political party, is continually being upset again by the competition between the workers themselves,” they also asserted that “it ever rises up again, stronger, firmer, mightier.”

In The Poverty of Philosophy, Marx asserted that “in the struggle . . . this mass [of people transformed by economic conditions into workers] becomes united, and constitutes itself as a class for itself.” If they were attuned to the challenges of class formation, and the contradictory roles unions could play in that process, they never drew out the theoretical implications of their concrete analyses.

Nonetheless, in Marx and Engels’s work we can detect in embryonic form many of the core questions that would orient subsequent Marxist debates about trade unions’ role in class formation and class struggle.

Marx and Engels saw that unions were inherently products of their historical period, limited by existing relations of production. At the same time, as organizational expressions of the working class, unions could play a key role in reshaping relations of production.

As for enhancing or inhibiting class struggle, they saw that unions’ focus on concrete, practical workplace questions such as wages and working hours was a necessary step in developing the proletariat’s fighting capacity, but also constrained workers within a capitalist framework, limiting their ability to fight for broader demands such as abolition of the wage system.

Similarly, different types of union organization could create different class identities, from craft unions’ narrow exclusion to the “new” unions’ broader inclusivity. As for the relation between unions and politics, they understood unions’ necessary but limited role in mobilizing the working class around political demands.

Still, these core insights remained fragmentary. Later theorists would flesh them out.

Unions After Marx and Engels: Aristocracy or Revolutionary Agent?

The problems Marx and Engels identified in their later writings on trade unions intensified after their deaths. Formations they found promising, like the US Knights of Labor, and the “new unions” in Britain, either foundered or soon resembled the conservative “old unions” they challenged. The International Workingmen’s Association, or First International, to which Marx and Engels devoted much time and energy, dissolved by 1876.

On the European continent, Bismarck’s Anti-Socialist Law, in effect from 1878 to 1890, drove most German unions underground save for an elite layer of skilled workers, leaving the bulk of the industrial working class unorganized. In France, unions were more politically radical than in England or Germany, but numerically smaller and weaker. Meanwhile, Europe and North America’s capitalist class, far from entering into crisis, proved resilient, growing and consolidating its power.

For Marxists, questions of explaining capitalism’s durability and working-class weakness and conservatism loomed large, sparking debate on why these problems existed and how to solve them. Some like Eduard Bernstein proposed revising Marx’s idea of the revolutionary overthrow of the bourgeoisie. In his vision of “evolutionary socialism,” unions combined with parliamentary parties and cooperative associations would gradually expand democratic control over the economy, displacing capitalists.

Karl Kautsky disagreed, warning that “the more capitalism passes over from free competition to monopoly . . . the more indispensable it will be that the trades unionists are inspired with socialist discernment and socialist enthusiasm.” While he was optimistic that unions would “constitute the most energetic factors in surmounting” capitalism, the reality of the workers’ organizations of his time suggested otherwise.

To explain working-class conservatism, some drew on observations from Marx and Engels themselves to argue that employers in core industries had managed to “bribe” a stratum of skilled workers with super-profits. This resulted in a conservative “labor aristocracy” that aligned with its industry to protect its privileges rather than building a broad working-class movement of skilled and unskilled workers.

Lenin expanded the idea to the global stage, arguing that imperialists’ colonial possessions generated the super-profits with which to bribe their respective labor aristocracies. For Lenin, this helped explain not only working-class conservatism in general, but European workers’ movements’ rejection of international solidarity in favor of alliances with their national bourgeoisies in the run-up to World War I.

While it is true that some skilled workers did form conservative organizations to protect their privileges, the idea that this resulted from these layers being “bribed” by their national bourgeoisies does not withstand scrutiny. Most difficult for the labor aristocracy theory to explain is the fact that, in many cases, the most skilled workers formed the core of broader left movements, organizing for class-wide demands. Critics argue that how workers were organized to struggle against their national bourgeoisies, not the mere fact of skill-based wage differentials, better explains why unions took radical or conservative turns.

Other theorists blamed working-class conservatism on workers’ organization itself. For syndicalists like Georges Sorel, formal organization was an obstacle to workers’ ability to realize their revolutionary potential. Likewise, based on his experience operating in and observing the German SPD, Robert Michels reached the conclusion that “who says organization, says oligarchy.”

Both argued that over time, workers’ organizations, whether parties or unions, shied away from activities that might advance workers’ interests, but at the expense of jeopardizing the organization’s existence. Sorel saw salvation in the mythical vision of the general strike, while Michels remained pessimistic about escaping the “iron law of oligarchy.”

Based on her experience with the German SPD, Rosa Luxemburg was also wary of organization’s conservatizing effects. She emphasized the need for workers’ self-activity, particularly through mass strikes. But unlike Sorel, she understood that the success of seemingly “spontaneous” mass action depended on the prior organization of leadership layers.

In this, her theory of how to build organizations to unite workers against capital resembled Lenin’s, even though her “spontaneist” position is often counterposed to his “elitism.” Many emphasize Lenin’s argument that unions were insufficient vehicles for forging the revolutionary agent capable of overthrowing the bourgeoisie, which required unions to ally with political parties of intellectuals, often from outside the working class.

But this focus on Lenin’s “centralism” ignores the extent to which Lenin appreciated the fundamental importance of mass action by workers in creating revolutionary consciousness and organization.

Both Lenin and Luxemburg saw workers’ core problem as overcoming “economism.” This meant separating the struggle against capital into distinct economic and political components, with unions bargaining over economic questions and parliamentary parties handling political questions. This undermined labor by taking as given the laws governing the economy, obscuring the fact that these laws were part of a political system that facilitated capital’s rule.

In focusing on workplace demands, unions risked reinforcing the political-economic divide. Luxemburg insisted on the importance of mass action because it brought economic struggles against individual employers into the political sphere, as states and organized capitalists would have to respond to worker demands. Lenin emphasized the importance of party intellectuals not conspiring to seize power on their own but as a complement to mass action, helping to connect the economic and political dimensions of class struggle.

Lenin understood — as did Luxemburg — that the transition between economic and political struggle was not automatic. Rather, workplace economic struggles created new possibilities for challenging capital’s political rule, the outcome of which depended on the structure and character of workers’ organization.

Building on Lenin and Luxemburg’s insights, Gramsci focused on uniting not only the political and economic, but also ideological dimensions of class struggle. While he was critical of the bureaucratic unions of his time, he saw them as an important site for engaging in workers’ struggle for control of industry.

Drawing on lessons from the Turin general strike of 1920, he advocated fusing unions with factory councils as a means of exercising worker sovereignty on the shop floor and producing a “new working-class leading stratum.” For Gramsci, parties played a key role in welding together this leading stratum of “organic” intellectuals, based within the working class, and party-based “traditional” intellectuals — Lenin’s “professional revolutionaries.”

Building workers’ revolutionary consciousness was not something that could only be brought from outside or emerge purely from mass action. Rather, it was the product of an organizational infrastructure made up of parties, unions, and factory councils, within which that consciousness could take shape and find political expression.

Like Gramsci, Trotsky focused on the role of unions in organizing workers to challenge capital in the workplace. He observed that “the danger of the trade unions [to capital] is that they do put forward — for the moment, gropingly, indecisively and half-heartedly — the principle of a workers’ government.” That principle would be advanced through a “class-conscious minority” in the workplace, akin to Gramsci’s organic intellectuals. Trotsky developed an analysis of the organizational barriers that caused the principle of workers’ government to be put forth so indecisively. He argued that this was due to the trade union bureaucracy, which he saw as “drawing closely to and growing together with the state power.” For him, establishing workers’ government required challenging and overthrowing that bureaucratic layer within the labor movement.

The debates surrounding working-class organization in the decades after Marx’s and Engels’s deaths wrestled with a fundamental problem. Unions and socialist parties did develop organizational interests that inhibited their ability to fight for workers’ interests.

But even though mass action did erupt and play a transformative role on occasion, the syndicalist vision of “constant class activity” proved difficult to sustain in practice. This suggested that some form of organization was necessary to protect the gains of past struggles. Moreover, the mere fact of mass action proved insufficient for forging working-class identities and advancing workers’ interests.

The translation between economic and political struggles required leadership and organization. But building organizations that did not fall prey to conservatism and bureaucratization remained a challenge.

The Postwar Period: Calling the Working Class Into Question

Mass worker upsurge in the early twentieth century established unions as a legitimate, legally recognized presence in most Western industrialized countries. At the same time, radical left movements were decisively defeated, taking the question of unions’ revolutionary potential off the table.

By World War II’s end, these countries had created bureaucratic industrial-relations regimes integrating unions into systems of formalized collective bargaining, buttressed politically by social-democratic parties and welfare state regimes. In the Eastern Bloc, Stalinist regimes either crushed or absorbed unions into the party-state apparatus.

Around the world, the political and military constraints of the Cold War profoundly shaped relations between parties, unions, and states, and limited the range of acceptable political discourse. Decolonization movements exploded across the Third World. Many of these explicitly organized along class lines, based on Marxist understandings of exploitation.

These movements were caught up in the geopolitical struggle between the United States and the USSR over “spheres of influence.” In “the West,” class-based mobilization was inextricably linked to the specter of Communism, leading to intra-class conflict between socialists and Communists and their affiliated parties and labor unions over questions of loyalty and militancy. In “the East,” class mobilization became integrated into state ideology, stifling rank-and-file activity. These conflicts constrained union militancy and pressured unions to become “responsible” social bargaining partners — although some resisted.

Mainstream industrial relations scholars viewed unions’ and socialist parties’ postwar domestication as part of a natural “maturing” process, whereby class divisions would be managed in the workplace through a system of “industrial pluralism,” while political demands would be channeled into a “democratic class struggle” between competing parties. But even as they appreciated the real gains that industrial legality and welfare-state reforms meant for workers, Marxists viewed these changes with unease.

Postwar gains were built on the defeat of prewar worker upsurges and a broader socialist vision. The key question regarding workers’ organization was no longer “reform or revolution?” but rather how to understand this defeat, and how unions might still challenge capital in this constrained environment.

The predominant response was to adapt. Across Western Europe and North America, Communist and socialist parties and their affiliated unions retained the rhetoric of class struggle, worker control, and the overthrow of capitalism. But in practice, they fought for reforms within the existing capitalist system.

By the 1970s, the reformist orientation called “Eurocommunismemerged. For others, the answer was to abandon the idea that unions or the working class could serve as revolutionary agents. At an organizational level, they echoed Michels in arguing that trade unions and social-democratic parties had become too bureaucratic, too concerned with institutional self-preservation, to be vehicles for social change.

C. Wright Mills’s detailed study of the “New Men of Power” showed how labor leaders of his time came to resemble and integrate with the political, business, and military elite. Likewise, Frankfurt School theorist Herbert Marcuse argued that postwar bureaucratization and the growth of the welfare state created a “new society” characterized by a “unification of opposites” — including labor and capital.

Still others, reviving the theory of the labor aristocracy, declared that unions and the industrial working class they represented had been “bought off” by their respective national bourgeoisies, uniting with their employers to benefit from imperialist plunder of peripheral countries. Some went even further, arguing that even the organized working class in the periphery constituted a “privileged” layer more interested in preserving the status quo than overthrowing it.

But the problem for these theorists was not only organizational. Workers themselves had become conservative, losing their revolutionary potential. Mills maintained that the Marxist idea of the working class as “the historic agency” was no longer valid, “an historically specific idea that has been turned into an a-historical and unspecific hope” he derided as a “labor metaphysic.”

Developing this idea, Marcuse claimed that “changes in the character of work and the instruments of production” had socially and culturally integrated the working class into capitalist society. Postwar bureaucratization, technological innovation and automation, and the increasing alienation of “mass society” had rendered the working class not only less revolutionary, but less relevant.

The question then arose: what social force could replace the working class as the key revolutionary agent?

The two main candidates advanced were (1) students and intellectuals; and (2) the global peasantry, preferably armed. This debate over the agents of social change shaped the postwar New Left, which differed from previous left-wing movements in its distance from unions and the working class. Much of it was student-based and enamored of romanticized notions of peasant-led guerrilla insurrections in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Untethered from a working-class base, much of the movement imploded into isolated grouplets, with some devolving into adventurist terror cells.

However, not all segments of the postwar left were willing to accommodate the existing capitalist order, nor abandon the working class as the key revolutionary agent.

While critical of what existing unions had become, a small minority continued to insist on their importance as vehicles of working-class organization. Most within this heterogenous camp were influenced by Trotsky’s focus on workplace control and analysis of the trade union bureaucracy. The core problem they faced was how to rebuild a dynamic working-class movement amidst dramatic workplace changes and a stultifying postwar “consensus” between the official representatives of labor and capital.

Their analysis focused on understanding (1) changes in the structure and conditions of work; (2) the organizational structure and functioning of labor unions; and (3) the conditions shaping worker consciousness and action.

In the years immediately following World War II, a group called the Johnson-Forest Tendency published a series of pamphlets examining contemporary shop-floor life and the day-to-day dynamics of class conflict. The authors, who had direct shop-floor experience, showed how factory production was organized not to maximize efficiency but to retain management’s control over and knowledge of the production process. Management prioritized shop-floor discipline over encouraging workers’ ingenuity to improve production.

In unionized shops, they argued that union bureaucrats served as a junior partner to management, trading worker gains in wages, benefits, and representation in exchange for reaffirming the company’s right to manage. This was not a result of personal corruption or moral failings but a structural feature of the bureaucracy.

Postwar labor relations, with full-time union representatives tasked with negotiating and administering complex, technical contracts with management representatives, meant that unions’ bureaucratic layer had a day-to-day experience closer to their management counterparts than the workers they represented. Likewise, they saw apathy and conservatism among the ranks not as a result of ignorance, but a rational response to the boss’s power and the union’s inability to counter it.

The Johnson-Forest perspective found an audience in France, where the Socialisme ou Barbarie? group translated many of their pamphlets, as well as in Italy, where partisans elaborated the ideas into a perspective known as operaismo, or workerism. By then, it had veered far from its Trotskyist roots, its strident skepticism of bureaucracy making it resemble more the syndicalism that Trotsky criticized.

Other tendencies developed the “workerist” analysis of the workplace, unions, and worker consciousness, but without rejecting the role of leaders or parties as leading inevitably to bureaucratic domination. In the United States, the “Cochranite” tendency was an early proponent of this perspective.

One of its leaders, metal worker Harry Braverman, wrote one of the most penetrating analyses of how and why work had changed under capitalism in the twentieth century, Labor and Monopoly Capital. Observing that a key source of workers’ power was their practical knowledge of the production process, Braverman showed how management appropriated that knowledge through a process of “deskilling,” separating production, conception, and execution in blue-collar factory, white-collar office, and service work.

But unlike Marcuse and Mills, who saw the growth of service work as a source of class atomization and alienation, Braverman argued that it reduced intra-class differences, creating new possibilities for class unity.

Since union leaders had ceded shop-floor control to management, they were ill-equipped to confront this chipping away at workers’ power, let alone the distant goal of building a movement to challenge capital. But Cochranites and others like them still understood the importance of defending and improving the existing union organization structure, conservative though it was. For the union bureaucracy to be dislodged, for workers’ “rational apathy” to be overcome, the necessary first step was for workers to be in motion as a collective force. Unions provided a structure that could make that possible.

Once in motion, there remained the problem of translating that movement into demands and long-term gains. Key to that was the fight for greater union democracy. This provided a mechanism for workers to develop new ideas and new leaders, as well as gain experience with exercising control over organizations that shape their lives.

Belgian Trotskyist leader Ernest Mandel noted that union democracy was essential for developing “unity in action” among workers. Only through democratic debate and decision-making could workers forge a common purpose across the many differences that divided them. He stressed the central role of democratic organization in transforming workers’ consciousness, “liberating [them] from a long-standing habit of passivity, submission, and obedience in economic life.”

The key task then for Marxists operating in this period where the Left had been divorced from labor was not simply to denounce the bureaucratic and conservative character of existing unions. Rather it was, as Independent Socialist Clubs founder Hal Draper put it, “how to establish its relations with that real movement of the proletariat which is not yet socialist itself.”

That was already a challenge in the context of a bureaucratic but still-strong labor movement. It would become even harder as the postwar order came under attack in the 1970s.

Neoliberal Crisis and the “Death of Class”

In the immediate postwar decades, there was a trade-off: the possibility of working-class revolution in the West was gone, but prewar working-class mobilization combined with postwar economic growth achieved real material gains for workers. As the postwar economic boom ground to a halt in the 1970s, those gains came under attack.

Key to that attack was an employer- and state-led assault on unions across the industrialized world. Not only did this erode wages and protective social policies, but it disoriented labor and left-wing politics. Besieged, unions prioritized institutional survival, agreeing to concessions and bargaining decentralization to stay afloat.

Meanwhile, traditional left-wing parties buckled. Communist parties faded or collapsed, especially after the Soviet Union’s fall in 1991. Social-democratic parties abandoned even rhetorical commitments to fighting for the working class; they attacked unions and slashed budgets in the name of fiscal discipline when in power, while drifting toward the “Third Way” liberalism best exemplified by British Labour leader Tony Blair.

Facing this new terrain, the challenge for Marxists was once again to understand how capitalism had changed, how unions were (or were not) changing, and what role — if any — they could play in creating a collective actor capable of challenging capital.

As in the postwar period, the notion that unions could still play their historic role of organizing the working class was in doubt. But whereas the postwar critique focused on the bureaucratic character of unions and working-class conservatism, now the very idea of the working class was called into question.

Echoing mainstream conventional wisdom about the growth of “postindustrial” or “postmaterialist” society, some contended that declines in manufacturing and the proliferation of technical and professional jobs had fundamentally altered the class structure. The erosion of blue-collar work meant that the working class was no longer a numerical majority, while the growth of “knowledge work” had created a “new petty bourgeoisie” with interests distinct from the working class.

Class thus could no longer unify as it once had. Broader, more encompassing political coalitions were necessary. And unions, to the extent they still mattered, could only be part of those coalitions.

Moreover, as the 1970s crisis gave way to Reagan and Thatcher’s 1980s, then Clinton and Blair’s 1990s, union decline made claims that class and unions were less politically relevant seem more plausible. Stuck on the defensive, unions were less able to serve as an organizational anchor for the Left. To the extent there was social mobilization in this period, it emerged outside of unions.

Others argued for a socialist strategy to confront capital that moved away from alliances based on “economistic” notions of a shared class position in favor of one based on subjective, politically determined identities. Crucially, this again involved displacing “the working class” as the central political agent, now in favor of a broader idea of “the people.” The socialist project was replaced with a vague goal of “radical democracy.”

Others were not so quick to abandon unions or the working class. While acknowledging declines in manufacturing employment and unionization, they cautioned not to confuse class recomposition and defeat with class demise. The fact that the industrial working class of the mid-twentieth century was being replaced by a new working class based in service industries such as retail, education, and care work did not mean that the working class was disappearing, and the fact that unions were weakened did not mean that they were irrelevant. Indeed, much of the “new” social mobilization outside of unions addressed class issues and was tied to new forms of labor struggle. Likewise, they argued that the “new class” of professional and technical workers did not necessarily have interests distinct from the working class. To the extent they were not being proletarianized themselves, they occupied “contradictory class locations” where their allegiances would depend on the outcomes of political and ideological struggles (Wright 1985). Workers and unions were on the losing end of those struggles at the moment, but this did not call for a wholesale “retreat from class.”

Nonetheless, for Marxists still committed to the working class as the key agent of social change, the question remained of how the working class could rebuild power as its traditional organizational vehicles — socialist parties and unions — faltered. The crux of the problem still lay in the paradox of organization: even in their weakened state, existing party and union organizations provided indispensable infrastructure, bringing workers together on a scale that was otherwise impossible. But it was a limited infrastructure for any political project to challenge capital.

Part of the solution lay in strengthening rank-and-file organization to promote working-class self-activity and challenge conservative union leadership. But neat counter-positions of a militant rank and file chafing under a rigid bureaucracy ignored the realities of worker consciousness and shop-floor life. Leadership of some kind was necessary for generalizing workers’ particular grievances and articulating a broader class consciousness. But leadership could also play a disempowering role, monopolizing information and controlling worker initiative. Thus, the question of leadership character and its relation to the membership loomed large.

Some focused on the task of cultivating or rebuilding a “militant minority,” a layer of workers in formal and informal leadership roles, usually leftists, that “endeavored to weld their workmates and neighbors into a self-aware and purposeful working class.” This layer was key to past union victories but had either eroded or been expelled in the postwar decades. They saw potential in the emergence of shop-steward networks, particularly in Great Britain, but also in other European countries and Australia. Stewards’ unique position as the physical presence of the union on the shop floor gave them enough freedom from management’s direct authority to serve as effective workplace organizers, while keeping them close enough to daily workplace life to retain a degree of independence from union leadership. This often placed them at the head of shop-floor conflicts, but for Marxists, the hope was that shop-steward networks could generalize these local conflicts, with an eye toward forging the elusive working-class collective actor.

In the United States, another promising development was the emergence of rank-and-file union reform caucuses in several key unions, including mining, steel, auto, and transportation. These alliances of New Left campus radicals who had taken industrial jobs and organic working-class militants were an attempt to enact Draper’s call to build relations with the proletarian movement, which was not yet socialist. They focused not on creating revolutionary consciousness but rather on concrete struggles in the workplace and unions, particularly around democratic demands. The goal was to rebuild unions’ fighting capacity in the face of capital’s offensive by opening space for independent rank-and-file activity.

Despite their ambitious goals, these efforts had limited success. The steward networks and insurgent movements either withered or were absorbed into union leadership, while most rank-and-file caucuses had disappeared by the 1980s. In some cases, they were casualties of collapsing industries, as plant closures and layoffs eviscerated the unions they were trying to reform. The revitalization efforts of the 1970s were simply not at the necessary scale. Rank-and-file movements of the early twentieth century were often led by Communist parties with tens or hundreds of thousands of members. By the 1970s, these parties had either collapsed or capitulated to parliamentary reformism and therefore were unavailable to lead these new efforts. The parties involved in the 1970s efforts, like the US International Socialists (IS) and the British Socialist Workers Party (SWP), numbered a few thousand at most. Dedicated as they were, they could not fill the gap between labor and the Left. But they did succeed in defending the core Marxist insight of the working class being the key agent of social change, identifying a plausible strategy for rebuilding that agent’s collective power, and building a layer of leadership and infrastructure that could lay the groundwork for future organizing.

Marxism and Unions Today

After four decades of defeat and decline, unions face a dire situation. Their political and economic vision has narrowed, pushing the goals that Marx and Engels proposed of superseding the wage labor system and capital’s rule far off beyond the horizon. Nonetheless, events in recent years have given reason for hope, suggesting that pronouncements of the death of class were premature.

First, the Occupy movement and anti-austerity protests not only put economic inequality back on the agenda but fingered the capitalist class as the culprit. While the protests proved fleeting, and links with unions were fragile and uneven, they opened up space for articulating a new class politics.

Second, Occupy and the anti-austerity protests exposed the limits of so-called horizontalist or leaderless organizing, which had been hegemonic on the Left since at least the anti-WTO “Battle of Seattle” in 1999. This created greater openness among younger generations of activists for reengaging with formal politics — including the world of parties and unions. It led to the resurgence of unapologetic left-wing candidates gaining widespread support across Europe and North America, including Bernie Sanders in the United States, Jeremy Corbyn in the United Kingdom, and Jean-Luc Mélenchon in France, along with parties or caucuses such as Podemos in Spain, (pre-capitulation) Syriza in Greece, Momentum within the British Labour Party, and, on a smaller scale, the explosive growth of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) in the United States.

Third, there are signs that the working class is stirring once again. Just in 2018, the wave of teachers’ strikes across conservative US “red states” garnered international headlines. Meanwhile, strikes by tens of thousands of German public sector workers crippled cities and airports, while French workers and students sought to rekindle the convergence des luttes of May 1968. And in the United Kingdom, unconventional groups of workers including IT specialists, university lecturers, and nonunion Ryan Air workers all walked out. Preliminary analyses suggest that these events are part of a broader uptick in labor protest since 2011. While traditional unions have been involved in these strikes, what distinguishes the recent wave is its organic, bottom-up character. It remains to be seen how unions adapt to the emerging movements as they seek to reassert workers’ power against capital and the state.

Regardless, despite the radically changed political and economic landscape, labor unions and movements will continue to face challenges similar to those unions have faced since Marx and Engels’s time. These stem from unions’ fundamental contradiction: they are necessary but insufficient vehicles for workers to achieve their goals. This is further complicated by the tightrope that unions must walk between militancy and bureaucracy. If self-preservation led unions to prioritize maintaining their bureaucratic organizations in recent decades, the escalating state and employer offensive has made that response increasingly untenable. Renewed militancy is key to labor’s future. The apparent recent rise in worker protest holds promise, but history suggests that it is nowhere near the scale necessary for reversing labor’s declining fortunes. Although it is impossible to know if and when a large enough upsurge will arrive, history also suggests that the direction the upsurge takes, and what gains or losses result from it, will depend on the patient, day-to-day work that unions do in forging the key agent of social change — the working class.