Marxism and the sociology of trade unionism

Eliezer Markowich Lissitzky, Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge Poster, 1920.


Presentation of the recently released Brazilian edition of Richard Hyman's book

Richard Hyman's book Marxism and the sociology of trade unionism (London: Pluto Press, 1971), whose first translation into Portuguese Editora Enunçado now publishes in its collection Marxist theory and concrete analysis, stands out among the rare systematizations of the theoretical contributions of the classics of Marxism regarding the workers' union movement. Everything revolves around this question: what are the limits and political possibilities of the labor movement in capitalist society?

The importance of this fundamental issue and the objective and rigorous way in which Richard Hyman addresses it help to understand the reason for the numerous references that Marxism and the sociology of trade unionism received in research carried out over the years since its first edition, in countries such as Mexico, Costa Rica, Argentina, Brazil, Spain, France, Belgium, Turkey, China, South Korea, among many others.[I]

For scholars of the sociology of work and trade unionism, Richard Hyman has played the role of one of the main interlocutors when it comes to discussing the Marxist approach; For many researchers, the theoretical collection contained in this book served as inspiration and guide for empirical and comparative research on the labor movement in different contexts and countries. But that's not all: the clear language and the concise and at the same time comprehensive nature of the book make it a valuable instrument for understanding the subject available to union activists and the general public.

The discussion is organized by Richard Hyman based on the thoughts of the first two generations of Marxists: Marx, Engels, Rosa Luxemburg, Lenin and Gramsci. Such authors, as is known, were “organic intellectuals”: ​​they sought to scientifically understand trade unionism to guide the work of their revolutionary political organizations among the working class.

This proximity and the fact that the labor movement was then going through its first great experiences, its first great triumphs and defeats – it is worth remembering that the socialist movement and the workers' union movement were born at the same time, with little difference in age – was reflected in the form of a tension in the thinking of these Marxists.

Richard Hyman analyzes the contrasting theoretical positions and expectations regarding the trade union movement that have appeared in the classics of Marxist thought – following these developments is very instructive. And, in addition, Richard Hyman brings competing perspectives to the discussion, such as that of the “professional” sociology of trade unionism, or that of Robert Michels, defender of the famous thesis of the “iron law of oligarchy”, which would inescapably subject the labor movement to to a bureaucratic elite and its “organizational needs”.

Contrary to Marxism, university institutions, by definition, declare themselves free from any political objective; therefore, its researchers normally seek to restrict the range of problems to issues “internal” to the research object, such as, for example, the problem of democracy in union institutions. Despite this self-declared neutrality, the sociology of trade unionism exerts an important influence on business management and state apparatuses, which seek to integrate and normalize the labor movement; and this influence, in turn, produces a return action on the horizons of such researchers, who rarely transcend the established order.

Therefore, we have the opportunity to contemplate trade unionism as a battlefield of ideas, horizons and political objectives. This journey, through the choice of problems and authors, means in itself a huge service to anyone who wants to know the different and competing theoretical approaches that exist on the trade union movement.

But, Marxism and the sociology of trade unionism it goes further and has the great virtue of offering a Marxist synthesis of the contradictions that constitute and dynamize workers' unionism; a synthesis of the external and internal pressures on the movement that in different historical circumstances allowed it to play such different roles, such as integrating the management of capitalism and leveraging its revolutionary transformation.

As Richard Hyman himself says in Industrial relations: a Marxist introduction (1975), studies in this area are generally empirical and descriptive. The lack of theoretical references impacts analyzes and interpretations, which tend to naturalize phenomena and treat them as self-evident or unavoidable. According to the author, the limited progress in the sociology of trade unionism until the beginning of the 1970s meant that the analyzes were partial, without the processes internal to the unions being related to aspects external to them.

Richard Hyman, in turn, highlights the importance of considering political-economic conditions, especially State action, as well as employer initiatives and reactions, to understand union action. This cannot be isolated from employment policies, the set of rights won by the struggle of workers and guaranteed by law, spaces for political participation, integration strategies and repression of union movements and leaders, forms of organization and management of the workforce, technological innovations and their impacts on the labor market, among other fundamental factors.

Collective bargaining, labor conflicts and, particularly, strikes, are the result of a dynamic that goes beyond the agents directly involved in these actions, making it necessary to consider them in light of the class structure and the different phases that characterize the mode of production. capitalist. Periods of crisis and economic growth affect the negotiation, representation and mobilization capacity of workers, in the same way as political regimes, the functioning of democratic institutions, the degree of openness of governments to popular participation, dominant values ​​and ideologies.

It is clear that Richard Hyman broadens the focus of analysis on labor relations and trade unionism, incorporating dimensions related to politics, the subjectivity of agents, and the identities of organizations. Marxist theory, the author insists, provides a structure for reading and understanding the world that encourages us to look at the role of the State, work and capital not as neutral and symmetrical actors, but paying attention to the class nature of the first and to the asymmetry of power between classes.[ii]

At the same time, Richard Hyman opposes a voluntarist analysis, which essentializes the role of the exploited and their organizations, attributing to them a univocal character free from contradictions. This is the main contribution of the book we now have in our hands. Systematizing and dialoguing with the Marxist tradition on the role of unions, Richard Hyman points out the limits of both the optimistic vision (attributed to Marx and Engels) and the pessimistic vision (associated with Lenin, Michels and Trotsky), under the argument that both are partial. Neither inherently revolutionary, nor bureaucratized, economistic and doomed to class collaboration, the union, for Richard Hyman, must be analyzed based on a combination of structural and conjunctural factors.

Following Perry Anderson (1967, p. 264), Richard Hyman discusses the “dialectical nature of the interaction between unions and capitalist society”, since unions are simultaneously part of capitalism and opposition to it. On the one hand, unions challenge the power of capital, questioning the issue of power and control, which are sources of political conflict; on the other hand, they can be limited to economic improvements and demands compatible with the framework of capitalism. In this sense, they have both potential and limits.

Unions can harm the functioning of the capitalist economic system, but they can also be used against the interests of workers, disciplining their members in order to facilitate the control exercised by capital and thus contributing to the stabilization of capitalism. This understanding leads Richard Hyman to consider unionism as an expression of the class struggle, therefore, of the structural antagonism between capital and labor, at the same time that it alerts us to the need to contextualize the analysis: union integration is associated with certain phases of capitalist development, but it does not always prevail over contestation.

Some demands cannot be accepted in certain contexts, while in others they represent significant victories, which should not be underestimated in the political and trade union struggle. In fact, this is a theme that runs through Richard Hyman's work: union activity is not restricted to issues directly linked to work, such as salary, career and labor benefits. Even though there are unions that prioritize material and immediate demands, their actions still express a political dimension, in addition to the economic one. In this sense, it is impossible to think of a purely “business” unionism.

Thus, Richard Hyman teaches us that there are no “iron laws” in work relationships. If objective constraints and established power relations determine part of the observed regularities, ideology and class consciousness play an equally important role, being able to modify the correlation of forces and contribute to the development of alternative political projects to capitalism.

*Thiago Barison is a doctoral candidate in political science at the State University of Campinas (Unicamp) and a lawyer in social security and union law, author of, among others, The State Union Structure in Brazil and Judicial Control After the 1988 Constitution, LTr.

*Andreia Galvao is a professor at the Department of Political Science at Unicamp, author of, among others, Neoliberalism and Labor Reform in Brazil, Ed. Revan.


Richard Hyman. Marxism and the sociology of trade unionism. Translation: Thiago Barison; Technical review: Davisson CG de Souza. São Paulo, Enunizado Publicações, 2023, 112 pages.


ANDERSON, Perry (1967). “The limits and possibilities of trade unions action”. In: BLACKBURN, Robin; COCKBURN, Alexander. The incompatibles: trade union militancy and consensusLondon: Penguin.

GALVÃO, Andréia (2023). “Labor relations and trade unionism in Richard Hyman”. In: VÉRAS DE OLIVEIRA, Roberto; RAMALHO, José Ricardo; SANSON, Cesar. (Org.) Critical Dialogues: foreign thought and the sociology of work in Brazil. São Paulo: Annablume/Abet, in press.

HYMAN, Richard. (1975). Industrial relations: a Marxist introduction. London, The Macmillan Press.

______. (2001). Understanding European trade unionism: between market, class and society. London: Sage.


[I] COS EGEA, Manrique. “The right to union freedom as a manifestation of the transactional character of the Social State”, in: Magazine of the Law Faculty of Mexico, Volume LXXIII, n. 285, Enero-April/2023, pp. 126-148. VILLAGRA, Priscilla Carballo. “There is a repositioning of labor studies: the development of Labor Sociology and its main debates.”, in: Yearbook of Central American Studies, vol. 37, 2011, pp. 307–25. D'URSO, Lucila.; LONGO, Juliet. “Radical Political Unionism as a Strategy for Revitalization in Argentina”. Latin American Perspectives, vol. 45, no. 6, 2018, pp. 97–113. ROMO, David Molina. “Party-union relations from the perspective of political science”. Universidad Internacional de Andalucía, 2010. PAQUET, R. ; TREMBLAY, J.-F; GOSSELIN, YES. «Des théories du syndicalisme: synthèse analysis et considérations contemporaines». Industrial relations, 59(2), 295–320. MARTÍNEZ LUCIO, M. “Union politics, purpose and democracy: To be or not to be? Optimism, pessimism and the continuing importance of Richard Hyman's early contributions.”, In: Capital & Class, vol. 36, Issue no. 1, 2012, pp. 35–51. FREGE C., KELLY J., MCGOVERN, P. “Richard Hyman: Marxism, trade unionism and comparative employment relations”. British Journal of Industrial Relations, vol. 49, issue no. 2, 2011, pp. 209–230. COHEN, Sheila; MOODY, Kim. “Unions, Strikes and Class Consciousness Today”, Socialist Register, vol. 34, 1998. YILDIRIM, E. “Ad Honorem Richard Hyman”. Çalışma İlişkileri Dergisi, vol. 4, Issue no. 1, 2013, pp. 1-14. JI, Minsun. “With or Without Class: A Comparative Study of Union-Worker Cooperative Relations in the US and South Korea.” University of Denver, Electronic Theses and Dissertations, 2016, n. 1.230. NG, Sek Hong; IP, Olivia. “Hong Kong's Trade Unions as an Evolving Social Organization and Their Prospects for the Future”. In: Kuah-Pearce, KE, & Guiheux, G. (Eds.). Social movements in China and Hong Kong: the expansion of protest space (ICAS Publications Series, 9). Amsterdam: Amsterdam Univ. Press., 2009, pp. 205-227.

[ii] Below I summarize, in a synthetic way, some arguments developed in Galvão (2023), in which I address the author's contributions at different moments in his intellectual trajectory: Industrial relations: a Marxist introduction (1975), in which he proposes a “political economy of industrial relations” and Understanding European trade unionism: between market, class and society (2001), in which he analyzes union identities and ideologies based on an “eternal triangle” of variable geometry within which unions operate: between the market, class and society. This second one, which incorporates other theoretical references besides Marxism, is Hyman's work most frequently cited by Brazilian researchers.

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