V. I. Lenin

Report at the Second

All-Russia Trade Union Congress

January 20, 1919[1]

Delivered: 20 January, 1918
First Published: Newspaper reports published January 21, 1919 in Economicheskaya Zhizn No. 14 and in Pravda Nos. 15, 16, 17 for January 22, 24, 25; Published in 1921 in the book Second All-Russia Trade Union Congress. Verbatim Report; Published according to the book checked with the verbatim report and the newspaper texts
Source: Lenin’s Collected Works, 4th English Edition, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1972 Volume 28, pages 412-428
Translated: Jim Riordan
Transcription/HTML Markup: David Walters & Robert Cymbala
Online Version: Lenin Internet Archive May, 2002

(Stormy, prolonged applause.) Comrades, owing to a slight indisposition, I must first ask you to excuse me for having to confine myself today to only a few remarks on the question now put before you—the tasks of the trade unions.

The resolution now before you has been submitted to the Trade Union Congress by the Communist group, which has given it thorough deliberation. As the resolution has already been printed, I presume that all present are acquainted with it, and I shall therefore dwell only on two main points, which in my opinion are the most significant of those dealt with, generally speaking, in this resolution.

I think that the first of these points, a negative one, so to speak, is the statement regarding the slogan of unity or independence of the trade union movement. Clause 3 of the resolution refers to this slogan, saying that in practice it has led the groups behind this slogan to an open struggle against the Soviet government, and that this attempt has placed them outside the bounds of the working class.

This notorious independence slogan deserves attention, I think, from more than the trade union standpoint. In my opinion, only if we realise that the independence slogan is self-deception for some people and plain deception for others, can the struggle over the issue of dictatorship of the proletariat or dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, which is now going on all over the world and which is obviously coming to a head with fantastic speed, be properly understood and properly reckoned with, and enable the working class, its class-conscious representatives, to take a proper part in this struggle. First of all, I should like to point out, if only briefly, how false this slogan is theoretically, and how open it is to criticism from the theoretical point of view.

What has lately happened in Germany, the brutal and treacherous murder of Liebknecht and Luxemburg, is not merely the most dramatic and tragic event in the revolution beginning in Germany. It is something more. It sheds an extraordinarily vivid light on the way the problems of the present-day struggle are presented by the various trends of political thought and in the various theoretical systems of today. It was from Germany that we heard most talk, for example, on the celebrated subject of democracy, on the slogan of democracy in general, and on the slogan that the working class must be independent of government. These slogans may at first glance seem to be unconnected, but they are actually very closely connected. They are closely connected because they show how strong petty-bourgeois prejudices are to this day, despite the proletariat’s immense experience of the class struggle; how to this day often lip service is paid to the class struggle which is not recognised by the minds or hearts of those who talk about it. Indeed, if we recall even the rudiments of political economy as we learnt it from Marx’s Capital, that theory of the class struggle by which we all firmly stand, how can there be any talk of democracy in general or independence when the struggle has grown as acute and far-flung as it is today, when it is clear that the socialist revolution is facing the whole world, and when this has been palpably demonstrated in the most democratic countries? Whoever thinks there can shows that, as far as the theory of political economy is concerned, he has not understood a single page of Marx’s Capital, by which all socialists without exception now swear.

But, as a matter of fact, although they swear by this work, now that they are on the verge of that cardinal struggle to which Marx’s Capital led, they retreat from this class struggle and imagine there can be an extra-class or above class democracy. They imagine that in modern society while the capitalists still retain their property, there can be a democracy other than bourgeois democracy, that is, other than a bourgeois dictatorship masked by false and hypocritical democratic labels. It was from this very Germany that we recently heard voices saying that over there the dictatorship of the proletariat, possibly, in fact most probably, would not transcend the bounds of democracy, that there democracy would remain. It was there that people who claim to be teachers of Marxism, people who from 1889 to 1914 were the ideologists of the entire Second International, people like Kautsky, unfurled the banner of democracy and failed to understand that as long as property remains in the hands of the capitalists democracy is nothing but a thoroughly hypocritical cover for the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie. They failed to understand that there cannot be any serious question of the emancipation of labour from capital as long as this hypocritical cover is not torn away. Not as long as we do not put the question as Marx always taught us to put it, and as we have been taught to put it by the proletariat’s day-to-day struggle, by every strike and by every acute turn in the trade union struggle—namely, that while property remains in the hands of the capitalists, all democracy will be nothing but a hypocritical cover for the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie. All talk about universal suffrage, about the popular will and about equality at the polls will be a sheer fraud, for there can be no equality between the exploiter and the exploited, between the owner of capital and property and the modern wage-slave.

Of course, compared with tsarism, absolutism, monarchy and all feudal survivals, bourgeois democracy historically denotes immense progress. Of course, we shall have to utilise it. And until the time comes for the struggle of the working class for full power it is incumbent on us to make use of the forms of bourgeois democracy. But the fact is that we have now arrived at this decisive moment of the struggle internationally. For the issue now is whether the capitalists can maintain their power over the means of production and, above all, their ownership of the implements of production. And this means they are preparing for new wars. The imperialist war has quite clearly demonstrated how capitalist property is connected with that slaughter of the nations, how it led up to it irresistibly and inexorably. But that being so, all talk of democracy expressing the popular will is obviously sheer deception, nothing but the privilege of the capitalists and the rich to dupe the more backward sections of the working people both through their press, which remains in the hands of the property-owners, and by all other means of political influence.

There is and can be only one alternative: either the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, disguised by constituent assemblies, all kinds of voting systems, democracy and similar bourgeois frauds that are used to blind fools, and that only people who have become utter renegades from Marxism and socialism all along the line can make play of today—or the dictatorship of the proletariat for suppressing with an iron hand the bourgeoisie, who are inciting the most backward elements against the finest leaders of the world proletariat. This dictatorship means the victory of the proletariat for the purpose of suppressing the bourgeoisie, who are now putting up a most desperate resistance, which gets all the more furious the more clearly the bourgeoisie perceive that it is the people that have raised this issue. Previously, in the vast majority of cases, they regarded dissatisfaction and indignation among the workers as only a temporary expression of discontent. That, in fact, is the way the matter is quite often regarded to this day by the British capitalists, for example, who are perhaps the most experienced in deceiving the workers politically, and politically the best trained and the best organised. They realise that the war has, of course, led to discontent, and that this discontent inevitably gives rise and will continue to give rise to unrest among the workers. But, they argue, the workers have not yet said who is to head the state, who is to hold state power, and whether the capitalists are to be allowed to retain their property. But events have shown that this is undoubtedly a pressing issue not only in Russia, but in a number of West-European countries as well, and, what is more, not only in countries which took part in the war, but in neutral countries, too, which have suffered relatively little, such as Switzerland and Holland.

The bourgeoisie have above all been brought up, and have trained the people, in the spirit of bourgeois parliamentarism. Yet it has become perfectly clear that a Soviet movement, a movement for Soviet government, has been ripening among the people. The Soviet movement has ceased to be a Russian form of the power of the proletariat; it has become the policy of the international proletariat in its struggle for power. It has become the second step in the world-wide development of the socialist revolution. The first step was the Paris Commune, which showed that the working class cannot arrive at socialism except by way of dictatorship, by the forcible suppression of the exploiters. That is the first thing the Paris Commune showed, namely, that the working class cannot get to socialism via the old, bourgeois-democratic parliamentary state, but only via a new type of state, which will smash both parliamentarism and the bureaucracy from top to bottom.

The second step from the point of view of the world-wide development of the socialist revolution was the Soviet government. It was at first considered a purely Russian phenomenon—as it might well have been, and was in fact bound to have been when judged only by the facts. But today events have shown that it is also the international form of the struggle of the proletariat. The wars which have reshuffled the proletarian and semi-proletarian masses have furnished them with a new form of organisation which is patently in direct opposition to rapacious imperialism, to the capitalist class and its fabulous profits, profits without precedent before the war. The wars have everywhere created these new mass fighting organisations, organisations of the proletariat for the overthrow of the power of the bourgeoisie.

Not everybody realised that this in fact was what the Soviets signified when they came into being. Not everybody realises it even today. But to us the picture could not be clearer for we saw the germs of these Soviets in 1905 and, after the February Revolution of 1917, we witnessed a long period of hesitation and vacillation between the Soviet organisation of the people and the compromising, treacherous, petty-bourgeois ideology. It lies before us as though in the palm of our hand, and it is with this picture in mind—and knowing the way the struggle of the proletariat against capitalist property for state power has developed and is growing wider and deeper every day—that we approach the matter. And knowing this, what is the sense of all the references to democracy and all talk about “independence” and suchlike, which are constantly tending towards some classless position? We know that in capitalist society it is the bourgeoisie that rule, that capitalist society in fact arises from the bourgeoisie’s political and economic power. Either the power of the proletariat or dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, there is no middle course on issues of any seriousness for any length of time. And anyone who talks about independence, about democracy in general, consciously or unconsciously presupposes something intermediate, something standing between classes or above classes. In every case that is self-deception or deception of others. It serves to conceal the fact that as long as capitalist power remains, as long as the capitalists retain the ownership of the means of production, democracy may be broad or narrow, more or less civilised, and so on and so forth, but it actually remains dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, and all the more obviously and palpably does civil war spurt from every big contradiction.

The nearer the French political forms are to democracy, the more easily something like the Dreyfus case causes civil war. The broader democracy is in America, with its proletariat, its internationalists, and even pure pacifists, the more easily cases of lynching and outbreaks of civil war arise. The meaning of this is even clearer now, when the first-week of bourgeois freedom, of democracy, in Germany has led to a most frenzied outbreak of civil war, far more acute and far more desperate than in our country.

And whoever judges these outbreaks from the point of view of whether proceedings were brought by parties, whoever judges them simply from the point of view of the murder of Liebknecht and Luxemburg, reveals blindness and intellectual cowardice, refusing to understand that these are outbreaks of an irresistible civil war, a war that springs irresistibly from all the contradictions of capitalism. There is not and cannot be any middle course. All talk of independence or democracy in general, no matter what sauce it may be served up with, is a sheer fraud and a down-right betrayal of socialism. And if the theoretical propaganda of the Bolsheviks, who are now the virtual founders of the International, if the theoretical teaching of the Bolsheviks on civil war did not reach very far and was all too often halted by obstacles of censorship and the military barrages of the imperialist states, today it is no longer the teaching, no longer the theory, but the facts of civil war that are becoming all the more violent the older the democracy of the West-European states and the longer it has lasted. These facts will pierce even the hardest and most obtuse skulls. The people who talk about democracy in general, about independence, may now be called fossils.

Nevertheless, bearing in mind the difficult conditions of the struggle in which the trade union movement of Russia has so recently arisen and grown up—and it has now almost reached full growth—we must, in passing, glance back and recall recent events. Such recollections and reminders are, I think, all the more necessary since the trade union movement, as such, is having to undergo a particularly abrupt change now that world-wide socialist revolution has begun.

It was in the trade union movement especially that the ideologists of the bourgeoisie tried to fish in troubled waters. They endeavoured to make the economic struggle, which is the basis of the trade union movement, independent of the political struggle. But now, precisely now, especially after the political revolution, which has transferred power to the proletariat, the time has come for the trade unions, as the broadest organisation of the proletariat on a class scale, to play a very great role, to take the centre of the political stage, to become, in a sense, the chief political organ. For all the old concepts and categories of politics have been upset and reversed by the political revolution which has turned power over to the proletariat. The old state, even the best and most democratic bourgeois republics, was never, I repeat, and never could be, anything but the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, that is, of those who own the factories, the implements of production, the land, the railways—in a word, all the material means, all the instruments of labour, without the possession of which labour remains in slavery.

That is why, when political power passed into the proletariat’s hands the trade unions had increasingly to take on the tasks of builders of working-class politics, the task of people whose class organisation was to replace the old exploiting class after upsetting all the old traditions and prejudices of the old science which, in the words of one scholar, told the proletariat: “You look after your economic affairs and the party of the bourgeoisie will look after politics.” All these ideas have proved to be a direct weapon in the hands of the exploiting class and its thugs for keeping down the proletariat, which is beginning to revolt and struggle everywhere.

And here the trade unions must take up an entirely new question in their state organisation work—the question of “governmentalising” the trade unions, as it is termed in the Communist group’s resolution. In this connection the trade unions must give very serious thought to the profound and famous words of the founders of modern communism to the effect that “the broader and deeper the revolution going on in society, the larger should be the number of people who make the revolution, who are its makers in the true sense of the word[2] Take the old society of the feudal nobility. There revolutions were absurdly easy, as long as it was only a matter of taking power from one handful of nobles or feudal lords and turning it over to another. Take bourgeois society, which boasts of its universal suffrage. In actual fact, as we know, this universal suffrage, this whole machine, becomes a fraud, for even in the most advanced, cultured and democratic countries the overwhelming majority of the working people are downtrodden and crushed—crushed by the hell of capitalism, so that actually they do not and cannot take any part in politics.

Now for the first time in history a revolution has begun which can lead to the complete victory of socialism—provided only that new and large masses of people set about the work of governing independently. The socialist revolution does not imply a change in the form of state, not the replacement of a monarchy by a republic, nor new elections in which people are assumed to be absolutely “equal” but which are actually nothing but an artificial obfuscation, a screen for the fact that some own property and others do not. From the point of view of bourgeois society, once there is “democracy", and once capitalist and proletarian alike take part in the voting, this is the “popular will", this is “equality” and an expression of the people’s will. We know what an abominable fraud this talk is, which only serves as a cover for butchers and murderers like Ebert and Scheidemann. In bourgeois society, the mass of the working people are governed by the bourgeoisie with the help of more or less democratic forms. They are governed by a minority, the property-owners, those who have a share in capitalist property and who have turned education and science, that supreme bulwark and flower of capitalist civilisation, into an instrument of exploitation, into a monopoly, in order to keep the overwhelming majority of the people in slavery. The revolution we have begun and have been making for two years, and which we are firmly determined to carry through to the end (applause ), is possible and feasible only provided we manage to transfer power to the new class, provided the bourgeoisie, the capitalist slaveowners, the bourgeois intellectuals, the representatives of all the owners and property-holders are replaced by the new class in all spheres of government, in all state affairs, in the entire business of running the new life, from top to bottom. (Applause.)

That is the task before us now. The socialist revolution can only be lasting when this new class learns, not from books, not from meetings or lectures, but from the practical work of government. Only when it enlists the vast mass of working people for this work, when it elaborates forms which will enable all working people to adapt themselves easily to the work of governing the state and establishing law and order. Only on this condition is the socialist revolution bound to be lasting. Given this condition, it will constitute a force which will brush away capitalism and all its survivals as easily as straw or dust.

From the class standpoint, generally speaking, that is the task before us as a condition for the victory of the socialist revolution. It is a task closely and directly associated with the tasks of those organisations which even under capitalist society worked for the broadest possible mass struggle to destroy that society. And of the organisations that then existed, the trade unions were the broadest. And now, while formally remaining independent organisations, they can and should, as one of the passages in the resolution before you states, take an active part in the work of the Soviet government by directly working in all government bodies, by organising mass control over their activities, etc., and by setting up new bodies for the registration, control and regulation of all production and distribution, relying on the organised initiative of the broad mass of the interested working people themselves.

The trade unions have never embraced more than one-fifth of the wage-workers in capitalist society, even under the most favourable circumstances, even in the most advanced countries, after decades and sometimes even centuries of development of bourgeois-democratic civilisation and culture. Only a small upper section were members, and of them only a very few were lured over and bribed by the capitalists to take their place in capitalist society as workers’ leaders. The American socialists called these people “labour lieutenants of the capitalist class” In that country of the freest bourgeois culture, in that most democratic of bourgeois republics, they saw most clearly the role played by this tiny upper section of the proletariat who had virtually entered the service of the bourgeoisie as its deputies, who were bribed and bought by it, and who came to form those groups of social-patriots and defence advocates of which Ebert and Scheidemann will always remain the perfect heroes.

In our country things are now different. The trade unions are in a position to start the economic development of the state on new lines, making use of everything created by capitalist culture and capitalist production. They can build socialism on that material basis, on that large-scale industry, whose burden used to weigh on us, which was created against our interests, was made for the endless oppression of the working people, but which united and welded them, and thus created the vanguard of the new society. And since the October Revolution, since the transfer of power to the proletariat, this vanguard has begun to perform its real task—to educate the working and exploited people, to enlist them in the work of governing the state and administering industry without officials, without the bourgeoisie and without capitalists. That is why the resolution we submit to you rejects all bourgeois plans and all that treacherous talk. That is why it declares the governmentalisation of the trade unions to be unavoidable. It also takes a step forward. We are no longer raising the question of the governmentalisation of the trade unions merely in its theoretical aspect. We have, thank God, passed the stage when such questions were raised purely as subjects for theoretical discussion. We may even forget at times the days when we used to engage in such free discussions on purely theoretical themes. Those times have long since passed, and today we are raising these questions on the basis of a year’s experience of the trade unions, which, in their role as organisers of production, have created such organisations as the Supreme Economic Council. In this incredibly difficult business, the trade unions have committed innumerable blunders, and constantly still are committing them, but they are not deterred by the malicious sneers of the bourgeoisie; who say the proletarians decided to do things themselves and are making a mess of it.

The bourgeoisie imagine they made no blunders when they took over from the tsar and the nobles. They imagine the 1861 Reform, which attempted to repair the edifice of serfdom, and left power and abundant sources of revenue in the hands of the serf-owners, went off quite smoothly and that it was not followed by chaos in Russia for several decades. There is no country in the world in which the nobility did not scoff at the upstart bourgeoisie and commoners when they set out to govern the state.

It goes without saying that the entire flower, or, rather, sterile blossom, of the bourgeois intellectuals is now also scoffing at every mistake the new government is making, especially since the new class, the alliance of all working people, has had to make its revolution at a furious rate because of the frantic resistance of the exploiters and the campaign of the world alliance of exploiters against Russia—one of the weakest and least prepared of countries. We had to act under conditions in which we had to think not so much of making the course of revolution smooth, as of holding on as best we could until the West-European proletariat came to life. We have accomplished this task. In this respect, we can already say we have done far better than the men who made the French Revolution, which was defeated by an alliance of monarchical and backward countries. The French Revolution, in the form of the power of the lower ranks of the bourgeoisie of that time, held on for a year only, and did not at once evoke a similar movement in other countries. Nevertheless, it did so much for the bourgeoisie, for the bourgeois democracy, that the entire development of civilised humanity throughout the nineteenth century sprang from the great French Revolution, and was indebted to it for everything.

We have done much better. What was done in a year for the development of the bourgeois democracy at that time, we have done on a far larger scale for the new proletarian regime in about the same time. And we have done it so successfully that already now the movement in Russia, whose beginning was due to a special set of circumstances rather than any merit of ours, to special conditions that put Russia between two imperialist giants of the modern civilised world—that the effect of this movement and the victory of the Soviet system during the past year has been to make the movement international. The Communist International has been founded, the slogans and ideals of the old bourgeois democracy have been shattered, and today there is no intelligent politician anywhere in the world, whatever his party may be, who can fail to see that the world socialist revolution has begun, really is taking place. (Applause.)

I have digressed somewhat in speaking about how we have left the theoretical aspect of the question far behind and are now about to tackle its practical solution. We have had a year’s experience, and we have already accomplished incomparably more for the victory of the proletariat and its revolution than was accomplished by a year’s dictatorship of bourgeois democrats for the victory of bourgeois democracy all over the world at the end of the century before last. But, besides this, we have, during this year, acquired a vast amount of practical experience. This enables us, if not to calculate every one of our steps with absolute precision, at least to indicate the rate of development, its speed, to see its practical difficulties and take the practical steps which will lead from one partial victory in overthrowing the bourgeoisie to another.

Looking back, we can see the mistakes we have to correct. We can clearly see what we have to build and how we have to build in the future. That is why our resolution is not confined to proclaiming the governmentalisation of the trade unions, to proclaiming the dictatorship of the proletariat in principle and the need for us to proceed, as one passage in the resolution states, “inevitably to the fusion of the trade union organisations with state bodies” That we already know from theory, we outlined it before October, and we should have outlined it even sooner. But it is not enough. The whole crux of the question has changed for a party which is now about to tackle the practical job of building socialism, for trade unions which have already set up bodies to run industry on a countrywide, state scale, which have already formed a Supreme Economic Council, and which have at a cost of thousands of mistakes acquired thousands of useful bits of experience in organisation.

Today we can no longer confine ourselves to proclaiming the dictatorship of the proletariat. The trade unions have to be governmentalised; they have to be fused with state bodies. The work of building up large-scale industry has to be entrusted entirely to them. But all that is not enough.

We must also learn from our practical experience to determine the next immediate step. That is the essence of our task just now. And that is what the resolution has in mind when it says that if the trade unions were arbitrarily to attempt to take over government functions now, they would only make a mess of it. We have suffered enough from this sort of thing. We have fought hard enough against the survivals of the accursed bourgeois system, against the anarchistic and selfish tendencies of the small holder, which are so deeply ingrained even among the workers.

The workers were never separated by a Great Wall of China from the old society. And they have preserved a good deal of the traditional mentality of capitalist society. The workers are building a new society without themselves having become new people, or cleansed of the filth of the old world; they are still standing up to their knees in that filth. We can only dream of clearing the filth away. It would be utterly utopian to think this could be done all at once. It would be so utopian that in practice it would only postpone socialism to kingdom come.

No, that is not the way we intend to build socialism. We are building while still standing on the soil of capitalist society, combating all those weaknesses and shortcomings which also affect the working people and which tend to drag the proletariat down. There are many old separatist habits and customs of the small holder in this struggle, and we still feel the effects of the old maxim: “Every man for himself, and the devil take the hindmost.” There used to be quite enough of that in every trade union, in every factory, which often thought only of itself, and left everything else to the tender care of the Lord and our betters. We have been through all that, and know the cost. It has been the cause of so many mistakes, so many dreadful mistakes, that now, on the strength of that experience, we give our comrades a most emphatic warning against any arbitrary action in this field. Instead of building socialism, it would mean we had all succumbed to the weaknesses of capitalism.

We have now learnt to appreciate the difficulties of the task in front of us. We stand at the very heart of the work of building socialism, and in the interests of this cardinal work we are against all arbitrary actions. The class-conscious workers must be warned against arbitrary actions of this kind. They must be told that we cannot merge the trade unions with the state bodies at once, at one stroke. It would be a mistake. That is not the way to tackle the job.

We know that the proletariat has promoted several thousands, perhaps several tens of thousands of workers to state administration. We know that the new class—the proletariat—now has its representatives in every branch of state administration, in every section of the enterprises already socialised or about to be socialised, and in every branch of the economy. The proletariat knows this. It has set about the job practically. It can now see that we must continue along the same lines, that we shall have to take quite a number of steps more before we are in a position to say that the trade union organisations of the working people have definitely merged with the entire state apparatus. That will be so when the workers completely take over the organs of suppression of one class over the other. And we are quite certain that will be so.

I now want to focus your attention on the next practical job. We must go on extending the participation of the working people in economic administration and in building a new economy. We shall never bring the work of communist construction to its completion unless we cope with this task; unless we convert the trade unions into organs for training ten times as many people as at present for direct participation in state administration. That we realise quite clearly. It is dealt with in our resolution, and it is a matter I want to direct your attention to particularly.

In this greatest revolution in history, when the proletariat has taken state power into its own hands, All the functions of the trade unions are undergoing a profound change. The trade unions are becoming the chief builders of the new society, for only the millions can build this society. In the era of serfdom these builders numbered hundreds; in the capitalist era the builders of the state numbered thousands and tens of thousands. The socialist revolution can be made only with the active and direct practical participation of tens of millions in state administration. That is our goal but we are not there yet.

The trade unions should know that there is a higher and more important task than those tasks which are partly still in force and partly have already lapsed, and which, at any rate, even if they are still in force, call only be minor ones in our eyes: registration, establishing work standards, amalgamation of organisations. This task is to teach the people the art of administration, not from books, not from lectures or meetings, but from practical experience, so that instead of just the vanguard of the proletariat which has been set to command and organise, more and more fresh blood may enter the departments, and this new section may be reinforced by ten others like it. This may seem an immense and difficult task. But it will not seem so overpowering if we stop to think how rapidly the experience of the revolution has enabled us to cope with the immense tasks that have cropped up since the October Revolution and how the working people who had had no access to and no use for knowledge are now thirsting for it.

We shall find that we can cope with this task and teach vast numbers of working people how to run the state and industry. We shall discover we can develop practical activity, and shatter that pernicious prejudice which for decades and centuries has been implanted among the working people, namely, that state administration is the preserve of the privileged few, that it is a special art. That is not true. We shall inevitably make mistakes; but now every mistake will serve to teach, not handfuls of students taking some course of theory in state administration, but millions of working people who will personally suffer the consequences of every mistake. They will themselves see that they are faced with the urgent task of registering and distributing products, of increasing labour productivity, and will see from experience that power is in their own hands and that nobody will help them if they do not help themselves. That is the new mentality which is awakening in the working class. That is the new task of tremendous historical importance which faces the proletariat and which must, more than any other, strike root in the minds of trade unionists and the leaders of the trade union movement. They are not only trade unions. Today they are trade unions only to the extent that they are constituted within the only possible framework linked with the old capitalist system, and embrace the largest number of working people. But their task is to advance these millions and tens of millions of working people from simple to higher forms of activity, untiringly drawing new forces from the reserve of working people and advancing them to the most difficult tasks. In this way they will teach more and more people the art of state administration. It is their job to identify themselves with the struggle of the proletariat, which has established the dictatorship and is retaining it in the face of the whole world, every day winning over more industrial workers and socialists everywhere who only yesterday tolerated the orders of the social-traitors and social-defence advocates, but who are today coming more and more to accept the banner of communism and the Communist International.

Hold on to this banner, and at the same time steadily enlarge the ranks of the builders of socialism. Remember that the tasks of the trade unions are to build the new life and train millions and tens of millions, who will learn by experience not to make mistakes and will discard the old prejudices, who will learn by their own experience how to run the state and industry. That is the only sure guarantee that the cause of socialism will completely triumph, precluding any chance of a reversion to the past.


[1] The Congress met in Moscow’s Trade Union House from January 10 to January 25, 1919. At that time the trade unions had 4,420,000 members. The Congress was attended by 648 delegates with the right to vote, of whom 449 were Communists and their sympathisers. The other delegates were Mensheviks, Left Socialist-Revolutionaries, Bundists and the Left Menshevik group of “internationalist Social-Democrats”

The agenda included a report on the activity of the All-Russia Central Council of Trade Unions, the question of the tasks of the trade unions and a number of matters concerning organisation.

Lenin spoke on the central item on the agenda—the tasks of trade unions—at the third plenary session which met on January 20. During the debate the Mensheviks and their supporters from other petty-bourgeois parties tried to push through a resolution declaring the “independence of the trade unions from the Soviet state. By a majority of 430 the Congress adopted a resolution moved by the Communist group. It pointed out that an attempt to set the proletariat against the Soviet state on the plea of the “unity” and “independence” of the trade union movement has led “the groups supporting this slogan to an open struggle against the Soviet government and has divorced them from the working class” The resolution also rejected the anarcho-syndicalist demands that the trade unions be charged with state functions.

The Congress worked out measures for eliminating duplication in the work of the People’s Commissariat of Labour and the trade unions. The trade unions were asked to devote particular attention to raising labour productivity and reinforcing labour discipline. The tariff rates of payment were based on the piece rate and bonus system with fixed rates of additional payment for over fulfilling work quotas. The Congress also devoted much attention to social security and labour protection and enhancing the role of trade unions in training skilled workers. It established the production principle of trade union organisation (until then, workers and other employees of one and the same enterprise were members of different trade unions). The Congress emphasised the need for the trade unions to embrace those proletarians and semi-proletarians who had not yet been organised and enlist them for socialist construction.

[2] The quotation is taken from The Holy Family or Critique of Critical Critique by Marx and Engels (Moscow, 1956, p. 110).