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Hyman, Marxism and Trade Unionism

Richard Hyman,

Marxism and the Sociology of Trade Unionism.

London: Pluto Press, 1971

To critically outline the optimistic (revolutionary) and pessimistic (nonrevolutionary) potential of trade unions, and to consider their dialectical
relationship in a synthetic analysis.
(see model in chart)

I. Optimistic Tradition: Marx and Engels

II. Later Reservations of Marx and Engels
III. The Pessimistic Interpretation
1. Integration (Lenin)
2. Iron Law of Oligarchy (Michels)
3. Incorporation (Trotsky)
4. Orthodoxy of Industrial Relations
IV) Pessimistic One-Sidedness: A Critical Appraisal
1. Critique of Leninist Position of Integration
2. Critique of Michel's Iron Law of Oligarchy
3. Critique of Trotsky's Incorporation
4. Critique of Industrial Relations Orthodoxy
V) Conclusion: The Limits of Trade Union Consciousness
VI) Some Implications
VII) Implications for Dual Nature of Trade Unionism and Dual Systems Theory

I. Optimistic Tradition: Marx and Engels

(see chart)
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1) laws of supply and demand determine wages; in the face of this, all trade unions can do is to
slow down the erosion of wages in the face of the onslaught of capital; this is a defensive position of
unions. (p. 5).
2) political activity of the trade union is directed in an attack on competition among workers which
is the cornerstone of bourgeois dominance; this is accomplished through the combination of workers;
the destruction of competittion among workers means the destruction of the rule of property. (6).
3) Unions are a military school for class war, according to Engels.
4) Marx: unions are ramparts for workers in their struggle for social revolution against employers.
5) industrial concentration brings about the combination of workers which runs counter to the
competition among workers.
6). Unions are one stage in the transition from a class in itself to a class for itself (6-7).
7) Grave-diggers: bourgeoisie is its own grave diggers in the sense that capital accumulation brings
abour industrial concentration, which in turn brings about the combination of workers with low
wages, which struggles to overthrow private property to put an end to their enslavement. (8).

II. Later Reservations of Marx and Engels

(A) Lack of revolutionary ardor on part of British trade unions after mid-19th century
caused Marx and Engels to reassess their optimistic view, but did not cause them to drop it as a
general theory of the relation between trade unions and revolutionary struggle. Instead, they saw the
developments in the british trade union movement as an aberration or deviation in an historical trend;
the deviation they felt could be explained by a combination of three factors:
1. Labour Aristocracy: the conservatism of the British trade union movement is reflective of
the fact that the entire working class was not organized, but only a part of it, the most
priveleged, skilled part, which took a moderate position. This part was able to win material
concessions not won by the less skilled and as yet unorganized. They saw this as a temporary
2. Corrupt Leaders: trade union movement was in the hands of leaders who were corrupt in a
material and ideological sense. (9).
3. Embourgeoisment based on imperialism: ie, the British nation was passing through an
imperialist stage in which the British working class benefitted from Britain's monopoly
capitalist position in the world. This also would pass once British imperialism declined. (910).

(B) Business Union Evidence: Some writings of Marx and Engels suggest that they were aware
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of the restricted nature of trade unions, of their sectional nature, of their defensiveness, of their
attempt to cope with the effects rather than the causes of their problems. But they did not elevate
these concerns to the level of general theory.

III. The Pessimistic Interpretation

(see pessimistic model in chart)
1. Integration (Lenin)
2. Oligarchy (Michels)
3. Incorporation (Trotsky)
4. Industrial Relations Orthodoxy which combines integration (# 1), oligarchy (#2),
and incorporation (#3) in a 'maturation thesis'

All four of above in pessimistic tradition inhibit the challenge by trade unions to
Review and Critique: Hyman reviews each of these and later provides a critique.

1) Integration (Lenin):
(see integration model in chart)
Integration thesis states that trade unions, able to achieve their economic objectives within the
structures of capitalism, become integrated into its institutions. (Hyman, p. 14). This is not an
intentional on the part of anyone, but a product of the structures of trade unions and bourgeois
societies; in contrast, Trotsky's incorporation thesis is a product partly of the intentional and
deliberate actions of states and corporations which strive to coopt unions and their leaders in order to
emasculate them and bend them in the service of bourgeois aims. (on this difference, see Hyman, p.

Note: patriarchy: can one argue that integration is the unintentional coincidence of trade union
patriarchy with patriarchal institutions in capitalist society, whereas incorporation is the attempt by
dominant men in corporations and the state to forge alliances with the male leadership of the trade
union movement in order to co-opt feminist positions in the labour movement and outside?

a) Sectional nature of trade unions, organized along the lines of industry or occupation; or the tools
of the trade. (also Gramsci argues this position).
b) economism: that trade unions are narrowly concerned with immediate economic issues, such as

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wages (the terms of the sale of labour power), working conditions, etc.
c) ideology: a rigid dichotomy exists between trade union consciousness and social democractic (ie,
revolutionary) consciousness; the latter cannot develop within the proletariat, but must be imported
into the proletariat from outside by bourgeois intellectuals. Trade union consciousness was " 'the
conviction that it is necessary to combine in unions, fight the employers, and strive to compel the
government to pass necessary labour legislation, etc.' " (13) (from Lenin's What Is To Be Done,
d) politics: trade union politics is bourgeois politics, according to Lenin. (13). This contradicts Marx
who thought that political action by trade unions was an indication of their political class struggle.

2) Iron Law of Oligarchy (Michels)

a) oligarchic tendencies of trade union leadership greater than in political parties; union leaders
will attempt to perpetuate themselves in power, partly because of their manual origins; this means
that they have no means of economic subsistence after they leave their leadership posts, and feel too
embarrassed to return to their manual pursuits after having attained such relatively elevated positions
of high esteem. (15).
b) impossibility of direct democracy;
c) bureaucratization of trade union structures, partly to cope with the technical requirements of
collective bargaining and negotiations.
d) gap between leaders and mass rank and file: ideological differentiation between leaders and led.
e) technical expertise and experience required; this perpetuates or at least justifies in the eyes of
the masses the continuation of the 'experts' in office.
f) apathy by rank and file perpetuates leadership.
g) size of union: the larger the union, the greater its bureaucratization.
h) conservatism: moderation and petty-bourgeois life style evidence by trade union leaders. Need for
public approval also leads to a conservatism on the part of the leaders of unions.
i) institutional needs: union, to survive, must pay attention to the opinions of the government and
corporate employers. (17).

3) Incorporation (Trotsky)
(see incorporation model in chart)

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Hyman, Marxism and Trade Unionism

Incorporation Thesis: "that union leaders, having acquired authority over their members, are use
to assist capitalism in controlling the workers." (18).
a) bourgeois, conservative ideology displayed by trade union bureaucrats (18).
b) contributor to the survival of capitalism: trade union bureaucracy has helped capitalism survive
by supporting its structures. (18). Trotsky even looked upon British trade unions as the "backbone of
British imperialism" (p. 18).
c) "lieutenants of capital" = trade union bureacurats = Trotsky's phrase (p. 18).
d) "political police" = trade union leaders acting to discipline their members on behalf of capital (p.
19; Trotsky's phrase).
e) State action: state attempted to incorporate unions into capitalist society on behalf of capital (19).

4) Recent Derivatives: Orthodoxy of Industrial Relations (20-25).

a) C. W. Mills:
i) joint bureaucratic discipline: amalgamation of trade union bureaucracy with corporation's
bureacuracy (20). Mills: " 'Business-labor co-operation within the place of work...means the partial
integration of company and union bureaucracies.... The union takes over much of the company's
personnel work, becoming the disciplining agent fo teh reank and file... Company and union...are
disciplining agents for each other, and both discipline the malcontented elements among the
unionized employees.' " (21). (From Mills, New Men of Power).
ii) junior partnership enjoyed by trade unions within industry. Union derives union security, higher
wages for its members, in return, the company receives peace and stability in its plants and higher
productivity. (20).
iii) sympathy with basic Marxist orientation by mills sets him apart from the other orthodox
interpreters of industrial relations. (21).

Note: Patriarchy: In New Men of Power, did Mills discuss patriarchal control?

b) R. A. Lester and others: Maturation Thesis

Maturity thesis is demonstrated by the theories of Lenin, Michels, and Trotsky. Ie, the management
of conflict by unions in peaceful ways simply indicates the maturation of the system of industrial
relations, and of trade unions and their leaders. The union partakes in the managerial function of the
control of union members. In return for its displining function, the union (and its leaders) receive
union security from the company. (21-22).

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Carried out on two levels:

i. workplace;
ii. state institutions. (22-23).
c) Coser: Postive Functions of Social Conflict:
ie, it is in the management of conflict that both parties come out stronger (23-4).
d) Clark Kerr's Slowdown in Industrial Conflict
in higher stages of capitalism, contrary to Marx. (24).
e) Dahrendorf's institutionalization of industrial conflict
means that it becomes less prone to unpredictable violence, and it becomes more regulated (24).
f) Dubin's instititutionalization of industrial
conflict through collective bargaining (24).
g) Lipset: legitimacy of unions decreases likelhood of 'economic cleavages' and conflicts. (24-5).

IV) Pessimistic One-Sidedness: A Critical Appraisal (25-37).

i) one-sidedness: all of the pessimistic school has emphasized the one- sided interpretation of unions
as anti-revolutionary, without taking into account the dialectical relation between its revolutionary
and non- revolutionary roles (25). We must take into account the dialectical relation between trade
unions and capitalist society. (25), especially the counter-tendencies to the integration of unions into
capitalist societies.
ii) historical contingency: above can be forcefully argued by remembering that the integrationist
arguments apply to some specific historical circumstances, but not to others.

1. Critique of Leninist Position of Integration (26-28)

Three factors (ability of capitalism to satisfy economic demands of workers; aspiration levels of
workers; and, degree of organization of workers) can affect whether trade unions can be integrated
into capitalism. Hyman argues that Lenin's thesis may not have absolute validity for all times and
places. Where capitalism can no longer grant the economic demands of workers in the context of high
aspirations for workers and great strength in their organizations, economic demands of workers may
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introduce a degree of instability into capitalism rather than supporting its structures, as in Britain in
the early 1970s.

2. Critique of Michel's Iron Law of Oligarchy (28-33)

Note: Patriarchy: did Michels say anything of the fact that most union leaders were men?

Hyman points out three counter-tendencies to Michel's iron law of oligarchy in trade unions:
i. instrumentalism of rank and file: because the rank and file expect unions to deliver a
package of economic goods, when these are not forthcoming, they may revolt against their
leaders for economic reasons.
ii. democratic expectations: rank and file have democratic expectations of their leaders; the
leaders often come out of democratic activism at the rank and file level. This democratic ethos
acts as a constraint on the anti-democratic practices of union leaders. Thus, Gouldner argues
that besides Michels iron law of oligarchy there is also in trade unions an iron law of
iii. level of organization: Michels focused on the national level of unions where bureacurcy and
oligarchy are most developed; he did not focus on the local level and at the shopfloor-steward
level where democratic practices are most developed.

3. Critique of Trotsky's Incorporation (33-35)

Hyman suggests that it is important to distinguish between the attempt by corporations and the state
to incorporate unions into capitalist insitutions (on which Trotsky was probably correct), and the
degree of sucess of this incorporation (on which Trotsky was less probably correct, given the current
situation in Great Britain).

4. Critique of Industrial Relations Orthodoxy (35-37)

i) denial of history: industrial relations people deny the potential militancy of unions in today's
society, despite the militant origins of present-day unions; thus, they deny that history can repeart
itself, even in an altered way.
ii) misinterpretation of Mills: Mills' phrase 'manager of discontent' attribution of union bureaucrats
has been taken out of context by current industrial relations orthodoxy. For Mills, this was only one
side of trade union leaders; the other side, which coexisted at the same time, was a revolt againstg the
strictures of capitalism. (36-7).

V) Conclusion: The Limits of Trade Union Consciousness (37-49)

a) Reaffirmation of a variant of optimistic interpretation: based on recent British experience, we
cannot accept wholesale the pessimistic views of the integration, oligarchy, and incorporation theses;
nor can we accept entirely the optimistic interpretation as originally advanced by Marx and Engels.
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b) Union challenges capitalism on two fronts:

economic: "Unionism represents a reaction against economic exploitation: the extraction of

surplus value from workers' labour" (38).
political: issues of power and control are inherent in almost every instance of collective
bargaining, so that it is difficult to draw a hard and fast line between the economic dimensions
and politics of trade unionism. Thus, business unionism in its pure sense simply does not exist.

c) gap between activity and consciousness: usually, activity runs ahead of consciousness which is
infected by bourgeois ideology. Workers have a sectional consciousness in which they are more
ready to condemn other workers' strikes than their own. (39).
d) continuity between workers' economic and political demands: see long excellent quote from
Hobsbawm (pp. 39-40).
e) Middle ground between trade union consciousness and socialist consciousness in Lenin
recognized by him in other writings, especially on the 1905 revolution written after what is to be
done. In these writings, Lenin seems to recognize the political and socialist significance of economic
trade union actions, such as the strike! (40-42) N.B.

VI) Some Implications

(good section). (see pp. 50-53).

VII) Implications for Dual Nature of Trade Unionism and Dual

Systems Theory
double nature of trade unionism: contradictions of revolutionary vs. conservative traditions

class lines
gender lines

The conservative/revolutionary dualism can therefore exist in both gender and in trade
unionism. For an illustration, click HERE. This leads to a variety of types of trade unionism.
Is this dual systems theory in another guise?

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Socialist Feminist Working Class


Male Industrial Syndicalist or

Traditional Socialist Unions

Liberal Feminist Middle Class
Business Unions: Male,
Patriarchal, Pro-Business,


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