Political Trade Unionism: Industrial Cooperation and the Construction of the Class Struggle in Fin de siècle Europe

My book project uncovers a tradition of thought in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Europe on unions’ role in building a working-class movement and conducting class conflict. The early Georges Sorel, Max Weber, Eduard Bernstein, Jean Jaurès, and Émile Durkheim stressed unions’ unique political significance as laboratories of a new cooperative culture and institutions that constructed a disciplined form of class struggle with capitalists. Although these figures are not usually considered distinct theorists of unionism, I reveal new aspects of their thinking that show they were part of a common tradition which I call political trade unionism. This project deals with two distinct research questions: how do unions grow their membership and expand a working-class movement? And what useful functions can they serve in capitalist society?

On the first question, these thinkers all claimed unions played a central part in fashioning a socialist workers’ movement because they created a shared moral culture and identity among workers in addition to advancing their material interests. In their view, given increased differentiation within the working-class, workers had diverging material interests and could not feel a sense of class belonging on that basis alone. They saw unions as providing workers with a moral education that enabled them to practice cooperation in production which generated a sense of class belonging. Unions’ establishment of internal public spheres contributed to this development. This tradition held that unionists achieved far more than what Vladimir Lenin dismissively called narrow ‘trade union consciousness’: their cooperative culture led them to acquire a political consciousness of the need for a socialist movement that organized and benefitted all workers and society at large.

On the second question, these theorists highlighted how unions produced competent working-class leaders who strove to pass social legislation in parliament which made it possible to pursue the class struggle in industry. In virtue of these leaders’ participation in production and closeness to members, they recognized the need for social legislation which facilitated and protected unionists’ collective action. Social legislation—such as legal prohibitions on capitalists’ use of strikebreakers, requirements for democratic voting procedures in strikes, or the formation of arbitration institutions—was essential to constructing a disciplined class struggle: it wielded state power to establish the conditions under which unionists could themselves effectively coerce and bargain with capitalists. Importantly, all these thinkers viewed the passage of this legislation as requiring unions to rationally influence public opinion such that the wider citizenry came to recognize their contributions to society’s moral and economic progress. In this tradition, the union movement’s combined use of state power and rational persuasion ultimately organized the class struggle in a manner that promoted the emergence of cooperative self-government in the economy.

This is a postcard showing the Arbeiterstrandbad or Workers' Bathing Beach in Vienna shortly after its opening in 1912. © SPÖ Wien.