Democratic trade unionism – between law and justice

Image: Emmanuel Codden


The history of the English labor movement is food for thought about the current union movement here, in Brazil.

Does the past have anything to tell us about our current understanding of our social and legal problems involving the working class? In his recent book Beyond the strike, Flávia Souza Máximo Pereira, professor at UFOP, argues that trade unionism is in crisis, due to structural changes in capitalism. The strike, as originally conceived by law, would no longer make sense.[I] Is this an isolated problem in the history of humanity?

in your book The formation of the working class (divided into 3 volumes in the Brazilian edition), the Marxist historian EP Thompson (1924-1993) sought to show how groups of workers who had a convergence of interests against a ruling class that owned the means of production became aware of their condition, and sought organize to express them and change their social condition (p. 12).

The idea that history repeats itself is a Marxist mantra to which Thompson had to give his interpretation. Just remember Karl Marx's phrase in The 18th Brumaire, in which he comments on Hegel’s thesis about history that it is always played twice: “he forgot to add: the first time as a tragedy, the second as a farce.”[ii] But Marx also believed that just looking to the future would provide the “poetry” that every proletarian revolution needs. It was necessary for the living to “let go” of the dead.[iii]

The recent film The rejected (2023) offers an initial response to Marx's skepticism about the power of history. In the film, the main character is an ancient history professor (Paul Hunham) who believes in the explanatory power of history for the present. His students are concerned about the issue of the Vietnam War – the film takes place in the 1970s – but they don't see the relevance of studying the Peloponnesian War in the classroom. At a certain point, then, Professor Hunham states that no human problem is original: we must also look to the past to understand the present. Perhaps we shouldn't immediately discard the past in the search for solutions for the future, then.

It is clear that, in Thompson's view, the class struggle is not defined by watertight categories, as Flávia Máximo also argues.[iv] There have indeed been social changes in the 12st century that have completely altered the dynamics of the employment relationship, and we need to deal with them on their terms. Therefore, Thompson states that “class is defined by men as they live their own history” (p. XNUMX). What does he have to tell us then that is nothing more than mere curiosity about the quarrels of the working class?

In volume I of his magnum opus – “The Tree of Liberty” – the historian deals with the popular traditions that gave rise to the collective unrest at the end of the 13th century in England (p. XNUMX). The context was one of massive exclusion of the working class from politics and property distribution. The rumbles of popular rebellion could be heard from France, which was experiencing its Revolution. Enlightenment ideas peppered the period with theses that, although accepted today, were considered radical at the time. But Thompson shows how an often marginalized sector in modern societies – religious institutions – provided the impetus workers needed to take control of their destiny.

The Calvinist doctrine was successful in Europe with the Industrial Revolution, granting “divine authorization” to the emerging bourgeois class to accumulate profit through economic exploitation. But it did not affect workers, excluded from grace in this sense. Therefore, evangelical movements – initiated by the Baptists, and consolidated by the Methodists – sought to attract the working class to their ecclesiastical communities by preaching patience and reward deferred over time for those who maintained their faith (p. 33-41).

Two unforeseen consequences of this movement planted the seed of modern trade unionism: (i) on the one hand, the opening of churches to the poorer classes gave rise to the ideal of democratization and self-organization of religious associations; and (ii) to effectively include them in the movement, it was necessary to carry out empowering actions, such as teaching them to read, to participate in debates with good oratory, etc. These measures gave workers self-respect. Aspect (iii), perhaps, was the need to create methods of horizontal and mass organization, such as the regular collection of registrations and the payment of monthly fees by ballot, measures dear to trade unionism (p. 45-53).

Thompson analyzes the emergence of the famous reformist societies, which demanded political rights, as a consequence of the greater capacity for self-organization and self-respect of the English working community. The London Corresponding Society, founded in 1792, acquired two thousand subscribers in six months. Its great motto: “may our number of members be unlimited.” For the historian, this was “one of the axes on which history turns. It means the end of any notion of exclusivity, of politics as the preserve of a hereditary elite or a proprietary group” (p. 23).

The author admits that there would be no democratic social action without a combination of factors: firstly, there would be no mobilization if there were no social injustice perpetrated by the English economic system of the period. It is worth remembering that English citizenship was based on the right to property – a model, in fact, reproduced by Brazil in the 224th century with the census vote. Secondly, it was necessary for a more enlightened minority, with leadership capacity, to articulate the feelings of the majority. She wanted to act to change her destiny, but she needed to be organized (p. XNUMX).

For the poorest classes, the English political system did not provide legally valid spaces for expressing their dissatisfaction. However, with their growing capacity for self-organization, riots and mobs soon emerged as “extra-legal” forms of demands by the working class (p. 73-81). Although many reactionary intellectuals of the period – such as Edmund Burke (1729-1797) – tried to dismiss these movements as bloodthirsty and disorganized (p. 69), they preceded the strike and large popular acts as legitimate means of revolt. They were founded on demands for justice, after all.

Over time, the official means of legal power began to “coexist” with popular movements. The institution of the popular jury made its contribution to echoing the voice of the workers, who exonerated the mobilizers. Soon the authorities had to make concessions to them (pp. 90-91, 100, 104). The law was not ignored, then: “when considering this form of 'turbulent' action, we arrive at unsuspected complexities, because, behind every form of direct popular action like this, one can find some notion of law that legitimizes it” , says Thompson (p. 85).

Thompson is known, in this sense, for differentiating himself from structuralist Marxists by seeing law as a space for realizing justice. The law places limits on the power of domination, and even grants victories (partial, normally) to the working class in the search for greater equality in the face of the ruling classes.[v]

Given his definition of “social action”, Thompson needs to spend some space in the book also discussing the ideas that circulated during the period and gave legitimacy to organized popular movements. For conservative philosophers of the period such as Edmund Burke, the English constitution was founded on its antiquity and its ability to confer social stability and guarantee private property.[vi] But the Enlightenment doctrines of English and American “pro-revolution” authors, such as Thomas Paine (1737-1809), sought to base political organization on reason.

Thomas Paine differs from the rest of the Enlightenment movement due to the great penetration of his ideas into the labor movement, of which I have not yet heard of a systematic study in Brazilian labor law. Thomas Paine defended not only the expansion of political rights to all workers, based on their capacity for self-determination (p. 114-118); he defended the redistribution of income through taxation of the richest, and the granting of basic social rights, such as housing and clothing, to everyone (p. 122-123). It can be said, therefore, that John Thelwall (1764-1834), co-founder of the London Society, was his follower in disseminating the defense of reducing the working day to 8 hours a day, based on the right of every worker to time leisure and with your family (p. 212-213).

The discussion about the most appropriate methods to implement these rights among the worker leaders of the period was always fierce, and soon there was a split between radicals and moderates in the movement itself (p. 184-185). The excesses of the French Jacobins during the period of Terror in the French Revolution also contributed to disillusioning many supporters of Thomas Paine's more radical Enlightenment ideas.

Nevertheless, if history repeats itself, and if Thompson is right in stating that we also have a lot to learn from the defeated – “we can discover, in some of the lost causes of the people of the Industrial Revolution, perceptions of social ills that are yet to be cured ” (p. 14-15), the history of the English labor movement is food for thought about the current union movement here, in Brazil.

*Martin Magnus Petiz is a Master's student in Philosophy and General Theory of Law at the University of São Paulo (USP).


THOMPSON, EP The making of the English working class: the tree of freedom Vol. 1. 12th ed. Rio de Janeiro: Peace & Earth, 2021.


[I] PEREIRA, Flávia Souza Máximo. Beyond the strike: Italian-Brazilian dialogue for the construction of a right to fight. Belo Horizonte: Casa do Direito, 2020, p. 73-74.

[ii] MARX, Carl. The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. São Paulo: Boitempo, 2011, p. 25.

[iii] Ibid., P. 28.

[iv] PEREIRA, Op. cit., p. 86-87.

[v] THOMPSON, EP Lords and hunters. Rio de Janeiro: Paz e Terra, 1987, p. 353-361. See also FORTES, Alexandre. The law in the work of EP Thompson. Social History, Campinas/SP, no. 2, pp. 89-111, 1995, p. 92-93.

[vi] For the great historian JGA Pocock (1924-2023), the English constitution was seen in this doctrine of antiquity as balancing virtue and protection of the citizen-owner against state power. POCOCK, JGA Virtue, commerce and history: essays on political thought and history, chiefly in the eighteenth century. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 1985, p. 129-130.

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