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


This essay attempts to describe and analyse the role and outlook of the Soviet trade unions, the various phases of their evolution since the Bolshevik upheaval of 1917, and the functions they have performed in the planned economy of the USSR. It also attempts to explain to what extent the Soviet trade unions defend or fail to defend the interests of their members vis--vis the employer-state and in what relation they stand towards the Communist Party.

The material for this monograph has been drawn mainly from Russian sources such as the verbatim reports of the congresses of Soviet trade unions and of the Communist Party, the Russian trade-union press, and the decrees and resolutions of government and party bearing on labour policy. The viewpoints expressed by oppositions of every shade are discussed here alongside the official Soviet attitudes. Soviet literature on this subject provided a wealth of information throughout the first decade or so after the revolution, when trade unionism was often the subject of dramatic controversy inside the Bolshevik Party, although even then the facts and data published were not always reliable. Since the late 1920s, however, the sources of information have been progressively drying up. The monolithic nature of the regime has precluded any frank and honest discussion of this as of most other issues. Stalinist orthodoxy, propagandist distortion and habitual secrecy have combined to surround even so utterly prosaic an institution as the trade unions with a thick web of legend and myth.

This web, however, has every now and then been brushed aside for a moment by the rude fist of administrative or economic necessity, which has compelled government and party to issue decrees, instructions or orders regulating the work of the trade unions. These decrees and instructions, especially when they are read and analysed in the light of preceding controversies, those that took place in the 1920s, help the student to obtain a picture of the real structure and functions of the trade unions.

The limitations of the source materials that are available make it impossible at present to attempt a comprehensive history of Soviet trade unions. This monograph does not pretend to offer a systematic historical narrative. The documentation is enough to enable us to record and analyse the crucial features of the trade unions and to define their place in Soviet labour policy. From this description and analysis the reader should be able to gauge to what extent the Soviet trade unions have developed away from, not only the patterns of trade unionism outside the USSR, but also from the standards once set for it by the Bolshevik leaders themselves. This ‘deviation’ has reflected more than the arbitrary whims of the leaders, even though there has been no lack of arbitrary decisions and practices. The functions of Soviet ‘trade unionism’ have been organically connected with the peculiar type of planned economy which has grown up, or has been built up, in the economically-primitive and socially-backward environment of the Soviet Union since the late 1920s. Only in the context of that economy and that environment can the strange evolution of the trade unions be understood. The author has therefore been compelled occasionally to stray away, at least seemingly, from his proper topic into the vast field of general Soviet economics, but he has tried to limit such excursions to the minimum consistent with the nature of the subject and its understanding.

A few words of explanation are perhaps needed about the manner in which the various phases of Soviet trade unionism have been treated. The trends that came to light in the early years of the Soviet regime are discussed in greater detail than subsequent developments, so that the reader may get the impression of a certain chronological incongruity. Unfortunately, this could not be avoided. It is not only that the documentation on the early years is more abundant; those years were also in every sense the formative period of Soviet trade unionism. It was then that conflicting theories of labour policy and conceptions of trade unionism openly clashed in public debate. Some of those theories and conceptions were very shrewd, if not fully conscious, anticipations of the present condition of Soviet trade unionism. In later years the whole issue was drowned in floods of dull, uninformative propaganda. Thus, the stormy trade-union debates of 1921-22 still tell us much more about the principle underlying the present outlook of the trade unions than do the reports of their most recent congress, that of April 1949. It is therefore proper to keep the searchlight closer and longer on some nearly forgotten but still highly instructive episodes than on a recent event from which we can learn very little. Incidentally, the full significance of the early formative phases of Soviet trade unionism has become apparent only in the light of much later developments; and so far it has not been critically analysed in that light either in the Soviet Union or elsewhere. For these reasons, chronological balance has up to a point been sacrificed to the analytical purpose of this study.

I should like to express my thanks to the research and library staff of the Royal Institute of International Affairs, and especially to Mrs Jane Degras and Mrs Margaret Dewar, who have read my manuscript and have offered their helpful criticisms.