Two Trade Unionisms: Engels on Craft Unionism and New Unionism

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The future for trade unionism in Britain and across Europe is in the balance. Ben Wray looks at Engels writings on the transition from craft unionism to new unionism to learn the lessons from a previous era in British working class history.

Trade unionism in Britain and across Europe is approaching a moment of truth. The biggest attack on public services since 1919 doesn’t just threaten the future of the welfare state, it threatens the great working class traditions of strike action, unity, solidarity and equality that is embodied within trade unionism. If the trade unions don’t stand up now against such a momentous onslaught to the fabric of society not only will union membership enter drastic decline but the idea that ‘the union makes us strong’ will suffer a serious defeat.

It is not inevitable that people will look to unions as the best form of organisation to defend their interests. It has to be consciously fought for through proving in practise that it is the best instrument for workers to defend not only their individual interests but the interests of the working class as a whole. Indeed, we have already seen in Spain that the locus of resistance has been the streets and many young workers and unemployed workers have explicitly turned away from the unions in their struggle against austerity.

The generation born in the Thatcher-Major years has rarely seen examples of trade unions leading victories. Instead their experience of the unions is social-partnership and unseemly compromises, with too close a relationship to social-liberal governments like the Labour party in Britain.

One way or another this is a transitional period for trade unionism: either they don’t fight, lose membership and slip further towards being lobbying organisations that’s representation is focused on individual case work rather than class struggle, or a new combative trade unionism emerges. Socialists have to ask questions about the working class as it is currently constituted in order to determine where the leadership of a fighting trade unionism can emerge from.

To contribute to this, it is useful to look at transitions in trade unionism from past periods and how leading socialist thinkers analysed them. In the maze of the Marxist internet archive a section titled ‘Marx and Engels on new unionism and the labour aristocracy’ can be found. The section spans from 1869-1893, covering articles and interviews in newspapers as well as letters from Marx and Engels to socialist comrades across Europe and America. Over this period Engels in particular analysed the roots of the craft union’s conservative methods to the emergence of new unionism as a radical, militant alternative.

In this article I will look at Engels analysis of craft unionism and new unionism and the relationship between the two. In doing so, I will draw out features of trade unionism that stay with us today and the main lessons we can take in fighting for a new, combative trade unionism against austerity.

Engels on craft unionism

Chartism was the first movement of the British working class. It played a very important role in developing a class consciousness amongst workers and used mass action to pressurise the British parliament to take up its charter. At its peak it was capable of mobilising hundreds of thousands across Britain. The European revolutionary wave of 1848 had a much smaller echo in Britain but the Chartist movement had its last gasp of action and protests before ending in in-fighting and demoralisation.

The Chartist movement was organised out with the workplace but completely overshadowed the trade unions. The strength of Chartism was its emphasis on challenging for political power but this left little organisational legacy, as Engels argues:

‘Now, in a political struggle of class against class, organisation is the most important weapon. And in the same measure as the merely political or Chartist organisation fell to pieces, in the same measure the trades unions organisation grew stronger and stronger.’ 1

The character of trade union organisation is highly determined by its origins. Craft unionism grew directly out of the demoralisation and defeat of Chartism. Its growth was premised upon a long boom in the economy through a second wave of industrialisation. The railway network completion in 1847 lubricated the growth of coal, iron, steel and engineering industries. Along with cotton these constituted Britain’s staple industries and through its colonies cemented Britain’s place as ‘the workshop of the world’. Almost uninterrupted growth lasted until the 1870′s.

The defeat of Chartism combined with economic boom created the conditions for a new era of industrial relations, as Engels argues:

‘…a gradual change came over the relations between both classes. The Factory Acts, once the bugbear of all manufacturers, were not only willingly submitted to, but their expansion into acts regulating almost all trades was tolerated. Trades unions, hitherto considered inventions of the devil himself, were now petted and patronised as perfectly legitimate institutions, and as useful means of spreading sound economical doctrines amongst the workers.’ 2

In 1867 the Reform Act was passed which enfranchised large sections of the working class. This was followed by a raft of new legislation giving trade unions increased rights and the professionalisation of trade unionism (The TUC was born in 1868) soon followed. The ruling class had moved from what was predominantly a policy of repression of working class discontent in the first half of the 19th century, to one based primarily on consent. It was only possible for the capitalists to concede these reforms on their terms because of the defeats of the past and the stability of the capitalist economy.

For a layer of workers in the staple industries, craft unionism fitted into this new reality. Craft unions were national, centralised institutions that levied high membership fees and employed full-time officials. These unions focused on negotiation and arbitration rather than militancy, summed up by the secretary of the amalgamated society of Carpenters and Joiners describing strikes as ‘the double-edged weapon’ 3. They were extremely sectional in their approach, with a narrow interpretation of meeting the needs of ‘their members’ through individual case work and an economistic attitude rather than a concern for the working class as a whole.

Tom Mann, who was an engineer, summed up the frustration felt by socialists:

‘I take my share of the work of the trade union to which I belong; but I candidly confess that unless it shows more vigour at the present time, I shall be compelled to take the view–against my will–that to continue to spend time over the ordinary squabble-investigating, do-nothing policy will be an unjustifiable waste of one’s energies. I am sure there are thousands of others in my state of mind.’ 4

Despite high membership in sections of the working class, the potential for socialists to break the bureaucratic, reformist methods were limited. In an article titled ‘On Trade Unions’ in 1881 Engels argued craft unionism approached industrial relations in the spirit of partnership, rather than confrontation, with the capitalist:

‘According to the traditions of their origin and development in this country, these powerful organisations have hitherto limited themselves almost strictly to their function of sharing in the regulation of wages and working hours, and of enforcing the repeal of laws openly hostile to the workmen.’ 1

But such an approach was only dominant because of the objective conditions, and he fired a warning shot for the future:

‘They ought not to forget that they cannot continue to hold the position they now occupy unless they really march in the van of the working class.’ 1

From 1876 the capitalist economy grinded into prolonged stagnation. The development of manufacturing across Europe, particularly the development of coal production, undermined Britain’s trade monopoly over Europe and with the rest of the world. The majority of the working class had benefited little from the long boom but now their conditions were to deteriorate further. By 1885 Engels described the East End of London as ‘an ever spreading pool of stagnant misery and desolation, of starvation when out of work, and degradation, physical and moral, when in work.’ 2

Whilst the skilled workers in the staple industries had provided the motor of the long boom, other ‘unskilled’ industries like food, transport, shops, dockers, etc had to keep pace. Now they were the first to come under the hammer of the economic depression and were looking for ways to resist. Craft unionism was uninterested in rising to the challenge, as Engels noted in a letter to the German socialist August Bebel in 1885:

‘the colossal growth of industry has produced a class of workers of whom there are as many or more as there are “skilled” workers in the trade unions and who can do all that the “skilled” workers can or more, but who can never become members. These people have been regularly penalised by the craft rules of the trade unions. But do you suppose the unions ever dreamt of doing away with this silly bunk? Not in the least. I can never remember reading of a single proposal of the kind at a Trade Union Congress. The fools want to reform society to suit themselves and not to reform themselves to suit the development of society. They cling to their traditional superstition, which does them nothing but harm themselves, instead of getting quit of the rubbish and thus doubling their numbers and their power and really becoming again what at present they daily become less – associations of all the workers in a trade against the capitalists.’ 5

Conservative ways of thinking had developed over nearly thirty years of steady union growth. Integration into civil society and a culture of partnership with employers meant the leaders of the craft unions saw too much risk and not enough gain in lowering membership fees and opening the floodgates to unruly, discontented, unskilled workers. The economistic, sectional perspective meant that craft unionism’s eventual demise was the flip side of Chartism’s demise: whilst the Chartists lacked the organisation and discipline of the workplace for ‘a political struggle of class against class’, Craft Unionism lacked the will to fight the political struggle at all.

Engels on ‘new unionism’

‘New unionism’ burst into life in the way Engels had foreseen: organising the ‘unorganisable’, militant and with a rapid generalisation across the working class. It emerged out of two riots: the first was ‘Black Monday’ where a huge protest against unemployment in Trafalgar square ended in a riot in Pall Mall, the second was ‘Bloody Sunday’ where hundreds were beaten and three died in a mass protest against home rule of Ireland. The combination of economic depression and political questions like Ireland, the Civil War in the United States and the Paris Commune was the backdrop for a re-emergence of militancy amongst the most oppressed.

New Unionism spread like wild fire across the working class: the socialist Will Thorne organised a victory of gas workers in the East End of London in 1889, over the next few weeks the ‘National Union of Gas Workers and General Labourers’ mushroomed to 20,000. Once the working class realised they could fight and win, the mood for struggle was contagious:

‘…the movement spreads and seizes one layer of the workers after another. It has now shaken out of their torpor the unskilled labourers of the East End of London and we all know what a splendid impulse these fresh forces have given it in return.’ 7

Engels described the new spirit in a letter to an American comrade in January 1890:

‘And these unskilled are very different chaps from the fossilised brothers of the old trade unions; not a trace of the old formalist spirit, of the craft exclusiveness of the engineers, for instance; on the contrary, a general cry for the organisation of all trade unions in one fraternity and for a direct struggle against capital.’ 6

Trade unionism can expand or narrow down the horizons of workers depending upon the level of participation of rank-and-file workers in the struggle and the ambition of the demands that are raised. The craft unions bureaucratic methods emphasised the sectional interests of their members. New unionism unleashed the revolutionary energy of ordinary workers, driving the unions towards the working class acting as what Marx called a universal class- raising slogans for the interests of the masses as a whole and using tactics that attempted to bring more sections of the oppressed and exploited into the struggle. The Dockers, for example, led marches every day through the City of London after holding massive public rallies to show their fighting spirit and win wider sections of the working class to joining the struggle. Engels described the tension that broke out between the old and the new:

‘At the Silvertown Rubber Works, moreover, where there was a twelve-weeks’ strike, the strike was broken by the engineers, who did not join in and even did labourers’ work against their own union rules! And why? These fools, in order to keep the supply of workers low, have a rule that nobody who has not been through the correct period of apprenticeship may be admitted to their union. By this means they have created an army of rivals, so-called blacklegs, who are just as skilled as they are themselves and who would gladly come into the union, but who are forced to remain blacklegs because they are kept outside by this pedantry which has no sense at all nowadays. And because they knew that both in the Commercial Dock and in Silvertown these blacklegs would immediately have stepped into their place, they stayed in and so became blacklegs themselves against the strikers. There you see the difference: the new unions hold together; in the present gas strike, sailors (steamer) and firemen, lightermen and coal carters are all together, but of course not the engineers again, they are still working!’ 6

Such conflict did not last and the craft unions also increased in militancy as a response to the victories strikes had achieved, but new unionism had leaped sections of the working class from being the most backward to the vanguard, as Lindsey German describes:

‘The success of the agitation was shown in the mass May day demonstration organised around the theme of the eight hour day in 1890. Despite sectarian opposition from some of the old union leaders around the London Trades Council, hundreds of thousands went to Hyde Park…Engels was one of the speakers’ platforms and was full of enthusiasm for the event, which he saw as symbolising the reawakening of the working class.’ 4

Just as working classes between countries go through a process of uneven and combined development, so do the different sections of the working class within a country, as Engels summed up: ‘The longer the stream is dammed up, the more powerful will be the breakthrough when it comes.’ 7

The leadership of the movement was dominated by socialists who had been organising and gaining the ear of workers, particularly in the East End of London, years previously. Eleanor Marx became the leader of the Gas Workers Union – today’s GMB. This gave the movement an anti-capitalist logic:

‘The people are… drawing far greater masses into the struggle, shaking up society far more profoundly, and putting forward much more far reaching demands: the eight hour day, a general federation of all organisations and complete solidarity. Through Tussy (Eleanor Marx), the Gas Workers’ and General Labourers’ Union has got women’s branches for the first time. Moreover, the people regard their immediate demands as only provisional, although they themselves do not yet know toward what final goal they are working. But this vague notion has a strong enough hold on them to make them elect as leaders only downright Socialists’. 8

New unionism’s fusion of militancy with political generalisation was the galvanising force for the rise of a new era of trade unionism which broke with the craft character of the previous era. Engels brilliantly dissected the difference between the two trade unionisms:

‘This organisation may to a great extent adopt the form of the old Unions of ‘skilled’ workers but it is essentially different in character. The old Unions preserve the traditions of the time when they were founded, and look upon the wages system as a once-for-all established, final fact, which they at best can modify in the interest of their members. The new Unions were founded at a time when the faith in the eternity of the wages system was severely shaken; their founders and promoters were Socialists either consciously or by feeling; the masses, whose adhesion gave them strength, were rough, neglected, looked down upon by the working-class aristocracy; but they had this immense advantage, that their minds were virgin soil, entirely free from the inherited ‘respectable’ bourgeois prejudices which hampered the brains of the better situated ‘old’ Unionists. And thus we see now these new Unions taking the lead of the working-class movement generally, and more and more taking in tow the rich and proud, old Unions.’ 2

Engels optimism for new unionism was based on his emphasis on the self-activity of the working class and the fighting leadership of the movement. But Engels didn’t foresee the quick decline in new unionism’s confidence and combativity, which was well under way in the first years of the 1890′s. We can explain this by looking at the weaknesses in Engels analysis.

Weak points

Firstly, whilst individual socialists provided courageous and dynamic direction to new unionism, socialist organisations were nowhere. The Social-Democratic Federation (SDF) and the Socialist League (a splinter from the SDF) both had an extremely sectarian, propagandist approach to strikes, believing them to be useless unless workers had already been trained in socialist ideas. Such an abstract notion of developing class consciousness was infuriating to Engels. He was equally at odds with the Fabian society: a new ‘socialist’ current that preached gradualism and would go on to form the intellectual basis of the Labour Party. In an interview in 1893 about the German Social-Democratic Party, of which he was an active member despite his location, Engels vented his fury at the sectarianism and reformism of the British Left:

‘”Now, tell me what is your political programme?”

“Our programme is very nearly identical with that of the Social-Democratic Federation in England, although our policy is very different.”

“More nearly approaching that of the Fabian Society, I suppose?”

“No, certainly not,” replied the Herr, with great animation. “The Fabian Society, I take to be nothing but a branch of the Liberal Party. It looks for no social salvation except through the means which that party supplies. We are opposed to all the existing political parties, and we are going to fight them all. The English Social-Democratic Federation is, and acts, only like a small sect. It is an exclusive body. It has not understood how to take the lead of the working-class movement generally, and to direct it towards socialism. It has turned Marxism into an orthodoxy. Thus it insisted upon John Burns unfurling the red flag at the dock strike, where such an act would have ruined the whole movement, and, instead of gaining over the dockers, would have driven them back into the arms of the capitalists. We don’t do this. Yet our programme is a purely socialist one.”‘ 9

Engels was right to rage against the sectarianism and reformism of the SDF and the Fabians, but he didn’t outline an alternative. Marx and Engels perspective of socialists building parties of the working class as a whole led Engels to first look to New Unionism itself as the basis of a new party, then when the struggle died down he naively put faith in the newly formed Independent Labour Party (ILP) as a home for revolutionaries. The ILP was launched by Keir Hardie, a Scottish reformist who explicitly rejected Marx’s ideas and looked to elections as the sole arena for the working class to make progress. The party was born out of the defeat of the ‘Manningham Mills’ strike in Bradford. It’s first successes came in new unionism’s decline, when latent class anger began to be reflected in the ballot box.

The failure to coalesce the most advanced sections of new unionism into a revolutionary organisation meant that when New Unionism’s progress was halted the best militants receded into the ILP, like Willie Thorne, or the wilderness of demoralisation, like Eleanor Marx.

Secondly, Engels hadn’t foreseen the potential for the new unions to become bureaucratised, a process that quickly set in when militancy was dashed and the employers regained the upper hand. This is because Marx and Engels had failed to fully grasp the importance of the divide between the rank-and-file and the trade union bureaucracy. This isn’t particularly surprising as the bureaucracy constituted a small layer of the trade-union movement in their day. They talked of a ‘labour aristocracy’- a section of the working class bought off as the power of the British empire gave the capitalists such abundance that they could afford to give more to an elite section of workers. This suggests conspiracy and that the capitalist class aren’t tied into driving for greater exploitation of workers to be more competitive; in other words it doesn’t fit with a wider Marxist analysis.

Engels emphasised the fact that the dynamic driving force of Trade-Unionism always came from below, and he was suspect about certain Trade-Union leaders, writing to Sorge in 1889:

‘I am not at all sure, for instance, that John Burns is not secretly prouder of his popularity with Cardinal Manning, the Lord Mayor and the bourgeoisie in general than of his popularity with his own class.’ 8

He was right to doubt John Burns, who a few years later joined the Liberals. However, Engels understood this as the individual weaknesses of particular leaders, rather than a structural issue of trade union leaders having separate class interests due to their mediating role between capitalist and worker. He therefore believed the most important thing was the right leaders, rather than building a network of rank-and-file workers who could act independently when the trade-union bureaucracy vacillate. Engels stood on the correct side of the workers movement and understood that socialists should throw themselves into New Unionism, but he didn’t analyse the divisions within New Unionism and therefore how revolutionaries could most effectively operate within it.

As the employers offensive in the early 1890′s began to push the fighting spirit of new unionism back, craft unions and new unions began to converge in their methods. The ‘general’ nature of many of the new unions began to subside as they narrowed down their organisational aspirations to their specific trade. The craft unions had grown out of the temporary prosperity of the period, as well as the spirit of new unionism leading non-unionised craftsman to join. The Amalgamated Engineers, for example, jumped from 53,740 members at the end of 1888 to 71,221 at the end of 1891.

Mechanisation was also reducing the craft unions privileged position as skilled workers, and therefore changing their attitude to unskilled workers, as Burns described in 1890:

‘Labour-saving machinery is reducing the previously skilled to the level of unskilled labour, and they must, in their own interests, be less exclusive than hitherto’ 10.

Increasing working class homogeneity coincided with rising unionisation, as growth continued to build momentum until it peaked after the First World War. This process was not inevitable. If there was no ‘new unionism’ the capitalist class would have felt more confident to attack the comparatively well off craft workers as mechanisation weakened their sectional strength. A period of general union decline could have been possible as opposed to the general union growth that laid the basis for the great unrest and the heroic struggles at the end of the first world war, led by the engineers. Whilst the leaders of new unionism at its height aspired for greater achievements than a stronger trade-union movement under the control of a thoroughly reformist bureaucracy, its place as a key movement in the development of the British working class is secure.


There are many differences in the situation today: craft unionism was narrowly economistic as it was in the private-sector with little state involvement whereas unions today look to lobbying and political pressure on the government as they are mainly situated in the public sector. The big unions today don’t organise purely on the basis of profession; Unite, for example, has hundreds if not thousands of different professions within its ranks. Consequently the possibility of getting the current unions to build amongst new industries is much more likely.

But what new unionism proves is that it’s possible for large sections of the working class who are unorganised and appear politically backward to quickly jump ahead of unions and trade unionists who have built up an inertia and conservatism in class combat. The nature of trade unionism is to a large extent determined by the period in which it has emerged from and the practises that have become routinised.

This is not to say the most oppressed and unorganised sections will always be the most likely to break conservative trends; in the First World War it was the previously conservative and highly organised engineers that marched at the vanguard of working class struggle. But in the case of both the engineers and new unionism the conscious intervention of socialists to identify where the leadership of the working class could emerge from and to organise and generalise their example as the most combative, political form of trade unionism was crucial.

Socialists can’t just implant themselves where workers are organised and expect that this will put them in a position of leadership. To understand where militancy could develop from socialists have to analyse the ‘character’ of trade-Union organisation: the unevenness of trade-union membership, the industries that are central to capitalist development, the turmoil that will or has been experienced within the industry, what industries new workers are entering, the potential for generalisation across workplaces, the politicisation of the workplace, the age, gender and ethnicity of the workers, etc. In the conditions of greatest contradiction between employer and employee the possibility for what Engels called an ‘instinctive socialism’, or what Gramsci would call ‘spontaneity’, has the greatest possibility of emerging. The embedding of socialists within this dynamic can shift the most advanced layer from an instinctive socialism to a scientific socialism.

We are 123 years on from the Match girls strike that lit the fuse on one of the greatest explosions of working class struggle in British history. Despite all that time, we once again live in an era of economic depression, of attacks on the poorest’s living standards, of the vast majority of the working class unorganised and of a transitional period for the trade union movement between partnership and militancy. There are three clear lessons we can learn from Engels’ analysis of craft unionism and new unionism:

1. A return to militancy

New unionism broke the consensus that the working class is better to submit to capitalist control and work in partnership with them on their terms rather than to wage class warfare. We need militancy, solidarity and unity in industrial relations that expresses workers ability to hit the system’s profits and that can inspire confidence and belief in society as a whole that trade unions are institutions that can fight for their members interests. Social-partnership since the defeats of the 1980′s has only led to low wages and deteriorating conditions in the private sector as well as increasing marketisation and now cutbacks in the public sector.

2. Organise the ‘Unorganisable’

Socialists and trade unionists have to take the unionisation of private-sector workers and precarious workers in the public-sector seriously. If we don’t take the risk of attempting to connect with these sections of the working class we are allowing divisions between public and private and unionised and non-unionised as well as allowing anti-union, anti-socialist ideas to seep into workers consciousness. Eleanor Marx, Tom Mann and others had the daring to devote time and energy to this project and the result was that they stood at the head of the movement. The recession is driving bosses to squeeze workers wages and conditions further whilst prices continue to rise.The contradiction may not break this year or the next, but workers will be forced to move into struggle, as Engels put it ‘The workingmen must rebel so long as they have not lost all human feeling’ 11. It is up to socialists and to the trade-unions of today to decide whether they are on the outside or inside of that struggle. We cannot allow the conservatism of craft unionism to be reflected today.

3. ‘The Primacy of Politics’

As Engels put it, we are in a ‘political struggle of class against class’ and therefore it is essential that this is reflected in the way the working class struggles. New unionism’s slogan for the 8-hour working day encapsulated both a pressure point on the government and a unifying demand around which the working class could mobilise. This was within a general context of riots over home rule in Ireland and unemployment. Today, with increased monopolies in the economy and increased competition geopolitically, the State plays a much more central role in the system and therefore the ‘primacy of politics’, as Lenin put it, is even more pertinent.

We need to use the united front to draw workers that want to fight, whether currently unionised or not, into united action alongside reformist leaders over a set of political demands that focuses the movement on targeting the government, and ultimately state power, to achieve victories. If we can connect the economic power of trade unions in the workplace with the political power of social movements on the street a dynamic working class movement can develop. Socialists have to bring the political and economic together whether they are organising radical call-centre workers or if they are occupying a city square with radical students and unemployed youth.


  1. Engels, Frederick (1881) ‘On the Trade Unions’.
  2. Engels, Frederick (1892) ‘Preface to the second German edition’ of Conditions of the working class in England.
  3. TUC (2004) ‘Union history: timeline- 1850-1880′ www.­unionhistory.­info/­timeline/­1850_1880.­php
  4. German, Lindsey (1994) ‘Frederick Engels: life of a revolutionary’ International Socialism Issue 65
  5. Engels, Frederick (1885) ‘Engels to August Bebel In Plauen near Dresden’
  6. Engels, Frederick (1890) ‘Engels to H Schlutter in New York’
  7. Bambery, Chris (1985) ‘Marx and Engels and the Unions’ International Socialism Issue 26, page 89.
  8. Engels, Frederick (1889) ‘Engels to Friedrich Adolph Sorge
    In Hoboken’
  9. Engels, Frederick (1893) ‘Daily Chronicle Interviews Engels’
  10. Pelling, Henry (1976). ‘A history of British Trade-Unionism’ page 101
  11. Bambery, Chris (1985) ‘Marx and Engels and the Unions’ International Socialism Issue 26, page 78.

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