The Lenin Problem — Social Movement versus Business Unionism

imageInaugural Alex Macdonald Lecture

The Lenin Problem: Social Movement versus Business Unionism

to be presented by Professor Margaret Levi

Thursday 14 May

2nd Level
QCU Building
16 Peel Street, South Brisbane

Refreshments 6pm
Lecture commences 6.30pm


Left-wing longshore union members give up time and money to fight on behalf of social justice causes from which they can expect no material return.

Basque nationalists make vulnerable their freedom and their lives for the sake of seemingly unattainable goals.

Parishioners at churches throughout the United States risk jail to shelter political asylum seekers.

Altruism is common enough, and so are volunteering, political commitment, and unselfish service to others.

Why and how do some organizations produce membership willing to self-sacrifice on behalf of a wide range of political and social justice issues? While much of the literature focuses on the factors affecting individual choice, the “Lenin problem” examines how organizations induce members to take costly personal actions that do not seem to have connection to the reasons people joined the organization initially.

The paper investigates a specific type of organization: labour unions in democratic countries.

It examines both “business unions,” whose sole commitments are to the welfare of members, and “social movement unions,” those committed to the social welfare of members and the larger society.

Almost all unions ask members to contribute personal time and money or approve organizational resources for charitable purposes, electoral campaigns, and lobbying.

Only a very few, however, advocate political and social justice causes that seem unrelated to the achievement of better wages or working conditions.

The paper argues that, in appropriate circumstances, organizational membership changes the beliefs of constituents about the nature of the world and subsequently reveals a preference for actions on behalf of others or for a cause, actions that entail unrequited costs in time, lost income, and possible bodily harm.

This seems to be what is happening within a subset of religious, political, and labour organizations.

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