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 saw unions as ‘laboratories’ of a new cooperative culture. They could become institutions that provided a new framework of education and discipline for the class struggle with capitalists. Because these figures are not usually considered distinct theorists of unionism, my study of neglected aspects of their thinking will provide original insights that demonstrate their place in 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?

These thinkers claimed that unions played a central part in constructing a socialist workers’ movement because they created a moral 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. Unions provided workers with a moral education that transcended those issues, enabling them to practice cooperation in production and generating a sense of class belonging. Unionists’ cooperative culture led them to acquire a political consciousness of the need for a socialist movement that could benefit society at large.

These theorists also believed unions produced working-class leaders who strove to pass social legislation in parliament. Due to these leaders’ participation in production and closeness to members, they recognized the need for social legislation that facilitated unionists’ collective action. This legislation prohibited capitalists’ use of strikebreakers; it required democratic voting procedures in strikes; and it formed arbitration institutions. Legislation was thus essential to constructing a disciplined class struggle. It established the conditions under which unionists could effectively coerce and bargain with capitalists and, further, it forced unions to engage with public opinion so that citizens would recognize the value of empowering them.

This project considers this intellectual tradition’s implications for labor activism today, notably by raising questions about the productivity of appeals to anger and class hatred in the workers’ movement. My figures claimed that unions should become sites of a different kind of socialist propaganda to that of revolutionary socialist parties—one that developed workers’ class consciousness by leading them to practice and understand the value of cooperative production. They should train individuals from working-class milieus to become faithful representatives of working-class interests within, rather than against, state institutions. These are insights into unionism’s educative and representative functions that can help orient labor activism in the present.

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