Capital-in-Crisis, Trade Unionism and the Question of Revolutionary Agency

by Shaun May (Author)
Monographs XVI, 442 Pages


The entry of the capital relation into its epoch of structural crisis forms the material basis for the development of the author’s conception of revolutionary agency. Drawing on the work and achievements of both Marx and Hungarian socialist thinker István Mészáros, May relates the emergence and deepening of the structural crisis of the capital system to the decline of trade unionism as the traditional and universal form of organization deployed economistically by workers against capital. In the relationship between the «defensively-structured», universal trade union form and the growing and sharpening contradictions of the global capitalist system, he seeks to unearth the possibility of a higher form of agency which is more adequately adapted and sufficiently flexible to address the immediate and long-term objectives facing millions of people today worldwide in the age of capital’s «destructive reproduction». Looking back in order to look forward, he also subjects the form of agency evolved during the course of the Russian Revolution to a critique which relates it directly to the conditions prevailing in Russia at the time. In so doing, he questions its supposed, unconditional validity as a form of revolutionary agency for the historic struggle to put an end to the global capitalist system today.

Table Of Content

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Preface
  • Chapter 1. Introduction: ‘Practical Critical Activity’ and the Conception of Revolutionary Agency
  • Part 1. Globalizing Capital-in-Crisis
  • Chapter 2. The Altered Character of Capital’s Crisis
  • Chapter 3. A Century of Lenin’s Imperialism
  • Chapter 4. On Changes in the Proletariat with Capitalist Globalization and the Need for a Critique of Marx’s Conception of the Proletariat
  • Chapter 5. The Impact of Capital-in-Crisis on Nature
  • Chapter 6. The Trajectory of Trade Unionism Under Capital’s Unfolding Structural Crisis
  • Chapter 7. Capital’s Offensive against Social Provision
  • Part II. Impasse and Outmodedness: The Twilight of the Trade Unions
  • Chapter 8. The Organization of the Proletariat under Cyclical and Structural Forms of Capital’s Crisis
  • Chapter 9. Labour’s Growing Crisis of Organization
  • Part III. Breaking Out of the ‘Bottleneck’ of Historically Limited, Self-Subsistent Trade Union Organization
  • Chapter 10. ‘Socialist Pluralism’ and the Conception of the ‘Social Union’
  • Chapter 11. From Trade Unions Towards the Formation of ‘Social Unions’?
  • Chapter 12. The Social Union as Revolutionary Agency against the Capital Order
  • Part IV. The Question of Revolutionary Agency in the Twentieth Century
  • Chapter 13. Lenin and the Question of Revolutionary Agency
  • Chapter 14. Trotsky’s Transitional Programme, the ‘Bolshevist-Leninist’ Approach to Trade Unionism and the Demise of the Sectarian Politics of the ‘Revolutionary Left’
  • Chapter 15. A Critique of ‘Vanguardism’ and the ‘Party-Form’
  • Appendices
  • Appendix I. Marx’s Realms: Capital, Natural Necessity, True Realm of Freedom
  • Appendix II. The Broadcasting and Print Media: In the Ideological Service of Capital and its State Power
  • Appendix III. Whatever Happened to the ‘National Liberation Struggle’?
  • Bibliography
  • Index
  • Series index

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The birth of this work on revolutionary agency has been long and somewhat difficult; the outcome of many years of reading, observation, political activity and experience, struggles, conflicts and lessons drawn since my youth. However, there are two fundamental strands woven together in its inception and development: the emergence and unfolding of capital’s structural crisis since the 1970s and the impact of this crisis on the traditional forms of organization of the proletariat, specifically trade unionism.

This latter has been clearly manifest in the downwards trajectory which trade unionism has taken since the early 1980s up to the present day and is continuing to take. An attempt to understand the relationship between capital’s crisis and this trajectory has led me on to a consideration of the question of revolutionary agency as capital’s crisis must inevitably widen and deepen in consequence of its endogenously structural character.

My own activities – as a trade unionist and socialist down the decades – and experiences, observations and studies in the course of this, have served as a source of conceptions in regard to the character of trade unionism in different periods of its historic development. However, the major theoretical influences, specifically on the question of capital’s crisis, in the writing of the book have been Marx, of course, and the work of István Mészáros to which I am deeply indebted on a theoretical level. Moreover, without my lifelong, and at times somewhat tortuous studies of Hegel, I could not have approached the elaboration of the content of the work with what I consider to be the requisite degree of intellectual discipline and method furnished by dialectics. Marx, of course, always acknowledged his intellectual debt to Hegel. And 200 years after the publication of the Science of Logic, many thinkers are still working with the altered legacies of that mighty thinker.

Without a study – over the past twenty years – of the work of Mészáros, this work would not have been possible. Specifically, his ground-breaking work Beyond Capital has been fundamentally influential in this regard. In ← xi | xii → the course of developing my argument, I have drawn heavily on his writings and for that he has my acknowledgements and gratitude.

The most essential, theoretically grounding and animating category in the book is that of ‘structural crisis’ which has been developed by Mészáros in his work over the decades. This constitutes the foundation for addressing the question of revolutionary agency. But we must not ignore the simple truth that the conception of ‘structural crisis’ is to be found implicit in Marx and especially in his work in volume three of Capital and in the Grundrisse.

The great theoretical and political service which Mészáros has done for the class movement of the proletariat is to make this structural character of capital’s crisis explicit, to bring it out and develop it for the conditions of the existence and rule of capital in the twenty-first century. Theoretically implicit in Marx, it starts to become actualized in the final quarter of the twentieth century and it is Mészáros who acts as the agent for its theoretical and political articulation. He works to provide us with an understanding of it as it starts to unfold in the last four decades.

This ‘structural crisis’ stands as a qualitatively different and higher form of capital’s crisis. The old ‘boom and bust’, ‘conjunctural’ phase of cyclical crises is over. The significance and ramifications of this for the old, traditional, ‘defensive’ forms of organization of the proletariat are profound. It must mean a growing crisis for these previously established forms, more suited to the old ‘pre-structural’ conditions. It points the way to a fork in the road of human history for these organizations. Either transform or perish.

Accordingly, a major intention of the writing of this book has been to try to provide a provisional theoretical and political framework within which the question of revolutionary agency can be addressed, can be examined, evaluated, questioned, disputed, developed and even rejected. It is not the author’s design or intention – conscious or otherwise – to present a pronunciamento. All conceptions developed in the text are provisional and disputable in the spirit of dialectics, anti-doctrinarism and anti-positivism. Ultimately, it is the ‘real movement’, the unfolding life-process and practically articulated experiences and consciousness of the proletarian class movement as a whole in struggle against capital and its state power which determines the degree of ‘historical adequacy’ of any conceptions of ‘revolutionary agency’. The truth and relative adequacies and limitations ← xii | xiii → of such conceptions are demonstrated (and reaffirmed or negated) in real life, in practice, not on the page, as the ultimate ‘criterion of truth’ (Lenin). The book is, therefore, a political and, unavoidably, a polemical document which, of course, does not discount its use and application by the academic community.

The author sincerely hopes that the work may also be deployed in this respect, despite its somewhat ‘popular’ format, and, indeed, attract the attention of progressive academics and students in higher education. The book is levelled, primarily and specifically, at a trade unionist readership but hopefully may invite the interest of those ‘on the left’ in general and broadly the ‘anti-capitalist movement’. However, I have endeavoured, unashamedly, to present a text where the terminology, simplicity and directness of ‘written word’ makes it accessible to as wide a readership as possible without compromising the actual content.

The work attempts to address the question of revolutionary agency in the twenty-first century – based on the work of both Marx and Mészáros – within the locus of the old, ‘defensive’ ‘universal historic form’ of proletarian organization; namely, located within the trade union form itself.

Trade unionism remains a movement with many millions of members across the world and still the dominant form of organization of the class movement of the proletariat globally, despite its decline over the last four decades. The concept of ‘structural crisis’ is developed in its relation to the current tendencies of development of trade unionism and how this relates to the potential for the whole labour movement to move forward to new, historically more ‘adequate and concrete’ forms of agency for the age of capital’s structural crisis.

The conception of the ‘Social Union’ form – as eclipsing the trade union form – emerges, dialectically, out of the antecedent development in the text. This prior content seeks to address many questions being posed about the trajectory of trade unionism as the epoch of capital’s structural crisis develops and intensifies globally and, specifically, the social needs of the proletariat as a whole class (not simply its employed, workplace-based section) with the unfolding of the coming century.

A major, and I think significant, weakness in Mészáros has been the absence of a coherent, concentrated and concrete formulation of the ← xiii | xiv → question of ‘revolutionary agency’. I attempt to locate this question of agency on the theoretical basis of his conception of ‘structural crisis’ but, necessarily, within the ‘gravity and orbit’ of the temporally existent and major organizational form of the class movement of the proletariat, that is, within trade unionism and its attendant forms of consciousness.

The evolving relationship between this deepening structural crisis of the capital order and the traditional organizations of the proletariat – founded under different ‘conjunctural’ and ‘defensive’ conditions – is analysed in the text. This analysis proceeds to implicate the conception of ‘outmodedness’ within trade unionism itself which was created and developed under past, dead conditions and is now confronted with the qualitatively different conditions of the structural crisis of the capital order globally. This relation (interaction, dialectics) between the new conditions and the old forms of workplace-based organization then raises the question of new forms of agency necessary to mobilize against and go beyond the capital order.

By way of an introduction, the first chapter of the book is pre-occupied with method of approach to the whole question of revolutionary agency. Here I draw on the work of Marx and Engels in the 1840s and especially the Theses on Feuerbach. Part I of the text focuses on ‘globalizing capital’ as a crisis-process. The altered character of capital’s crisis is then compared to its crises in previous periods and the epoch of ‘globalizing capital’ is analysed against the backdrop of Lenin’s early twentieth-century conception of ‘imperialism’.

This takes the discourse on to the ways in which the emergence of capitalist ‘globalization’ has altered the social and occupational composition and character of the proletariat globally which calls for a critique of Marx’s conception of the proletariat in order to inform the question of revolutionary agency. After a chapter on the impact of capital-in-crisis on nature, the analysis seeks to grapple with the immediate and direct social manifestations of this crisis in terms of its impact on trade unionism itself and on social provision (‘public services’) under capital’s offensive arising out of this structural crisis. I try to grapple with the way this qualitatively higher form of capital’s crisis has altered the approach of trade unionism ← xiv | xv → to capital itself and its state power, giving illustrations from both Britain and the United States.

Part II of the book takes a more detailed and involved look at the relationship between the structural crisis of capital, its emergence and development over the last four decades, and the path which trade unionism has taken. And how the way the proletariat has responded in its relationship with capital under the determinately different ‘cyclical’ and ‘structural’ forms of capital’s crisis. This passes over into a consideration of labour’s growing crisis of organization which must necessarily arise out of the widening, deepening and intensification of the character of capital’s ‘structural crisis’. We arrive at the conception of the traditional organizations of the proletariat in the ‘bottleneck of history’ and self-subsistent, conservative, hierarchically structured trade unionism as a historically outmoded form of proletarian organization.

Part III of the text: breaking out of this ‘bottleneck of history’. The introductory chapter here is to move into an understanding of the idea of ‘socialist pluralism’ found in Mészáros and deploy this to derive the ‘preliminary notion’ and perspective of the ‘Social Union’ as a higher form of unionism vis-à-vis trade unionism. The conception of ‘dialectical negation and return’ is important here. The ‘fractal’ relationship between trade union and social union.

The discourse then evolves into the realm of considering the potential movement from trade unions towards social unions, the struggle for democracy within the trade unions, an example in Britain of a prefigurative attempt to expand trade unionism beyond its workplace boundaries, transitional proposals to move beyond trade unionism and how the ‘Social Union’ could constitute itself as the revolutionary democracy of the class movement of the proletariat. Finally, in this third section, the ‘Social Union’ as the initial instrument (form of revolutionary agency) for the proletariat to mobilize against the capital order and its state powers and global agencies is examined in its different yet interconnected aspects.

Part IV is wholly concerned with a detailed historical consideration of the question of revolutionary agency in the twentieth century. Chapter 13 investigates Lenin’s conceptions and the limits of those conceptions today under conditions of structural crisis. Chapters 14 and 15 consider ← xv | xvi → and critique the work of Trotsky’s Fourth International, its sectarianism, vanguardism and its formulaic approach to trade unionism. The final chapter also contains a critique of the ‘Party form’.

Finally, I have added three appendices which I think are relevant to the major body of the text. ‘Marx’s Realms’ which gives a broad conception of the epoch of capital and the basic characteristics of that which will replace it once capital is transcended in the course of the ‘transitional period’. This appendix has been included to further inform the reader of what is simultaneously being ‘fought for’ and ‘fought against’. Appendix II focuses on the role of capital’s media in the age of its structural crisis and the final appendix is a retrospective on the ‘national liberation struggle’.

I would like to thank the staff at Peter Lang for making the publication of this work possible, especially Lucy Melville, Jasmin Allousch and Emma Clarke. The advice offered by Craig Phelan (School of Economics, Politics and History, Kingston University London and Editor for the Peter Lang series ‘Trade Unions: Past, Present and Future’) regarding the internal structuring of text was invaluable and served in the presentation of a more publishable manuscript. I would also like to take this opportunity to thank the Brynmor Jones Library at the University of Hull for giving me access to its probably unrivalled collection of socialist literature in the course of my studies down the years. Finally, I am indebted to the many socialists and trade unionists with whom I have had discussions on the question of revolutionary agency over the past twenty years and before. A ‘little piece’ of each of them is to be found in the pages of this book. The final word, of course, must go to Marx. In reading this book, my recommendation is, as always, ‘doubt everything’.

Shaun May, Hull, October 2016

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Introduction: ‘Practical Critical Activity’ and the Conception of Revolutionary Agency

‘The question whether objective truth can be attributed to human thinking is not a question of theory but is a practical question. Man must prove the truth – i.e. the reality and power, the this-sidedness of his thinking in practice. The dispute over the reality or non-reality of thinking that is isolated from practice is a purely scholastic question’.1

We commence with the second of Marx’s Theses on Feuerbach because an understanding of it here vitally informs the approach to the historically precedent question today for the survival of humankind: the question of revolutionary agency. The primary historical, and therefore theoretical, ground of this question is capital-in-crisis – what Mészáros refers to as the ‘structural crisis of capital’2 – and the relationship of the currently prevailing stage of political organization of the proletariat to this deepening crisis. Most students of Marx would readily concede the second thesis here on a formal theoretical level. They acknowledge its truth formally. However, and this is absolutely fundamental to the question of agency, it is quite a different matter to integrate Marx’s incredibly profound thought here into a method of approach in the theoretical development of their work on revolutionary agency.

Does a conception of revolutionary agency truthfully and actively reflect the real, historically specific conditions in which a class, with its organizations and mediating forms of consciousness finds itself today? Does that conception actually address and serve to meet the real, practical needs of that class under those conditions? Does it (or does it have the potential to) ‘grip the masses’ as a ‘material force’ and serve as the ‘realization of their needs’? ← 1 | 2 →

In order for any conception of agency to find roots and grow, it must be located within the life of the class movement of the proletariat; what Marx refers to as the ‘real movement’3 which, presently, is based on the trade unions. The addressing of the needs of this ‘real movement’ becomes the measure of the historic validity of any conception of revolutionary agency. To discount this presupposition is to ‘speak over the heads’ of the class movement of the proletariat. It is to posit a conception contemplatively as a ‘rationalistic response’ to the unfolding structural crisis of the capital order. To locate the question of revolutionary agency in ‘the form of the object’ and not ‘subjectively’ as existent ‘sensuous practice’.

This unfolding and necessarily deepening structural crisis of capital does, of course, constitute the broad historical ground within which the need for new, offensive forms of agency asserts itself. These forms in and for themselves must be actually created by the proletariat in struggle. At the present stage, the proletariat is confronted by this crisis as it is currently organized ‘within the framework of the existing institutions of the working class’ (Mészáros, I., Beyond Capital, pp. 937–938). These conditions of deepening structural crisis will not ‘spontaneously’ generate the required forms of revolutionary agency which are historically adequate to move onto the offensive against capital. Once again, we turn to Marx’s Theses on Feuerbach. In the struggle for the necessary (historically adequate) organizational forms of revolutionary agency, we are compelled to note that,

The materialist doctrine concerning the changing of circumstances and upbringing forgets that circumstances are changed by men and that it is essential to educate the educator himself. This doctrine must, therefore, divide society into two parts, one of which is superior to society. The coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of human activity or self-changing can be conceived and rationally understood only as revolutionary practice. [Marx, Theses on Feuerbach, III]

Marx here refers to a one-sidedly, deterministic and non-dialectical conception of materialism as we find amongst the French and English philosophers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. He is drawing our attention to the truth that humanity is simultaneously both the creation and creator of its conditions of life and not simply a passive, ‘dumb’ and obedient creation and tabula rasa ‘victim’ of these impressing conditions. And that ← 2 | 3 → humanity can only create under the conditions with which it is confronted and which previous generations have created and passed down. The focus here is activity under these confronting conditions. The pivotal question is where the ‘real movement’ ‘lives’ at the historical moment, that is, what are its moving, determining characteristics and relations at the current stage of the impact of the evolution of global capital-in-crisis on the life of the proletariat as a class.

Accordingly, any theory of revolutionary agency can only serve to orientate in activity if it is in direct communion with the current stage of what Marx refers to as ‘the real movement’. This, in itself, means that it must be animated by and developed through and in relation to this ‘real movement’. If a conception of agency has no real relation to this actual living movement then it becomes detached and stands in an abstract relation to this movement. In this ‘confrontation’, it can actually take on a ‘sectarian’, even ‘alien’, character because it is uninvolved with this ‘real movement’. Moreover, this ‘organic’ relationship of a given conception of revolutionary agency to the ‘real movement’ implies a comprehensive grasp of the changed character of capital’s crisis today and what this means for the future of humanity.

The general trajectory of development of capital-in-crisis can, of course, be understood but not in all the multiplicity and particularity of its unfolding detail and social expression. Luxemburg’s maxim of ‘Socialism or Barbarism’ (Junius Pamphlet, 1916) is a clear manifestation of this when she boldly states that a system based on capital is inherently one of developing ‘barbarism’. In this regard, in connection to the question of agency, if we can grasp the general tendencies of development of global capital-in-structural-crisis, then we can also orientate ourselves theoretically and politically in consonance with these tendencies. And, moreover, this understanding becomes absolutely pivotal in terms of the elaboration of any conception of agency, its nature, articulations, etc.

A conception of revolutionary agency must be founded on an understanding of these ‘general tendencies of development’ whilst being able to identify how these developments impact the traditional organizations of the proletariat, throwing them into their very own growing ‘structural’ crisis which reveals their historic inadequacy for both the immediate tasks and ← 3 | 4 → long-term aims now confronting the proletariat. The conception needs to explain why there is a growing crisis within trade unionism and, moreover, indicate possible ways out of the impasse.

In other words, the whole conception must be a ‘practical conscious’ conception and not one passively divorced from the reality of people’s lives. This is precisely why the most fundamental categories of this book are ‘capital-in-structural-crisis’ and ‘trade unionism’ and the relationship between them. Ultimately, the strengths and inadequacies of a conception of revolutionary agency are revealed, developed and superseded in the course of the activity of the class movement of the proletariat and the evaluation and ‘lessons’ of the results of this activity. They become subject to the practical, transforming self-criticism of such a movement.

Biographical notes

Shaun May (Author)

Shaun May was born in Hull, England in 1960 into a working-class family. He read Biochemistry and Chemistry at undergraduate level, followed by postgraduate studies in Education at the University of Hull. After graduating, he worked as an organic chemist, a biology lecturer in further education and later as a teacher in state schools in East Yorkshire. May is an independent socialist writer whose present work is focussed on addressing the urgent question of revolutionary agency. Capital-in-Crisis, Trade Unionism and the Question of Revolutionary Agency is his first book.


Title: Capital-in-Crisis, Trade Unionism and the Question of Revolutionary Agency