V. I.   Lenin

Trade-Union Neutrality[5]

Published: Proletary, No. 22, (March 3) February 19, 1908. Published according to the text in Proletary.
Source: Lenin Collected Works, Progress Publishers, 1972, Moscow, Volume 13, pages 460-469.
Translated: Bernard Isaacs
Transcription\Markup: R. Cymbala
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In the previous issue of Proletary we published the resolution of our Party Central Committee on trade unions.[6] In reporting the resolution, Nash Vek[7] added that it had been adopted unanimously in the C.C., as the Mensheviks voted for it in view of the concessions it contains compared with the original Bolshevik draft. If this report is true (the defunct Nash Vek was in general exceptionally well informed about everything relating to Menshevism), it only remains for us to heartily welcome the big step towards united Social-Democratic activity in such an important field as the trade unions. The concessions referred to by Nash Vek are quite insignificant, and do not in the least affect the basic principles of the Bolshevik draft (which, incidentally, was published in Proletary, No. 17, October 20, 1907, along with a lengthy article in support of it, entitled “The Trade Unions and the Social-Democratic Party”).

Our whole Party, consequently, has now recognised that work in the trade unions must be conducted not in the spirit of trade-union neutrality but in the spirit of the closest possible relations between them and the Social-Democratic Party. It is also recognised that the partisanship of the trade unions must be achieved exclusively by S.D. work within the unions, that the S.D.’s must form solid Party units in the unions, and that illegal unions should be formed since legal ones are impossible.

There can be no doubt that Stuttgart has been strongly instrumental in bringing the two factions of our Party closer together on the question of the nature of our work in the trade unions. The Stuttgart Congress resolution, as Kautsky pointed out in his report to the Leipzig workers,   puts an end to recognising the principle of neutrality. The high degree to which class contradictions have developed, their aggravation latterly in all countries, the long experience of Germany (where the policy of neutrality strengthened opportunism in the trade unions without preventing the appearance of special Christian and Liberal unions), and the widening of that special area of proletarian struggle which requires joint and concerted action by both the unions and the political party (the mass strike and the armed uprising in the Russian revolution, as the prototype of likely forms of the proletarian revolution in the West)—all these things have cut the ground from under the neutrality theory.

Among the proletarian parties the question of neutrality is unlikely now to evoke any serious controversy. The case is different with the non-proletarian quasi-socialist parties like our Socialist-Revolutionaries, who are in fact the extreme Left wing of the revolutionary bourgeois party of intellectuals and progressive peasants.

It is highly characteristic that in our country the only people to defend the idea of neutrality after Stuttgart have been the Socialist-Revolutionaries and Plekhanov. And they have done so very unsuccessfully.

In the last issue of the Socialist-Revolutionary Party organ, Znamya Truda (No. 8, December 1907), we find two articles devoted to the trade-union movement. In those articles the S.R.’s attempt primarily to ridicule the statement of the Social-Democratic newspaper, Vperyod,[8] that the Stuttgart resolution settled the question of the Party’s attitude to the trade unions along the same lines as the London resolution, namely, in the Bolshevik spirit. Our answer is that in the very same issue of Znamya Truda the S.R.’s themselves cited facts which prove such an assessment to be absolutely correct.

It was at that time, too,” writes Znamya Truda, referring to the autumn of 1905, “and it is a characteristic fact, that the three Russian socialist factions: the Menshevik Social-Democrats, the Bolshevik Social-Democrats, and the S.R.’s, first met face to face to state their views on the trade-union movement. The Moscow Bureau, which was instructed to select from its midst a central bureau for convening a congress (of trade unions), organised a big meeting of worker   trade-unionists at the Olympia Theatre.[1] The Mensheviks put forward a classically Marxist, strictly orthodox delimitation between the aim of the Party and that of the trade unions. ‘The task of the S.D. Party is to establish the socialist system and abolish capitalist relations; the task of the trade unions is to improve working conditions within the framework of the capitalist system, so as to secure for labour advantageous conditions for the sale of its labour-power’; the conclusion drawn was that the trade unions are non-partisan, and that they embrace all workers of a given occupation’.[2]

The Bolsheviks argued that at the present time there could not be a strict separation of politics from occupation, and hence drew the conclusion that ‘there must be close unity between the Social-Democratic Party and the trade unions, which it must lead’. Finally, the S.R.’s demanded that the unions be strictly non-partisan, in order to avoid a split in the ranks of the proletariat, but rejected any narrowing down of the tasks and activities of the trade unions to a limited sphere, formulating this task as an all-out struggle against capital, and therefore as both an economic and a political struggle.”

That is how Znamya Truda itself describes the facts! And only a person who is blind or totally incapable of thinking can deny that of these three viewpoints it is the one that speaks of close unity between the Social-Democratic Party and the unions that “is confirmed by the Stuttgart resolution, which recommends close ties between the Party and the trade unions.”[3]

To confuse this perfectly clear issue, the S.R.’s, in the most diverting manner, mixed up the independence of the   trade unions in the economic struggle with their non-party character. “The Stuttgart Congress,” they write; “definitely stood also for the independence (the non-partisanship) of the unions, i.e., rejected the viewpoint of both the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks.” This conclusion is drawn from the following words in the Stuttgart resolution: “Each of the two organisations [the Party and the trade union] has its own sphere, determined by its nature, and within which it must act quite independently. At the same time, however, there is an ever expanding sphere,” and so on, as quoted above. Yet we find wags who mixed up this demand for the “in dependence” of the trade unions in the “sphere determined by their nature” with the question of the non-partisanship of the unions or their close alignment with the Party in the political sphere and in dealing with the tasks of the socialist revolution!

In this way our S.R.’s completely suppressed the fundamental issue of the appraisal of the “neutrality” theory, a theory that in fact serves to strengthen the influence of the bourgeoisie over the proletariat. In place of this fundamental issue, they preferred to speak only of the specifically Russian situation where there are several socialist parties, and did so in such a way as to throw a false light on what happened at Stuttgart. “One cannot argue that the Stuttgart resolution is hazy,” writes Znamya Truda, “for Mr. Plekhanov removed all haziness and doubt when he addressed the International Congress as the Party’s official representative; and so far no statement has been issued by the Central S.D. Committee that ‘such a statement by Comrade Plekhanov disorganises the ranks of the united party...’"

Gentlemen of the S.R. Party! You are entitled, of course, to speak ironically about our C.C. having called Plekhanov to order. You are entitled to think that one can respect, say, a party which officially does not condemn Mr. Gershuni’s pro-Cadet conduct. But why tell a plain untruth? Plekhanov was not the representative of the S.D. Party at the Stuttgart Congress, but only one of its 33 delegates. And what he represented was the views not of the S.D. Party but of the present Menshevik opposition to that Party and to its London decisions. The S.R.’s cannot but be aware of this, which means they are telling a deliberate untruth.

“... In the committee that examined the question of the relations between the trade unions and the political party, he [Plekhanov] literally said the following: ‘There are 11 revolutionary organisations in Russia; with which of them should the trade unions align themselves?... Introducing political differences into the trade unions in Russia would he harmful’. In answer to this the members of the committee all unanimously declared that the Congress resolution must not be interpreted in that way, that they ‘do not by any means oblige the trade unions and their members to join the S.D. Party’, that they, as stated in the resolution, demand their ‘complete independence’" (Znamya Trudas italics).

You are mixing things up, gentlemen of Znamya Truda! In the committee a Belgian comrade asked whether it could be made obligatory for trade-union members to join the Social-Democratic Party, and everyone answered that it could not. Plekhanov, on the other hand, proposed an amendment to the resolution, saying: “Unity of the trade-union organisation, however, should not be lost sight of”. This amendment was adopted, but not unanimously (Comrade Voinov, who represented the views of the R.S.D.L.P., voted for the amendment, and in our opinion was right in doing so). That was how matters stood.

Social-Democrats should never lose sight of unity of the trade-union organisation. That is quite right. But this applies also to the S.R.’s, whom we invite to ponder over this “unity of the trade-union organisation” when the latter announces its close ties with Social-Democracy! Nobody ever dreamt of “obliging” trade-union members to join the S.D. Party; fear made the S.R.’s imagine that. And to suggest that the Stuttgart Congress prohibited trade unions from declaring their close ties with the Social-Democratic Party or from establishing such ties in reality, in actual life, is a cock-and-bull story.

The Russian S.D.’s,” writes Znamya Truda, “are conducting a strenuous and unremitting campaign to win the trade unions and subordinate them to their Party leadership. The Bolsheviks are doing this frankly and openly ... the Mensheviks have chosen a more roundabout way...” Correct, gentle men of the S.R. Party! For the sake of the prestige of the workers’ International you are entitled to demand of us that we conduct this campaign in a tactful and restrained way, “not losing sight of the unity of the trade-union organisation”.   We readily admit this, and demand the same admission from you, but we shall not give up our campaign!

But then Plekhanov said that it was harmful to introduce political differences into the unions.... Yes, Plekhanov did say that stupid thing, and the S.R. gentlemen, naturally, were bound to pounce on it, as they always pounce on every thing least worthy of imitation. However, we should not be guided by Plekhanov’s words, but by the Congress resolution, which cannot be implemented without “introducing political differences”. Here is a little example. The Congress resolution says that the trade unions should not be guided by “the theory of the harmony of interests between labour and capital”. We Social-Democrats assert that the agrarian programme, which calls for equalised distribution of the land in a bourgeois society, is based on the theory of the harmony of interests between labour and capital.[4] We shall always declare our opposition to such a difference (or even a difference with monarchist-minded workers) being made the grounds for breaking the unity of a strike, etc., but we shall always “introduce this difference” into the workers’ ranks in general, and into all workers’ unions in particular.

Plekhanov’s reference to eleven parties is just as foolish. First, Russia is not the only country where there are various socialist parties. Secondly, Russia has only two rival socialist parties of any importance—the S.D. and the S.R. parties, for it is quite ridiculous to lump together all the parties of the nationalities. Thirdly, the question of uniting the really socialist parties is quite a special one; by dragging it in Plekhanov confuses the issue. We must always and everywhere stand for the alignment of the unions with the socialist party of the working class, but the question as to which party in any given country, among any given nationality, is really socialist and really the party of the working class, is a special question, which is decided not by resolutions of international congresses, but by the outcome of the struggle between the national parties.

How erroneous Comrade Plekhanov’s arguments on this subject are is shown in a most striking manner by his article in Sovremenny Mir,[9] No. 12, 1907. On page 55 Plekhanov quotes a statement by Lunacharsky that trade-union neutrality is supported by the German revisionists. Plekhanov answers this statement as follows: “The revisionists say that the unions must be neutral, but understand by this that the unions must be used to fight orthodox Marxism.” And Plekhanov concludes: “The elimination of trade-union neutrality will not help matters at all. Even if we make the unions closely and formally dependent on the Party, and revisionist ‘ideology’ triumphs in the Party, the elimination of trade-union neutrality will merely be a fresh victory for ‘the critics of Marx’."

This argument is a typical example of Plekhanov’s usual method of dodging the issue and suppressing the essence of the dispute. If revisionist ideology really does triumph in the Party, then it will not be.a socialist part.y of the working class. It is not at all a question of how the party takes shape, and what struggle and what splits occur in the process. It is a question of the fact that a socialist party and trade unions exist in every capitalist country, and it is our job to define the basic relations between them. The class interests of the bourgeoisie inevitably give rise to a striving to confine the unions to petty and narrow activity within the framework of the existing social order, to keep them away from any contact with socialism; and the neutrality theory is the ideological cover for these strivings of the bourgeoisie. In one way or another, the revisionists within the S.D. parties will always clear a way for themselves in capitalist society.

Of course, at the outset of the workers’ political and trade-union movements in Europe it was possible to uphold trade-union neutrality as a means of widening the original field of proletarian struggle during the period when it was comparatively undeveloped and when the bourgeoisie exerted no systematic influence on the unions. At the present time it is quite indefensible, from the point of view of international Social-Democracy, to uphold trade-union neutrality. One can only smile when reading Plekhanov’s assurances that “even today, Marx would be in favour of trade-union neutrality in Germany”, especially when that. kind of argument   is based on a one-sided interpretation of a single “quotation” from Marx, while ignoring the sum and substance of Marx’s statements and the whole spirit of his teachings.

I stand for neutrality, understood in Bebel’s and not the revisionist sense,” writes Plekhanov. To talk like that means to swear by Bebel and still get stuck in the mud. Needless to say, Bebel is such a great authority in the international proletarian movement, such an experienced practical leader, a socialist so keenly alive to the requirements of the revolutionary struggle, that in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred he climbed out of the mud himself when he happened to slip into it, and he dragged out those who were willing to follow his lead. Bebel was wrong when, he joined Vollmar in defending the agrarian programme of the revisionists in Breslau (in 1895), when he insisted (in Essen) on making a distinction in principle between defensive and offensive wars, and when he was ready to elevate trade-union “neutrality” to the level of a principle. We readily believe that if Plekhanov gets stuck in the mud only in Bebel’s company, it will not happen to him often or for long. But we still think that Bebel should not be imitated when Bebel is wrong.

It is said—and Plekhanov makes a special point of it— that neutrality is necessary in order to unite all the workers who are beginning to see the need for improving their material conditions. But those who say this forget that the present stage of development of class contradictions inevitably introduces “political differences” even into the question of how this improvement is to be secured within the bounds of contemporary society. The theory of the neutrality of the trade unions as opposed to the theory of the need for close ties between them and revolutionary Social-Democracy, inevitably leads to preference being given to methods of securing this improvement that involve a blunting of the proletarian class struggle. A striking example of this (which, incidentally, is connected with the appraisal of one of the most interesting episodes in the modern labour movement) is to be found in the very same issue of Sovremenny Mir in. which Plekhanov advocates neutrality. Side by side with Plekhanov, we find here Mr. E. P., extolling Richard Bell, the well-known English railwaymen’s leader, who ended a dispute between the workers, and, the railway company by a   compromise. Bell is described as the “soul of the whole railwaymen’s movement”. “There is not the slightest doubt,” E. P. writes, “that thanks to his calm, well-considered, and consistent tactics, Bell has won the complete confidence of the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants, the members of which are ready to follow his lead without hesitation” (Sovremenny Mir, No. 12, page 75). This point of view is not accidental, but is essentially connected with the neutrality theory, which puts in the forefront unity of the workers for the improvement of their conditions, and not unity for a struggle that could promote the cause of proletarian emancipation.

But this point of view is not at all in accord with the views of the British socialists, who would probably be very much surprised to learn that the eulogisers of Bell write, without objection being raised, in the same journal as prominent Mensheviks like Plekhanov, Iordansky, and Co.

Justice, the British Social-Democratic newspaper, in a leading article on November 16, commented as follows on Bell’s agreement with the railway companies: “We cannot but agree with the almost universal trade-union condemnation which has been pronounced upon this so-called treaty of peace ... it absolutely destroys the very reason of existence of the union.... This preposterous agreement ... cannot. be binding on the men, and the latter will do well to at once repudiate it.” And in its next issue, that of November 23, Burnett, in an article entitled “Sold Again!”, wrote the following about this agreement: “Three weeks ago the A.S.R.S. was one of the most powerful trade unions in the country; today it is reduced to the level of a mere benefit society.... All these changes have taken place not because the railwaymen have fought and lost, but because their leaders have deliberately or stupidly sold them to the railway bosses ere the fight began.” And the editor added that a similar letter had been received from “a Midland Railway Company’s wage-slave”.

But perhaps this is the “ardour” of “too revolutionary” Social-Democrats? No. The Labour Leader, organ of the moderate Independent Labour Party, which does not even want to call itself socialist, in its issue of November 15 published a letter from a trade-unionist railwayman in which, replying to the praise lavished on Bell by the entire capitalist press (from the radical Reynolds News to the Conservative   Times), he stated that the settlement made by Bell was the “most contemptible one that has ever occurred in the history of Trade Unionism”, and described Richard Bell as the “Marshal Bazaine of the trade-union movement”. In the same issue another railwayman demands that “Mr. Bell ... should be called upon to explain” the nefarious settlement by which “the railwaymen ... are condemned to seven years’ penal servitude...”. And the editor of this moderate organ, in a leading article of the same issue, describes the settlement as “the Sedan of the British Trade-Union movement”. “Never has such an opportunity presented itself for a national manifestation of the power of organised labour.” Among the workers there prevailed “unprecedented enthusiasm” and a desire to fight. The article concludes with a scathing comparison between the dire needs of the workers and the triumph of “Mr. Lloyd George [the Cabinet Minister who played the role of lackey to the capitalists] and Mr. Bell hastening to prepare banquets”.

Only the extreme opportunists, the Fabians, members of a purely intellectualist organisation, approved the settlement; so that even The New Age, which sympathises with the Fabians, blushed for shame and was obliged to admit that while the Conservative bourgeois Times had published the Manifesto of the Fabian Society’s Executive Committee in full, apart from these gentlemen “no socialist organisation, no trade union, and no prominent labour leader” (December 7th issue, p. 101) had declared in favour of the settlement.

Here you have a specimen of the application of the neutrality theory by Plekhanov’s colleague, Mr. E. P. The question was one not of “political differences” but of improving the workers’ conditions in existing society. The entire British bourgeoisie, the Fabians, and Mr. E. P. declared for “improvement” at the price of renouncing the struggle and submitting to the tender mercies of capital; all the socialists and trade-unionist workers were for a collective struggle of the workers. Will Plekhanov now continue to advocate “neutrality”, instead of a close alignment of the trade unions with the socialist party?


[1] The meeting was attended by about fifteen hundred people. See the report in Bulleten Muzeya Sodeistviya Trudu, No. 2, November 26, 1905 (quoted by Znamya Truda). —Lenin

[2] It should be said, however, that the Mensheviks’ idea of this “non-partisanship” was a rather peculiar one. Thus, their spokesman illustrated his points in the following way: “A correct answer to the question of partisanship has been given in the Moscow Printers’ Union, which proposes that comrades join the S.D. Party as individuals.” (Note by Znamya Truda.) —Lenin

[3] What the Mensheviks put forward in November 1905 was not orthodox but vulgar views on neutrality. Let the S.R. gentlemen remember that! —Lenin

[4] Even some S.R.’s realise this now, and have thus taken a definite step towards Marxism. See the very interesting new book by Firsov and Jacoby, which we shall soon discuss in detail with readers of Proletary.[10]Lenin

[5] Lenin’s article “Trade-Union Neutrality” was also published in a slightly abbreviated form in the symposium 0 Veyaniyakh Vremeni (Spirit of the Times), St. Petersburg, Tvorchestvo Publishers and signed VI. Ilyin.

[6] The resolution of the C.C. of the R.S.D.L.P. on trade unions was published in Proletary, No. 21, February 13 (26), 1908.

Party members were instructed to set up Party groups within trade-union organisations and to work in them under the direction of the local Party centres. Where police persecution made it impossible to organise trade unions or to recreate those that had been broken up, the C.C. proposed that trade-union nuclei and trade unions should be organised illegally. As regards such legal organisations as benefit societies, temperance societies, and others, the resolution of the C.C. instructed the local Party organisations to form within them “well-knit groups of Social-Democrats to conduct Party work among the broadest possible masses of the proletariat”. To thwart any attempt on the part of the Mensheviks to interpret this part of the resolution in an opportunist manner, the resolution pointed out the need for making it clear that “the organised activity   of the proletariat cannot be limited to such societies alone” and that the legal existence of trade unions “should not belittle, the militant tasks of organising the proletariat in trade unions” (Proletary, No. 21, February 13 [26], 1908, p. 4).

[7] Nash Vek (Our Century)—a newspaper, a popular edition of the Left-Cadet organ Tovarishch, published in St. Petersburg in 1905-08.

[8] Vperyod (Forward)—a Bolshevik working-class newspaper directed by Lenin. Published illegally in Vyborg by the Editorial Board of Proletary from September 10 (23), 1906 to January 19 (February 1), 1908. Twenty issues appeared. Beginning with issue No. 2 it appeared as the organ of the local committees of the R.S.D.L.P.; No. 2 was the organ of the Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Moscow District committees; Nos. 3-7 the organ of the Moscow, St. Peters burg, Moscow District, Perm, and Kursk committees; Nos. 8-19 the organ of these committees with the addition of the Kazan committee; the last issue, No. 20, gave the Urals Regional Committee in place of the Perm and Kazan committees.

[10] The book Revision of the Agrarian Programme and Its Substantiation by D. Firsov (D. Rosenblum) and M. Yacoby (M. Hendelman) was issued by the Era Publishers, Moscow, 1908. The book was confiscated. The analysis of it in Proletary promised by Lenin did not appear.

[9] Sovremenny Mir (Contemporary World)—a monthly literary, scientific, and political magazine, published in St. Petersburg from October 1906 to 1918. The Mensheviks, including Plekhanov, were closely associated with it. During the bloc with the Plekhanovites and at the beginning of 1914 the Bolsheviks contributed to the magazine.

In March 1914, the magazine published Lenin’s article “One More Annihilation of Socialism” (see present edition, Vol. 20). During the First World War (1914-18) the magazine became the mouth piece of the social-chauvinists.

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