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Class struggle and trade unions

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In the sixth part of our series on the Communist International, known as the Comintern, John Riddell, the pre-eminent historian of the International, looks at the role of trade unions in the struggle for change.
Issue 2075
“Get things going”, Ivan Malyutin 1921
“Get things going”, Ivan Malyutin 1921

The revolutionary upsurge in Europe during and after the First World War threw the trade union movement across the continent into a profound upheaval.

Communist workers were challenged to unite revolutionary trade unionists with diverse ideological backgrounds, while deepening their roots in unions with right wing leaderships.

When war broke out in 1914, pro-capitalist labour officials had harnessed the unions to the bourgeoisie’s war machine. Workers’ protest had found expression in new channels, such as organisations of left wing shop stewards and newly formed factory committees. As Communist International leader Karl Radek commented in 1920, “Many of us thought that the trade union movement was finished.”

During the Russian Revolution, revolutionaries won the leadership of Russia’s unions, which became a pillar of the new workers’ and peasants’ republic.

But when the German revolution broke out in November 1918, pro-capitalist labour officials moved quickly to negotiate economic gains for workers. Frightened bosses conceded the eight-hour day.

Workers poured into the revived unions, whose membership tripled in a single year. The union officialdom provided a pro-capitalist buttress against revolution.

Meanwhile, most German communists were calling on workers to “get out of the trade unions”. Many favoured building new “unitary organisations” that would combine the functions of a trade union and a political party.

Such views were widespread in the Communist International. US communists proclaimed their task to be “the destruction of the existing trades union organisations”. And Italian leader Nicola Bombacci told the International’s Second Congress that “I absolutely deny that trade unions have any revolutionary function whatever”.

In Lenin’s view, such a stand was “the greatest service communists could render the bourgeoisie”. In his pamphlet Left Wing Communism: an Infantile Disorder, written in 1920, he stated that quitting the unions would leave workers under the influence of the “labour lieutenants of the capitalist class”.

Instead, communists “must absolutely work wherever the masses are to be found” even if repressive conditions required a “resort to various stratagems, artifices, and illegal methods”.

The trade union theses adopted by the International’s Second Congress, in 1920, called for communists to join unions “in order to turn them into instruments of conscious struggle for the overthrow of capitalism” and to “take the initiative in forming trade unions where none exist”.

Only by becoming “the most resolute leaders” of the struggle for decent living conditions, the theses stated, can communists prepare “to remove the opportunist leaders from the unions”.

The International advanced an “action programme” of demands for unions’ daily struggle. In 1921, a time of sharp attacks from the bosses, these included:

  • Fight factory closures and demand the right to investigate the causes, Open the employers’ books.
  • Organise the unemployed. Force bosses to pay full wages to laid-off workers.
  • When bosses demand wage cuts, unite workers across each industry to defend threatened workers.
  • Against profit-sharing schemes. For workers’ control of production.

The International cautioned that “in the epoch of capitalism’s decline, the proletariat’s economic struggle turns into political struggle much more rapidly”. Communists must explain that labour’s economic struggle can be won only through workers’ rule and the construction of socialism.


While building class struggle currents in the reformist-led unions, the Communist International was also seeking to merge with a union current that came from outside the socialist movement – revolutionary syndicalism.

Historically, the syndicalists shared communists’ commitment to class struggle unionism and to the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism. But influenced by anarchist conceptions, they opposed building a revolutionary political party and struggling to establish a workers’ state.

Syndicalist labour federations comprised the majority of the union movement in France and Spain, and the US-based Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) had won respect. A wide range of syndicalist forces resisted the First World War and hailed the 1917 soviet revolution in Russia.

Despite major differences in ideology and programme, the new International’s founders invited syndicalist currents to join its ranks. Since many syndicalist currents rejected links with political parties, a separate organisation was launched – the Red International of Labour Unions or Profintern – to unite both Marxist and syndicalist unionists.

At the Second Congress, the proposal to work in reformist-led unions provoked what Comintern president Gregory Zinoviev later called “a most vexatious resistance” from delegates influenced by syndicalism.

Debate lasted 40 hours. But congress theses pledged communists to “support [syndicalist] revolutionary unions”, and Lenin proposed concessions to syndicalist currents, including agreement that the capacity of the International’s affiliated parties to lead revolutionary union work must be put to “a practical test”.

Although some syndicalist currents, like the IWW, turned away from the new International, a significant layer of syndicalists were integrated into the International. They were prominent among those who later supported Leon Trotsky and the Left Opposition against Stalinism.

The Profintern was built as an alternative to pro-capitalist labour officials’ drive to yoke unions together in a pro-imperialist world labour federation, known as the Amsterdam International.

The pro-capitalist officials seized on the Profintern’s existence as a pretext for expulsions of many Comintern supporters from their national and industry-wide federations.

In 1924, Zinoviev noted that the Profintern had been “founded at a moment when it seemed that we should break through the enemy front in a frontal attack and quickly conquer the trade unions”. But the decline of working class struggles in Europe after 1920 enabled the “Amsterdam” leaders to fend off this challenge.

Nonetheless, in the early 1920s, the Communist International won influence in reformist-led unions in several European countries, while beginning to gain a foothold in the labour movement of colonial and semi-colonial countries.

And perhaps the Red International of Labour Unions’ most important legacy was its example in reaching out to encompass revolutionary fighters from outside the Marxist tradition.

For works by Lenin and Comintern resolutions, go to » For the second Comintern congress, see Workers of the World and Oppressed Peoples, Unite! edited by John Riddell. Available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop, phone 020 7637 1848

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