Soviet Trade Unions: Their Place in Soviet Labour Policy. Isaac Deutscher 1950

Chapter I: Trade Unions Under Tsardom

One of the striking features of the Russian labour movement before the revolution of 1917 was the relative insignificance of the trade unions. In part, this was due to the fact that Russian industry was still very young and that the mass of industrial workers consisted of recently-proletarianised peasants. The trade unions of Western Europe had behind them the long tradition of medieval guilds, whose descendants in a sense they were. No such tradition existed in Russia. More important still, up to the beginning of this century trade-union organisation was as strictly prohibited and persecuted by Tsardom as was any form of political opposition. In suppressing trade unionism, Tsardom unwittingly put a premium upon revolutionary political organisation. [1] Only the most politically-minded workers, those prepared to pay for their conviction with prison and exile, could be willing to join trade unions in these circumstances. But those who were already so politically-minded were, naturally enough, more attracted by political organisations. The broader and more inert mass of workers, who were inclined to shun politics but would have readily joined trade unions, were not only prevented from forming unions but were also gradually accustomed to look for leadership to the clandestine political parties. ‘The most characteristic feature in the history of our trade unions’, says Stalin, ‘is that they have emerged, developed and grown strong only after the party, around the party and in friendship with the party.’ This view, somewhat over-simple, is, nevertheless, essentially correct. Whereas in Britain the Labour Party was created by the trade unions, the Russian trade unions from their beginning led their existence in the shadow of the political movement. Although sporadic economic associations of workers occurred as early as in the eighties and even seventies of the last century, it is, broadly speaking, true that the political organisation, more specifically the Russian Social Democratic Workers’ Party, and not the trade unions, held the birth-right in the Russian labour movement .

Lenin on Trade Unions

Revolutionary socialist politics did not, however, gain ascendancy over the economic movement without some struggle. In 1899 a group of socialists, who were soon labelled ‘Economists’, set out to dispute the supremacy of revolutionary politics. For a short time they did so with some success; they found strong support even among underground circles of socialists. But their success was short-lived. By 1903, when the Social Democratic Party held its Second Congress, at which it split into Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, the influence of the ‘Economists’ had already waned. Among the Social Democrats who preached the primacy of revolutionary politics, the young Lenin played a very prominent role. In his polemical writings against the ‘Economists’ he first developed his views on trade unionism, views which he was to hold, in almost unmodified form, up to 1917. Even after 1917 his approach to trade unions was in the main governed by the broad view of the inter-relationship of economics and politics, class, party and trade unions, which he had expressed in those early polemics. It is therefore worthwhile briefly to survey Lenin’s ideas on the subject:

When... the First International was formed, the question of the significance of the trade unions and of the workers’ economic struggle was raised at its First Congress in Geneva in 1866. The resolution of that congress underlined with precision the significance of the economic struggle, warning socialists and workers, on the one hand, against overrating its importance (which was characteristic for the English workers at that time) and, on the other, against underrating it (which was characteristic for the French and the Germans, especially the followers of Lassalle). The resolution recognised that trade unions were not only legitimate but necessary as long as capitalism existed; it recognised them to be extremely important in the organisation of the working class in its daily struggle against capital and for the abolition of wage labour. The resolution also stated that trade unions ought not to pay their attention exclusively to ‘the direct struggle against capital’, that they ought not to keep aloof from the political and social movement of the working class. They ought not to pursue ‘narrow’ objectives, but they ought to strive for the general emancipation of the oppressed millions of the working people... The conviction that the single class struggle ought necessarily to unite the political and the economic struggle has become part and parcel of the international social democratic outlook. [2]

The attitude of the ‘Economists’ was by no means uniform or clear-cut. Some of them were opposed to the creation of a political Social Democratic Party; others merely urged the party, then in its first formative period, to base its policy exclusively or primarily on the immediate economic interests of the workers. Against this Lenin argued that (a) the party should, of course, base its activity inter alia on the workers’ immediate economic interests, and (b) that those interests formed a highly inadequate basis for the party’s policy as a whole:

For the socialist the economic struggle serves as the basis for the organisation of workers in a revolutionary party, for the consolidation and development of the class struggle against the whole capitalist system. But if the economic struggle is regarded as something self-sufficient, then there is nothing socialist in it. And in the experience of all European countries we have had many not only socialist but also anti-socialist trade unions.

‘To assist in the economic struggle of the proletariat’ [this was what the ‘Economists’ wanted] — is the job of the bourgeois politician. The task of the socialist is to make the economic struggle of the workers assist the socialist movement and contribute to the success of the revolutionary socialist party. [3]

The entire Leninist conception of proletarian class struggle was implied in this deliberately paradoxical epigram. Lenin saw the working class as an heterogeneous mass consisting of the most diverse elements and representing the most diverse levels of ‘class-consciousness’. Various groups of workers are immediately interested merely in securing their own, narrow, material advantage. They may try to secure it against the interests of other groups of workers, an attitude characteristic of craft trade unionism. Other groups may try to secure immediate advantages at the expense even of their own long-term interests. Sections of the working class thus try to assert themselves against the rest of the class; and at times even the whole working class sacrifices its collective and permanent interests for the sake of meretricious and transitory benefits. It was true in Lenin’s view, as Marx had pointed out, that modern industry tended to organise the proletariat for class struggle, to shape its collective mind and to discipline its will; but it was also true that the unity of the working class was being constantly disrupted by centrifugal forces, that its class consciousness was constantly disintegrating, and that its collective will was being dissipated in the pursuit of the most diverse and contradictory objectives.

This dialectical contradiction between the unifying and the disruptive tendencies formed the background against which Lenin viewed the respective roles of various labour organisations, and analysed the relative antagonism between trade unionism and political socialism. It was the peculiar task of the Socialist (and later of the Communist) Party to unify the proletariat for the pursuit of its corporate and permanent interest — the overthrow of capitalism and the establishment of socialism. To this objective the party had to subordinate the sectional or temporary interests of the working class. It was, on the other hand, inherent in trade unionism that it should devote its energy to the workers’ sectional and temporary advantages.

From this fundamental difference in the functions of trade union and party followed the profound differences in the outlook and structure of the two organisations. The trade union tended to embrace the bulk of the working class. It was a mass organisation par excellence. The party, on the other hand, ought to embrace only the most advanced, class-conscious and disciplined elements of the class. It was, or should be an Úlite organisation, for only such an Úlite, closely-knit and politically-trained, could be the unifying and leading factor in the life of the working class. In this sense the Socialist Party was the ‘vanguard of the proletariat’.

By definition the party embraced only a minority, perhaps a very small one, of the working class. It would be contrary to its nature and functions for it to try to embrace the majority — this would mean that the Úlite of the class had become ‘dissolved’ in the amorphous mass. It was only in 1903, when the Russian Social Democracy split into Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, that Lenin dotted the i’s and crossed the t’s of this theory, but he expounded its essential tenets even in the earlier years.

At first sight this conception resembled various older theories of ‘active minorities’ or groups of revolutionary initiative, of which Blanquism had been the best known. Lenin was, indeed, charged with following in the footsteps of Blanqui and expounding the idea of a revolution accomplished by a small minority. The resemblance, he replied, was superficial. Blanqui believed in revolution accomplished by a conspiratorial Úlite, without the participation, and regardless of the attitude, of the majority of the nation. Not so Lenin. His Úlite or the proletarian vanguard, organised in the party, was not called upon to make the revolution by itself. Its task was to persuade, prepare and organise the vast majority of the nation for the upheaval. Socialist revolution could win and succeed only if it was approved and supported by the majority; but that majority had to be enlightened and guided by a class-conscious Marxist minority. In periods of reaction or slow social development the party might be isolated from the working class. But in the process of revolution it would assume the actual leadership of the broadest masses of the working people.

In the light of this theory, the relationship between party and trade unions could not be free from some dualism. The Marxist vanguard must not turn its back upon the trade unions. Since its purpose was to influence and lead the mass of the workers, it had, on the contrary, to turn to the trade unions, in which that mass was organised; but it could turn to them only in the sense in which the leader turns to the led. In no circumstances could it place itself on an equal footing with the trade unions — this would amount to a renunciation of its own peculiar mission. It was the task of the party to see to it that the struggle for ‘bread and butter’, led by the trade unions, should not deflect the workers from, but that it should prepare them for the revolutionary transformation of society. As long as the trade unions were willing to be guided along that path, their role was, from the party’s viewpoint, progressive. As soon, however, as they proclaimed their ‘neutrality’ in politics, or, what was worse, the primacy of their narrowly economic pursuits, the party inevitably came in conflict with them, for the trade unions were now in fact reconciling themselves with the existing social order. From the Marxist viewpoint, their struggle for ‘bread and butter’ could, anyhow, not be effective in the long run, for even if they succeeded in obtaining higher wages or better labour conditions for their workers, the share of the working class in the national income was in the longer run bound to decline as long as capitalism existed.

Social Democracy [wrote Lenin in the first issue of Iskra in December 1900] represents the unification of the [labour] movement with socialism. Its task is not to serve passively the labour movement... but to represent the interests of the movement as a whole, to put before that movement its final objective... Severed from Social Democracy, the labour movement grows insignificant and inevitably acquires a bourgeois outlook: waging the economic struggle only, the working class loses its political independence, becomes an appendage to other parties and betrays the high principle that ‘the emancipation of the workers should be achieved by the workers themselves’. In all countries there was a time when the labour movement and socialism existed separately and moved along separate roads — and in all countries this divorce led to the weakness of socialism and of the labour movement alike... [4]

When one of Lenin’s opponents argued that Social Democracy should give up pure politics and try to lend a political character to the economic struggle (this was another shade of ‘Economism’), Lenin replied:

The economic struggle is a collective struggle of the workers against their employers for better terms in the sale of their labour power, for better conditions of life and labour. This is inevitably a trade-union struggle, because the conditions of labour differ greatly from trade to trade... ‘To lend a political character to the economic struggle’ means consequently to strive for the realisation of these same trade-union demands... ‘by way of legislative and administrative measures'... This exactly is what all trade unions have been and are doing. Look into the work of the solid scholars (and solid opportunists) Mr and Mrs Webb, and you will see that the English trade unions have long since recognised... the task of ‘lending a political character to the economic struggle'... Thus behind this pompous phrase... there is in fact the customary attempt to lower Social Democratic policy to the level of trade unionism...!

Revolutionary Social Democracy has always included and still includes the fight for reforms in its activities. But it makes use of ‘economic’ agitation in order to confront the government not only with demands for all sorts of measures, but also (and primarily) with the demand that this government cease to be an autocracy... In a word, Social Democracy subordinates the struggle for reforms to the revolutionary struggle for freedom and socialism in the same way in which any part is subordinate to the whole. [5]

In this same polemic Lenin emphasised another crucial difference between party and trade unions. The trade union is strictly a workers’ organisation, whereas the party concerns itself with the condition of all social classes. The central figure in the Social Democratic Party is not and should not be the man with the outlook of a trade-union secretary but the tribune of the people:

... the ‘Economists’ always lapse from Social Democracy back into Trade Unionism. [6] The political struggle waged by Social Democrats is far more extensive and complex than the economic struggle of the workers against the employers and the government. Similarly, the organisation of a Revolutionary Social Democratic Party must inevitably differ from the organisations of the workers for economic struggle. A workers’ organisation must in the first place be a trade organisation; secondly, it must be as wide as possible; and, thirdly, there must be as little clandestinity about it as possible. (Here and farther I have, of course, only autocratic Russia in mind.) On the contrary, the organisation of revolutionaries ought to embrace first of all and mainly people for whom their revolutionary activity is their [main] occupation... In view of this common characteristic of the members of such an organisation, every distinction between workers and intellectuals ought to vanish, not to speak of distinctions between occupations... [7]

Trade Unions in the 1905 Revolution and After

The supremacy of revolutionary politics over trade unionism became apparent in the first Russian revolution of 1905. The Tsarist autocracy was greatly weakened; and the trade unions, for the first time enjoying full freedom of organisation, gained considerable membership. Nevertheless, their role in the turbulent strike movement of that year was only secondary. In St Petersburg, the capital and the centre of the revolution, they were completely overshadowed by a new institution that had spontaneously sprung into being — the Council of Workers’ Delegates, the first Soviet in history. So, incidentally, were also the political parties, some of which, especially the Bolsheviks, were at first vaguely opposed to the Soviet. It was this Council of Workers’ Delegates that actually inspired the great general strike of November 1905, which, together with the December rising in Moscow, marked the culmination of the revolution. Even the campaign for the eight hours’ day was proclaimed primarily by the Soviet.

The auxiliary role of the trade unions was emphasised in a resolution adopted by the Fourth Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Workers’ Party (April and May 1906), at which Bolsheviks and Mensheviks reunited into a single party. The resolution stated that ‘in the atmosphere of a revolutionary epoch the trade unions, apart from defending the economic interests of the workers, draw the working class into direct political struggle and assist in its broad organisation and political unification’. [8] The congress obliged all members of the party to join trade unions and participate in their work; but, curiously enough, it pronounced itself in favour of setting up ‘non-party’ trade unions. (This was the common view of Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, since the clause about the non-party character of the trade unions can be found in the Bolshevik motion which was not passed by the congress.) At the same time the congress rejected any notion of political neutrality of the unions.

A comparison between the resolution passed by the congress and the Bolshevik motion discloses one significant difference. The Bolsheviks insisted that the party ought to do its utmost to secure its actual leadership in the non-party unions, whereas the general resolution spoke vaguely about the need for an ‘organic connexion’ between party and unions. The same congress adopted a brief resolution against the division of the unions along the lines of nationality. The trade union ought to embrace workers regardless of nationality, creed, race, etc. The difficulty which was to split the trade-union movement in the Austro-Hungarian empire along the lines of nationality was from the beginning solved in an internationalist spirit in Russia.

The relationship between party and trade unions underwent some change after 1906, in the years of counter-revolution, under the so-called regime of 3 June. For quite a few years the political parties were wrecked and demoralised by defeat. The Mensheviks never succeeded in reconstituting a solid clandestine organisation; the Bolsheviks did so only slowly and with great difficulty. The regime of 3 June did not spare the trade unions either. Many unions were banned; their members were severely punished for participation in strikes or other economic activity. But some trade unions were allowed to exist under close police supervision. This soon gave rise to hesitation in the ranks of the Social Democratic Party. The so-called ‘Liquidators’ among the Mensheviks (those who were prepared to give up clandestine political organisation altogether) were inclined to confine themselves to such forms of activity as were tolerated by the government. They were consequently ready to accept virtually non-political trade unions. At the London congress of the party, in 1907, an attempt was made to revise the party’s attitude towards trade unions. A motion tabled at the congress stated that ‘the premature establishment of an organisational connexion’ between the Social Democratic Party and the trade unions ‘may result... in separation and alienation between the political and the economic organisations of the proletariat... on the other hand, as experience has shown, the trade unions which are neutral vis-Ó-vis the parties have, in the overwhelming majority of cases, adhered to a class policy and have not held aloof from the general proletarian movement.’ The practical conclusion was that the Social Democrats should give up their aspiration to lead the trade unions wherever their insistence on this threatened to weaken the unions. [9] This attempt to revise the party’s attitude brought forth a sharp protest from Lenin. The congress was unable to reach a conclusion; and the four resolutions on the matter submitted to the congress were not put to the vote.

Soon afterwards, the joint Bolshevik–Menshevik Central Committee of the party restated its attitude in a manner which, on the whole, conformed with Lenin’s attitude. The idea of neutral trade unions was once again ruled out of court. The party was, on the other hand, warned that it should not try to impose itself upon the unions; it should rather secure its influence by way of solid propaganda and organisation; and it should exercise that influence so as not to weaken the unity of the trade unionists in their economic struggle. Acknowledging that the government of 3 June had succeeded in routing many or most of the trade unions, the Central Committee pointed out that this was due to the fact that the unions had failed to build up strong nuclei within the factories and the workshops. To withstand further repression they should be firmly anchored in the factories and workshops. The Social Democratic Party, on the other hand, ought to form its own nuclei within those wider trade-union nuclei in the factories. [10]

This resolution, endorsed by both Bolsheviks and Mensheviks in February 1908, suggested the pattern for the so-called ‘fractions’ and cells which later were to become characteristic for the Communist method of organisation. At the bottom of the organisational pyramid there is the broad mass of workers, many of them inert or backward; the more advanced or active part of that mass is organised in trade unions and leads the rest, especially in times of economic conflict with employers and or with the government; within the trade union the most politically-minded and organised elements form the party cell, which should, thanks to its moral authority, superior experience and skill, guide the trade unions directly or indirectly; the activities of the party cells in their turn are guided and coordinated, directly or indirectly, by the leadership of the party. Thus the leadership of the party should be able to exercise — through a whole series of intermediate links — its influence upon the broadest masses. (At a later period the trade unions were to be called the ‘transmission belts’ between the party and the main body of the working class.)

In subsequent years this scheme of organisation could not be put into operation on any wide scale. The labour movement was in a state of depression until roughly 1912, when a political revival manifested itself in many strikes. This revival was for a time interrupted by the outbreak of the First World War.


1. In 1902 Colonel Zubatov, chief of the Moscow political police, sponsored closely-supervised trade unions designed to compete with the revolutionary organisations. These police-sponsored trade unions were no substitute for real ones; and they were soon infiltrated by the revolutionaries.

2. Lenin, Sochinenia (Works), Volume 4 (Fourth edition, Moscow, in progress), pp 158-59.

3. Lenin, Sochinenia (Works), Volume 4 (Fourth edition, Moscow, in progress), p 270.

4. Lenin, Sochinenia (Works), Volume 4 (Fourth edition, Moscow, in progress), p 343.

5. Lenin, Sochinenia (Works), Volume 5 (Fourth edition, Moscow, in progress), pp 474-76.

6. Lenin uses the English expression ‘trade unionism’ in the Russian text to denote the negative aspects of the trade unionist’s attitude. In this pejorative sense the English expression has ever since been used by Russian Bolshevik writers.

7. Lenin, Sochinenia (Works), Volume 5 (Fourth edition, Moscow, in progress), pp 421-22.

8. VKP (b) o Profsoyuzakh (All-Union Communist Party on Trade Unions, second edition, Moscow, 1940), pp 12-13.

9. VKP (b) v Rezolutsiyakh (Resolutions of the All-Union Communist Party), Volume 1 (fifth edition, Moscow, 1936), pp 116-17.

10. VKP (b) o Profsoyuzakh (All-Union Communist Party on Trade Unions, second edition, Moscow, 1940), pp 30-31.