International Workingmen’s Association 1871

An Aristocratic Minority


Source: Marx and Engels on the Trade Unions, Edited by Kenneth Lapides;
Written: Marx, from report of speeches at London Conference of IWA, September 20, 1871;
Transcribed: by Andy Blunden.

Marx believes that this resolution was not adopted by the Basle Congress; after checking he acknowledges that a resolution in this sense was passed. That was a pious wish, he himself at that time held that the thing was possible; now he is convinced that the trade unions would never agree to such a federation. The trade unions, he said, are an aristocratic minority. The poorer workers could not join them: the great mass of workers, driven daily by economic developments from the villages into the cities, remain outside the trade unions for a long time, and the poorest of all never belong to them. The same goes for the workers born in London’s East End, where one out of ten belongs to the trade unions. The farm workers, the day laborers, never belong to these trade unions.

The trade unions by standing alone are powerless — they will remain a minority. They do not have the mass of proletarians behind them, while the International influences these people directly; the International doesn’t need the organization of trade unions in order to win the workers — the ideas of the International inspire them at once. It is the only union which inspires full confidence among the workers.

Also language difficulties stand in the way of an international association of the trade unions.

Marx doesn’t share the apprehensions of Steens with regard to the trade unions. They were never able to bring something about without turning to us — not even those that are best organized and have branches in the United States; the trade unions stood outside England’s greatest revolutionary movement.

Since the existence of the International things have changed. If the trade unions want to utilize their forces, they could with our help obtain everything. They have in their statutes a section which prohibits them from mixing in politics; they ventured upon political action only under the influence of the International. The General Council has been in contact with the trade unions for several years; a committee used to exist; at present it still maintains relations with the trade unions in three large cities — Manchester, Birmingham and Sheffield.