Tony Cliff & Donny Gluckstein

Marxism & Trade Union Struggle:
The General Strike of 1926


Chapter Four:
The Communist International and trade union strategy

IN ITS early years the Communist International was a power-house for the development of Marxism. It was set up by the Russian Communists, who drew on a wealth of experience in many fields. But, alas, trade unionism was not one of these. The result was that in the years leading up to the 1926 General Strike, there was little aid forthcoming for the British Communist Party in overcoming weaknesses in its own trade union policies.

In March 1919 at the first Congress of the Communist International (or Comintern, as it was known), only the briefest references were made to trade unionism. Its manifesto was penned by Leon Trotsky, who suggested that unions would simply be superseded by soviets for the duration of the revolution:

The old organisations of trade unions having in the persons of their leading summits proved incapable not only of solving but even understanding the tasks imposed by the new epoch ... the proletariat has created a new type of organisation, a broad organisation which embraces the working masses independent of trade. [1]

It was not clear from the manifesto whether the birth of the soviets meant that trade unions would play a marginal role, or no role at all, in the further development of revolution in the West.

Events proved Trotsky wrong. The trade unions were far from finished, and were enjoying an extraordinary growth in all countries. By 1920 the idea that by simply raising the banner of Communism, revolution would spread, had given way to a more sober assessment of the needs of the moment. Though hopes were still high.

In April–May 1920, Lenin wrote his pamphlet Left-Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder. In this brilliant essay on Marxist strategy and tactics he based his argument on the experience of the Bolsheviks’ rise to power. The booklet illustrated how important was flexibility, the ability to advance or retreat, and the need to work for mass support in hostile institutions such as parliament. On trade unions Lenin emphatically warned against the ‘childish nonsense’ spread by those who argued that Communists should abandon the masses who were now looking to unions by the million.

To refuse to work in the reactionary trade unions, said Lenin, meant leaving the insufficiently developed or backward masses of workers under the influence of the reactionary leaders. Revolutionaries

must absolutely work wherever the masses are to be found. You must be capable of any sacrifice, of overcoming the greatest obstacles, in order to carry on agitation and propaganda systematically, perseveringly, persistently and patiently in those institutions, societies and associations – even the most reactionary – in which proletarian or semi-proletarian masses are to be found ... We must be able ... to make any sacrifice, and even – if need be – to resort to various strategems, artifices and illegal methods, to evasions and subterfuges, as long as we get into the trade unions, remain in them, and carry on communist work within them at all costs. [2]

But apart from this most general of arguments there was practically no guidance on how to operate inside the unions. In particular the question of the bureaucracy was barely touched upon.

The second Congress of the Comintern, which opened on 19 July 1920, had a thorough debate on trade unions, for this was now held to be ‘the most serious, most important question facing our movement’. [3] Radek led off the discussion. His major concern, like Lenin’s, was to combat the strong European current of syndicalism which suggested that workers should quit the mass unions and set up their own narrow revolutionary bodies. It was essential to quash this argument. Radek thought the task ahead was straightforward:

The problem is this: partial struggles will finally lead the masses of workers to a general onslaught on capitalism. There is no ‘new method’ in this struggle. If we wipe out the counter-revolutionary tendencies of the bureaucracy in the great mass formations, the trade unions, if we depose them, then these mass organisations of the working class are the organs best able to lead the struggle of the working class on a broad front. [4]

Much of his argument was well-founded. Again, unlike some others, he was prepared to admit that this was a difficult job:

Now we come to the question of the practical possibility of transforming the reactionary trade unions into institutions of the revolution. In our theses submitted to the congress we issue the following slogan as a general rule for communists: Join the trade unions and struggle in the big trade unions to win them. But if we lay down this general rule we should not close our eyes to the difficulties. [5]

There might be exceptional circumstances, such as in America where the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) had had to work outside the official union structures because of the intense hostility of the ‘business agent’ officials towards unskilled workers, but Radek repeated that despite this, ‘We are therefore laying down the fight to conquer the trade unions as a general rule.’ [6]

The crucial flaw in Radek’s analysis was that in correctly opposing the syndicalists, who called for breakaways from reformist unions, he was completely unrealistic in believing that the union bureaucracy could be removed or the official machinery wrested from their control on this side of the revolution. In all probability the bureaucracy in the West, which has existed for decades, will only be broken after the victory of the revolution. We shall return to this question later.

British and American delegates to the congress argued against Radek. Without doubt many of the points made by Willie Gallacher and Jack Tanner, from Britain, or Louis Fraina and John Reed, from America, were ultra-left and underestimated the importance of consistent trade union work. Nevertheless the useful points they raised concerning the difficulty of combatting reformism in the industrial field were not at all understood by their Russian comrades. The congress debates convey an overwhelming impression that both sides were speaking languages incomprehensible to each other in more than the literal sense. The attempt to draw lessons from the experiences of Western trade union struggles fell on deaf ears.

To add to the difficulties we find Zinoviev, the president of the Comintern, looking at the situation in an entirely Russian way. He therefore completely misunderstood the reality of trade unionism in the West. Thus he wrote:

The Bolshevik Party gave in 1913 during its discussions with the Mensheviks the following definition of trade union: ‘A trade union is a permanent union of the workers of one branch of industry (therefore not simply of one industry) that directs the economic struggle of the workers, and in constant collaboration with the political party of the proletariat, takes part in the struggle of the working class for its emancipation, through the abolition of wage slavery, and the victory of socialism.’ [7]

It is not clear where wishful thinking began and an appraisal of actual trade unions ended, for Zinoviev also repudiated the Webbs’ claim that a union had ‘the purpose of maintaining and increasing wages’, saying:

Our party has never agreed to this phrase any more than it has to that other which defines a trade union as ‘a union of workers having as its aim to assist its members in times of unemployment and to look after their interests by increasing wages.’ [8]

If the ‘true’ union was defined by its struggle to abolish the wages system then there was an unbridgeable gap between this and existing bodies led by notorious reformists. The onward march of the masses would either drive these bureaucrats out or the unions would break into separate revolutionary and reformist wings. This was a prospect which Zinoviev looked forward to as inevitable:

In the course of the proletarian revolution the trade unions will split into sections as the socialist parties have done ... The Russian trade union movement must take the initiative in founding a Red Trade Union International as the political party has done in the political field. [9]

In 1920 Zinoviev acted on this idea, and in April the Russian trade unions issued a call for a new trade union international. This was intended to rival the International Federation of Trade Unions, a reformist body which had been disrupted by the war but had been recently re-established with its headquarters in Amsterdam. It was popularly known as the ‘Amsterdam International’. The Russian call was put in these terms:

The old unions are reshaping, within a year we shall not recognise them. The old bureaucrats will be generals without armies ... Red trade unions should unite on the international level and become a part (section) of the Communist International.

We make this proposal to the workers organised in unions throughout the world. In the trade union movement there is impending that evolution and breakaway which occurred in the political parties of the proletariat. Just as all the most important workers’ parties left the Second International, so all honest unions should break with the yellow Amsterdam trade union international. [10]

These expectations of rapid Communist advance were confounded. The first task of the Red International of Labour Unions (RILU) was to woo national trade unions away from allegiance to the Amsterdam International and win their affiliation. But the trade unions in the West retained their cohesion and put up great resistance.

It was established as a general rule that trade unions must disaffiliate from Amsterdam before affiliating to the RILU. But when this did not happen, the rule was altered. In countries where the major trade union organisations remained faithful to the reformist international, individual unions were permitted to affiliate to RILU without severing their connection with the old organisation. [11]

Soon the whole situation was totally confused. Communists were called upon to pursue a policy of working within Amsterdam unions, while also being called upon ‘to break every contact with Amsterdam’. These contradictions showed clearly in the resolution of the founding congress of RILU in July 1920. This

denounced ‘neutralism’ and declared that ‘the creation of this centre of the revolutionary trade union movement is the starting-point for an embittered struggle within the world trade union movement under the slogan: Moscow or Amsterdam’. But the resolution of the same congress on organisation condemned slogans such as ‘The Destruction of the Unions’, or ‘Out of the Unions’:

This tactic of the withdrawal of revolutionary elements from the unions, and the abandonment of the many-million mass of workers to the exclusive influence of traitors to the working class, plays into the hands of the counter-revolutionary trade union bureaucracy and should therefore be sharply and categorically rejected. [12]

The loose definition of RILU membership made it possible for Communist leaders to give fantastic figures about RILU’S membership. This led to a curious method of addition which confused the rank and file with the official machinery, and resolutions in union conferences with the opinion of the rank and file itself. After a mere 15 months in existence RILU was claiming 16 million supporters. [13] This sum was achieved by simply combining the membership of the affiliated organisations and those that might affiliate at some time. This mathematical procedure is akin to the union block vote system in which bureaucrats claim to cast hundreds of thousands of votes by merely raising their arms. J.T. Murphy, then a leading member of the British Communist Party, showed how the RILU total was calculated:

The German comrades claim that there are three million supporters of the Red International in the unions of Germany, although the union movement has not yet been detached from Amsterdam. The British comrades claim a support of 300,000 workers ... In Italy there is reason to believe the Confederation of Labour ... will vote in favour of detaching the 2½ million workers from Amsterdam. [14]

In fact the implantation of RILU was far smaller. The 6½ million Russian trade unionists provided a solid core, but none of the other claims of membership stood up to examination. The highest level of official representation that the German Communists achieved at any trade union congress was just over one eighth of the delegates at Leipzig in June 1922 out of a total union membership of 7,895,965. [15] Communist Party influence was much greater in Germany’s works councils movement, but RILU did not look to such rank-and-file bodies as its base of support.

The Italian Confederation of Labour never exceeded 2.2 million in membership and while it flirted with RILU for a time, it never actually joined it. [16] Presumably the British figure of 300,000 cited by Murphy referred to the South Wales Miners’ Federation, which also toyed with affiliation to RILU but never took the final step. The calibre of the claimed British support must be judged against the fact that membership of the British Communist Party itself hovered around the 3,000 mark at this time.

Later 35,000 Indonesian workers affiliated to RILU [17] and in May 1925 Chinese unions with one million members joined too. [18] Growing support in this part of the world threw light on the differences between trade unions in advanced industrial countries and those in backward countries – the prototypes for each being the unions of Britain and Russia. It got to the stage where, at an enlarged meeting of the Comintern executive during February–March 1926, Zinoviev felt the need to ridicule the

suggestion of a British trade union leader that the world should be divided between two trade union internationals – one at Amsterdam for Europe, the other at Moscow for Asia. But the suggestion contained an uncomfortable element of realism: the boast was now often heard that, though Amsterdam might still dominate Europe, the rising trade union movement of Asia turned infallibly to [RILU]. [19]

With the exception of France, where right-wing leaders engineered a split in the General Confederation of Workers (CGT) and the left had to set up their own confederation (CGTU), RILU succeeded best beyond Western Europe. It often won official support of unions in countries with low industrialisation and repressive regimes which forced workers’ economic organisations to ally far more closely with their respective Communist Parties than in the West. [A]

Persistent rumours that RILU was about to be disbanded illustrated that it was a far more hollow organisation than it claimed. In February 1922 Zinoviev warned of the need to ‘combat vigorously all the forces making for its dissipation’. [20] Again at the Fourth Comintern Congress, Losovsky reported: ‘The enlarged executive meeting had put an end to the calls for liquidation.’ [21]

But three months later Murphy still had to ‘dispose of the notion which has been running through the mind of many party members in this country, as in others, that there is an intention or ever was any intention of winding up the RILU’. [22] The expectation that RILU was about to be wound up had to be put to rest again and again.

Much later, at the Fifth Congress of the Communist International, Zinoviev made a significant avowal of embarrassment at the existence of RILU (he was too cowardly openly to admit the error and complete fiasco of the enterprise):

The [RILU] was founded at a moment when it looked as though we could break through the enemy lines by a frontal attack, and quickly win over the trade unions ... It was during the time when we thought that we should win over the majority of the workers in the shortest possible space of time. You know, comrades, that after that the movement was on the ebb. All the problems, all the tactical difficulties of the Comintern during these five years are rooted in the fact that the development was much slower than we had expected. [23]

The trouble with the whole concept of RILU was not merely that it was ambiguous, but that it was fundamentally wrong. When Zinoviev had spoken at the Second Congress of the Comintern on the preliminary steps taken to found RILU, he stated that the task was to ‘split Amsterdam’ and draw the workers away.

We can now tell every trades union: ‘You should leave the Amsterdam International. You have an International of Red Trades Unions, and you should join it’. [24]

British delegate Jack Tanner argued that it was inconsistent to urge the workers to stay in the unions while calling on the unions to split from the international organisation. When Tanner sought to expand his view in the plenary session of the congress, Zinoviev denied him the floor. [25]

As a result of the contradiction in the basic concept of RILU, one finds leaders of the Comintern and RILU arguing for the splitting of reformist trade unions. Thus Radek, in introducing a discussion on trade unions, said:

We go into the unions in order to overthrow the bureaucracy and if necessary to split the unions. We go into the unions in order to make them instruments of struggle. We shall try to turn the unions into fighting organisations; but if the resistance of the bureaucracy should be stronger than we assume, we shall not hesitate to destroy them, for we know that it is not the form that is most important, but the capacity of the workers to organise, and their will to organise the revolutionary struggle. [26]

An open letter from the Comintern executive to members of the German Communist Workers Party (KAPD) of 2 June 1920 stated:

The new epoch, the epoch of embittered class struggle which is changing before our eyes into civil war, also changes the ‘free’ trade unions into a new organisation. Some of these unions we must split. Others will of themselves come over to us, either wholly or in a majority. [27]

It is an inevitable result of the uneven consciousness of workers under capitalist rule that they are divided along political lines, and so by party allegiance, if the alternatives of reform or revolution take organised form. But trade unions cannot be treated in the same way. The Comintern was not calling for breakaway red unions. That stupidity only came with full Stalinism at the end of the 1920s, and had the effect of tearing workforces apart – with disastrous consequences on their collective organisation in the face of the employers. Instead RILU tried to win whole unions to affiliation. But this too ignored the difference between parties and collective organisations such as unions.

RILU was bound to fail because it was attempting the impossible – to be an official mass union body committed to Communist politics before a revolutionary crisis made such an organisation possible. Once set up, RILU could pursue two courses. It could recognise the period it was in, and stand as an organisation of the militant rank and file looking to organise the minority with advanced ideas or who were involved in struggle; or it could pose as a conventional trade union body. It turned down the first alternative. But to achieve the second it would have to broaden its platform greatly and abandon much of its politics – in order to win a majority vote from non-revolutionary trade unionists.

That the Communist International could blunder into such a confused position was evidence of a wrong perception of what trade unions are, and their relation to the revolutionary party. Thus the Comintern described the connection in this way:

The Communist Party is the vanguard of the proletariat ... Trade unions are mass organisations of the proletariat ... which unite all the workers of a given branch of industry; they include in their ranks not only dedicated Communists, but also workers who have little interest in politics and workers who are politically backward ...

So far, so good. But once again we see an enormous leap in logic, for from this we are told that the relation of the unions to the party

is to some extent like that of the provinces to the centre. In the period before the seizure of power, the truly revolutionary trade unions organise the workers, primarily on an economic basis, to fight for gains which can be won under capitalism. However, the main object of all their activity must be the organisation of the proletarian struggle to overthrow capitalism by proletarian revolution.

The passage continues:

At a time of revolution the genuinely revolutionary trade unions work closely with the party; they organise the masses to attack capitalist strongholds and are responsible for laying the foundations of socialist production. After power has been won and consolidated, economic organisation becomes the central focus of trade-union work. [28]

The ideal – the relations between the Bolsheviks and the Russian trade unions at the time of revolution – is not distinguished from the actual, where the unions were under bureaucratic reformist leadership. So we move from a description of unions as they are, to what they should be, without a word on how the transition from one to the other can be effected. Moreover, if the relation of the unions to the party ‘is to some extent like that of the provinces to the centre’ then there is no qualitative difference between party and unions. Consequently it is logical to split the unions just as the political organisations of the Comintern had split from the reformist Second International.

The original call for the conquest of the unions was absolutely correct. But the way it was framed led to serious mistakes in judgement. RILU’s strategy depended on the hope that, in the short term, unions could be conquered wholesale or substantial sections split off. This excluded the possibility of building a rank-and-file movement which could keep up a consistent challenge to the official machine. Radek, with more extensive experience of Western conditions than many Bolshevik leaders, showed a sensitivity to the value of the rank-and-file movements which had sprung up during the First World War and did not propose to dissolve them immediately. But neither did he advocate a rank-and-file strategy since, like the rest of the Comintern leaders, he telescoped the pace of events:

When the question is posed as to whether new organisations should be created alongside the trade unions, and what their mutual relations should be, we reply that as long as the unions are dominated by the bureaucracy these new organisations are our bases of support against the trade union bureaucracy. But when communists have become the leaders of the movement, the time has come to let the two streams flow together and to turn the factory committees into trade union organs. [29]

The rejection of a policy of building rank-and-file movements implied a certain expectation about what would happen to union bureaucracies in a revolutionary crisis. Radek accepted that the

tactics of the trade union leaders are tactics of demolishing the class struggle ... [But] the general condition of the working class is such that any thought of reformist tactics, of a gradual increase in the real wages of the working class, in their standard of life, is a completely opportunist illusion ... It is clear in this situation that the tactics of the trade unions, the objective of communist struggle, cannot consist in repairing the capitalist edifice, but in working consciously for the overthrow of capital. [30]

Note how easily Radek, with a grammatical sleight of hand, puts ‘the tactics of the trade unions’ next to ‘the objective of communist struggles’ implying that both are the same.

The reasoning behind this approach – that the crisis is deep and therefore the trade unions as at present constituted will become revolutionary organs – again undervalued the special role of the bureaucracy and its deep roots. The mechanical logic behind Radek’s position could be summarised like this: trade union leaders reared in pre-crisis times will propose reformist tactics. These can no longer succeed. Therefore the leaders will either themselves change or be replaced by revolutionaries. The notion that the bureaucrats might play a central role in defusing the revolutionary situation that threatened them is absent.

In the West, and especially in Britain, where the trade union machine has existed and consolidated over decades, in all probability the victory of the socialist revolution will precede the destruction of the trade union bureaucracy, and special methods of organisation will be needed to prevent the bureaucracy strangling that revolution at birth. But this was not the Comintern’s view. At the Second Congress Alexander Losovsky, who ran RILU almost as a one-man show, insisted on the possibility – even more, the imperative necessity – of transforming the trade unions before the revolution:

Before the October revolution we transformed the factory committees ... We will yet transform the trades unions before the social revolution, for the trades unions must become the organ of this revolution. [31]

Only the British and American delegates criticised this approach. Louis Fraina, for example, argued that the bureaucracy was strong enough to hold on to its posts right up to the moment of revolution, and would be in a position to paralyse the movement unless an independent rank-and-file movement organised against it. Therefore the current Communist line was wrong.

We are of the opinion that it is not the tying-down of the bureaucracy that must be emphasised but the liberation of the masses to proceed independently of the bureaucracy ... I do not quote this as an argument against work in the unions but as an argument against the idea of tying down the bureaucracy. We must fight against this bureaucracy in the unions; it will only be possible to tie them down or finish them off during the revolution or after it. [32]

Gallacher raised a valid point about the difficulties posed by a blanket slogan ‘Conquer the unions’:

It is simply nonsense and ridiculous to talk of conquering the old trades unions with their ossified bureaucracy ... We have been active in the British trades unions for 25 years without ever having succeeded in revolutionising the trades unions from inside. Every time we succeeded in making one of our own comrades an official of the trades unions, it turned out that then, instead of a change of tactics taking place, the trades unions corrupted our own comrades too. We have often made our comrades into big trade union officials, but we have seen that nothing can be achieved for communism and the revolution through such work. [33]

Unfortunately these arguments were simply ignored.

The inner nature of the Western trade unions eluded the Comintern. The Bolsheviks did not see the contradictory character of these organisations, reflecting on the one hand the collective organisation of workers and on the other the limitations imposed by the subordination of workers under capitalism – such as sectionalism, economism and so on – which were in turn reflected in the trade union bureaucracy. By 1921, when it became clear that the reformist leaders were holding their own, the Third Congress of the Communist International spoke of the need to organise ‘communists and elements sympathetic to the communists’ into ‘cells within trade unions’. But even then such cells were not to work towards independent rank-and-file action so much as

revolutionising the trade unions, ridding them of reformist influence and the treacherous reformist leaders, and transforming them into a genuine stronghold of the revolutionary proletariat. [34]

So capture of the official machine remained the prime target, although the assault would now be better organised. The ultra-left tactic of splitting the unions that had marred RILU’s early years was replaced with an opportunist tactic of making alliances with left officials.

This possibility too was contained within the original concept of RILU, since the role of the bureaucracy had never been properly understood. In 1920, as a step towards the foundation of RILU, Zinoviev had signed an agreement with people like D’Aragona and Robert Williams. D’Aragona was an unashamed reformist and leader of the Italian Confederation of Labour. He had no qualms about signing a document which declared ‘the duty of the working class is to unite all trade union organisational power in a revolutionary union which works hand in hand with the political organisation of the international communist proletariat’ and called for the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’. [35] Yet weeks earlier this same man had used every ounce of bureaucratic power to smash the independent factory council movement in Turin. And just a few months later he did the same to the mighty ‘occupation of the factories’. Robert Williams, leader of Britain’s transport workers and another signatory, was soon to sabotage the miners’ struggle by his betrayal on Black Friday. The pamphlet reporting discussions between Zinoviev and these bureaucrats gave no hint that union leaders were capable of such things. Indeed it was entitled Proceedings of the First Conference of the Representatives of the Revolutionary Trade Unions of Great Britain, Italy and Russia. [36]

Zinoviev was criticised for consorting with such characters. But his defence showed how little he understood the type of ‘leader’ he was dealing with:

Should I not reach an agreement with Robert Williams ...? Of course. But he stands at the head of the Triple Alliance. Why then do not the comrades in the Shop Stewards’ Movement stand at the head of this million-strong union? In this way they show that they are sectarians and not revolutionaries. [37]

Zinoviev’s mistake was not that he had reached an agreement with reformist union leaders. It was that the agreement by which RILU was established was not about action but about phrases, phrases which gave the bureaucracy a left credibility at no cost, and which made their sabotage of struggle all the more effective. An agreement for action, or a united front, as it became known, would have been totally different, for it would have opened the way to real progress through the activity and self-education of the rank and file.

Duncan Hallas explains the nature of the united front:

The tactic starts from the assumption that there is a non-revolutionary situation in which only a minority of the working class support the revolutionaries. This can be altered only on the basis of a rising level of class struggle, involving large numbers of workers, many of whom will support reformist organisations. The united front is a tactic intended to win these workers to support for revolutionary organisations, which it can do under favourable circumstances. It is not a bloc for joint propaganda between revolutionary and reformist organisations, but a limited agreement for action of some kind. [38]

In 1921 the united front became an important part of Comintern strategy and was supposedly adopted by RILU as well. However RILU was so confused in its analysis that it found it impossible to apply this tactic successfully. Furthermore, despite its exaggerated claims of support, the Red International of Labour Unions was an embarrassing failure. Losovsky and Zinoviev decided to be rid of it.

In November 1922 Losovsky reported that RILU was now ready to join with the Amsterdam International and end its separate existence in order to achieve a united front:

How is unity to be achieved? In all its resolutions the RILU has declared itself ready, for this end, to make all the concessions. But it goes without saying that unity cannot be realised without minimum guarantees ... We are ready to have unity on condition that both reformists and revolutionaries are assured freedom of propaganda. [39]

Losovsky’s proposal had nothing to do with the genuine united front. The essence of that tactic is that revolutionaries do not merge with the reformists they wish to influence, but that the two act together. RILU’s call for a joint conference without any preconditions imposed no obligations on the reformists for joint action but ‘made all the concessions’.

Unfortunately, in making this turn in 1922, RILU did not admit that it had been wrong in the past. It did not conclude that instead of attempting to build a trade union international at an official level it should encourage rank-and-file movements. RILU’S search for an end to its contradictory existence took it in a different direction altogether – towards trying to unite with the bureaucrats who led the Amsterdam International. In pursuing this aim revolutionaries in Western Europe were urged to win over left union officials in their own countries.

The confused trade union policies of the Communist International had been symbolised by the creation of RILU. At first this had encouraged an ultra-left attitude to union work; later on it opened the door to accommodation to left-talking bureaucrats.

Elsewhere Tony Cliff has written:

The congresses of the Comintern were schools of strategy and tactics. How effective they were depended not only on the quality of the teachers, but also on the background, the level of preparation and quality of the pupils. [40]

In the case of RILU, in which neither Lenin nor Trotsky played any role at all, being far too overburdened with other tasks, the teachers were not very good, and their weaknesses exacerbated those of the pupils.

The mistakes of the first few years of the Comintern were the mistakes of revolutionaries searching for new tactics in an unfamiliar field. But around 1923 a qualitative change took place. The degeneration of the Communist International and the search for alliances with left union officials was the result of the isolation of the Russian revolution. This gave rise to a state bureaucracy in Russia which put its own self-interest above that of the international working class. This process did not fully take hold until after the Fourth Comintern Congress. Until then the Congresses had been a genuine forum for the debate and development of Marxism. After Lenin’s illness in 1923 the Stalinist bureaucracy put a stop to development. This meant that the opportunity to correct and improve on the Comintern’s trade union strategy, as had been done in so many other spheres, was lost.

This outcome was not inevitable, as is clear from Trotsky’s writings. Though driven from a position of influence in the International, he produced the most lucid and penetrating analysis of trade union bureaucracy in Britain and elsewhere right up to 1926. To this we will return later.

The Communist International in 1926 still had not become a direct tool of Russian state policy, and nor was the CPGB a slavish follower of Moscow. Nevertheless the shift towards wooing left union bureaucrats compounded weaknesses already existing in the British labour movement.


1. Adler (ed.), Theses, Resolutions and Manifestos of the First Four Congresses of the Third International (London 1980), p. 33.

2. Lenin, vol. 31, pp. 53 and 55.

3. Radek, quoted in The Second Congress of the Communist International, vol. 2, p. 62.

4. Second Congress, vol. 2, p. 67.

5. Second Congress, vol. 2, p. 67.

6. Second Congress, vol. 2, p. 66.

7. The Worker, 31 January 1920.

8. The Worker, 31 January 1920.

9. The Worker, 31 January 1920.

10. Degras, The Communist International 1919–1943: Documents (London, three volumes, 1956–1965), vol. 1, pp. 89–90.

11. E.H. Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution, vol. 3 (London 1966), p. 397.

12. E.H. Carr, Socialism in One Country (London 1964), p. 545.

13. Communist Review, March 1922.

14. Communist Review, October 1921.

15. O. Flechtheim, Die KPD in der Weimarer Republik (Frankfurt-am-Main 1969), page 170.

16. For details of the complicated negotiations, see D. Horowitz, The Italian Labour Movement (Cambridge, Massachusetts 1963), pp. 162–4.

17. Carr, Socialism in One Country, vol. 2, p. 690.

18. Degras, vol. 2, p. 258.

19. Degras, vol. 2, p. 645.

20. Quoted in Communist Review, April 1922.

21. Bericht über den IV Kongress, Petrograd-Moskau vom 5. November bis 5. Dezember 1922 (Hamburg 1923), p. 395.

22. Communist Review, March 1923.

23. International Trade Union Unity, with introduction by Harry Pollitt (London 1925), pp. 17–18.

24. Second Congress, vol. 2, p. 175.

25. Second Congress, vol. 2, pp. 81 and 175.

26. Degras, vol. 1, p. 145.

27. Degras, vol. 1, p. 96.

28. Theses, Resolutions and Manifestos, pages 264–5.

29. Second Congress, vol. 2, p. 71.

30. Second Congress, vol. 2, pp. 64–5.

31. Second Congress, vol. 2, p. 89.

32. Second Congress, vol. 2, p. 78. Our emphasis.

33. Second Congress, vol. 2, p. 167.

34. Theses, Resolutions and Manifestos, p. 265.

35. Moskau gegen Amsterdam (Hamburg 1921), page 58.

36. Moskau gegen Amsterdam, p. 53.

37. Second Congress, vol. 2, p. 175.

38. Duncan Hallas, The Comintern (London 1984), p. 66.

39. Theses et Résolutions adoptée au Deuxième Congrès de l’Internationale Syndicale Rouge, Novembre 1922 (Paris, no date), p. 2.

40. Cliff, Lenin, vol. 4, pp. 45–6.


A. In 1925 RILU claimed the entire trade union federations of Russia, China, Java, Greece, Chile, Persia and Egypt; the split federations of Bulgaria and Esthonia, the ‘ideological identification’ of the Finnish unions and ‘not less than half the organised workers’ of France, Czechoslovakia, Rumania, Yugoslavia, Japan, Argentina and Australia. The rest were made up of minority movements. (The Worker, 15 August 1925)

Last updated on 14 August 2014