Social Unionism

Sanem Güvenç-Salgırlı

The first attempt of workers to associate among themselves

takes place in the form of


Karl Marx, Poverty of Philosophy (1847)1


In capitalist society today, the common names both the means of production

and the forms of life.

Michael Hardt & Antonio Negri, Assembly (2017)


Social unionism is a question of combination; and a combination is a matter of building alliances, coalitions between different entities that are unified around a common (cause).

(In 1847, in the final chapter of the Poverty of Philosophy Marx made a case for worker combinations against Proudhon, socialists, and economists. Combination was how workers first connected among themselves, and permanent combinations in the form of trade unions acted as protective shields, both of which made combining a political act. And yet, Marx hesitated: unless a new society arises, there will be no real change. That hesitation, how the two moments are going to be, well, combined, is a foundational probe and it is where this entry takes its cue. After nearly two hundred years of unionism, and almost five decades of social unionism, with numerous attempts to unite labor movements together with social movements, the question of combination still lurks around Marx’s initial hesitation. If the post-2010 movements of swarming multitudes and tentacular encampments on city squares were prefigurative of the-social-and-the-political-to-come, what role would combining play, if any?).

Combination is an act of merging through the recognition of otherness. To combine presupposes discerning eyes, cuts, and separations. A consideration of who is going to be combined with whom in order to achieve whatever desired result in whichever struggle is how a combination is made / assembled. As such, it is the product of an accumulative gesture accompanied by an anticipation that more and variety make combinations / assemblages better, stronger.

(Thus combination grounds itself in preconceived identities (factory worker, sweatshop worker, housewife, student…), preformed spaces (shop floor, public square, cubicle…), and already existing groups (communities, unionists, political activists…)).

Combinations embody deliberation, but, most often, calculation. Who is going to be combined with whom in which form. As such, they are integral to the world of strategy and tactics. But who is going to be the decision-maker; the combination-maker?

(Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, in their latest book Assembly, criticize social unionism on the basis that alliances between labor and social movements were formed as external alliances where it was the union leaders who decided on the political strategy; not the constituents, (read: combinants). Against this model they suggested that all organizational structures should ground themselves in social production, around the commons; where the multitude and not the union leadership should define what the long-term strategy is going to be. Resolving Marx’s hesitancy with a pragmatic gesture, they do not dispense of social unionism: as of today it is where the precariat, the unemployed, and the community members could come together with the labor movement, reformulating the general strike as a social strike (Hardt & Negri, 147-150).)

It is doubtful whether the multitude is in need of combining; or combination can be the operative concept for the multitude. It is the aleatory encounters, mutual aid and care, and communing together within the common that gathers the multitude; and a recognition of singularity and heterogeneity — “From each according to its abilities to each according to its needs”  (Marx 1875).2 Not because it is a more authentic, natural, ecological, and/or sustainable option of dwelling; or because this is the programmatic prelude for correcting all that is ill in the world; nor is there a specific combination to unlock all these. Multitude recognizes that in order to thrive, it is no longer in need of a combinatory mentality that arrives either in the many shapes of the capital-form (combining labor-powers, labor- power with machines, machines with other machines, machines and labor-power with products, products with spaces, and so on…), or via the representative practices of political parties or union leaders, practices of cutting and connecting. Multitude as the centaur (the singular monstrous body) could (and should) decide upon the path it is going to set before itself. Social production, production of the social, production with/in the social is what signifies the livelihood of the multitude.

(In trying to resolve his hesitation, one point Marx stressed in the Poverty of Philosophy was what Hardt and Negri refer to as the affirmation of the common in Assembly. Marx wrote, “Do not say that social movement excludes political movement. There is never a political movement which is not at the same time social”).

We now know that combination is no longer on the table. Strategy is about deciding how to affirm the common, and how to gather the multitude. That is where the contemporary hesitation lies.3






Hardt, Michael and Antonio Negri. 2017 Assembly. New York: Oxford University Press.

Marx, Karl. 1947. Poverty of Philosophy. The Marxist Internet Archive. philosophy/.

Vogl, Joseph. 2009. “On Hesitation.” The Yearbook of Comparative Literature 55: 129-145.


1] In the original French version of this text, Marx used the word coalitions not combinations. It was translated into English as combination by the Institute of Marxism-Leninism, and was left untouched in the final editing (2009) for The Marxist Internet Archive by Matthew Carmody. I prefer to use this translation because of its relevance to the following discussion.

2] Emphases mine, and the posthumanist pun is intentional.

3] Hesitation as in: “Hesitation accompanies the phantom of action like a shadow, like a ruinous antagonist, and here one could speak of a ‘hesitation- function’: where acts are manifested and where chains of action are organized, a falter, a pause, a momentary stop, an interruption are marked. Thus an asymmetrical relationship of time and history is established”; “There is an interim space in which this act appears contingent, neither necessary nor impossible, a threshold at which action and non-action smoothly join one another.” (Vogl (2009, 134; 136).


Sanem Güvenç-Salgırlı

Sanem Güvenç-Salgırlı is a Vancouver-based scholar, and an associate of the Fernand Braduel Center, who currently teaches science studies inspired social-political theory at Emily Carr University of Arts and Design. Before moving to Vancouver in 2016, she was an assistant professor of sociology at Marmara University, Istanbul, Turkey; and before that a PhD student at Binghamton University’s Department of Sociology. Lying at the intersection of science studies, political theory, and historical sociology, her most recent work explores the concepts of the swarm, the cloud, and emergency, and is particularly inspired by, and a product of the social movements of the post-2010 period. She has published articles and essays in academic, semi-academic, and activist journals in English and Turkish.