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

Chapter II: Trade Unions and the Revolution

The effect of the revolution which took place in February 1917 was in one way similar to that of the revolution of 1905: the newly-won political freedom favoured the rapid growth of the trade unions. In 1905 the trade unions counted 250,000 members. During the first months of 1917 their membership rose from a few scores of thousands to 1.5 million. These numbers reflected the general urge of workers to use the newly-won freedom of organisation.

The practical role of the trade unions in the revolution did not, however, correspond to their numerical strength. It was even less significant than in 1905. For one thing, in 1917 strikes never assumed the scale and power they had in 1905. The economic ruin of Russia, the galloping inflation, the scarcity of consumers’ goods, and so on, made normal ‘bread and butter’ struggle look unreal. In addition, the threat of mobilisation hung over would-be strikers. The working class was in no mood to strive for limited economic advantages and partial reforms. The entire social order of Russia was at stake. Even more than in 1905 the trade unions were now overshadowed by the Soviets, and at no significant turn of the revolution did they come to the fore.

As in all labour organisations, so in the unions the extreme and the moderate parties — Bolsheviks, Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries — confronted one another in a ceaseless and intense struggle for influence. At first the trade unions, like the Soviets, were dominated by the Mensheviks, who nominally favoured the trade unions’ political neutrality. On behalf of the Labour Ministry of the Kerensky government, Maisky (the future Soviet ambassador in London, then still a Menshevik) claimed to guide the trade unions in this spirit. [1] The claim was not very strongly based on the facts: under Menshevik leadership the trade unions supported the Kerensky government and his war policy. The Menshevik advocacy of neutrality was mainly a form of their opposition to the growth of Bolshevik influence in the trade unions.

As they were preparing for the seizure of power, Lenin and his followers tried to approach the trade unions from a new angle and to define their role in the Soviet system. The central economic idea which Lenin then expounded was ‘workers’ control’ over industry. This did not yet amount to wholesale socialisation or nationalisation of the economy. ‘Workers’ control’ was to be a sort of dual control of employers and workers over industry, a condominium in which the workers were to train themselves for future exclusive management and in which they were progressively to widen the sphere of their responsibility. Lenin did not envisage any prolonged collaboration between the classes; and his ‘workers’ control’ can therefore not be compared with, say, the British joint production committees. ‘Workers’ control’, on the contrary, provided the framework for the struggle between capitalists and workers in a transition period, at the end of which the former were to be expropriated. The trade unions were expected to play their part in establishing ‘workers’ control’.

A resolution of the Bolshevik Central Committee, passed some time before the October Revolution, contained the following scheme of the control:

For such control it is necessary: (1) that in all important establishments there should be secured for the workers a majority of not less than three-quarters of all votes. It is thereby obligatory to draw into participation the industrialists who have not deserted their businesses and the educated technical and scientific personnel; (2) that the factory committees, the central and local Councils of Workers’, Peasants and Soldiers’ Delegates and the trade unions should obtain the right to participate in control, that all commercial books and bank accounts should be opened to them and all data obligatorily supplied to them; and (3) that representatives of all influential democratic and socialist parties should obtain the same rights. [2]

From these terms it is clear that the dual power of capitalists and workers in industry was designed to end in the complete elimination of the former — very few capitalists could be expected to reconcile themselves to a situation in which at least three-quarters of the controlling votes belonged to the workers.

Another significant point is the order in which the various labour organisations participating in ‘workers’ control’ were enumerated: the factory committees came first, then the Soviets, and only in the last instance the trade unions. This order corresponded to the actual importance which the three types of organisation had in the economic upheaval, as distinct from the political revolution in which the Soviets came first.

The factory committees constituted the most direct representation of the workers and employees of any factory and workshop. They were the primary and basic units of organisation, much narrower than the trade unions or the Soviets, but of much greater weight in the establishment of workers’ control. The struggle for that control was waged within every factory or workshop of any significance, and its immediate purpose was control by the workers ‘on the spot’. At this stage the Bolsheviks appeared as adherents of the most extreme decentralisation of economic power, which gave their Menshevik opponents the opportunity to charge them with abandoning Marxism in favour of anarchism. Actually, Lenin and his followers remained firm upholders of the Marxist conception of the centralised state. Their immediate objective, however, was not yet to set up the centralised proletarian dictatorship but to decentralise as much as possible the bourgeois state and the bourgeois economy. This was a necessary condition for the success of the revolution. In the economic field, therefore, the factory committee, the organ ‘on the spot’, rather than the trade union, was the most potent and deadly instrument of upheaval. Thus the trade unions were relegated to the background not only by the Soviets but also by the factory committees. [3]

Another body which stole the trade unions’ thunder was the Workers’ Section of the Soviet. This consisted of those members of the Soviet who had been directly elected in factories and workshops. The Workers’ Section often held meetings and conferences independently of the Soviet as a whole and its decisions on matters of labour policy were accepted as authoritative by the workers.

After the October Revolution

This multiplicity of overlapping organisations gave rise to much confusion and friction soon after the October Revolution. Having assumed power, the Bolsheviks were anxious to bring some order out of the revolutionary chaos. The old machinery of the state had been crushed, and the economy of the country had lost any sign of coherence. Centralisation of political power and of economic control was now indispensable if the newly-formed Soviet government was to survive. At their first attempts at central control over industry, the Bolsheviks came into conflict with the factory committees, on which they had so strongly relied prior to the revolution. The anarchic characteristics of the committees made themselves felt: every factory committee aspired to have the last and final say on all matters affecting the factory, its output, its stock of raw materials, its conditions of work, etc, and paid little or no attention to the needs of industry as a whole. A few weeks after the upheaval, the factory committees attempted to form their own national organisation which was to secure their virtual economic dictatorship. The Bolsheviks now called upon the trade unions to render a special service to the nascent Soviet state and to discipline the factory committees. The unions came out firmly against the attempt of the factory committees to form a national organisation of their own. They prevented the convocation of a planned all-Russian congress of factory committees and demanded total subordination on the part of the committees. The committees, however, were too strong to surrender altogether. Towards the end of 1917 a compromise was reached, under which the factory committees accepted a new status: they were to form the primary organisations upon which the trade unions based themselves; but by the same token they were, of course, incorporated in the unions. Gradually they gave up the ambition to act, either locally or nationally, in opposition to the trade unions or independently of them. The unions now became the main channels through which the government was assuming effective control over industry.

This was roughly the situation when the First All-Russian Congress of the Trade Unions assembled in Moscow in the second week of January 1918. [4] The trade unions had asserted themselves against the factory committees, but in other respects their position had not been clearly defined. Not only did the spokesmen of the various parties — Bolsheviks, Mensheviks, Social Revolutionaries and Anarchists — advance conflicting views; but also within the ranks of Bolshevik trade unionists there was as yet little agreement on the principles of the new trade unionism.

Debates at the First Trade-Union Congress

The issue before the congress was in the words of Mikhail Tomsky, the leading Bolshevik trade unionist, whether ‘the trade unions should tie their fortunes to those of the Soviet government or whether they should remain independent organs of economic class struggle’. Tomsky’s own answer was clear enough, if only general in character:

Even before the October Revolution the general condition of industry compelled the trade unions to give up strike action... Now, when the proletariat has assumed the political and economic leadership of the country and removed the bourgeoisie from the management of industry, the struggle of the workers for the improvement of their position has naturally had to take on new forms, the forms of an organised action, through the trade unions and through various regulating bodies, upon the economic policy of the working class as a whole. The sectional interests of groups of workers have had to be subordinated to the interests of the entire class. [5]

Against this the Mensheviks advocated the independence of the trade unions. Their argument was put briefly by Maisky:

Comrades, although other views are now popular among many workers, we still think that our revolution remains, as we used to say, a bourgeois revolution, and that the trade unions have therefore to perform their customary jobs... I suppose that capitalism will unfortunately very soon reassert itself with all its might and power. I think therefore that if capitalism remains intact, the tasks with which trade unions are confronted under capitalism remain unaltered as well. [6]

This argument was in line with the traditional Menshevik view that the Russian revolution could not, because of Russia’s backward and more or less feudal outlook, be socialist in character, and that it could only usher in a bourgeois-democratic republic. What was implied in Maisky’s argument was that if, contrary to the Menshevik forecast, the revolution should develop along socialist lines, then there was no reason for socialists to insist on the independence of the trade unions — their task would then be to assist the government in the transformation of the economic and social system. In appearance at least, there was no difference between the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks on this crucial point. The role of the trade unions was seen by both to be secondary, and the discussion centred primarily on the prospects of the revolution.

A more sophisticated exposition of the Menshevik view was given at the congress by Martov, the founder of the school, who also argued that Lenin’s experiment in socialism was utopian and bound to collapse. The trade unions, Martov concluded, should not be allowed to be involved in a foredoomed experiment. To this characteristically Menshevik argument Martov added another point not necessarily connected with it:

In this historic situation this government cannot represent the working class only. It cannot but be a de facto administration connected with an heterogeneous mass of toiling people, with proletarian and non-proletarian elements alike. It cannot, therefore, conduct its economic policy along the lines of consistently and clearly expressed interests of the working class. [7]

The trade unions, as exponents of the strictly proletarian interest, should reserve their freedom of action vis-à-vis the government. Three years later, Lenin, while rejecting Martov’s general evaluation of the prospects of the revolution, was to repeat almost literally this part of Martov’s argument. For the time being, however, most Bolsheviks refused to accept it. Only a few of them, for instance Lozovsky, the future leader of the Red Trade-Union International (Profintern), and Ryazanov had their doubts. They argued that the socialist development of Russia would be possible only if socialist revolution won in Western Europe as well and that, failing this, a capitalist restoration in Russia was probable — it was therefore dangerous for the working class to curtail the right of coalition:

... we, Marxists, should not conceal from ourselves [said Ryazanov] that as long as the social revolution begun here has not merged with the social revolution of Europe and of the whole world... the Russian proletariat... must be on its guard and must not renounce a single one of its weapons... it must maintain its trade-union organisation. [8]

In the light of this argument, too, the trade unions appeared to retain their usefulness mainly as a reserve weapon of the workers in case of counter-revolution. Under a socialist regime their usefulness appeared to be doubtful.

The practical question, however, with which the congress was confronted was not how to provide against the contingencies of counter-revolution, but how to find for the trade unions a new place in the revolution. The question which Zinoviev, on behalf of the party, put before the congress seemed to most delegates to admit one answer only:

I ask you [said Zinoviev] why and from whom do you need independence: from your own government...? The trade unions have already issued decrees on requisitions and on many other measures of prime importance, decrees which are normally issued only by the state administration. [9]

Thus, at this stage, the official Bolshevik view was that the trade unions should be subordinated to the government, since they themselves acted as part of the administration. But did this mean that the trade unions should be completely absorbed by the administration, that they should be ‘statified'? [10] If so, how were bodies which counted three million members [11] to be fitted in with the machinery of the new state? What was to be their relationship with the Soviets, that backbone of the new republic? Lozovsky described to the congress the constant friction between Soviets and trade unions that had developed in the few months since the revolution. [12] The Soviets demanded that the trade unions should take their orders from them. The All-Russian Central Council of Trade Unions (ACCTU) protested against this and impressed upon its branches that they did not come under the Soviets and that they should not allow the latter to interfere with the direction of the economic struggle. Although they accepted subordination to the government as a matter of high policy, the Bolshevik trade unionists jealously guarded the prerogatives of their organisation. At the same time the Central Council of the Trade Unions was gaining considerable influence inside the new governmental machine. As Lozovsky told the congress, ACCTU was, immediately after the revolution, accorded 35 seats, from one-fourth to one-third of all seats on the Central Executive Committee of the Soviets, the highest legislative and executive body during the intervals between the All-Russian Congresses of the Soviets. [13] The trade unions were also invited to send their delegates to most of the other newly-formed governmental bodies. ACCTU was often prevented from accepting such invitations by shortage of personnel and it passed on the invitations to the central committees of particular trade unions.

In spite of all this, Lozovsky objected to Zinoviev’s description of trade unions as ‘organs of governmental power’:

... the trade unions would... lose very much... What would it mean for them to become ‘organs of state power'? This would mean that the decisions of the trade unions would be carried out by compulsion... that they would not be connected with the activity of the mass of productive workers. [14]

Coercion, Lozovsky went on, would take the place of spontaneous class solidarity. Under full socialism the statification of the trade unions would probably be justified, but Russia would become socialist only after the revolution had won in the West, and until then the trade unions should not allow themselves to be absorbed by the state. [15] This division between adherents and opponents of statification cut across normal party divisions: some Left Social Revolutionaries advocated the incorporation of the trade unions by the state more categorically than did the Bolsheviks. [16]

The resolution adopted by the congress reflected, at least in part, this conflict of views. [17] It rejected political neutrality of the trade unions as a ‘bourgeois idea’, for ‘there is and there can be no neutrality in the great historic struggle between revolutionary socialism and its opponents’. The trade unions pledged their support to the government in all essential matters:

The centre of gravity of trade-union work must now shift to the organisational-economic sphere... the trade unions ought to shoulder the main burden of organising production and of rehabilitating the country’s shattered productive forces. Their most urgent tasks consist in their energetic participation in all central bodies called upon to regulate output, in the organisation of workers’ control, registration and redistribution of labour force, organisation of exchange between town and countryside, in the most active participation in the demobilisation of industry, in the struggle against sabotage and in enforcing the general obligation to work, and so on.

The mere enumeration of these functions showed the trade unions as most important props of the new regime. Yet the Congress of the Trade Unions could not bring itself to declare that the trade unions would at once form part and parcel of the new administration — it spoke about their statification in vague and conditional terms:

As they develop [v razvernutom vide] the trade unions should, in the process of the present socialist revolution, become organs of socialist power, and as such they should work in coordination with, and subordination to other bodies in order to carry into effect the new principles...

The congress is convinced that in consequence of the foreshadowed process, the trade unions will inevitably become transformed into organs of the socialist state, and the participation in the trade unions will for all people employed in any industry be their duty vis-à-vis the state.

The resolution implied that in the nearest future the trade unions would be hybrid organisations, performing many vital functions for the state, but remaining outside the formal framework of the governmental machine. Two general principles seemed to have been accepted: (a) that in a socialist economy the state would completely incorporate the trade unions, and (b) that socialist economy was not yet in existence and the trade unions still had a role of their own to perform. But the main specific questions concerning that role were left open. The congress could not make up its mind, for instance, on whether the unions should continue to resort to strike action in defence of their members. A motion, tabled by Tsyperovich, a prominent Bolshevik trade unionist, which answered the question in the affirmative, was rejected. [18] On the other hand the Bolshevik Party with its fresh memories of its own pre-revolutionary activity was not ready to come out explicitly against strikes.

A number of administrative functions (’state-functions’ as Lenin put it) was transferred to the trade unions. A decree issued in December 1917 entrusted the unions with the administration of all social insurance schemes, even though this might as well have been the job of the newly-formed Commissariat of Labour, which it indeed became somewhat later. The Commissariat of Labour and the trade unions overlapped from the beginning, although Schmidt, the head of the Commissariat, was appointed on a proposal of the trade unions and was himself a trade unionist.

The trade unions further formed ‘control-distributive commissions’ whose task it was to exercise direct and indirect control over industry, through so-called local control commissions elected by workers in the workshops. The control-distributive commissions were half elected by the factory control commissions and half appointed by the trade unions. At that time, we know, the Soviet government was not yet committed to immediate and wholesale socialisation of industry. But privately-owned factories were under workers’ control, which, since the relegation of the factory committees, was carried out by the control-distributive commissions of the trade unions. A resolution on this subject stated inter alia that ‘it was the task of workers’ control to put an end to autocracy in the economic field just as an end has been put to it in the political field’. [19] Industrial management by committee as opposed to individual management was still the characteristically revolutionary feature of economic policy.

All forms of economic organisation were in utter flux, however; and so the prerogatives of the trade unions could not be clearly defined. More important still, the whole concept of workers’ control over industry (with private ownership still tolerated) was soon to be abandoned, under the pressure of civil war; and the trade unions had to adjust themselves to the needs of a new situation.

Trade Unions in the Civil War

When civil war flared up in 1918 the Bolsheviks possessed little more than the rudiments of an administrative machine of their own. The old army had disintegrated and a new one had to be formed. No governmental organisation existed capable of recruiting men for the Red Army and of insuring supplies. The Soviets were apparently not solid enough and the party itself was too small in numbers to cope with these tasks. The trade unions, whose nominal membership grew to 3.5 million in the first year of the fighting, transformed themselves into organs of civil war. It was mainly through them that the government assessed and mobilised manpower. The Central Council of the trade unions issued weekly progress reports on this work, and most trade unions formed special supply services for the Red Army. As the civil war dragged on the trade unions called up and armed 50 per cent of their own members.

The unions assumed an entirely new and enormous responsibility when the government, afraid that privately-owned industry would not work for the needs of the Red Army, speeded up the process of total socialisation, at first as a matter of military rather than of economic policy. Workers’ control, in the sense given to it in 1917, came to an end. Unexpectedly for both the Bolshevik Party and the trade unions, the ‘state functions’ of the latter expanded with enormous rapidity, even though the administration of social insurance, at this stage more nominal than real anyhow, was transferred back from the trade unions to the Commissariat of Labour in December 1918.

In line with this development the Second All-Russian Congress of Trade Unions (January 1919) placed more emphasis than did its predecessor on the ‘state functions’ of unions. The congress sanctioned the arrangements under which the unions had become at once military recruiting offices, supply services, punitive organs, and so on. Tomsky had no hesitation in stating:

At this moment when the trade unions regulate wages and conditions of labour, when the appointment of the Commissar for Labour, too, depends on our congress, no strikes can take place in Soviet Russia. [20]

Addressing the congress, Lenin spoke about the ‘inevitable statification of the trade unions’ and illustrated his point by saying that a Supreme Council of National Economy had just been set up primarily by the trade unions to direct the entire economy of the republic. ‘It is not enough to proclaim the dictatorship of the proletariat... it is necessary that the trade unions merge with the organs of state power and that they take over the entire large-scale economic construction...’ It was possible to argue over the pace of the merger, and Lenin held it to be a mistake to try and effect it ‘at a single stroke’. But the general trend of the development was — in Lenin’s view — beyond dispute. [21]

It would, nevertheless, be wrong to describe Lenin at this stage as an advocate of statification tout court. His view on the new trade unions was part of a wider conception of the Soviet state. He saw the trade unions as being incorporated by the state; but at the same time he kept on expounding his ideas about the ‘withering away’ of the state. The state was gradually to cease to be a distinct administrative machine separated from, opposed to and elevated above the people. Every shepherd, ‘every cook’ was to learn the business of government so that there should be no need for a special body of civil servants. The trade unions were to educate the mass of the workers in the arts of administration:

We must ever more broaden [these were Lenin’s words] the participation of the workers themselves in the direction of the economy... if we fail to convert the trade unions into organs educating the masses, on a scale ten times larger than at present, for the immediate participation in the direction of the state, then we shall not achieve our objective in building communism. [22]

However, the ‘withering away’ of the state, for all the doctrinal importance attached to this point, was a matter of the future, whereas the merger of trade unions and the administration was of urgent practical significance. But the implications of the merger were not clear. Were the trade unions to absorb the state or vice versa? So far this question had not even been posed: and the two variants of the merger were often confused. Sometimes the claim of the unions to dominate a particular branch of the administration was openly recognised, as in the case of the Commissariat of Labour. At the Second Congress of the Trade Unions Schmidt thus described the relationship between his commissariat and the trade unions:

The role of the commissariat... should be to give obligatory effect to the recommendations and plans worked out by the trade unions. Moreover, not only must the commissariat not interfere with the prerogatives of the unions, but even the organs of the commissariat... should, as far as possible, be formed by the trade unions themselves. Here, at the centre, we act consistently upon this principle. Not only does the All-Russian Central Council of the Trade Unions propose the candidate for the post of the People’s Commissar for Labour — the trade unions have also organised the entire leading team [collegium] of the commissariat. [23]

At this stage already a conflict that was to loom large in Soviet labour policy began to cast its shadow ahead. The Supreme Council of National Economy had begun to function. This was the nucleus of the new economic administration, gradually extending its control, through the so-called Glavki, the managements of national industrial trusts, over the whole field of industry. The trade unions had to be reorganised so that their vertical structure should correspond to that of the industrial administration. The apparatus of the Supreme Council of National Economy was, as we know, set up in cooperation with the trade unions, but it soon acquired an identity of its own. More and more often the trade unions and the Supreme Council of National Economy (VSNKh) came into conflict. The VSNKh was inclined to regard the unions as its auxiliaries, whereas at least some trade unionists held that the actual direction of industry was a prerogative of the unions. The conflict was aggravated when the VSNKh secured the cooperation of a number of technical specialists and old-time economic administrators, upon whom many trade unionists habitually looked with the utmost distrust. Here was clearly a great and dramatic conflict in the making.

‘Point Five’ of the 1919 Programme

An attempt to give a new programmatic definition to the position of the trade unions was made by the Communist Party at its Eighth Congress, in March 1919, when the party discussed and adopted a new programme.

In its ‘Economic Section’ (Point V) the new programme of the party stated:

The organisational apparatus of socialised industry ought to be based, in the first instance, on the trade unions. These ought progressively to free themselves from craft-like narrowness and transform themselves into large associations based on production and embracing the majority of the toilers in any branch of industry...

Participating already, in accordance with the laws of the Soviet Republic and established practice, in all local and central organs of industrial administration, the trade unions ought in the end actually to concentrate in their hands all the administration of the entire national economy... The participation of the trade unions in economic management... constitutes also the chief means of the struggle against the bureaucratisation of the economic apparatus... [24]

This paragraph, the famous Point V of the party programme, was to be invoked in later years by Bolshevik groups advocating the economic supremacy of the trade unions in the Soviet state. ‘Point V’ was, in the interpretation of those groups, the Magna Charta of the new trade unionism. And indeed, the view that ‘the trade unions ought in the end actually to concentrate in their hands all the administration of the entire national economy’ savoured of syndicalism, to which the Bolshevik Party, as a whole, had always been opposed. Lenin and the other Bolshevik leaders would soon have to do a lot of explaining away in order to invalidate this promissory note which the party so solemnly and authoritatively handed to the trade unions. In all probability, ‘Point V’ was a ‘syndicalist’ slip committed by the Bolshevik leadership in a mood of genuine gratitude to the trade unions for the work performed by them in the civil war. The 1919 programme, however, contained also other clauses which may be said to have cancelled out ‘Point V’ and limited, at any rate for the immediate future, the prerogatives of the trade unions by making labour policy a responsibility of the Soviets as well as of the unions:

Moreover, the Soviet government... has established in the Code of Labour Laws... the participation of labour organisations in the solution of problems of employment and release of labour... [it has established] state-regulated wages on the basis of tariffs worked out by trade unions... and organs for the assessment and distribution of the labour force, organs which are attached to Soviets and trade unions and are obliged to provide work for the unemployed. [25]

Other points of the programme also dealt with the role of the trade unions. ‘Point VI’ stated:

The next task of the economic policy of the Soviet government is... maximum utilisation of all available labour force, its correct distribution and redistribution as between various geographic areas and various branches of the national economy, a task which... [the Soviets] can accomplish only in close cooperation with the trade unions.

‘Point VII’:

In view of the disintegration of capitalist organisation of labour, the productive forces of the country can be rehabilitated and further developed and the socialist method of production can be enhanced only on the basis of comradely discipline among the toilers and of an utmost expansion of active citizenship [samodeyatelnost]... The attainment of this objective requires stubborn and systematic work for the re-education of the masses, which has now been made easier because the working masses see that the capitalists, landlords and merchants have in fact been eliminated. Through their own experience the masses arrive at the conviction that the standard of their well-being depends exclusively on their own disciplined work. In the creation of a new socialist discipline the main role falls to the trade unions. Abandoning old clichés... the trade unions ought to adopt and try out in practice... labour accountancy, norms of output, responsibility [of workers] before special comradely workers’ courts, etc.

In ‘Point VIII’ the programme urged the unions to impress upon the workers the need to work with, and learn from bourgeois technicians and specialists and to overcome the ‘ultra-radical’ distrust of the latter. The workers, it was stated, could not build socialism without going through a period of apprenticeship to the bourgeois intelligentsia. On social policy the programme stated inter alia:

Striving for equality of remuneration for every kind of work, striving for full communism, the Soviet government cannot set itself the task of bringing about that equality now, immediately, when only the first steps are being made in the transition from capitalism to communism.

Payment of high salaries and premiums to bourgeois specialists was therefore sanctioned. This was, according to an expression used by Lenin, the ransom which the young proletarian state had to pay the bourgeois-bred technicians and scientists for services with which it could not dispense. Wages to manual workers, however, were still regulated in a more or less egalitarian spirit. [26]

Although the programme and many other resolutions tried to clarify the position of the unions, the trade unions, the Supreme Council of National Economy, the Commissariat of Labour and the multiple organs of the Soviets continued to overlap and clash with one another. The more confused their mutual relations, the more strongly did the Communist Party insist on its own supreme control over all those bodies. This was exercised through the system of party cells inside the trade unions.

The Eighth Conference of the party (December 1919) worked out a statute which defined rigidly the rights and prerogatives of the cells. [27] The general idea of the statute was not new — it dated back to pre-revolutionary Bolshevik schemes of organisation. What was new was the elaborate detail of the scheme calculated to secure for the party a leading role in every organisation. These were the main provisions.

(a) Wherever at least three members of the party belonged to a trade union, they were obliged to form a cell (fraktsya — fraction) which was to take its orders from the corresponding regional or local party committee outside the trade union.

(b) If, inside a trade union, members of the party formed a fairly large group their fraktsya elected a bureau which was in charge of the entire party work inside the union.

(c) The fraktsya enjoyed autonomy vis-à-vis the party hierarchy in matters concerning the internal affairs of the fraktsya; but in case of a conflict between it and the party committee outside the trade union, the party committee had the last word. The party committee also had unrestricted right of appointment and dismissal: it could send any Communist, even if he was not a member of the trade union, to serve on the Communist fraktsya inside the trade union; and it could order any Communist to leave any office in the trade union to which he had been elected.

(d) The fraktsya proposed its candidates to trade-union offices in agreement with the local, regional or central committee of the party.

(e) The fraktsya, or its bureau, discussed and took preliminary decisions on every issue which was expected to be placed on the agenda of any trade-union body. Communist trade unionists were obliged to vote unanimously at the general meetings of the trade unions in accordance with decisions taken inside the fraktsya, but they were free to oppose those decisions during the preliminary discussion inside the fraktsya.

This system ran through the entire structure of the trade unions, from factory committee at the bottom to central committees of the trade unions and to the All-Russian Central Council of the Trade Unions at the top. [28] The Communist trade unionist was thus a Communist first and only then a trade unionist, and by his disciplined behaviour he enabled the party to lead the trade unions.

Individual Management and Labour Armies

The Ninth Congress of the party (March-April 1920) and the Third All-Russian Congress of the Trade Unions (April 1920) marked a new turn. The Bolshevik leaders then hoped that the civil war was at an end and that they would soon be free to turn towards the peaceful reconstruction of Russia’s ruined economy. This hope was deferred, for the Russo-Polish war and the campaign against General Wrangel were still ahead. Nevertheless, the Ninth Congress of the party sanctioned certain preparations for the transition to peace. The measures adopted were, as later developments showed, not always well suited to smooth that transition. The Bolshevik leaders were not fully aware of the vastness of the devastation and the chaos left behind by the civil war. Nor did they make sufficient allowance for the weariness of the urban working class and the discontent of the peasantry. By inertia they carried on with the system of military communism established during the civil war. The main features of this were: conscription of all available man-power and wealth; socialisation of all industrial property; prohibition of private trade; compulsory direction of labour; strict rationing of consumers’ goods; payment of wages in kind; and requisitioning of agricultural produce from the peasants (in lieu of taxation). The Ninth Congress foreshadowed the continuation and extension of these methods in time of peace. Two new measures stood in the centre of debate: (a) the introduction of individual management in industry in place of management by committee, prevalent hitherto; and (b) further militarisation of labour and formation of labour armies.

The substitution of individual for collective management in industry met with considerable opposition inside the trade unions, and its actual realisation was delayed until 1922. The motive for this reform was economic expediency. Management by committee was found to be inefficient; the need for greater industrial discipline had become painfully obvious; and greater efficiency could be secured by individual management. It is enough to recall that only recently the trade unions had proclaimed an end to ‘economic autocracy in industry’ to understand why the return to individual management could not but be decried by many trade unionists as the reappearance of that autocracy, even though the present managers were not the old industrialists or their nominees but directors appointed by the proletarian state. The authoritative spokesmen of the party — Lenin, Trotsky and Bukharin — met the objections to individual management with the argument that the standing of the working class, as the ruling class in the Soviet Republic, was not involved in this controversy over individual or collective management. The working class, they stated, would through its representative organs merely delegate its power of economic disposition to industrial managers:

Individual management does not in any degree limit or infringe upon the rights of the [working] class or the ‘rights’ of the trade unions, because the class can exercise its rule in one form or another, as technical expediency may dictate. It is the ruling class at large which in every case ‘appoints’ persons for the managerial and administrative jobs. [29]

A resolution submitted by Trotsky and adopted by the congress of the party did in fact allow the trade unions to exercise a very strong influence upon the appointment of industrial managers. The organisation of industrial management ‘should be carried out by agreement between the organs of the Supreme Council of National Economy and the corresponding organs of the Central Council of the Trade Unions’ [30]

Four types of industrial management were provided for.

(a) Intelligent and energetic trade unionists might be appointed to posts of industrial managers. This was the most favoured variant, but the difficulty was that not many trade unionists with managerial abilities were available.

(b) Bourgeois technicians or specialists might be appointed to managerial posts. A manager of this category was supervised by a trade-unionist commissar, in the same way in which the military specialist in the army was supervised by the political commissar, who could veto his orders.

(c) Alternatively, a bourgeois technician could be appointed as manager with two trade unionists as assistant managers, who could, however, exercise no veto over his decisions. (This was apparently the case when the bourgeois technician was beyond suspicion of hostility towards the Soviet regime.)

(d) Management by committee was left in existence if the work of the managerial team had been satisfactory, but even then the powers of the chairman of the team were extended.

Meanwhile it was the task of the trade unions to train their advanced members for managerial responsibilities. Special trade-union training centres were set up for this purpose.

The labour armies represented a more fundamental issue of economic and labour policy affecting the trade unions. The originator of the labour armies was Trotsky, but at that time (1920) his scheme had the backing of the entire party leadership. [31] It arose empirically, in connexion with the planned demobilisation of the Red Army. Towards the end of the civil war transport was completely paralysed, because of the destruction of rolling-stock and railway lines. It was impossible to release the soldiers and send them home. Entire divisions and armies wasted their time in inactivity, while industrial and in part agricultural production were at a standstill. It was then decided to employ idle detachments in coal-mining, timber-felling, harvesting, etc. Later the government proceeded to mobilise civilian labour as well — it was only a step from the employment of armed forces as labour battalions to the organisation of civilian labour into military units. In the aftermath of the civil war, amid its appalling misery and complete breakdown of labour discipline, the government hoped to break in this way what looked like a hopeless economic deadlock. [32]

At the Third Congress of the Trade Unions Trotsky defended the labour armies. His most vocal, though not the only, critics were the Mensheviks, who still enjoyed some freedom of expression and argued that militarisation of labour would lower and not raise productivity, for high productivity could be obtained with free labour only. The central point in Trotsky’s counter-argument was the denial of any real difference between voluntary and compulsory labour:

Let the Menshevik speakers explain to us [these were Trotsky’s words] what is meant by free, non-compulsory labour? We have known slave-labour, serf-labour, compulsory regimented labour in the medieval crafts, and the labour of free wage-earners which the bourgeoisie calls free labour. We are now heading towards the type of labour that is socially regulated on the basis of an economic plan, obligatory for the whole country, compulsory for every worker. This is the basis of socialism... The militarisation of labour, in this fundamental meaning of which I have spoken, is the indispensable, basic method for the organisation of our labour forces... If our new form of organisation of labour were to result in lower productivity, then, ipso facto, we would be heading for disaster... But is it true that compulsory labour is always unproductive? ... This is the most wretched and miserable liberal prejudice: chattel-slavery, too, was productive. Its productivity was higher than that of slave-labour, and in so far as serfdom and feudal lordship guaranteed the security of the towns... and of peasant labour, in so far it was a progressive form of labour. Compulsory serf-labour did not grow out of the feudal lords’ ill-will. It was a progressive phenomenon... The whole history of mankind is the history of its education for work, for higher productivity of labour. This is by no means so simple a task, for man is lazy and he has the right to be so... Even free wage-labour was not productive at first... it became so gradually after a process of social education. All sorts of methods were used for that education. The bourgeoisie at first drove the peasant out to the high roads and grabbed his land. When the peasant refused to work in the factories, the bourgeoisie branded him with hot iron, hanged or shot him and so forcibly trained him for manufacture... Our task is to educate the working class on socialist principles. What are our methods for that?

They are not less varied than those used by the bourgeoisie, but they are more honest, more direct and frank, uncorrupted by mendacity and fraud. The bourgeoisie had to pretend that its system of labour was free, and it deceived the simple-minded about the productivity of that labour. We know that every labour is socially compulsory labour. Man must work in order not to die. He does not want to work. But the social organisation compels and whips him into that direction. The new, socialist order differs from the bourgeois one in that with us labour is performed in the interest of society, and therefore we need no priestly, church-like, liberal or Menshevik recipes for raising the labour energy of the proletariat... The first way of disciplining and organising labour is to make the economic plan clear to the widest masses of the toilers. When we transfer a worker from one spot to another, when we call up the peasant for labour duty, those called up should first of all be convinced that they are not being called up for nothing, that those who have mobilised them have a definite plan, that a necessary economic job must be performed at the spot where the labour force has now been placed...

Wages, under present conditions, must not be viewed from the angle of securing the personal existence of the individual worker; they should above all serve to evaluate what that individual worker contributes to the workers’ republic. Wages should measure the conscientiousness, usefulness and efficiency of the work of every labourer. As long as we are poor, as long as we do not have enough food to satisfy minimum needs, we cannot distribute it equally to all workers, and we shall allocate consumers’ goods... to essential workers... We are obliged to act in this way for the sake of the country’s future and in order to save the working masses. [33]

This is, as far as we know, the frankest statement of what may conditionally be termed a totalitarian labour policy, perhaps the only attempt at a sociological and philosophical justification of such a policy that has ever been made in Russia or elsewhere. Trotsky proclaimed the unrestricted right of the proletarian state to use the labour power of the nation in the way it considered proper and the duty of the trade unions to concern themselves with the worker as a producer and not as a consumer. The trade unions ought to discipline the worker, to raise his efficiency, to get him interested in the management and organisation of industry rather than to defend his claims to higher wages and better working conditions. All these would no doubt become available with the growth of the national income earned by the socialised economy, and therefore the trade unions should preoccupy themselves with the national income rather than with the individual incomes of the workers. In view of all this — such was Trotsky’s as yet unspoken conclusion — the trade unions, in their old form, had played out their role. As producers’ organisations they would have little in common with the old trade unions, except the name.

In making his striking statements, Trotsky elevated an expedient to a principle, and, as so often happens, made an ideological virtue out of a bitter necessity. His immediate purpose was to justify the labour armies and to prove the inescapable need for them; but he could have easily done this on the ground that the labour armies were a desperate emergency measure, without necessarily proclaiming the unlimited right of the state permanently to conscript labour and without declaring militarisation of labour to be of the essence of socialist planning. In later years Trotsky himself became the strongest critic of a labour policy of which he had unwittingly been an inspirer. Trotsky’s philosophy of labour came to underlie Stalin’s practical labour policy in the 1930s, although Stalin and his adherents would for obvious reasons (and for one special reason to be discussed later) never admit it. Moreover, in Stalin’s practice Trotsky’s theory was not only embodied, but also exaggerated and brutalised ad absurdum.

From a Marxist viewpoint, Trotsky’s argument contained a half-truth only. Marxist economic theory, like any other sociological theory, does in fact stress the social necessity of labour. ‘Man must work in order not to die’ remains true under any social system. In this broad sense it is, of course, true that all labour is compulsory. But here the real problem only begins. Marx and his followers devoted their main attention to the differences of form which this compulsion of labour took under different social systems; and to these ‘differences of form’ they attached the greatest importance. In a society based on slave or serf labour the compulsion was direct, legal and political. It manifested itself in a social relationship under which the producer himself and/or his product or part of his product were owned by the slave-owner or the feudal lord. In the capitalist order the compulsion became indirect and purely economic. The wage-earner is legally and politically free. He must sell his labour power because, unlike the artisan or the peasant, he does not own his means of production, and because he must earn his living. Marx, bitterly as he criticised the capitalist order, repeatedly stressed the ‘progressive’ implications of this change from direct to indirect compulsion. That labour is free under capitalism is an illusion, but that illusion (and the modern worker’s ‘formal’ freedom on which it is based) has nevertheless heightened the self-confidence of the worker and helped to develop his mental faculties and human dignity. Without it the growth of modern industry and the consequent struggle of the working classes for socialism would hardly have been possible. [34] All Marxists, including the Bolshevik leaders, had hitherto taken it for granted that in comparison with capitalism socialism would ease, and not aggravate, the compulsion of labour and that it would thereby powerfully stimulate its productivity. What Trotsky now dismissed as a ‘wretched and miserable liberal prejudice’ — the view that compulsory labour was relatively unproductive — belonged in fact to the essence of Marxism. His statement — one of the exaggerations and over-simplifications of military communism — reflected no doubt the strains and stresses of the civil war; but it also suggested a continuation of the methods of war communism into peace. [35]

Throughout 1920 the trade unions were in a ferment. Opposition groups appeared at almost every level of the organisation. In the latter part of the year, after the conclusion of the Russo-Polish war, the repressed discontent broke into the open. The trade unions reacted against the interference of the party in their affairs, and they protested against the appointment and dismissal of trade-union officials by the party. The All-Russian Central Council of the Trade Unions split into two factions: one acted on the principle enunciated by Trotsky that the trade unions should view their tasks in the ‘productionist’ and not ‘consumptionist’ spirit, while the other faction, headed by Tomsky, insisted on the need for the trade unions to resume, in some measure, the defence of the interests of their members. In this conflict the Politbureau repeatedly intervened, first in favour of Trotsky (August 1920), then against him, until in November he was forbidden to debate the issue in public. [36]

The cause célèbre in this controversy was the Tsektran or the Central Committee of Transport. This body, headed by Trotsky, was formed at a time when the Russian railways had practically ceased to function, and its task was to revive the transport system. Endowed with wide emergency powers, Trotsky dismissed the leadership of the trade union of railwaymen, proclaimed a state of emergency in transport, militarised labour, and rapidly brought the railways into some working order. The feat was hailed, but Trotsky, carried away by his success, intimated that a ‘shake-up’ in other trade unions, similar to that which had taken place in the railwaymen’s union, was needed, to replace ‘irresponsible agitators’ by production-minded trade unionists. [37] This brought the trade unions to their feet and at the Fifth Trade-Union Conference (November 1920) Tomsky openly attacked Trotsky.

The Central Committee of the party, to which the dispute was referred, was itself divided on the issue. A resolution on the Tsektran adopted at a plenary session of the Central Committee was in part a rebuff to Trotsky. It ordered the disbandment of the so-called political departments in transport and called for the democratisation of the trade unions and for a stop to the practice of appointing from above officials who should be democratically elected to their posts. But on other essential points the Central Committee backed Trotsky:

The party ought to educate and support... a new type of trade unionist, the energetic and imaginative economic organiser who will approach economic issues not from the angle of distribution and consumption but from that of expanding production, who will view them not with the eyes of somebody accustomed to confront the Soviet government with demands and to bargain, but with the eyes of the true economic organiser. [38]

However, the debates in the Central Committee revealed so profound and many-sided a division of opinion among the Bolshevik chiefs that it was decided to put the whole matter to public debate. Extremely turbulent and confused, the debate lasted throughout the whole winter of 1920-21; it culminated in the Tenth Congress of the party (March 1921), one of the most dramatic assemblies in the history of Bolshevism.

The Trade-Union Controversy at the Tenth Party Congress

In the course of the pre-congress discussion a great number of factions and groups emerged, each with its own views and ‘theses’ on trade unions. The differences between some of those groups were very subtle indeed, and nearly all groups referred to so many common principles that sometimes the object of the debate seemed almost unreal. However, as the controversy unfolded various groups merged with one another, and in the end only three resolutions were put before the congress. One motion, put forward by Trotsky and Bukharin, urged the complete ‘statification’ of the trade unions. A motion emanating from the so-called Workers’ Opposition (its leader was the former Commissar of Labour, A Shlyapnikov) demanded the transfer of the entire economic administration to the trade unions. These were the two extreme attitudes. Lenin, backed by nine other members of the Central Committee, tried to strike a balance between the extremes — his set of resolutions was commonly referred to as the ‘Platform of the Ten’.

The Views of Trotsky-Bukharin: Trotsky now drew the logical conclusion from the statement on labour policy he had made at the Third Congress of the Trade Unions: [39] ‘The transformation of the trade unions into production unions — not only in name but in content and method of work as well — forms the greatest task of our epoch.’ [40] The educational work of the trade unions — Trotsky’s motion went on — should be focused on the participation of the workers in organising industry. Their struggle for better living conditions ought to be carried more and more into the sphere of economic organisation, and should be directed, for instance, towards raising the productivity of consumers’ industries. ‘... the union ought to embrace all workers... from the unskilled ones to the most qualified technicians, all subordinated to the regime of the proletarian class organisation. The union ought permanently to assess its membership from the angle of production and it should always possess a full and precise characterisation of the productive value of any worker...’. [41] It is necessary that the working masses be fully aware that their interests are best defended by those who raise the productivity of labour, rehabilitate the economy and increase the volume of material goods available. It was from this viewpoint, too, that the election of the leading bodies of the trade unions should be organised.

Trotsky’s motion further asserted that:

(a) The statification of the trade unions had in actual fact already been carried very far.

(b) The workers’ share in organising the national economy was insufficient.

(c) The gradual transfer of the economic administration to the trade unions, which the party programme of 1919 had promised, presupposed ‘the planned transformation of the unions into apparatuses of the workers’ state’. This, however, was to be achieved gradually, and not by a single juridical act. For the present, it was proposed that the trade unions and the economic administration should be overhauled so that their leading bodies, the Praesidiums of the Central Council of the Trade Unions and of the Supreme Council of National Economy, should have between one-third and one-half of their members in common. This was to put an end to the ‘alienation’ or antagonism between the trade unions and the economic administration, an ‘alienation’ on which Trotsky’s motion dwelt with considerable emphasis. The Central Council of the Trade Unions and the Supreme Council of National Economy were to hold joint sessions periodically. Personal union was also to be established between the two organisations in their lower grades. No doubt was left, however, that the trade unions should be subordinate to the economic administration, although it was proposed that they alone should be in charge of distribution and protection of labour and of regulation of wages and working conditions. The Commissariat of Labour, hitherto in charge of those matters, was to be disbanded altogether. It was further proposed that the unions should settle conflicts between the economic administration and the workers, acting as a sort of an arbitration body directly responsible to the government.

Finally, the position of industrial managers was at least in part to be determined by their standing with the trade unions. Bourgeois technicians and administrators who had become full members of a union were to be entitled to hold managerial posts, without supervision by commissars; those who were only candidates to trade-union membership could hold managerial posts but were to be supervised by commissars; and, lastly, politically unreliable persons could serve only as assistant managers on probation.

The wages policy of the statified trade unions should be guided by two principles: (a) shock competition (udarnichestvo) between workers at production; and (b) the levelling out of wages, at least in so far that premiums for high output should be paid out only after a real minimum wage had been secured to all workers. In this respect Trotsky had shifted his ground since the Third Congress of the Trade Unions, where he had more emphatically favoured differentiation of wages.

The Workers’ Opposition: The motion of the Workers’ Opposition was labelled by its opponents as syndicalist or anarcho-syndicalist. Explicitly or implicitly, it postulated the domination of the trade unions over the state, the abolition of the normal economic administration, and its substitution by the trade unions.

The Workers’ Opposition referred, of course, to ‘Point V’ of the 1919 programme and charged the leadership of the party with violating its pledges towards the trade unions:

In practice the leadership of the party and the governmental bodies have in the last two years systematically narrowed the scope of trade-union work and reduced almost to nil the influence of the working class associations in the Soviet state. [42]

The participation of the trade unions in industrial management meant in practice that the unions were used by the economic administration as reference bureaux or advisory bodies. Conflicts between trade unions, party committees and the economic authorities had dangerously piled up; and — the Workers’ Opposition claimed — the party and the economic authorities, having been swamped by bourgeois technicians and other non-proletarian elements, displayed outright hostility towards the trade unions, a hostility which reflected ‘bourgeois class hatred of the proletariat’.

The remedy for all these evils was ‘the concentration of industrial management in the hands of the trade unions’. The transition to the new system should begin from the lowest industrial unit and extend upwards. At the factory level the factory committee should regain the dominant position it had had at the beginning of the revolution. [43] This demand, it will be remembered, had been raised by anarcho-syndicalist elements in 1917, when it was bitterly opposed by the Bolshevik-led trade unions. To some extent, therefore, both Lenin and Trotsky were justified in describing the attitude of the Workers’ Opposition as anarcho-syndicalist.

The Workers’ Opposition proposed the following specific measures: the nominal parity of representation of trade unions and of the economic administration in various controlling bodies should be abolished in favour of predominantly trade-union control: ‘Not a single person is to be appointed to any administrative-economic post without the agreement of the trade unions.’ Candidatures proposed by the latter should be binding on the economic authorities. Officials recommended by the trade unions were to remain accountable for their conduct to the unions, who should also have the right to recall them from their posts at any time. This programme culminated in the demand that an ‘All-Russian Producers’ Congress’ be convened to elect the central management of the entire national economy. National congresses of separate trade unions were similarly to elect managements for the various branches of the economy. Local and regional managements should be formed by local trade-union conferences, while the management of single factories was to belong to the factory committees which were to remain part of the trade-union organisation.

Last but not least, the Workers’ Opposition proposed a radical revision of the wages policy in an extremely egalitarian spirit: money wages were to be progressively replaced by rewards in kind; the basic food ration was to be made available to workers without any payment; the same was to apply to meals in factory canteens, essential travelling facilities, and facilities for education and leisure, lodging, lighting, etc. No attempt was made to explain how this programme of full communism, theoretically designed for an economy of great plenty, was to be made to work amid the utter poverty of Russian society after the civil war. The only specific palliative suggested was that factories should run their own auxiliary farms to secure the supply of food to their workers. [44]

Platform of Ten’: The motion tabled by Lenin was the most elaborate and carefully balanced of all the resolutions placed before the congress. Its polemical edge was directed primarily against the Workers’ Opposition and only in the second instance against Trotsky — both Lenin and Trotsky made a common front against the Workers’ Opposition. The Leninist motion began with a verbal reaffirmation of the principles embodied in ‘Point V’ of the 1919 programme, promising the transfer of all economic administration to the trade unions. ‘The present situation’, the motion went on, ‘urgently requires that the trade unions should take a more direct part in the organisation of production not only through detailing their members to work in the economic administration but through the whole of their own machinery as well.’ But, apart from this, the whole tenor of the motion suggested the need for the strictest subordination of trade-union policy to the government. Nevertheless, the idea about the statification of the trade unions was described as erroneous on the ground that statification would not help to improve Russia’s economic position and that trade unions absorbed by the state would not be able to perform their proper functions. [45]

What were these functions? The trade unions were to provide a broad social base for the proletarian dictatorship exercised by the party. The need for that base was dictated by the peasant character of the country. The ruling class, the proletariat, was in a minority, which had to be effectively organised in order to be able to keep under steady political influence the vast peasant majority. The trade unions were, or should be, the broadest voluntary organisation of industrial workers. Absorbed by the state they would become a mere bureaucratic machine. The trade unions were further to be the ‘school of communism’ for their seven million members. Again and again it was pointed out that the Communist Party had only half a million people in its ranks, a minority within the proletarian minority. The Communists must not attempt to impose themselves as the government’s nominees upon the trade unions. Instead they should strive to be accepted by the mass of the trade unionists as its leaders on the strength of their merits and qualities of leadership. Only then could they hope to turn the trade unions into schools of communism for the entire working class.

Trotsky had insisted that the militarisation of labour was in the long run essential for the socialist reorganisation of economy. Against this the Leninist motion stressed that militarisation could not be regarded as a permanent feature of socialist labour policy. The proletarian dictatorship must use persuasion as well as coercion, and it ought carefully to balance the one against the other. Coercion was peculiar to the state, even though the state, too, must, wherever possible, try to attain its ends by persuasion. As a social organisation, distinct from the state, the trade unions were in their real element when they worked through persuasion, even though in exceptional cases they, too, might use coercion. It was normal for the state to appoint officials from above:

The reorganisation of the trade unions from above would be utterly inexpedient. The methods of a workers’ democracy, severely curtailed in the three years of the most savage civil war, ought to be re-established, in the first instance and on the widest possible scale, in the trade-union movement. It is necessary that the leading bodies of the trade unions should in actual fact be elected and broadly based.

The methods of coercion and command which had been used to such salutary effect in the Red Army during the civil war must not be extended to the field of economic policy. [46]

A similar balance ought to be struck between the productionist and the consumptionist viewpoints. The trade unions were to take part in the working out of economic plans; they were to propose candidates for administrative-economic jobs, although their proposals were to have the strength of recommendations only; they were to inspect, through specialised departments, the work of the economic administration, to keep account of industrial manpower and its distribution; they were to work out norms of output, this being their exclusive prerogative:

In view of the fact that the working out of norms of labour... has been concentrated in the trade unions... and that the protection of labour... ought to be entirely transferred to the trade unions, the congress considers it necessary that the departments for wage-rate fixing and protection of labour attached hitherto to the Commissariat of Labour... should be wound up and transferred to the All-Russian Central Council of Trade Unions. [47]

As ‘schools of labour discipline’ the trade unions were to establish ‘comradely’ disciplinary courts for trying offenders in open session. In addition, trade-union ‘plenipotentiaries’ were to supervise labour discipline in the factories and to supply daily reports to the trade unions.

The motion concluded with a proposal for an overhaul of the trade unions and the economic administration. At the time of the congress there existed 23 national trade unions which had replaced a much greater number of organisations in the previous period. A further reduction of the number of the national trade unions was envisaged, although it was admitted that this would have its disadvantages: while craft sectionalism had been overcome in the trade unions as they merged, every union had now to deal with many more economic authorities than before. The economic administration was therefore to be reorganised so that its structure should correspond to that of the trade unions.

As regards wages, the Leninist motion, too, declared the levelling of wages to be the ultimate objective, but more emphatically than the Trotskyist motion it rejected the extreme egalitarianism of the Workers’ Opposition. Wages policy was to be designed so as to ‘discipline labour and increase its productivity’. Workers’ emulation for higher output, so Lenin argued against Trotsky, could not be squared with equality in consumption. Since wages were paid in kind as well as in money, this implied the need for a differential rationing system to be worked out and put into effect by the joint efforts of the trade unions, the food offices and the industrial managements.

These then were the three motions that competed for acceptance by the Tenth Congress of the party. A comparison between these motions tends up to a point to obscure rather than to throw into relief the issue with which the congress tried to come to grips, because, for tactical reasons, the authors of every motion incorporated passages from their opponents’ motions and thereby blurred the real differences. Nor did the congress try to solve the problem of the trade unions only — the entire structure of the Soviet regime was at stake in this debate.

Proletarian Dictatorship, Proletarian Democracy and Trade Unions

The complete ruin of the Russian industry and the virtual dispersal of the industrial working class formed the background to this controversy. At the Fourth Congress of the Trade Unions (May 1921) Miliutin, rapporteur of the Supreme Council of National Economy, stated that the output of metal was only four per cent of prewar, while the volume of consumers’ goods was only 30 per cent. The cities were depopulated, Petersburg having less than three-quarters of a million inhabitants and Moscow only slightly more than a million. The industrial workers were fleeing from the town into the countryside; those who stayed behind produced very little and spent most of their time trading on the black markets. [48] The disorganisation of the entire economy and the demoralisation of the working class were further illustrated by statements, made at the Fourth Congress of the Trade Unions, that workers in factories were stealing 50 per cent of the goods produced and that the average worker could pay with his wage only one-fifth of his cost of living, being compelled to earn the rest by illicit trading. [49] Bukharin, addressing the congress on behalf of the party, stated:

The fundamental danger which now confronts us is that chaos is washing away the strength of the proletariat as a class in action... If this class becomes demoralised and hollowed out from inside, the problem is really very grave... The workers become petty traders. [50]

In the days of the Tenth Congress of the party, popular discontent flared up in the armed risings of Kronstadt, Tambov and other places in which disillusioned Bolsheviks as well as anti-Bolsheviks took part. For the first time the Bolshevik regime, having emerged triumphantly from the civil war, was really isolated, lacking support from the mass of the people.

Hitherto the entire Bolshevik conception of the Soviet regime and of the place of the trade unions in it had been based on the premise that at least the industrial working class stood solidly behind the revolution and would continue to do so. Now, three and a half years after the October Revolution, this premise was disproved by the facts. The crisis which ensued was reflected in the trade-union debate. Hitherto the Bolshevik Party had taken it for granted that proletarian dictatorship and proletarian democracy (as distinct from formal or bourgeois democracy), far from contradicting one another, were identical, or at least complementary: the dictatorship was suppressing the resistance of landlords and capitalists, but it was based on freedom of expression inside the working classes. Now a conflict arose between proletarian dictatorship and proletarian democracy. In the trade unions, that broadest mass organisation of the proletariat, this was felt most acutely. The Workers’ Opposition willy-nilly was the mouthpiece of that same popular discontent that had led even Bolsheviks to join in the Kronstadt rising. The emergence of that opposition inside the ruling party was itself a measure of the social disorganisation in the background. It represented a revolt inside the trade unions against dictation by the party and by the economic administration. In quasi-anarchist fashion it evoked the principle of proletarian democracy against the dictatorship.

Most Bolshevik leaders were dimly aware of the symptomatic significance of the Workers’ Opposition. But they held that the Opposition expressed the demoralisation of the working class, the psychology of the working man turned into the black-marketeer and incapable of any constructive attitude towards the new state. They were determined to maintain the proletarian dictatorship, of which they considered the Bolshevik Party to be the trustee, even though for the moment it lacked the democratic support of the proletariat; and they hoped that with economic recovery and political stabilisation the dictatorship would be able to base itself once again on proletarian democracy.

This then was the issue which underlay the controversy over the trade unions. The Workers’ Opposition argued in fact against the dictatorship of the party when it demanded that the entire management of the national economy be transferred to an All-Russian Congress of Producers:

We ought to shift [so Shlyapnikov, the leader of the Opposition, stated] the centre of our attention to the factories and workshops. There we ought to start with the organisation of our economy... At present communists are thrown out of the factory committees. The basis of our trade unions, the factory committees, acquire a non-party outlook because the rights that we [the party] leave to our trade unions and party cells are negligible. [51]

The spokesmen of the opposition blamed both Lenin and Trotsky as ‘economic militarisers’ and complained that for all their differences of views they had in fact made common cause against the opposition and the proletarian rank and file. On the other side, Zinoviev, who throughout these debates acted as Lenin’s mouthpiece, used the following significant argument against the demand for a Producers’ Congress:

At this Producers’ Congress which you want to be convened at this great moment [Zinoviev was referring to the Kronstadt rising still in progress] the majority will consist of non-party people. A good many of them will be Social Revolutionaries and Mensheviks. Should we hand over everything to them? To whom is it not clear that to put the question thus would be to stake the head of the entire proletarian movement? [52]

Trotsky put the issue with even greater bluntness:

The Workers’ Opposition has come out with dangerous slogans, making a fetish of democratic principles. They place the workers’ right to elect their representatives — above the party, as it were, as if the party were not entitled to assert its dictatorship even if that dictatorship temporarily clashed with the passing moods of the workers’ democracy.

It is necessary to create among us the awareness of the revolutionary historical birth-right of the party, which is obliged to maintain its dictatorship, regardless of temporary wavering in the spontaneous moods of the masses, regardless of the temporary waverings even in the working classes. This awareness is for us the indispensable unifying element. The dictatorship does not base itself at every given moment on the formal principle of a workers’ democracy, although the workers’ democracy is, of course, the only method by which the masses can be drawn more and more into political life.

When I argued that workers’ democracy should be subordinated to the criterion of the economic interest of the working class... Comrade Kamenev stated that in Trotsky’s eyes workers’ democracy is a conditional proposition. Of course it is, although it is not a conditional but a conditioned proposition. If we were to assume that workers’ democracy is unconditional, that it is above everything else, then Comrade Shlyapnikov would have been right when, in his first draft, he stated that every factory should elect its own management, that every district conference of producers should elect its leading bodies, and so forth up to the All-Russian Producers’ Congress. [53]

In conclusion Trotsky suggested that the party should, for the time being, cease to advocate and practice proletarian democracy, and that instead it should concentrate on building up a ‘producers’ democracy’. A regime based on publicly-owned industry, producing not for profit but for the satisfaction of social needs, was by definition proletarian, even though the working class was temporarily in virtual opposition to it. That regime represented the general interest of the proletariat, as distinct from sectional or temporary benefits. The state (or the party) had therefore the right to impose its policies upon the working class. This determined the attitude of the party towards the trade unions. The latter ought to be made to serve the workers’ state; they were not entitled to confront that state with traditional claims and demands.

At this point begins the real difference between Trotsky and Lenin. Taking up an argument which had first been advanced by the Menshevik Martov in 1918, Lenin now dismissed as a false syllogism the view that the trade unions had nothing to defend against the workers’ state. The Soviet state of the day, he said, was not a workers’ state. It was a state of workers and peasants; and in addition it had been ‘bureaucratically deformed’. The position was therefore more complex than Trotsky (or Bukharin) had described it. The workers were, of course, bound in duty to defend that state, and this must determine the attitude of the trade unions towards it. The unions should not indulge in systematic opposition; they must adopt a constructive attitude towards the state. But the workers were still bound to defend themselves from the state, because: (a) its policy might at times be the resultant of conflicting pressures from peasants and workers, and (b) elements of arbitrary bureaucratic rule might necessitate such acts of defence on the part of the workers. The trade unions should therefore have a measure of autonomy vis-à-vis the government. Nor should adherence to the trade unions be made compulsory for the workers, as Trotsky had suggested. ‘First of all’, Lenin again pleaded, ‘we ought to try and prevail by persuasion and only then by coercion.’ [54] Lenin as much as Trotsky, however, insisted on the ‘revolutionary historical birth-right of the party’ and on the need for the trade unions to accept the party’s guidance. The difference was one of emphasis: Trotsky dwelt more on the party’s supremacy, whereas Lenin placed the greater stress on the democratic, voluntary, ‘educational’ character of the trade unions.

The difference was one of precept, not of practice. Immediately the party leadership as a whole was determined to overrule the trade unions. This was soon illustrated by a striking incident, when the Central Committee of the party demoted the most prominent Bolshevik trade unionist, Tomsky, from the trade-union leadership. Such demotions were later to occur with some frequency; and the procedure adopted was as follows: the decision of the Central Committee of the party about the dismissal of, say, Tomsky, was conveyed not strictly to the All-Russian Council of Trade Unions (of which Tomsky had been the chairman) but to the Communist fraktsya or cell within that council. The members of the fraktsya were bound by the statutes of the party to act on instructions from the Central Committee. The fraktsya then placed a proposal for a change in the leadership before the plenary session of the Trade-Union Council. The non-party members of the council might insist on retaining Tomsky as leader of the trade unions, but they could hardly carry the day. The entire fraktsya, including Tomsky, would vote for the proposal embodying the party’s instruction. In this way the party could almost always impose its will. [55]

For all that, Lenin’s insistence on relative autonomy for the trade unions was not without significance. In the combination of coercion and persuasion which Lenin envisaged, he aimed at progressively reducing the share of the former and increasing that of the latter. He hoped that economic recovery would enable the ruling party to reinfuse proletarian democracy into the proletarian dictatorship and to restore a wide measure of free expression of working-class opinion. Whether this was practicable or not is, of course, a different question — there were enough symptoms already to show that ce n'est que le provisoire qui dure. But in his motion on the trade unions Lenin was anxious to underline the provisional character of the curtailment of workers’ rights.

His motion was accepted by an overwhelming majority at the congress. For it there voted 336 delegates as against 50 who voted for Trotsky’s motion and only 18 for the Workers’ Opposition. The actual division of opinion was deeper and wider than the vote suggested. The Leninist attitude, because of its moderate and inconclusive character, was acceptable to various groups in the party: to the economic administrators who wished for greater submission on the part of the trade unions, and to trade unionists anxious to obtain more elbow room. Whatever the motives, the view that the trade unions should not be swallowed up by the state but that they should voluntarily cooperate with it obtained the sanction of the congress. Since this conception was associated with Lenin’s name and since Lenin himself never revised it (a year later illness removed him from the stage), it became part of the Leninist orthodoxy, which came to be established after his death, that the trade unions should remain a non-governmental, a non-state organisation. This could have some reality, in the long run, only if the state had become more democratic, if the idea at least of proletarian democracy had made genuine progress. This was not to happen. As we shall see later, in practice Trotsky’s formula came to govern the position of the trade unions in later years, in the period of planned economy. To all intents and purposes the unions then became part of the governmental machinery. In theory, however, Lenin’s formula, unrevised, was to remain in force.


1. I Vserossiiskii Syezd Profsoyuzov (First All-Russian Congress of Trade Unions, Moscow, 1918), p 10.

2. VKP (b) o Profsoyuzakh (All-Union Communist Party on Trade Unions, second edition, Moscow, 1940), p 62.

3. At the First All-Russian Conference of Factory Committees which opened a few days before the October Revolution, Schmidt, the future Commissar for Labour in Lenin’s government, stated: ‘At the moment when the factory committees were formed the trade unions actually did not yet exist, and the factory committees filled the vacuum.’ Later on, after the trade unions gained in strength, ‘control from below’ was exercised by the factory committees (see Oktyabrskaya Revolutsiya i Fabzavkomy (The October Revolution and the Factory Committees), Volume 2 (Moscow, 1927), p 188). Another speaker stated at the conference: ‘... the growth of the influence of the factory committees has naturally occurred at the expense of centralised economic organisations of the working class such as the trade unions... This, of course, is a highly abnormal development which has in practice led to very undesirable results...’ (Ibid, p 190) Against this an anarchist speaker argued: ‘The trade unions wish to devour the factory committees. There is no popular discontent with the factory committees, but there is discontent with the trade unions... To the workers the trade union is a form of organisation imposed from without. The factory committee is closer to them... Anarchists think that they should set up and develop the cells of future society... The factory committees are such cells of the future... They, not the state, will now administer...’ (Ibid, p 191) The anarchist influence in the factory committees was fairly strong at that time, but the antagonism between Bolshevism and anarchism was still largely hidden. In the first half of 1917 the Mensheviks, dominating the trade unions, tried in vain to bring the factory committees under control. The Bolsheviks then juxtaposed the factory committees to the trade unions and so they had some common ground with the anarchists (ibid, p 104). The Bolshevik attitude changed later in the year when, having gained the decisive influence in the trade unions, they sought to subordinate the factory committees to the trade unions.

4. This was the first fully-fledged trade-union congress in the whole history of Russia. In 1905 and 1906 and then in the summer of 1917 only conferences of active trade unionists but not of elected delegates took place.

5. See Tomsky’s Preface to I Vserossiiskii Syezd Profsoyuzov (First All-Russian Congress of Trade Unions, Moscow, 1918).

6. I Vserossiiskii Syezd Profsoyuzov (First All-Russian Congress of Trade Unions, Moscow, 1918), p 11.

7. I Vserossiiskii Syezd Profsoyuzov (First All-Russian Congress of Trade Unions, Moscow, 1918), p 80.

8. I Vserossiiskii Syezd Profsoyuzov (First All-Russian Congress of Trade Unions, Moscow, 1918), p 27.

9. I Vserossiiskii Syezd Profsoyuzov (First All-Russian Congress of Trade Unions, Moscow, 1918), p 75.

10. This is a literal translation of the Russian word used throughout this controversy, for which there is no suitable English equivalent.

11. I Vserossiiskii Syezd Profsoyuzov (First All-Russian Congress of Trade Unions, Moscow, 1918), p 29.

12. I Vserossiiskii Syezd Profsoyuzov (First All-Russian Congress of Trade Unions, Moscow, 1918), p 31.

13. I Vserossiiskii Syezd Profsoyuzov (First All-Russian Congress of Trade Unions, Moscow, 1918), p 35. The Central Executive Committee of the Soviets consisted of 101 members in November 1917, immediately after the revolution. Through cooption and additional elections their number grew to 200 in the course of 1918.

14. I Vserossiiskii Syezd Profsoyuzov (First All-Russian Congress of Trade Unions, Moscow, 1918), p 97.

15. I Vserossiiskii Syezd Profsoyuzov (First All-Russian Congress of Trade Unions, Moscow, 1918), p 197.

16. I Vserossiiskii Syezd Profsoyuzov (First All-Russian Congress of Trade Unions, Moscow, 1918), p 128.

17. I Vserossiiskii Syezd Profsoyuzov (First All-Russian Congress of Trade Unions, Moscow, 1918), pp 364ff.

18. I Vserossiiskii Syezd Profsoyuzov (First All-Russian Congress of Trade Unions, Moscow, 1918), p 367.

19. I Vserossiiskii Syezd Profsoyuzov (First All-Russian Congress of Trade Unions, Moscow, 1918), pp 369-72.

20. II Vserossiiskii Syezd Profsoyuzov (Second All-Russian Congress of Trade Unions, Moscow, 1919), p 96. This change in the trade unions, even though it had been caused by the civil war, did not fail to provoke ferment in the Bolshevik Party. At the Second Trade-Union Congress, Lozovsky, having left the party, spoke as an independent ‘internationalist’ against Bolshevik policy in the unions (ibid, p 37).

21. II Vserossiiskii Syezd Profsoyuzov (Second All-Russian Congress of Trade Unions, Moscow, 1919), pp 31-32.

22. II Vserossiiskii Syezd Profsoyuzov (Second All-Russian Congress of Trade Unions, Moscow, 1919), p 33. The same idea was expressed in the debate by Ryazanov: ‘But our ideal is not further statification but the de-statification of the entire social life.’ (Ibid, p 39)

23. II Vserossiiskii Syezd Profsoyuzov (Second All-Russian Congress of Trade Unions, Moscow, 1919), p 47. The congress adopted a special resolution urging close cooperation between the provincial branches of the two bodies, for in the provinces their relations had by no means been smooth.

24. VKP (b) o Profsoyuzakh (All-Union Communist Party on Trade Unions, second edition, Moscow, 1940), p 95, my italics.

25. VKP (b) o Profsoyuzakh (All-Union Communist Party on Trade Unions, second edition, Moscow, 1940), p 105.

26. VKP (b) o Profsoyuzakh (All-Union Communist Party on Trade Unions, second edition, Moscow, 1940), pp 95-102.

27. VKP (b) o Profsoyuzakh (All-Union Communist Party on Trade Unions, second edition, Moscow, 1940), pp 109-10.

28. This system of cells was built up in every non-party organisation, not only in the trade unions.

29. VKP (b) o Profsoyuzakh (All-Union Communist Party on Trade Unions, second edition, Moscow, 1940), p 128.

30. VKP (b) o Profsoyuzakh (All-Union Communist Party on Trade Unions, second edition, Moscow, 1940), p 117.

31. In later years it became the fashion to decry the labour armies and to suggest that Trotsky exclusively was responsible for them. Yet Stalin himself served as the chairman of the Ukrainian Council of the Labour Army, while Trotsky, as chairman of the Council of Labour and Defence, headed the all-Russian organisation.

32. In his report to the Third Congress of the Trade Unions, Rykov, then chief of the Supreme Council of National Economy, stated that because of lack of fuel not a single furnace was in operation in the entire Donets Basin. The output of the Donets coal mines was only about 300,000 tons a month, about 10 per cent of prewar. The entire output of the steel industry was less than five per cent of prewar. Only six per cent of all textile spindles were in operation (III Vserossiiskii Syezd Profsoyuzov (Third All-Russian Congress of Trade Unions, Moscow, 1920), p 80).

33. III Vserossiiskii Syezd Profsoyuzov (Third All-Russian Congress of Trade Unions, Moscow, 1920), pp 87, 96.

34. In a famous footnote to Capital Marx wrote: ‘This is one of the circumstances that makes production by slave labour such a costly process. The labourer here is, to use a striking expression of the ancients, distinguishable only as instrumentum vocale, from an animal as instrumentum semi vocale, and from an implement as instrumentum mutum. But he himself takes care to let both beast and implement feel that he is none of them, but is a man. He convinces himself with immense satisfaction that he is a different being, by treating the one unmercifully and damaging the other con amore. Hence the principle, universally applied in this method of production, only to employ the rudest and heaviest implements and such as are difficult to damage owing to their sheer clumsiness. In the slave states bordering on the Gulf of Mexico, down to the date of the civil war, ploughs constructed on old Chinese models, which turned up the soil like a hog or a mole, instead of making furrows, were alone to be found.’

35. Trotsky, however, was justified in claiming that he had urged the Politbureau to end military communism as early as February 1920 but that his advice had been rejected. He revealed this at the Tenth Congress in the presence of Lenin and other Bolshevik leaders, without being contradicted (X Syezd RKP (b) (Moscow, 1921), pp 191-92). Since it had been decided to continue with military communism, militarisation of labour was inescapable; and Trotsky drew the conclusions of a decision taken against his advice.

36. X Syezd RKP (b) (Moscow, 1921), pp 214-15.

37. X Syezd RKP (b) (Moscow, 1921), p 214.

38. Quoted from G Zinoviev, Sochinenia, Volume 6 (Moscow, 1924-26), pp 599-600.

39. The ‘Trotskyist’ motion was signed by the following members of the Central Committee: Trotsky, Bukharin, Andreev, Dzerzhinsky, Krestinsky, Preobrazhensky, Rakovsky, Serebriakov. Among prominent Bolsheviks who backed it were Pyatakov, F Kon, Larin and Sokolnikov. In the motion submitted to the congress Trotsky’s view appeared in a diluted form. In the pre-congress discussion he had urged full and immediate statification of the trade unions, but then he softened his attitude, in part under the influence of Lenin’s severe criticism and in order to facilitate coalition with Bukharin’s so-called ‘buffer group’, which had taken an intermediate position between Lenin and Trotsky.

40. X Syezd RKP (b) (Moscow, 1921), p 454.

41. The Trotskyist motion, of course, presupposed compulsory membership of trade unions, which had actually been in force throughout the period of military communism. In practice, the workers and employees of a factory ‘collectively’ adhered to a union, and the individual worker or employee had no right to secede. This explained the phenomenal growth of the trade-union membership during the civil war. According to figures given by Zinoviev at the Tenth Congress the membership was 1.5 million in July 1917, 2.6 million in January 1918, 3.5 million in 1919, 4.3 million in 1920 and 7.0 million in 1921. Another reason for this expansion in membership was the inclusion in the trade unions of all employees, civil servants, and professional men who had not been organised before the revolution (X Syezd RKP (b) (Moscow, 1921), pp 187-88).

42. X Syezd RKP (b) (Moscow, 1921), p 360.

43. X Syezd RKP (b) (Moscow, 1921), pp 361-62

44. Before the congress another opposition group, the so-called Group of Democratic Centralism or Decemists (Bubnov, Sapronov, Ossinsky and others), advocated similar views. At the congress, however, the Decemists withdrew their ‘Theses’ and stated that they would not take part in the ‘shadow-boxing’ over the trade unions, for the real problem was how to bring the party back to democratic ways. Compared with this the position of the trade unions was a secondary issue.

45. VKP (b) v Rezolutsiyakh (Resolutions of the All-Union Communist Party), Volume 1 (fifth edition, Moscow, 1936), pp 381.

46. VKP (b) v Rezolutsiyakh (Resolutions of the All-Union Communist Party), Volume 1 (fifth edition, Moscow, 1936), pp 381. The Leninist motion enumerated the tasks of the trade unions as follows: (a) To study systematically the work of the economic administration. (b) To exercise functions of control and inspection. (c) To participate in the working out of economic plans and production programmes and in the fixing of economic priorities. (d) To study labour processes from the technical angle. (e) To take part in building up the machinery of economic administration. (f) To watch closely over the assessment and distribution of the manual labour force and technical skill and over the correct utilisation of raw materials and fuels. (g) To work out ways and means of combating infringements of labour discipline. (h) To analyse the accumulating technical experience which should be communicated and exchanged at meetings of workers’ delegates, in factory committees, etc, with the purpose of immediate utilisation of that experience by the economic administration. The trade unions were to form specialised economic departments to deal with those matters.

47. VKP (b) v Rezolutsiyakh (Resolutions of the All-Union Communist Party), Volume 1 (fifth edition, Moscow, 1936), pp 385.

48. IV Vserossiiskii Syezd Profsoyuzov (Fourth All-Russian Congress of Trade Unions, Moscow, 1920), pp 72-77.

49. IV Vserossiiskii Syezd Profsoyuzov (Fourth All-Russian Congress of Trade Unions, Moscow, 1920), p 119.

50. IV Vserossiiskii Syezd Profsoyuzov (Fourth All-Russian Congress of Trade Unions, Moscow, 1920), p 22.

51. X Syezd RKP (b) (Moscow, 1921), pp 213-14.

52. X Syezd RKP (b) (Moscow, 1921), p 190.

53. X Syezd RKP (b) (Moscow, 1921), p 192.

54. X Syezd RKP (b) (Moscow, 1921), p 208.

55. One of the charges made against Lenin and Trotsky by Shlyapnikov was that they systematically abused the fraktsyas inside the trade unions to overrule the opinion of Bolshevik trade unionists (X Syezd RKP (b) (Moscow, 1921), p 212).