Trade Unionism

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Trade Unionism


(1) The name sometimes used for the trade union movement as a whole.

(2) A term designating a current in the workers’ and trade union movement and, in a narrower sense, a variety of reformist ideology. Trade unionism restricts the tasks of the labor movement to struggling for more favorable conditions in the sale of labor power and improving, within the framework of the bourgeois state, the economic and legal standing of workers organized in trade unions. As a product of the spontaneous workers’ movement, trade unionism reflected “the common striving of all workers to secure from the government measures for alleviating the distress to which their condition gives rise, but which do not abolish that condition, i.e., which do not remove the subjection of labor to capital” (V. I. Lenin, Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 6, p. 42).

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the trade union movement, as the first form of worker organization, played a significant role in uniting the proletariat and making workers aware of their strength. But even in this period trade unionism revealed its limitations; as F. Engels pointed out, it excluded “any political action and, consequently, participation in any general activity of the working class as a class” (K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 34, p. 295). Trade union ideology diverted the workers from the main task of the proletariat, namely, the liquidation of the system of capitalist exploitation. By the mid-19th century, trade unionism had established itself in Great Britain. Here, earlier than in other countries, the emergence of a labor aristocracy from the ranks of the proletariat had occurred, as had the aristocracy’s “segregation ... in non-socialist, liberal trade unions” (V. I. Lenin, Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 22, p. 357).

Trade unionism formed an obstacle to ideas of scientific socialism in the workers’ movement. Lenin pointed out that “working-class trade-unionist politics is precisely working-class bourgeois politics” (ibid., vol. 6, p. 96). The ideology of trade unionism hindered the formation of revolutionary Marxist parties, which, as Lenin pointed out, were the only parties that could arm the proletariat with a socialist consciousness. With the growth in the labor aristocracy caused by the transition from capitalism to the imperialist stage, trade unionism spread to many European countries and to the United States. In Russia, the Economists were champions of trade unionism; in Germany, this role was played by leaders of Hirsch-Duncker Trade Unions.

The narrow, craft orientation of trade unionism, which led to a fragmentation of the working class, caused dissatisfaction among rank-and-file union members and unorganized workers. Under the pressure of the more radical elements, some trade unions, despite the reformist ideology of their leaders, were active in the International Working Men’s Association (seeINTERNATIONAL, FIRST). The late 1880’s witnessed the movement of the “new” trade unions in Great Britain; these unions opened their ranks to unskilled workers and adopted a policy of class struggle. The class struggle sharpened the antagonisms between the exponents of trade unionism and the workers’ rank and file, and the determination to go beyond the narrow ideology and policy of trade unionism was thus strengthened. The development of the workers’ movement and of progressive tendencies within the movement were expressed in the growing resolve of the proletariat to close its ranks and struggle for its class interests against a system characterized by the political and economic domination of monopoly capital. Consequently, trade unionism lost its status as an independent doctrine and became one of many opportunistic trends within reformism.


Engels, F. “Tred-iuniony.” In K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 19.
Engels, F. “Vvedenie k angliiskomu izdaniiu ‘Razvitiia sotsializma ot utopii k nauke.’” Ibid., vol. 22.
Engels, F. “Predislovie ko vtoromu nemetskomu izdaniiu ‘Polozheniia rabochego klassa v Anglii, ’ 1892 g.” Ibid., vol. 39. (See Subject Index to vols. 27–39.)
Lenin, V. I. Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed. (See Index Volume, part 1.)
The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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