V. I. Lenin

Speech Delivered at the

Third All-Russia Trade Union Congress

April 7, 1920[1]

Delivered: April 7, 1920
First Published: Bulletin of the Third All-Russia Trade Union Congress No. 2, April 8, 1920; Published according to Third All-Russia Trade Union Congress, Verbatim Report, 1921, verified with the text of the Bulletin
Source: Lenin’s Collected Works, 4th English Edition, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1965, Volume 30, pages 502-515
Translated: George Hanna
Transcription/HTML Markup: David Walters & Robert Cymbala
Copyleft: V. I. Lenin Internet Archive (www.marx.org) 2002. Permission is granted to copy and/or distribute this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License

(Prolonged, stormy applause. Ovation.) Comrades, permit me to begin by conveying greetings from the Council of People’s Commissars to the Third All-Russia Congress. (Applause.) Comrades, Soviet power is now passing through a phase of outstanding importance, which in many respects confronts us with the highly complex and interesting tasks that belong to a period of change. And it is the specific nature of the period that provides the trade unions with special tasks and special responsibilities in the work of building socialism.

That is why I should now like to dwell not so much on certain decisions of the Party Congress which has just ended (on this subject you will receive a more detailed report) as on those changes in the conditions of Soviet policy which link up all the tasks of socialist construction and the activities of the trade unions. The chief feature of the present phase is the transition from war tasks, which have hitherto absorbed all the attention and effort of the Soviet government, to tasks of peaceful economic development. And it should be mentioned right away that this is not the first time that the Soviet government and the Soviet Republic are passing through such a phase. We are reverting to this question once more—this is the second time since the dictatorship of the proletariat was established that history has brought the work of peaceful construction into the foreground.

The first time was at the beginning of 1918, when, after the brief but very impetuous offensive of German imperialism, at a time when the old capitalist army had completely collapsed and when we had no army of our own and could not create one rapidly, the German imperialist predators forced the Peace of Brest-Litovsk upon us. It seemed as if war tasks had receded into the background, owing to the weakness of the available forces of the Soviet government. It seemed as if we could proceed to the work of peaceful construction. I had occasion to make a report to the All-Russia Central Executive Committee at that time, too. That was on April 29, 1918, nearly two years ago. The Central Committee adopted a number of theses based on my report and had them published. I remind you of this because even at that time the theses enumerated a number of questions—on labour discipline and so forth—which are included in the agenda of this Congress. There is a similarity between that time and the present. I assure you that our attention is again being concentrated on the disputes and differences which were aired in the trade union movement two years ago. It would be a profound mistake to assert that the decisions of the Ninth Congress of the Russian Communist Party arose out of the present disputes. Such an assertion would only tend to distort the true picture of events. And, therefore, in order to understand the true nature of the question and to set about its solution in a proper way, it would be useful to compare and give some thought to conditions as they were at the beginning of 1918 and as they are today.

At that time, during the brief suspension of the war against German imperialism, the tasks of peace-time development assumed prominence. It looked as if we might enjoy a long period of peaceful constructive work. Civil war had not yet begun. Krasnov had, with German aid, only just appeared on the Don. There were no hostilities in the Urals and in the North. The Soviet Republic included a vast territory—all except what it had been deprived of by the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. Conditions were such that we might count upon a long period of peaceful work. And, under these conditions, the primary question taken up by the Communist Party and stressed in a number of resolutions (particularly that of April 29, 1918) was the need for widespread propaganda of, and greater insistence on, labour discipline.

Dictatorial powers and one-man management are not contradictory to socialist democracy. This must now be borne in mind, if the decisions adopted by the recent Party Congress and the general tasks that confront us are to be understood. And this is not an answer to questions that have only just arisen; it has its deep roots in the very conditions of the period in which we live. Let anyone who doubts this compare the situation with what it was two years ago, and he will understand that the present phase demands that all attention be devoted to labour discipline, to the labour armies, although two years ago there was no mention of labour armies. Only by comparing the issue as it stands today with the way it stood then, can we draw a proper conclusion, ignoring minor details and singling out what is general and fundamental. The whole attention of the Communist Party and the Soviet government is centred on peaceful economic development, on problems of the dictatorship and of one-man management. Not only the experience we have had in the stubborn civil war of the past two years leads us to such a solution of these problems.

When we tackled them for the first time in 1918, there was no civil war and no experience to speak of.

It was, therefore, not only the experience of the Red Army and of the victorious Civil War, but something more profound, something bound up with the tasks of the dictatorship of the working class in general, that has induced us now, as it did two years ago, to concentrate all our attention on labour discipline as the crucial factor in the economic development of socialism, and as the basis of the dictatorship of the proletariat as we understand it. Since capitalism was overthrown, every day of our revolution has taken us further and further away from the idea about which the old internationalists, who were thoroughly petty-bourgeois, made so much ado; they believed that the decision of a majority in the democratic institutions of bourgeois parliamentarism—with private property in land, the means of production and capital still retained—could settle the issue, when as a matter of fact it can be decided only by a bitter class struggle. The significance of the dictatorship of the proletariat in actual practice unfolded before us when, after the conquest of power, we set about putting it into practice and saw that the struggle between classes had not ceased with this, that the victory over the capitalists and landowners had not destroyed these classes, that it had only smashed them, but had not completely destroyed them; suffice it to mention the international ties of capital, which are of much longer standing and more solid than the ties of the working class are as yet.

On an international scale, capital is still stronger, both from the military and the economic standpoint, than Soviet power and the Soviet system. That is the fundamental premise from which we must proceed, and we must never forget it. Forms of the struggle against capital change—at one time they acquire an open international character, at another they are centred in one country. The forms change, but the struggle goes on whether it be in the military, the economic, or some other sphere of the social system; and our revolution confirms the basic law of the class struggle The greater the cohesion achieved by the proletariat in over throwing the bourgeois classes, the more it learns. The revolution develops in the course of the struggle itself. And the struggle does not cease with the overthrow of the capitalists. Only after the defeat of the capitalists has been consolidated in one country does it acquire practical significance for the whole world. At the beginning of the October Revolution the capitalists regarded our revolution as a freak—any queer thing may happen in those distant parts, they thought.

For the dictatorship of the proletariat to acquire world significance, it had to be consolidated in practice in some one country. Only then did the capitalists—not only the Russian capitalists, who at once rushed to seek the aid of other capitalists, but the capitalists of all other countries—become convinced that this matter was acquiring international significance. Only then did the resistance of the capitalists on a world scale attain the force it did. Only then did civil war develop in Russia and all the victorious countries do their utmost to assist the Russian capitalists and landowners in the Civil War.

The class struggle in Russia had taken full shape by 1900, whereas the socialist revolution became victorious in 1917. Not only did the resistance of the overthrown class continue to develop after its overthrow, but it acquired a new source of strength in the relations between the proletariat and the peasantry. This is known to anybody who has made any study of Marxism, who has based socialism on the international movement of the working class, as its only scientific foundation. Everyone knows that Marxism gives the theoretical reason for the abolition of classes. What does this mean? For the victory of socialism it is not enough to overthrow the capitalists; the difference between the proletariat and the peasantry must be abolished. The position of the peasantry is this—on the one hand, it is a class of working people, who for decades and centuries were oppressed by the landowners and capitalists, and it will therefore be a long time before they can forget that the workers alone liberated them from this oppression. This question could be discussed for decades; reams of paper have been filled on the subject, and many factional groups have taken shape around it. But we now see that these differences have paled before reality. As working people, the peasants will not forget for many years to come that it was the workers alone who liberated them from the landowners. That cannot be contested; but they remain property-owners in a commodity-producing economy. Every case of a sale of grain on the open market, of speculation and profiteering is the restoration of a commodity-producing economy, and hence of capitalism. By overthrowing the capitalists we liberated the peasantry, a class which in old Russia undoubtedly comprised the majority of the population. The peasants have remained property-owners in their form of production, and they are continuing to develop new capitalist relations after the overthrow of the bourgeoisie. These are the basic features of our economic position. Hence the absurdity of the talk we hear from those who do not understand the state of affairs. The talk of equality, liberty and democracy under present conditions is nonsense. We are waging a class struggle, and our aim is to abolish classes. As long as workers and peasants remain, socialism has not been achieved. And, in practice, we find an irreconcilable struggle going on everywhere. We must think about how and under what conditions the proletariat, wielding so powerful an apparatus of coercion as the state, can attract the peasant as a working man and overcome his resistance as a property-owner, or render it harmless.

Here the class struggle is continuing, and this throws new light on the significance of the dictatorship of the proletariat. It appears before us not only, and not even largely, as the employment of the coercive means of the state apparatus for the suppression of the resistance of the exploiters. It is, of course, right to say that we have done a lot by taking this as the basis, but we also have another method, in which the proletariat plays the part of an organiser, of one who has been through the school of labour and the training and discipline of the capitalist factory. We must organise economic life on a new and more perfect basis, counting on and utilising all the achievements of capitalism. Without this we shall never be able to build socialism and communism. This is much more difficult than the war tasks: In many respects the war tasks are easier to accomplish. They can be accomplished by enthusiasm, energy and self-sacrifice. It was easier for the peasant to fight his inveterate enemy, the landowner, and more within his understanding. He did not have to understand the connection between the power of the workers and the necessity to put down freedom of trade. It was easier to beat the Russian whiteguards, the landowners and capitalists, and their henchmen, the Mensheviks. This victory will cost us more, both in time and effort.

You cannot win in economic matters in the same way as in a war. Freedom of trade cannot be defeated by enthusiasm and self-sacrifice. Here, prolonged work is required; the ground has to be won inch by inch; the organising forces of the proletariat are required. Victory may be achieved only it the proletariat wields its dictatorship as a great, organised and organising force, a force of moral influence on all the working people, including the non-proletarian working masses. Now that we have been successful—and will continue to be equally successful—in carrying out the first and simplest task, the suppression of the exploiters who directly attempt to sweep away Soviet power, a second and more complex task arises, which is to organise the forces of the proletariat, to learn to be good organisers. Labour must be organised in a new way; new ways of stimulating people to work and to observe labour discipline must be devised. Even capitalism took decades to accomplish this. All too often the worst mistakes are made in this field. Many of our opponents show a complete failure to understand this question. They said we were utopians when we maintained that power could be seized. On the other hand, they expect us to complete the organisation of labour in a few months and to show results that require several years to produce. That is absurd. Given the political conditions, power can be retained by the sheer enthusiasm of the workers, perhaps even in the face of the whole world. That we have proved. But the creation of new forms of social discipline requires decades. Even capitalism required many decades to transform the old system of organisation. From the theoretical standpoint it is sheer nonsense to expect that we can reconstruct the organisation of labour in short order, and to instil this idea into the minds of the, workers and peasants.

And not only is it nonsense, it is extremely harmful, because it prevents the workers from clearly understanding the difference between the new tasks and the old. The new task is to organise industry, and first of all our own forces—and as far as organisation is concerned, we are weak, weaker than any of the advanced nations. The ability to do this is developed by large-scale machine industry, and it has never, in all history, had any other material basis than the productive labour of millions employing large-scale machine industry in accordance with a previously established plan. And here the interests of the proletariat and the peasantry do not coincide. A difficult period of struggle begins—a struggle against the peasantry. We must, however, make it clear to the peasants that they have no other course; they must either march with the workers, they must help the proletariat, or again succumb to the rule of the landowners. There is no middle course; the Mensheviks have a middle course, but it is a thoroughly rotten one and is failing everywhere, including Germany. The peasant masses cannot get an understanding of this by theory or by observing the Second and Third Internationals. The peasant masses—comprising tens of millions of people—can get an understanding of this only from their own experience, from their daily practical life. The peasants could understand the victory over Kolchak and Denikin. They were able to compare in practice Kolchak and Denikin with the dictatorship of the working class which the Mensheviks and Socialist-Revolutionaries had tried very hard and are still trying to scare the peasants with. But actually the peasants could never study theory, and cannot now. The peasant masses see that the Mensheviks and Socialist-Revolutionaries are all lying; and they see the struggle we are waging against profiteering. It must be confessed that the Mensheviks too have made some progress in propaganda, having learned something from our political departments in the army. The peasants saw a banner on which was inscribed, not dictatorship of the proletariat, but Constituent Assembly, the power of the people; they did not see the word “dictatorship”, they did not even understand the word. But experience has taught them that Soviet government is better.

And we are now faced with a second task, that of bringing moral influence to bear on the peasantry. Coercive methods towards the peasantry will help us little. It is the economic differentiation of the peasantry that is involved here. Since the overthrow of the capitalists, the struggle has drawn the workers close together; they have been cemented by two years of civil war. The peasantry, on the other hand, is splitting up more and more. The peasants cannot forget the landowners and capitalists; they remember them. Nevertheless, the peasantry of today are disunited; the interests of one section clash with those of another. The peasantry are not united. For one thing, not every peasant has food surpluses. There is no such equality. It is nonsense to say there is. To divide the peasantry and win over the non-kulak elements will require a lot of time. It will involve a long struggle, in which we shall employ all our forces, every means at our disposal. But force alone cannot ensure victory; moral means must be employed too. And from this follow all the questions of dictatorial power and individual authority which to many, or to some at any rate, it may be safely said, appear to have arisen only out of our recent disputes. But that is a mistake. Compare the situation with that of 1918. There were no disputes then.

When, after the peace with Germany, the question arose as to what should be the basis of power, we Communists replied—it must he made clear that democracy under the Soviet system does not contradict dictatorship. This was not to the liking of many leaders of the old International. Even Kautsky cursed me.

The peasants are half labourers and half property-owners, and in order to win them over to us there must be unity of will, all must act in unison on every practical issue. Unity of will must not be a catchword, a symbol. We demand it in practice. This is how unity of will was expressed during the war—anybody who placed his own interests (or the interests of his village or group) above the common interests, was branded as a self-seeker and was shot; this was justified by the moral consciousness of the working class that it must achieve victory. We spoke about these shootings openly; we said that we made no secret of coercion, because we realised that we could not emerge from the old society without resorting to compulsion as far as the backward section of the proletariat was concerned. That is the way unity of will was expressed, and it was maintained in practice by punishing every deserter; in every battle and every campaign it was maintained by the Communists marching in the forefront and setting an example. The present task is to try to apply this unity of will to industry and agriculture. We have a territory stretching thousands of versts and huge numbers of factories. You must realise, therefore, that we cannot achieve our purpose by force alone; you must realise what a colossal task confronts us and what unity of will means today. It is not only a slogan. It must be given thought, careful thought. It is a slogan that entails prolonged, day-to-day effort. Take 1918, when there were no such disputes; even then I pointed to the necessity for individual authority, to the need to recognise the dictatorial authority of individuals in order to carry out the Soviet idea. All talk about equality of rights is nonsense. We are not waging the class struggle on the basis of equality of rights, nor can we if the proletariat is to prevail. Prevail it can, because we have hundreds of thousands of disciplined people expressing a single will; and it can prevail over the peasantry, which have been dispersed economically, and which have no common basis such as welds together the proletariat in the factories and the cities. The peasants are economically disunited. They are partly property-owners and partly labourers. Property drags them towards capitalism: “The more profitably I sell, the better. If they’re starving, I’ll sell at a higher price.” But, as a working man, the peasant knows that he suffered oppression at the hands of the landowner, from which he was liberated by the worker. Here we have a conflict of two souls, resulting from the economic status of the peasantry. These two souls must be separated one from the other. And we shall win only when we pursue a firm policy. All working people will always be working people to us; but as for the peasant proprietors, we have to fight them. Not only are they always at each other’s throats, but they are ignorant into the bargain. The gentlemen at the League of Nations, thank God, are not ignorant; they are probably better educated than our Mensheviks and Socialist-Revolutionaries. But what do we find? Japan glorifies the League of Nations, yet tries to trip up America, and so on.

They are all at loggerheads, whereas we are united. And that is why workers in all countries are joining us. Since we have been able to defeat such enlightened gentlemen as the directors of international policy, who have so much experience, so much wealth, and a hundred guns and battleships for every one of ours, it is absurd to think that we cannot solve the peasant problem. It is discipline, loyalty, and united will that will win here. The will of tens and hundreds of thousands of people can be expressed by one person. This composite will is achieved in the Soviet way. In no other country have there been so many congresses of peasants and workers as in ours. That is the way we develop an enlightened attitude. What the Soviet Constitution gives us no other state has been able to give in two hundred years. (Applause.) To take only the number of congresses—no other state has summoned so many in a century of democracy. In this way we arrive at common decisions and mould a common will.

This is the broad way in which our Soviet Constitution, our Soviet form of government are to he understood. Its effect is that the decisions of the Soviet government have power of authority without parallel in the world, the power of the workers and peasants. But that is not enough for us. We are materialists, and you cannot satisfy us with power of authority, so please take the trouble to put it into effect. And here we find the old bourgeois instinct gaining the upper hand, and we must frankly admit that it is stronger than we are. The old petty-bourgeois habit of conducting enterprises on individual lines and trying to strengthen freedom of trade is stronger than we are.

The trade unions arose out of capitalism as a means developing the new class. Class is a concept which is evolved in struggle and development. There is no wall dividing one class from another. The workers and peasants are not separated by a Chinese Wall. How did man learn to form associations? First through the guild, and then according to different trades. Having become a class, the proletariat grew so strong that it took over the whole state machine, proclaimed war on the whole world and emerged victorious. The guilds and craft unions have now become backward institutions. Time was when the proletarians, under capitalism amalgamated along the lines of guild and craft. This was progressive at that time because the proletariat could not have amalgamated in any other way. It is absurd to say that the proletariat could have amalgamated to form a class at once. Such amalgamation requires decades. Marx, more than anybody, fought such sectarian and short-sighted views. The class grows under capitalist conditions, and when the suitable moment for revolution arrives, it takes state power into its own hands. And then all the guilds and craft unions become obsolete, they play a backward role, they are retrograde, not because they are run by bad people, but because bad people and enemies of communism find in them fertile soil for their propaganda. We are surrounded by the petty bourgeoisie who are reviving freedom of trade and capitalism. Karl Marx fought vigorously against the old utopian socialism and advocated the scientific view, which shows that the class struggle fosters the growth of the class, and the class must be helped to mature. Marx also fought the working class leaders who went astray. In the Federal Council, in 1872, a vote of censure was passed on Marx for saying that the British leaders had been bribed by the bourgeoisie. Of course, Marx did not mean this in the sense that certain people were traitors. That is nonsense. He spoke about a bloc of a certain section of the workers with the bourgeoisie. The bourgeoisie supports this section of the workers directly and indirectly. That is the way in which it bribes them.

As far as getting its representatives elected to parliament is concerned, the British bourgeoisie has worked miracles, and excels all others. Marx and Engels exposed the bourgeoisie over a period of forty years, from 1852 to 1892, and the bourgeoisie acts in the same way in all countries. The fact that throughout the world trade unions have passed from the role of slaves to the role of builders marks a turning-point. We have existed for two years and what do we see? We see today that the working class has suffered most from hunger. In 1918 and 1919 the country’s industrial workers received only seven poods of bread each, whereas the peasants of the grain-producing gubernias each had seventeen poods. Under the tsar the peasant used to get sixteen poods of bread at the best, whereas under our rule he gets seventeen poods. There is statistical evidence of this. The proletariat has been hungry for two years but this hunger has shown that the worker is capable of sacrificing not only his craft interests, but even his life. The proletariat was able to stand famine for two years because it had the moral support of all the labouring folk, and it bore these sacrifices for the sake of the victory of the workers’ and peasants’ government. It is true that the division of workers according to trade continues, and that many of these trades were necessary to the capitalist but are not necessary to us. And we know that the workers in these trades are suffering more severely from hunger than others. And it cannot be otherwise. Capitalism has been smashed, but socialism has not yet been built; and it will take a long time to build. Here we come up against all sorts of misunderstandings, which are not fortuitous, but are the result of the difference in the historical role of the trade unions as an instrument of craft amalgamation under capitalism and the trade unions as an instrument of the class amalgamation of the workers after they have taken over the state power. The workers are prepared to make any sacrifice; they create the discipline which compels people to say and feel, perhaps vaguely, that class interests are higher than craft interests. Workers who are incapable of making such sacrifices we regard as self-seekers, and we drive them out of the proletarian fold.

Such was the fundamental question of labour discipline, of one-man management in a general sense, as discussed by the Party Congress. That is the gist of the decisions of the Party Congress, which you are all familiar with and which will be spoken of in greater detail in special reports. Their meaning is that the working class has grown and matured; it has taken over the power and is fighting the whole bourgeois world; and this struggle is becoming more and more difficult. It was easier to fight in the war. What is now required is organisation and moral education. Numerically the proletariat in Russia is at present not very strong. Its ranks have grown thinner during the war and our very victories have made it harder for us to govern the country. Both the trade unionists and the masses of the workers must realise this. When we talk about dictatorship, it is not the whim of centralists. The regions we have won have greatly enlarged the territory of Soviet Russia. We have won Siberia, the Don and the Kuban areas. There the percentage of proletarians is very small, smaller than it is here. We must go straight to the worker and tell him frankly that conditions of work have grown more complicated. We need more discipline, more individual authority and more dictatorship. Without that, we cannot even dream of a bigger victory. We have an organised army of three million members. The 600,000 Communists, the members of the Party, must act as its vanguard.

But it must be realised that we have no other army with which to gain a victory than the 600,000 Communists and the three million trade union members. The acquisition of territories with a peasant-kulak population demands a new exertion of proletarian effort. We are faced with a new ratio of proletarian to non-proletarian masses, of their social and class interests. Nothing can be done here by force alone, organisation and moral authority are all that is needed. Hence our absolute conviction, which was expressed by our Party Congress and which I deem it my duty to uphold. Our chief slogan is—let us have more one-man management, let get closer to one-man management, let us have more labour discipline, let us pull ourselves together and work with military determination, staunchness and loyalty, brushing aside all group and craft interests, sacrificing all private interests. We cannot succeed otherwise. But if we carry out this decision of the Party, carry it out to a man among the three million workers, and then among the tens of millions of peasants, who will feel the moral authority and strength of the people who have sacrificed themselves for the victory of socialism, we shall be absolutely and completely invincible. (Stormy applause.)


[1] The Third All-Russia Trade Union Congress was held in Moscow April 6-13, 1920, in the House of Trade Unions. It was attended by nearly 1,600 delegates, who represented over 4 million trade union members. The Bolsheviks constituted a majority at the Congress 1,180 delegates were Bolsheviks and their supporters, 57 were Mensheviks, and 69 represented other parties.

The Congress based its work on the programme of economic development mapped out by the Ninth Party Congress. The agenda included the following items: report on the activities of the All-Russia Central Council of Trade Unions, report on the activities of the People’s Commissariat of Labour, the tasks of the trade unions, organisational question, tariff policy, the supply of goods for workers, the role of the trade unions in the national economy, the international trade union movement, cultural and educational activities.

At the second plenary meeting of the Congress on April 7 Lenin delivered a speech in the name of the Council of People’s Commissars. He was greeted with an ovation and the audience sang the Internationale. He defined the tasks of the Soviet Republic in peace time and drew attention to the work of the trade unions in economic development. After Lenin’s speech the Congress adopted a decision to issue an appeal to the workers and to all working people generally calling upon them to combat economic chaos by their joint efforts, to introduce strict discipline immediately in all trade union organisations and to intensify the work of drawing the masses in the building of communism through the medium of the trade unions and under the guidance of the Communist Party.

The Third All-Russia Congress of Trade Unions fully approved of the decisions of the Ninth Congress of the R.C.P.(B.) in the sphere of economic development. The Congress condemned the Mensheviks who advocated the independence of the trade unions and attempted to oppose them to the Communist Party.