Books of the Month

Unions ‘must aim at the emancipation of the downtrodden millions’

May 15, 2023
Bakery workers union members won broad solidarity in their three-week strike against forced overtime, for better wages at Frito-Lay in Topeka, Kansas, in 2021. Karl Marx said that unions need to become organizing centers for the emancipation of the whole working class.
Topeka Frito-Lay Union Members Appreciation PageBakery workers union members won broad solidarity in their three-week strike against forced overtime, for better wages at Frito-Lay in Topeka, Kansas, in 2021. Karl Marx said that unions need to become organizing centers for the emancipation of the whole working class.

Trade Unions in the Epoch of Imperialist Decay by Leon Trotsky is one of Pathfinder’s Books of the Month for May. Below is “Trade Unions: Their Past, Present, and Future,” a resolution written by Karl Marx and adopted in September 1866 by the first congress of the International Working Men’s Association, the First International. Marx quotes from a Sheffield union conference of 138 delegates representing 200,000 workers in Britain. During the U.S. Civil War, Manchester mill workers resisted their rulers’ efforts to support the slavocracy. They refused to handle raw cotton picked by slaves. The unions spearheaded a broad campaign for voting rights. The second excerpt is from the title piece, an unfinished article by Trotsky found in his desk after his assassination by Stalin’s agent in August 1940. Copyright © 1990 by Pathfinder Press. Reprinted by permission.



Capital is concentrated social force, while the workman has only to dispose of his working force [labor power]. The contract between capital and labor 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 labor 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 labor. 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 generalized by the formation and the combination of trades’ unions throughout all countries. On the other hand, unconsciously to themselves, the trades’ unions were forming centers of organization of the working class, as the medieval municipalities and communes did for the middle class. If the trades’ unions are required for the guerrilla fights between capital and labor, they are still more important as organized agencies for superseding the very system of wages labor and capital rule.


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 [Working Men’s] 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 body, believing that it is essential to the progress and prosperity of the entire working community.”


Apart from their original purposes, they must now learn to act deliberately as organizing centers 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 nonsociety [unorganized] men into their ranks. They must look carefully after the interests of the worst-paid trades, such as the agricultural laborers, rendered powerless by exceptional circumstances. They must convince the world at large that their efforts, far from being narrow and selfish, aim at the emancipation of the downtrodden millions.



It is necessary to adapt ourselves to the concrete conditions existing in the trade unions of every given country in order to mobilize the masses. … The primary slogan for this struggle is: complete and unconditional independence of the trade unions in relation to the capitalist state. This means a struggle to turn the trade unions into the organs of the broad exploited masses and not the organs of a labor aristocracy.

The second slogan is: trade union democracy. This second slogan flows directly from the first and presupposes for its realization the complete freedom of the trade unions from the imperialist or colonial state.

In other words, the trade unions in the present epoch cannot simply be the organs of democracy as they were in the epoch of free capitalism and they cannot any longer remain politically neutral, that is, limit themselves to serving the daily needs of the working class. They cannot any longer be anarchistic, that is, ignore the decisive influence of the state on the life of people and classes. They can no longer be reformist, because the objective conditions leave no room for any serious and lasting reforms. Either the trade unions of our time will serve as secondary instruments of imperialist capital to subordinate and discipline the workers and to obstruct the revolution or, on the contrary, the unions will become instruments of the revolutionary movement of the proletariat.