Note on the union crisis

Image: Paul Nash (1933)


Advances, contradictions and gaps in the theoretical place of syndicalism in Althusser's work

In recent decades, labor relations in capitalism have undergone several transformations. Along with this, there is strong evidence of a crisis in trade unionism around the world, at least in trade unionism as we know it. Unionization rates and the number of strikes are down, in general, despite significant regional differences. Such issues have not only reoriented research agendas and global labor studies, but it would not be an exaggeration to say that this is one of the main contemporary political challenges.

In our view, Louis Althusser holds theoretical and political powers that are still current and that can help us in these issues. But in his contribution there are also many shortcomings to be remedied and developed. Now, among the various edges left by research notes on the Ideological State Apparatuses (AIE), the theoretical locus of unionism is one of the most expressive.

Therefore, our objective will be to rescue the advances, contradictions and gaps of this concept (AIE Sindical) in the work of Althusser (1977, 1978, 1999), also making use of some contributions from Bernard Edelman. We will include here the posthumous Que faire? (ALTHUSSER, 2018), which brings thought-provoking reflections on the trade union struggle. The main questions that we intend to answer based on these readings are: how does the system of union apparatuses contribute to the reproduction and transformation of production relations? Under what practices and material bases does it sustain itself? And how does the class struggle cut through this system and its history? Finally, and not least: what political guidelines does Marxism imprint on trade union militancy?


Class struggle, legalization and the ideological apparatus of the union state

When dealing with the ideological apparatuses of the union state, Althusser sets himself the task of solving an apparently unsolvable problem: how this instrument of proletarian class struggle, as well as the Communist Parties, can be understood as “pieces” of a bourgeois State, the help in the reproduction of production relations?

Em About Reproduction, the class struggle is the starting and ending point of this theory, in our view. It is by resorting to it that Althusser manages to dissolve the apparent paradoxes posed by the issue of union and political AIEs. This class struggle, recalls the author, does not exist only within the ideological apparatuses of the State, against all accusations of functionalism, but “infinitely surpasses all the legal forms through which it can also express itself” (ALTHUSSER, 1999 , p. 128).

In other words, dealing with the origin and existence of the union and political AIE requires going beyond the terrain of law, beyond the legalized forms that these ideological State apparatuses take on and limit themselves (ALTHUSSER, 1999, p. 129). It is necessary to recognize and analyze “the most violent class struggle [that] is fought without interruption, although in a deaf and not visible way from the outside, for not being consecrated by the existing legality, at all times of the practice of production and far beyond that practice” (ALTHUSSER, 1999, p. 130).

The existence of these strange ideological State apparatuses would be explained, then, by the violent, continuous and multiple class struggle prior and “external” of the legal forms/apparatuses. The “consecration” by law, or its legalization, needs to be understood, first of all, as an achievement, an imposition and a realization of this proletarian struggle and its ideology.

And here we go one step further. This consecration by law is not without effects. Nor does it nullify the class struggle. She is one more move in this game. That's because, and here's a striking analogy with Edelman, all legalization comes with a price. From an achievement can come a defeat. Legal forms impose limits and “pressure” these organizations to actually function as pieces in the reproduction of production relations, in bourgeois domination. The proletarian ideology, existing at the beginning of the process, can become reformism, according to Althusser, by deviating (via parliamentary cretinism, economism…) and, finally, being internally defeated by this dominant legal form/ideology (ALTHUSSER, 1999, p. 123).

And here the class struggle appears at the finish line. It was there, on this side, at the beginning of the formation of these ideological State apparatuses. And it is there, beyond the limits of legal forms, also guaranteeing the existence of these ideological State apparatuses as de facto instruments of the proletarian struggle for the seizure of State power and the dismantling of State apparatuses. And who is on this outer side of the class struggle? Althusser now names: the masses. We will return to this point in the next section, but, again, we are faced with a new approximation with Edelman (2016): beyond the law, the legalized working class, there are the masses, the hordes, the “fact”.

Let us now quickly see what is, in our view, one of the main limitations of this text by Althusser with regard to the functioning of this apparatus. By focusing on a very general reading of trade unionism, centered on political problems, he does not dwell on this device itself. In a quick stretch he advances at that point, but very shallowly. He recognizes that syndicalism is not a phenomenon only of the proletariat. Other classes, and even the bourgeoisie, create organizations that defend the “interests of the profession”, for example. And here is one of the main elements of interpellation of a possible union sub-ideology: corporatism. This ideology even has a complex “pre-capitalist” history, which Althusser does not dwell on.

We would venture to say that a category or profession could be understood, in Althusserian theory itself, as a subject that challenges workers or members of that profession/category to defend their corporate interests, participate in their assemblies and elections, recognize themselves in union leadership, etc. Such union practices found a bureaucracy, in short (EDELMAN, 2016, p. 111), which is understood to be superior to the base, and normally has its daily life marked by management practices, including. And the proletarian unions, Althusser himself recognizes, are in company with the unions of other classes, in a sort of system – and, we might add, under strong pressure to function in the same way as the others.

And speaking of ideological interpellation, the repressive aspect, even if secondary to the ideological apparatuses of the union state, seems to be forgotten by Althusser. In Edelman we can better identify the repressive devices that the ideological apparatuses of the union state bring in their own form. And how these devices are crucial to the functioning of this apparatus and its sub-ideology. According to the jurist, legalization also means more exposure, in the sense of apprehensible by the bourgeois class and power. The juridical power of capital is also imposed in the form of making visible – and, for that very reason, dialoguable, co-optable, but also punishable, “criminally attributable” – the proletarians in struggle. The trade union AIE serves, objectively, to filter the masses, imposing the need to represent them in legal forms. To legalize is to exist for the law, to expose oneself to the enemy camp.

In our view, Edelman, on this point, can be complementary to Althusser in the analysis of the ideological apparatuses of the union state. Not only in the sense of a greater understanding of how labor law acts and questions the union AIE, but also alerting to the fact that the dangers of legal forms may be greater than imagined (and in fact they were): “ the bourgeoisie tried – and, in a way, succeeded – to deny the masses any word and any existence outside of legality” (EDELMAN, 2016, p. 111).


Economic struggle, political struggle, communist militancy and mass initiatives

Em Que faire?, when discussing the “level of consciousness” of the working masses, their theoretical limit, the correct methodology for listening and acting with them, Althusser (2018, p. 36-37) affirms “the primacy of the masses over classes, and the primacy of the masses and the classes over the organizations of class struggle, over the trade union and over the party”. Let us remember that the “external” class struggle, in the About Reproduction, is the decisive basis for class struggle in legal forms (and its “achievements”). It is this decisive sphere of the class struggle that hierarchizes and generates primacy in the Marxist struggle. Subordination to the mass class struggle (ALTHUSSER, 1999, p. 136), thus reaches the level of a political principle.

From there, Althusser rediscovers the supposed Marxist thesis of relegating the economic struggle to the background (ALTHUSSER, 1999, p. 142). The author recognizes that a revolutionary process can only occur in the fusion and unity between the economic and political struggles of the proletariat, and State power is the decisive factor for the victory of the process, but it is the economic class struggle that attacks “directly the material basis of the existence of capitalism, therefore, of bourgeois society and the political domination of the bourgeoisie” (ALTHUSSER, 1999, p. 150).

The political struggle is what can direct the revolutionary process, but only on the basis of the economic class struggle, which needs to be “carried out daily, indefatigably, in depth and according to a fair line” (ALTHUSSER, 1999, p. 154), “in the smallest details” (ALTHUSSER, 1999, p. 157). Under the material demands that communist politics is built (ALTHUSSER, 1999, p. 155). And only by focusing on them will the masses “accept” communist leadership (ALTHUSSER, 1999, p. 156).

Considering economic struggle as the material basis of class struggle, and the centrality of class struggle outside legal forms, on the terrain of the masses and their concrete demands, Althusser sheds light on the pillars of a theory of communist political leadership and militancy, including in the ideological apparatuses of the union state.

In his writings on the “crisis of Marxism”, he announces the possibility of other non-union economic struggle organizations that could act at the level of the masses. And, curiously, this opens gaps in Edelman's diagnosis of the corrosion of the proletarian struggle via union representation. Now, Althusser thus launches bases to reverse the subordination of the masses to the State apparatuses, trying to refine the communist principle.

In a 1977 text, in a critique of the French Communist Party, he addresses the slogan “union of the people” as opposed to “union of the left” (parties and unions). To speak of the unity of the people would be: “To tell them [the popular masses], even if only as a suggestion, that they will have to organize themselves, autonomously, in original forms, in companies, in urban districts and in villages, in around issues of work and living conditions, issues of housing, education, health, transportation, environment, etc.; to define and defend their demands, first to prepare for the establishment of a revolutionary state, then to maintain it, stimulate it and, at the same time, force it to 'disappear'. Such mass organizations, which no one can define in advance and by the masses, already exist or are being sought in Italy, Spain and Portugal, where they play an important role despite all the difficulties”. Althusser explicitly affirms a multiplicity of “economic” demands that go beyond the fight and organization properly union.

Already in a text from 1978, Althusser gives more signs about these original forms of the masses: “how can relations be established with the mass movement that, transcending the traditional distinction between union and party, will allow the development of initiatives among the people, which generally do not fit in the division between the economic and political spheres (even “added together”)? For we are witnessing more and more mass movements of the people arising on their own, outside the unions and parties, bringing – or capable of bringing – something indispensable to the struggle”.

In our view, Althusser was not deluding himself with a naive spontaneity, but rather highlighting the principle of what we have called militancy and communist leadership above. This direction is not avant-garde, as it wants to connect with the masses. It is not spontaneity, as it assumes the need to direct the process. But this process is only possible through a mass line, in the Maoist sense of the term.


Final considerations

We have seen that, for Louis Althusser, it was the class struggle outside the state apparatuses, the struggle beyond the legal level, which made the legalization of unionism possible, its constitution as a recognized ideological apparatus. This passage presents several political risks for the proletarian struggle, a warning better developed in Edelman's work, including focusing on repressive aspects of the trade union AIE, ignored by Althusser. Overcoming these risks is related to the defense of the proletarian ideology in these apparatuses and the construction of a purely tactical and instrumental use of law. Both practices possible through a connection to that external class struggle to legal forms and revolutionary politics.

This revolutionary policy, according to Althusser, has as its principles the primacy of the masses and the economic struggle as the basis of the political struggle. It is these principles that should guide communist action and leadership, including in the unions, in his view.

It is important to point out that, in Louis Althusser, both the analysis of the union phenomenon and the proposal for action in it move away from any dogmatism or schematism. Now, it is the conjuncture of the class struggle, the real mass movement that creates possibilities or not for the revolutionary struggle. Thus, it depends on the communists to apply their principles and build concrete alternatives at each historical moment, at each specific social formation – alternatives today that may not involve the return of unionism as we know it.

*Alexandre Marinho Pepper Master in Sociology from the University of Brasilia (UnB).


ALTHUSSER, Louis. On the Twenty-Second Congress of the Communist Party. 1977. Available at:

_________. about reproduction. Petropolis, Voices, 1999.

_________. The Crisis of Marxism. Marxism Today. 1978. Available at

_________. Que faire? Paris: PUF, 2018.

EDELMAN, Bernard. The legalization of the working class. Sao Paulo: Boitempo, 2016.

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