The heart of revolutionary trade unionism is recognising that there is an alternative to capitalism and understanding what that alternative is – socialism. Instead of settling for never-ending conflict with the bosses, with the occasional unstable compromise, revolutionary trade unionism poses the necessity of linking day-to-day workplace struggles to the struggle for the socialist transformation of society.

Socialist Economy

The seeds of a future socialist society have been planted within capitalism in the course of its own development. Private ownership of the economy gives the bosses’ the ‘right’ to heap the wealth created by workers onto their own plates. In a socialist economy individuals would not be allowed to own the ‘commanding heights’ of the economy. The banks, the mines, the commercial farms, the big factories and the big businesses would be nationalised under democratic workers’ control.

Monopoly capitalism has already prepared the ground for this. The development of share ownership and stock exchanges has, in a sense, already socialised ownership within the capitalist class. Shares can be bought and owned by any capitalist, anywhere in the world. Often they don’t even know what they own – and they don’t care as long as the profits keep flowing. The value of the 300+ companies listed on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange was R14 trillion in 2016 and just the biggest 25 companies accounted for R10 trillion of that. Capitalist share ownership of the commanding heights of the economy must be replaced with socialist public ownership.

The competition between capitalist companies and the allocation of resources according to ‘the market’ creates economic crises and unemployment, at an international level it can lead to war. In a socialist economy competition and economic chaos would be replaced with co-operation and democratic economic planning.

Again, capitalism has already prepared the ground for us. The monopolies that dominate the economy already employ and organise workers in huge numbers according to detailed economic plans. But they leave the job half-finished. They plan production and distribution within companies but not between companies. Price-fixing and ‘anti-competition’ scandals are an admission by the bosses themselves that economic planning makes sense. In a socialist economy, instead of Shoprite organising the work of their 130,000 workers in one isolated silo, and Pic N Pay organising the work of their 80,000 workers in another, the entire food processing, retail and distribution sector would be organised according to one democratic economic plan. This would allow for a massive reduction in waste and duplicated resources and ensure that the entire country was fed, clothed and able to access affordable household goods. In turn every sector of the economy would be integrated into one national democratic plan of production.

But a socialist economy cannot reach its full potential within the borders of one country. The work of building a socialist economy is a worldwide task. Capitalism has already created a world market and a vast international division of labour. No country that wants to enjoy all the benefits of modern society can retreat from it. For example, South Africa itself is the world’s top platinum producer. Platinum is used in many industrial processes and to make the catalytic converters in cars. More is produced than could ever be used domestically in South Africa. On the other hand, there is no oil in South Africa. Oil is used to make petrol and anything that contains plastic. Without the world economy we would have mountains of platinum that we cannot use and no petrol or plastic! Every country will have its own examples of its dependence on the world economy. In the 21st century it is inconceivable that any society could ‘un-plug’ from it.

Driving the development of the world economy has been ever more ingenious industrial methods and techniques. The most modern must be deployed upon huge scales to realise their potential. For example, the Chinese steel industry, using the most developed methods, can already supply the world’s entire demand for steel. But a dozen other countries have big steel industries too. It is only capitalism that could have a ‘crisis’ of over-production for such a basic and necessary product as steel. The results are trade wars, cuts to production and job losses as capitalist states defend the profitability of their ‘own’ industries. But what possible interest can workers either in China or any other steel producing country have in this competition? The world working class must unite across borders in a joint struggle for socialism and in doing so lay the foundations for an internationally planned economy.

These measures are the foundation of socialist economy. Socialism will allow the wealth created by workers to be used to benefit the whole of society. Wages can be raised and jobs created. Decent and modern houses, clinics, hospitals and schools can be built and high quality services organised. Ending poverty will enormously reduce crime and other social problems, including racism, sexism, homophobia and xenophobia. Culture and life-long education will be developed. Everyone will have the chance to achieve their potential.

Socialist Democracy

In the trade union struggle for greater democratic control of the workplace are the seeds of a future workers’ democracy able to run a socialist economy. The trade unions can play a role in preparing workers to take over the running of society. In the workplace trade unions challenge the bosses’ control. Shop stewards intervene to defend the jobs of workers, to stop unfair work practices, or block arbitrary changes to shifts. As the trade union movement develops elected and accountable shop stewards committees must push for more and more control in the workplace – even over hiring and firing, the organisation of shifts etc.

Trade union education must not be limited to teaching shop stewards how to follow laws that ultimately defend capitalist exploitation, necessary as this is. It must also teach workers about the history of trade unions, organising strategies and political education on all of the methods the bosses use to control and co-opt the trade union movement, including their efforts to divide workers by gender, race, sexuality, language and nationality. Trade union education must go further still and teach workers about administration, logistics and the industrial and scientific techniques of production. This work can begin to lay the foundations for a future workers’ state where the key economic decisions in society can be taken democratically by workers themselves. The capitalist state’s threat of violence that hangs over our heads every day can be abolished.

Full employment under socialism will allow us to reduce the length of the work week, without loss of pay, and create the time workers will need to run society. There is no reason we cannot organise a four day or even a three day week, without loss of pay, and use one of these days for democratic discussion, oversight and planning for the future.

This is the programme of revolutionary trade unionism – the preparation of the working class to struggle for the socialist transformation of society. It is from this clear political foundation that revolutionary trade unionists’ commitment to building a class-independent and united movement of militant, democratic worker-controlled trade unions flows.

Principles from Programme

Leon Trotsky wrote about the saying “the end justifies the means”. He rejected the idea that the two could be separated, pointing out that “seeds of wheat must be sown in order to yield an ear of wheat.” Trotsky explained what this means for revolutionaries’ attitude to building the workers’ movement. He said:

Permissible and obligatory are those and only those means … which unite the revolutionary proletariat, fill their hearts with irreconcilable hostility to oppression, teach them contempt for official morality [i.e. middle class/capitalist ‘common sense’] and its democratic echoers [i.e. defenders of narrow capitalist ‘democracy’], imbue them with consciousness of their own historic mission, raise their courage and spirit of self-sacrifice in the struggle.

Their Morals and Ours, 1938

It is from our clear understanding of the socialist alternative to capitalism, our ‘end’ in the language of Trotsky, that our principled commitment to building a class-independent and united movement of militant, democratic and worker-controlled trade unions comes. Socialism cannot be built behind the backs of the working class but only by the working class, with the organised workers of the trade unions in the front line. Anything that prevents or limits workers from preparing themselves to play their ‘historic role’ is in conflict with the programme of revolutionary trade unionism. That is why building such a trade union movement is written into the DNA of revolutionary trade unionism. It is necessary for the development of the working class’s socialist consciousness and their role in the struggle for the socialist transformation of society.

So if revolutionary trade unionists are the most determined fighters and incorruptible leaders, it is only because they stand firmly on the programme of revolutionary trade unionism. It is the programme that workers must place their confidence in; confidence in individuals must only be given to the extent that they represent and defend the programme.

Militant Fighters

Trade union bureaucrats who want to limit struggle will whisper to workers, “look at these revolutionaries, they only care about the socialist future, they do not really care about the problems you have today”. But the opposite is true. The programme of revolutionary trade unionism prepares all those who stand on it to be the most militant fighters.

Going all-out to win every struggle is of critical importance because most people learn by experience. Above all, nothing educates workers’ about the nature of society, or builds confidence in their own power to change it, more than a victorious struggle. Further, every struggle that wins higher wages, more secure jobs, or longer paid-leave strengthens the working class by easing their struggle for survival. This gives workers more time and energy to organise and plan campaigns, take part in political education etc.

Armed with the socialist alternative to capitalist exploitation, revolutionary trade unionists do not enter struggle to balance the interests of the bosses and the workers. They enter struggle 100% on the side of the workers. Instead of running from the accusation that strikes are being ‘politicised’, revolutionary trade unionists go out of their way to do just that. Every struggle, no matter how small, or limited in its demands, must educate workers about the nature of capitalism and their role in transforming society. Revolutionary trade unionists will push themselves to their limits to guarantee victories in all day-to-day struggles because they do not see them as separate from the struggle for socialism but as necessary preparation for it.


That does not mean that revolutionary trade unionists are reckless, ‘strike happy’, or think that every struggle can immediately be turned into a challenge to capitalism. This is a childish criticism sometimes made by trade union bureaucrats. Sometimes a compromise is unavoidable. Lenin answered such lazy criticisms when he explained that:

The task of a truly revolutionary party is not to declare that it is impossible to renounce all compromises, but to be able, through all compromises, when they are unavoidable, to remain true to its principles, to its class, to its revolutionary purpose, to its task of paving the way for revolution and educating the mass of the people for victory in the revolution.

On Compromises, 1917

For the trade union bureaucrat with no alternative to capitalism, a compromise means making a deal with the bosses behind the backs of the workers and then lying through their teeth to try and ‘sell it’. But for revolutionaries, an unavoidable compromise with the bosses can only ever be understood as a tactical retreat and an opportunity to honestly educate workers. Revolutionary trade unionism has no use for deception even in defeat. Lies cannot educate workers about what future victory will require, either in the immediate struggle or in the struggle for socialism.

Class Independence

A clear understanding of the role of the capitalist state means revolutionary trade unionists refuse to be co-opted and integrated into it. Rather, they fiercely defend independent class organisation. Our attitude towards the capitalist state and its institutions must be a purely tactical one.

For example, parliament cannot abolish capitalism – it is part-and-parcel of the capitalist state which exists to defend capitalism. But through history this has not stopped workers from using the platform to win reforms that can improve the lives of the working class but at the same time using it to expose the limitations of capitalist democracy. Revolutionary trade unionism takes the same approach to the capitalist state’s different bargaining forums and labour courts. These will never abolish class exploitation. But they can be used to win some concessions and mount a basic defence of workers. This must be done at the same time as exposing their limitations and their role in defending capitalism as a system. Ultimately, if unjust laws are a barrier to the success of workers’ struggles then mass campaigns of defiance must be organised.

Democracy and Workers’ Control

Genuinely democratic trade union structures where workers are free to discuss, debate, reflect, hear different sides of an argument and exercise real control over their representatives and leaders are vital to maintain class independence.

Democratic structures act as forums for workers to discuss and debate their experiences of struggle. Such discussions assist workers to draw important lessons and in doing so gain a deeper understanding of the nature of capitalism and their own role in the socialist transformation of society. It is totally alien to revolutionary trade unionists to tolerate the limiting of democratic structures or their bureaucratic manipulation because this will limit workers’ political and ideological growth.

It would be as much of a problem if revolutionary trade unionists tried to impose our own programme bureaucratically. The working class cannot be tricked or manoeuvred into embracing the struggle for socialism. To the extent that a majority of workers continue to have illusions in capitalism, or do not yet have confidence that socialism is ‘realistic’, revolutionary trade unionist’s campaign for the ‘hearts and minds’ of workers is still incomplete. We would only be fooling ourselves to pretend otherwise. Rather, it is necessary to analyse the cause of those continuing illusions and find slogans, campaigns and organise education that can help workers to overcome them.

Further, the exercise of genuine control by workers over their own organisations is vital training for their future role in running a socialist society. Powerful democratic worker-controlled trade unions that are more and more capable of limiting the power of the bosses and controlling the workplace lead workers to important and practical political conclusions. With the experience of growing power and control over at least some parts of their lives it will become normal for workers to ask themselves the question: “if we can run our own organisations, and via them influence and even control the workplace, why can we not do away with the bosses entirely and run society ourselves?” The development of a trade union in a workplace begins to pose the question – who really controls this workplace? If this question is posed simultaneously in a majority of workplaces then an even bigger question is on the agenda – which class controls society?

But if workers are limited and blocked by an unaccountable bureaucracy in their ‘own’ organisations, in a mirror of the way they are blocked by the boss from democratic control in the workplace, confidence in their own powers will be undermined. Unaccountable leaders and bureaucratic structures only reinforce what the bosses preach – the subordinate role of the working class. For revolutionary trade unionism, workers’ control over their own organisations is preparation for the working class’s control over society as a whole.

Administration vs. Bureaucracy

Revolutionary trade unionism arms us with a solid understanding of the causes of bureaucracy – which is the source of the suppression of democracy and workers’ control in trade unions. The bosses co-opt workers’ leaders through privileges that lift them out of the working class. By understanding this we are armed to resist it.

Revolutionary trade unionism calls on workers to demand that the organisation of vital administration, including the payment of salaries to organisers and certain elected officials, does not develop beyond what is necessary for it to be effective. This must of course take account of the fact that the payment of salaries was originally intended to relieve some of the financial pressure that working class people face. It is counter-productive if workers’ leaders are always hungry and wondering where their next meal will come from, or if they are distracted because of the stress of not knowing how they will pay their rent. Such grinding poverty can itself be a temptation to give in to corruption out of desperation. Every union and every industry can determine what wage levels are realistic and what is appropriate for their circumstances.

Sometimes revolutionaries will win positions in unions where a culture of bureaucracy has already taken hold. Taking-up such posts will be a necessary part of the struggle to transform the trade unions. Those that do so will find themselves receiving sky-high salaries and be given the possibility of claiming endless expenses. In such circumstances a revolutionary trade unionist must only take part of that salary for their personal use and organise their expenses in an open way to prove to workers that all claims are legitimate.

The Revolutionary Party

Every programme needs a vehicle to both protect it and to spread it. For us trade unions alone are not an adequate vehicle. A revolutionary party is also necessary. Trotsky explained why when he said:

The question of the relationships between the party, which represents the proletariat [working class] as it should be, and the trade unions, which represent the proletariat as it is, is the most fundamental question of revolutionary Marxism.

Communism and Syndicalism, 1929

Trotsky is pointing out that in ‘normal times’ the capitalist class uses its control of society – the state, the media, education etc. – to encourage the working class to accept their exploitation. All sorts of reactionary and backward ideas are encouraged to keep workers divided and ignorant. Ideologies that justify capitalism and try to rubbish socialism are transmitted into the trade union movement from the capitalist class via privileged trade union bureaucrats. Supporters of revolutionary trade unionism need to be organised to withstand these pressures – that form of organisation can only be a revolutionary party.

A revolutionary party works to win the working class to a revolutionary socialist programme in every theatre of struggle – the workplaces, the communities, the schools and the campuses – and not just in one country, but worldwide. A revolutionary socialist programme is also the necessary starting point to build broader working class unity. This is because socialism is a generalisation of the interests of the entire working class.

Under capitalism, the bosses constantly try and divide us. Sexism, racism, nationalism, homophobia and xenophobia are encouraged. They hope we will fight each other over their crumbs. But socialism can unite workers across these divisions. A revolutionary socialist programme does not accept that crumbs are all that is possible. It explains that there is in fact enough for everyone – it is only capitalism’s system of private ownership and production for profit that means poverty and inequality. To end capitalism the working class must unite in the struggle to create socialism.

To guarantee that revolutionary trade unionism takes root in the trade unions it is necessary to have the goal of winning the entire working class to a revolutionary socialist programme. The whole working class united against the bosses and their system will be unstoppable.

Revolutionary Work in the Unions

The MWP is a revolutionary party. We exist to win the working class to a revolutionary socialist programme that arms them for the struggle to transform society. In the trade unions we build party caucuses around the ideas outlined in this booklet. Trotsky went so far as to say that any revolutionary who did not see the importance of such work had “lost touch with reality”. How revolutionary trade unionists win over the broad majority of workers in the trade unions as the class struggle unfolds is a detailed tactical discussion that varies in every workplace, union and federation. The main role of our caucuses is to develop a way forward for every group of workers. But with the clear principles of revolutionary trade unionism we are armed for that struggle.

The organised political work of a revolutionary party like the MWP has nothing in common with the abusive treatment of the trade unions by the capitalist political parties. Wherever they walk in the workers’ movement they leave division and conflict. That is because in one way or another any party that does not have an alternative to capitalism cannot genuinely express the interests of the working class, no matter how radical their rhetoric may sometimes be. Rather the activists and leaders of such parties only view the trade unions as machines to generate votes for their attempt to win control of the capitalist state. Toward this goal they are willing to resort to undemocratic manoeuvres and secret manipulations.

But the MWP is not trying to win control of the capitalist state and take over the management of capitalism. We are fighting to end capitalism! This means there is a huge difference in how we approach work in the trade unions. Trotsky explained that revolutionaries:

… have no reason, either in their ideology or their organisation, to hide themselves behind the trade unions. They do not misuse the trade unions for machinations behind the scenes. They do not split the trade unions when they are a minority in them. They do not in any way disturb the independent development of the trade unions, and they support trade union struggles with all their strength. But at the same time [the revolutionary party] reserves the right of expressing its opinion on all questions in the working class movement including the trade union question, to criticise trade union tactics, and to make definite proposals to the trade unions, which, on their part are at liberty to accept or reject these proposals. The party strives to win the confidence of the working class, above all, of that section organised in the trade unions.

A Necessary Discussion with Our Syndicalist Comrades, 1923

As we have explained throughout this pamphlet revolutionary trade unionism is not only in harmony with a militant, democratic and worker-controlled trade union movement – it demands it!

We call on every worker, shop steward, trade union official and leader to take their stand on the programme of revolutionary trade unionism. Join our party, involve yourself in our caucuses and work with us to transform the trade union movement, unite the working class and achieve victory in the struggle for socialism.

What we stand for:

  • Revolutionary in word AND revolutionary in deed! Campaign in every federation and every union for a programme of revolutionary trade unionism – link workers’ struggles on day-to-day issues to the struggle for socialism.
  • One country, one federation – build the principled unity of the trade union movement on the basis of class independence from the bosses, democracy and workers’ control.
  • Build efficient administration – struggle against bureaucracy and careerism! For democracy and worker-control. Trade union leaders are not CEOs! Salary and wage control of all trade union officials determined democratically sector-by-sector. Abolish trade union investment funds – turn investments into savings for strike and solidarity funds!
  • Build co-ordinated campaigns of rolling mass action on all issues facing the working class. Build industry- and sector-wide action-committees that unite the workers of all federations, unions, and those not members of unions in campaigns of rolling mass action. Lock-out the bosses in non-complying industries through workplace occupations. Demand nationalisation under workers control.
  • No trust in the institutions of the capitalist state! Defend the class independence of the trade unions. Campaign to expose the bosses’ economic dictatorship and the limitations of capitalist democracy. Mass defiance of unjust laws that stop workers defending themselves.
  • Nationalise under democratic working class and community control the banks, the mines, the commercial farms, the big factories and big businesses. A publicly owned and democratically planned socialist economy to meet the needs of all and not the profits of the capitalists.
  • Forge the fighting unity of the working class in a party of mass struggle. Build a socialist mass workers party to unite the struggles of the workplaces, the communities and the youth as a vital step toward the creation of a mass revolutionary party
  • Prepare the working class to lead the socialist transformation of society! Join the Marxist Workers Party. Organise MWP caucuses and campaign to win every trade union to the programme of revolutionary trade unionism.