Trade unions, education and the contribution of Marxism

In the daily business of defending members, it’s a constant struggle even to step back and look at ourselves and our movement strategically. It can be even harder to think about the movement as a historical phenomenon and a social agent in complex power relations. For new activists and shop stewards training and education is currently in place but over a process of decades this has become concentrated on the acquisition of technical skills and competences, in spite of the efforts of excellent trade union educators. Part of the Tory attack on our movement involves cutting off the funding for even this education, meaning that our movement faces a historic challenge. We need a wide-ranging debate within the trade union movement over how we organise our education and what it is we need to teach a new generation of reps and shop stewards. The pages of the Morning Star have carried excellent contributions to this debate from practicing trade union educators like Vicky Knight, Bob Kelly and Les Doherty, Union education officers like John Fisher, and latterly the GFTU’s Doug Nicholls.

One of reasons that Trade Union Futures was set up was to contribute to this educative process. Our argument is that the movement needs to engage with the unique analytical possibilities within our Marxist heritage. Marxist analysis contains a uniquely all-embracing capacity to make sense of our history and to pinpoint the specific possibilities – and limits – of trade unions as social agents within that history. What can trade unions do to advance the interests of the working class? What can they do to contribute to effecting a more fundamental progression and transformation of our society?

At Trade Union Futures you will find a short downloadable briefing note introducing you to a discussion of exactly these issues here. We’ve also published two longer essays that examine the growth of Marxism as a strong current within and influenced the British labour movement. Professor Mary Davis, author of the indispensable history of the British trade union movement ‘Comrade or Brother’, examines the early development of Marxist thought on trade unions in the 19th century. Labour historian Professor John Foster picks up where Mary leaves off, tracing the development of Marxism as a force within the unions through the Communist Party of Great Britain. We hope you find them useful contributions to a necessary debate.

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