Marx’s lessons on unionism beyond economism


These few hints will suffice to show that the very development of modern industry must progressively turn the scale in favour of the capitalist against the working man, and that consequently the general tendency of capitalistic production is not to raise, but to sink the average standard of wages, or to push the value of labour more or less to its minimum limit. Such being the tendency of things in this system, is this saying that the working class ought to renounce their resistance against the encroachments of capital, and abandon their attempts at making the best of the occasional chances for their temporary improvement? If they did, they would be degraded to one level mass of broken wretches past salvation. I think I have shown that their struggles for the standard of wages are incidents inseparable from the whole wages system, that in 99 cases out of 100 their efforts at raising wages are only efforts at maintaining the given value of labour, and that the necessity of debating their price with the capitalist is inherent to their condition of having to sell themselves as commodities. By cowardly giving way in their everyday conflict with capital, they would certainly disqualify themselves for the initiating of any larger movement.

At the same time, and quite apart form the general servitude involved in the wages system, the working class ought not to exaggerate to themselves the ultimate working of these everyday struggles. They ought not to forget that they are fighting with effects, but not with the causes of those effects; that they are retarding the downward movement, but not changing its direction; that they are applying palliatives, not curing the malady. They ought, therefore, not to be exclusively absorbed in these unavoidable guerilla fights incessantly springing up from the never ceasing encroachments of capital or changes of the market. They ought to understand that, with all the miseries it imposes upon them, the present system simultaneously engenders the material conditions and the social forms necessary for an economical reconstruction of society. Instead of the conservative motto, “A fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work!” they ought to inscribe on their banner the revolutionary watchword, “Abolition of the wages system!”

After this very long and, I fear, tedious exposition, which I was obliged to enter into to do some justice to the subject matter, I shall conclude by proposing the following resolutions:

Firstly. A general rise in the rate of wages would result in a fall of the general rate of profit, but, broadly speaking, not affect the prices of commodities.

Secondly. The general tendency of capitalist production is not to raise, but to sink the average standard of wages.

Thirdly. Trades Unions work well as centers of resistance against the encroachments of capital. They fail partially from an injudicious use of their power. They fail generally from limiting themselves to a guerilla war against the effects of the existing system, instead of simultaneously trying to change it, instead of using their organized forces as a lever for the final emancipation of the working class that is to say the ultimate abolition of the wages system.


Trades’ unions. Their past, present and future

(a) Their past.

Capital is concentrated social force, while the workman has only to dispose of his working force. The contract between capital and labour can therefore never be struck on equitable terms, equitable even in the sense of a society which places the ownership of the material means of life and labour on one side and the vital productive energies on the opposite side. The only social power of the workmen is their number. The force of numbers, however is broken by disunion. The disunion of the workmen is created and perpetuated by their unavoidable competition among themselves.

Trades’ Unions originally sprang up from the spontaneous attempts of workmen at removing or at least checking that competition, in order to conquer such terms of contract as might raise them at least above the condition of mere slaves. The immediate object of Trades’ Unions was therefore confined to everyday necessities, to expediences for the obstruction of the incessant encroachments of capital, in one word, to questions of wages and time of labour. This activity of the Trades’ Unions is not only legitimate, it is necessary. It cannot be dispensed with so long as the present system of production lasts. On the contrary, it must be generalised by the formation and the combination of Trades’ Unions throughout all countries. On the other hand, unconsciously to themselves, the Trades’ Unions were forming centres of organisation of the working class, as the mediaeval municipalities and communes did for the middle class. If the Trades’ Unions are required for the guerilla fights between capital and labour, they are still more important as organised agencies for superseding the very system of wages labour and capital rule.

(b) Their present.

Too exclusively bent upon the local and immediate struggles with capital, the Trades’ Unions have not yet fully understood their power of acting against the system of wages slavery itself. They therefore kept too much aloof from general social and political movements. Of late, however, they seem to awaken to some sense of their great historical mission, as appears, for instance, from their participation, in England, in the recent political movement, from the enlarged views taken of their function in the United States, and from the following resolution passed at the recent great conference of Trades’ delegates at Sheffield:

“That this Conference, fully appreciating the efforts made by the International Association to unite in one common bond of brotherhood the working men of all countries, most earnestly recommend to the various societies here represented, the advisability of becoming affiliated to that hody, believing that it is essential to the progress and prosperity of the entire working community.”

(c) Their future.

Apart from their original purposes, they must now learn to act deliberately as organising centres of the working class in the broad interest of its complete emancipation. They must aid every social and political movement tending in that direction. Considering themselves and acting as the champions and representatives of the whole working class, they cannot fail to enlist the non-society men into their ranks. They must look carefully after the interests of the worst paid trades, such as the agricultural labourers, rendered powerless [French text has: “incapable of organised resistance”] by exceptional circumstances. They must convince the world at large [French and German texts read: “convince the broad masses of workers”] that their efforts, far from being narrow — and selfish, aim at the emancipation of the downtrodden millions.

Instructions for the Delegates of the Provisional General Council, 1866


The political movement of the working class has as its object, of course, the conquest of political power for the working class, and for this it is naturally necessary that a previous organisation of the working class, itself arising from their economic struggles, should have been developed up to a certain point.

On the other hand, however, every movement in which the working class comes out as a class against the ruling classes and attempts to force them by pressure from without is a political movement. For instance, the attempt in a particular factory or even a particular industry to force a shorter working day out of the capitalists by strikes, etc., is a purely economic movement. On the other hand the movement to force an eight-hour day, etc., law is a political movement. And in this way, out of the separate economic movements of the workers there grows up everywhere a political movement, that is to say a movement of the class, with the object of achieving its interests in a general form, in a form possessing a general social force of compulsion. If these movements presuppose a certain degree of previous organisation, they are themselves equally a means of the development of this organisation.

Where the working class is not yet far enough advanced in its organisation to undertake a decisive campaign against the collective power, i.e., the political power of the ruling classes, it must at any rate be trained for this by continual agitation against and a hostile attitude towards the policy of the ruling classes. Otherwise it will remain a plaything in their hands, as the September revolution in France showed, and as is also proved up to a certain point by the game Messrs. Gladstone & Co. are bringing off in England even up to the present time.


For the consciousness that would make generals redundant!

Working class revolutionism, but beyond sectism

The trade unions and political parties cannot be reformed, ‘captured’, or converted into instruments of working class emancipation. We don’t call however for the proclamation of new unions, which in the conditions of today would suffer a similar fate to the old ones. Nor do we call for militants to tear up their union cards. Our aims are simply that the workers themselves should decide on the objectives of their struggles and that the control and organisation of these struggles should remain firmly in their own hands. The forms which this self-activity of the working class may take will vary considerably from country to country and from industry to industry (PC – from time to time). Its basic content will not.

Emphasis mine

For the consciousness that would make generals redundant

A crisis of values and an increased questioning of authority relations are, however, developing features of contemporary society. The growth of these crises is one of the preconditions for socialist revolution. Socialism will only be possible when the majority of people understand the need for -social change, become aware of their ability to transform society, decide to exert their collective power to this end, and know with what they want to replace the present system. IT FOLLOWS that we reject analyses … who define the main crisis of modern society as a ‘crisis of leadership’. They [the party leaders] are all generals in search of an army, for whom recruitment figures are the main yardstick of success. For us revolutionary change is a question of consciousness: the consciousness that would make generals redundant.

Emphasis mine

“They [the party leaders] are all generals in search of an army, for whom recruitment figures are the main yardstick of success”. This one line explains so much about the reality within the left formations in India – with their sectism and membership ((re)conversion!) drives.

Obviously, there is much to appreciate in Solidarity (UK)’s document – As We See It / Don’t See It (Maurice Brinton) quoted above. However evident at least in tenor is also (like a major section of autonomist and anarchist comrades) their refusal to apply their own understanding in AS WE SEE IT to deconstruct the existing working class organisations/parties and struggles within them (including their generation and degeneration) as representations of class self-activity “at different levels of awareness and consciousness” . Rejectionism dominating in AS WE DON’T SEE IT in effect produces a dehistoricised conception of working class consciousness and activity – a maximalist revolutionary idealism, especially when they talk about the past and existing organisations/parties and their degeneration. However, this is not to imply that they are not aware of the dynamic logic behind the generation and degeneration of party forms, as the document succinctly concludes:

we hold that organisations whose mechanisms (and their implications) are understood by all can alone provide the framework for democratic decision-making. There are no institutional guarantees against the bureaucratisation of revolutionary groups, The only guarantee is the perpetual awareness and self- mobilisation of their members. We are aware, however, of the danger of revolutionary groups becoming ‘ends in themselves’. In the past, loyalties to groups have often superseded loyalties to ideas. Our prime commitment is to the social revolution – not to any particular political group…

However it seems the document does not ground party dynamics in the class processes and inter/intra class struggles.

The Constituent Assembly for Stable ‘Democracy’ or for uninterrupted Democratisation?

A substantial portion of the following reflections on Nepal was jotted down several days ago, but they seem still relevant.


Stable democracy is the end of democratisation. This statement is ambiguous – on the one hand, it means that democratisation leads to stable democracy, but on the other it also means that the latter actually ends the process of democratisation. Isn’t it true that all stable formal democracies are realisation of particular processes of democratisation? Isn’t it also true that the stability of these democracies depends on how much the ritual of elections and the cacophony of parliamentary halls and senates are able to control the popular assertion on the streets and in every walk of life?


In Nepal, this tussle between democracy and democratisation is very intensive. Till recently especially during the phase of the people’s war the forces representing each of them were easily identifiable since they were generally mutually exclusive, but after April 2006 both are on the same turf trying to overpower one another. The only consistent forces are the royalty and the imperialists – the former is waging an existential struggle, while the latter have to make best out of the worst situation. And all others are inconsistent in varying degrees. The non-communist forces of democracy are evidently still afraid of any drastic break from the past – the royalty and their own past practices. The royal nostalgia looms heavily on the election manifestos of the Nepali Congress and UML, even when they officially declare themselves as republicans. They are afraid of any radical change in the legitimation process. They are unable to give away the ritualism and ceremonialism that characterised the polity which they profess to challenge. They still need a ceremonial patriarch in whose name they will rule.


Everybody knows that it was the mass agitation that forced the royalty and foreign interests on defensive. Even after the restoration of the old parliament it was the continued presence of masses on the streets that coerced the restored leadership to inch forward to further democracy.


By becoming part of the government that is non-committal to any radical change unless forced, the Maoists perhaps became vulnerable to all the pitfalls of power politics in a competitive set-up. However the greatest strength or safeguard for them is their recognition and commitment to two-line struggle within their own ranks – between the tendencies of compromise and of uninterrupted transformation. They are aware that their radicalism lies in intensifying this struggle at every level. If we find today an apparent inconsistency between the Maoists in the government and those on the streets, it is the open realisation of this two-line struggle, which tempers one another not allowing the former to settle with status quoism. Recent statements by Prachanda, Baburam Bhattarai and Mohan Baidya, where they stressed on the need for giving “top priority to the street struggle at this juncture”, reflect the Maoists’ resolution to remain as forces of democratisation, rather than a stability factor for a democracy of an elitist minority and the depoliticised majority.


Definitely, this does not go well with the scheme for democracy as visualised by the hegemonic forces. They need stability; democracy too is needed just to have a stable environment, as a scheme to bribe away the representatives of those who shout on the streets. If democracy goes beyond this scheme, it is an aberration and anarchy – if workers assert themselves on their workplace or the landless demand their share on the resources, they are harming the property rights of the individuals. Democracy is a privilege, which must not be practiced everyday and everywhere. It is in this sense we can understand the conflict between the forces of democracy and those of democratisation. Democratisation in this regard can be understood as perpetual expansion of democracy beyond the confines of established institutions.


It was expected that after locking up the arms of the Maoist army, the Maoists would be “disarmed” and locked up in barracks. It is forgotten that a revolutionary army is first and foremost politically armed and always on watch out. The recent controversies on the activities of the Young Communist League are symptomatic of the impossible demands posed by the status quo on the revolutionary forces. Another controversy that has come up is regarding the issue of returning land to the deposed landlords. It is part of the hegemonic expectations, which seek to do away with any impact of the previous parallel revolutionary government on the future political economy of Nepal. Even if the Maoists officially may agree to it, the popular energy that they have unleashed in their decade-long people’s war will obviously reassert itself, despite all odds. This popular energy is evident in various self-determination movements, which have startled all the political forces in the country with their vigour.


Among these movements, the Madheshi (Terai) struggle clearly stands out, not only for its vigour but also for its peculiar constitution. Evidently, the various Madheshi identities have long been oppressed and suppressed in the overall Nepali set-up. But the recent attempt to homogenize Madheshi as a singular regional identity beyond divisions – caste and class – is a phenomenon that can only be understood by revealing the interplay of class, national and international forces behind it.


The Madheshi (Terai) region is agriculturally the most productive region in the country. Historically there has been a strong section of landed and propertied gentry in this region which has continued to oppose any systematic land redistribution efforts. Until now this section has been able to preclude such possibility through their opportunist lobbying and support to various political formations. It has time and again resisted any efforts to decrease the land ceilings. Unsurprisingly, it will see the Maoists with their commitment to radical land reforms as a grave threat. With the genuine federalist self-determination movements rising throughout the country to hasten and shape up the future Nepal, this section along with other Indo-Nepali businessmen with evident backing from the mellowed down monarchy supporters utilized sections of the Terai movement to turn anti-Maoist. In order to homogenise the Madheshi sentiment against the Maoists, the Terai ruling class and political elites have been utilising the apprehension that the radical land reforms might relocate non-Terai landless into the region. The following quote from Sarita Giri of Nepal Sadbhawana Party (Anandi Devi), one of the political parties claiming to fight for the Madheshi rights reveals much of the class-fear among the leadership of the Madheshis:

“As a consequence of [the] 1990 movement, Communists (led by hill elites) emerged as a formidable new force. [The] Revolutionary land reform agenda has been now their political agenda. But it would be naive to say that it was no more the agenda of Nepali Congress. Prime minister Sher Bahadur Deuba ha[d] agreed to reduce the ceiling to 4 to 5 bighas from 11 bighas in Madhesh. It was due to the movement led by Nepal Sadbhawana Party and supported by madheshi elites across parties that the government dropped its agenda. And now in 2007 they are the Maoists who have designed to march ahead with their agenda of revolutionary land reform. It has explicitly been mentioned in the Interim Constitution. This time too, Nepal Sadbhawana Party (Anandi Devi) has written note of dissent against the revolutionary land reform program. The aim behind such an agenda is obviously to enhance the control of hill centric state over madhesh. This is the context against which the current Madheshi movement and its demands of republicanism, autonomy, self determination and federalism should be understood.”

Even Jwala Singh, a militant Madhesi leader demanded that, “The land of Madheshis captured by Maoists should be given back”.

Obviously these sections of the Terai leadership will be all the more anxious, as the Maoists have already included the demand for ‘land to the tiller’ in their Commitment Document for the Constituent Assembly elections.


Furthermore, the Terai region being geographically, culturally and economically closer to the only immediate imperialist force and agency in the region, India, is also open to various kinds of imperialist manipulation. In recent years, India with its rising economic interests beyond its territory has used all sorts of “identities” to assert a diasporic homogeny under the garb of which it can support its cross-border political economic expansion. It is not very surprising that this expansionist tenor was firmly and vocally established by the Rightist forces in India. It can in fact be comfortably said that the rightists became a legitimate force in India only with the rise of neoliberalism, when Indian capital found Indianness, Hinduism etc to be effective in its “free” market consolidation and operation globally. One needs to cursorily go through the widely circulated weekly of Hindu fascists, Organiser and its chatterbox journalism to grasp the confident obscenity of Indian expansionism in its extreme. Recently it invented “The Western-Christian agenda in Kathmandu” and “the Christian leadership of the Maoists”, lamenting the threat to the “Hindu civilisation”:

“The bells are tolling, not just for the Nepalese monarchy, but also for the Hindu culture and civilisation of the nation.”

It is a known fact that the Hindu rightists in India have been outspoken against the republican and democratisation processes in Nepal, and have been very active recently in the Terai region. It is this transnational unity among Hindu fascists with its base in India, which acts as a major weapon of active imperialist intervention, besides the usual economic threat of the flight of capital and the diplomatic diatribes.


It is evident that delays that marred the implementation of the anti-royalist agenda to which various democratic forces agreed have given a significant time for the reactionary forces to consolidate. It will be interesting to observe the various political realignments before, during and after the Constituent Assembly elections.


The Maoists claim that the main basis of the new constitution will be “the mandate of the 10 years People’s War and 19 days people’s Movement”. They see, as Maoist leader Badal explains, the Constituent Assembly as “the process of building new Nepal. We are advancing through the Constituent Assembly as the process of institutionalising new Nepal by the representatives elected directly in the participation of the people.[sic!] We raised the agenda of the CA through revolt and movement; institutionalized it and we are in the stage of its implementation. The process has been advanced ahead to carry out movement up to conclusion.” Obviously this reinterpretation of the CA as a process, if legitimised through elections and if the Maoists continue to adher to it, will be a death knell for the reactionary forces in and around Nepal.