A. Lozovsky

The World’s Trade Union Movement


THIS book is the stenographic report of a series of lectures, delivered by A. Losovsky, General Secretary of the Red International of Labor Unions before the school of the Russian Communist Party in Moscow, during July and August, 1923. It was published in pamphlet form in the Russian language early this year, and is herewith presented in English.

Probably the most important characteristic of Losovsky’s lectures is that, for the first time, there is available a comprehensive picture of the trade union movement from the world viewpoint, which deals not so much with the statics (the unilluminating details of organization and the million variations of program and problems) but rather with the vital, living influences at work within the labor movement, the tendencies, the relation of forces and, especially, with the tremendous struggle developing throughout the world since the war by the forces of revolutionary struggle, crystallized in the Red International of Labor Unions, against the class collaboration policies of the old bureaucracy, organized in the Amsterdam International (International Federation of Trade Unions).

It is this world-wide viewpoint upon which the lectures are based that gives the book its greatest value. Such a comprehensive outlook is especially needed in the American labor movement. The trade union movement in this country, originally among the most militant and international in its attitude, has for forty years been stifled by the narrow nationalism, as well as by the jealous craft spirit within the limits of the nation, of the reactionary officialdom headed by Samuel Gompers. To see and to understand that the fundamental problems of the trade unions throughout the world are essentially the same as our own, an understanding which a study of Losovsky’s book will certainly give, is to lay the firmest possible foundation—the only possible onefor a broad and powerful revolutionary organization in America.


If we were to attempt an adequate review of developments within the American labor movement, as complete and comprehensive as that given by Losovsky for the International, it would require another book of almost equal dimensions. In this brief introduction it is the purpose only to suggest some of the main points of comparison.

In the pre-war period of American trade unionism, three main tendencies may be distinguished; they may be classified as trade unionism, syndicalism, and socialism. Each of these tendencies, although corresponding in a general way to their analogous forces in the European movement, varied in many respects from their counterparts in other countries.

Trade unionism, as a distinct philosophy of the labor movement which concerns itself exclusively with the immediate economic struggle, is adequately characterized by Losovsky in dealing with the world situation. In the international movement this tendency is largely represented by the British and American unions. One important difference in the pre-war development of the two Anglo-Saxon movements, however, necessary to an understanding of many present problems, is that while in Britain the trade unions (and trade unionism as a system of ideas) had entered a period of change and development even before the war, in America this process has started much later and under different world conditions. Thus while the British labor movement, reformist to the core though it was, yet was developing independent political action in the British Labor Party and embarked upon projects of amalgamation that broke up the hard and fast concepts of craft unionism, in this same period the American Federation of Labor stood solidly against the slightest deviation from its classical policies — collaboration in the capitalist parties and strict craft autonomy.

The syndicalist tendency in the world movement has its counterpart in America in the Industrial Workers of the World (I. W. W.) Arising as a protest against the antiquated structure and class collaboration policies of the A. F. of L., on the one hand, and against the parliamentary cretinism of the Socialist Party on the other, this organization played a considerable role in the ideological development of American revolutionists, though a much smaller one in the class struggle itself. Dominated at its birth by a leadership imbued with Marxism, yet early it adopted the anti-political theories of syndicalism. Although the form of this syndicalist doctrine was largely molded by the syndicalist schools of Europe, it was actually based in the social and economic conditions of the western migratory worker of America, the only element of labor that has been permanently in the I. W. W. On its positive side the I. W. W. developed a complete theory of industrial unionism, an ideal plan for reorganizing the labor movement from top to bottom. It is this concept of industrial unionism, necessarily applying centralized organization, which is the chief difference between the I. W. W. and European syndicalism. During the pre-war period the I. W. W. undoubtedly represented the most militant and class conscious section of the American proletariat.

The Socialist Party as a force in the trade union movement, has played no dominating role in America. When it came upon the scene it found the trade unions already established, with a crystallized leadership that was hostile to Socialism. The impatience of the socialists, with this reactionary trade unionism led not only to the dual unionism which culminated in the I. W. W., but also divided the socialists themselves on the trade union field. The split which divided the Socialist Party from the Socialist Labor Party, one of the issues of which was the latter’s policy of dual unionism, did not leave the Socialist Party free to develop as a power in the trade union movement. The socialist left-wing became militant advocates of the I. W. W., while the rightwing, which stood for working within the trade unions, was incapable of developing a real opposition to Gompersism. While the Socialist Party remained “His Majesty’s opposition” in the court of Samuel Gompers during the pre-war period, its opposition was at almost all times very ineffective, it had no trade union program, and was entirely incapable, even when its members gained control of large unions, of effecting the general course of American trade unionism.


The entry of America into the world war brought profound changes in all these groups and tendencies in the American labor movement. The trade unions, during the war and the years immediately following, made great strides forward in membership. The officialdom was largely incorporated into the governmental machinery and occupied a semi-privileged status. “War prosperity” delivered an enormous power into their hands. The bureaucracy was able to become an instrument for the conscription of the working class for war and industry, a vehicle for floating war loans among the workers, a machine for delivering rebellious workers to the Department of Justice—in short, to take its place as an open section of the ruling class—without losing its control over the masses, or creating any considerable organized opposition.

Upon the I. W. W., the war had a shattering effect. Permeated by militant rebels who actively fought against participation in the world slaughter, it brought down upon itself all the wrath of American capitalism. But because it was dominated by syndicalist prejudices it was completely unable to form such a well-knit body of men and ideas as could survive such a period of suppression and emerge stronger than ever on account of it. After hundreds of its leading militants had been sent to prison, the I. W. W. rapidly developed into a pacifist, non-resistant organization. It lost not only the bulk of its membership but, more important, it surrendered its position held up until the war, of the most militant section of the American working class.

When America was thrown into the war, the Socialist Party was again torn by its inner contradictions. The St. Louis convention in 1917 was dominated by the anti-war elements. But the right-wing was Still in almost complete control of the Party, with the result that its practical activity brought the S. P. few of the benefits of a fighting antimilitarist stand. On the other hand, the St. Louis resolution, after causing the split away of an insignificant group of socialist jingoes, (Spargo, Walling, et al), brought the S. P. up against the solid wall of Gompers’ ironclad control of the trade unions. The socialist leaders in the labor movement quickly made their peace with Gompers. The ideological and organizational struggle within the S. P., between the rank and file militants who stood for active anti-militarism, and the right-wing leadership that wished to accommodate itself to “reality,” prepared the ground for the later disintegration of the Socialist Party.


The Russian revolution crashed into this situation, upsetting all the old inertias and balances. The masses in the unions responded to it with the most widespread and effective forward movement yet seen. Great strike after strike shook the country. Hitherto-unorganized millions flooded into the unions. For the first time militant leadership upon a large scale was able to appear above the stifling Gompers bureaucracy, as in the steel strike. The masses in the trade unions had been profoundly stirred.

In the I. W. W. the Russian revolution had been greeted with great acclaim. With the development of civil war and the accompanying struggle against anarchist and Menshevik ideology in Russia, a division took place in the I. W. W. The anarcho-syndicalist tendency which, combined with a bastard pacifism, was in control, became definitely antagonistic to the revolution; at the same time a large number of the clearer elements definitely began to shed their anti-political dogmas and to assimilate the lessons of the Russian revolution. The development of this Communist wing in the I. W. W. was retarded by the imprisonment of many of its best leaders. This allowed some misunderstanding to occur, so that the confusionist leadership continued to dominate the organization. The result was that thousands of the best rank and file militants left the I. W. W. in disgust at its propaganda against Soviet Russia. The full effects of the favorable reaction towards the Russian revolution on the part of the I. W. W. membership thus failed to obtain expression in the organization as such.

Most profound was the effect upon the Socialist Party of the Bolshevik upheaval. The split which took place in 1919, the formation of the various Communist Parties and groups, and their later integration under the influence of the Communist International, brought a profound, change into the left-wing conception of trade union strategy and tactics. At the same time this split eliminated the Socialist Party as even the shadow of an independent factor. Since 1919 the S. P. has steadily and consistently gone to the right, abandoned all pretense even of opposition to Gompersism, and today suffers silently from the insults which “the Grand Old Man” heaps upon them the while he orders them about.


Within the trade unions there had for years been a small group of revolutionists attempting to develop a revolutionary wing therein. In 1912 this group organized the Syndicalist League of North America, which expressed the general tendency of syndicalism but in flat opposition to dual organization, opposing thereto the idea of revolutionary nuclei in the mass unions. This movement after a short but active life subsided, to appear again in 1916 as the International Trade Union Educational League, which, however, soon expired in the war atmosphere of the time. In 1920 the Trade Union Educational League was formed, marking time for the most part, while it endeavored to bring about unity of program among all the left-wing elements.

It was at this time that the full effects of the Russian revolution upon the American labor movement generally began to show themselves. Under the leadership of the Communist International and later also of the Red International of Labor Unions, the revolutionists of America were freeing themselves from the peculiarly American dogma of dual unionism which had rendered their efforts sterile for a generation. The result was the coming together in a great campaign of left-wing organization and the clarification of program, in the Trade Union Educational League. From the mass trade unions came hundreds of militants hitherto unattached to any revolutionary body on account of the old dual union notions. From the I. W. W. came a group of workers who embodied all the fine traditions of the best revolutionary days of that organization. From the Communist groups that split away from the Socialist Party and were later unified in the Workers Party of America, came the full current of American revolutionary experience and ideology. In the Trade Union Educational League all these elements, comprising every healthy American left-wing tendency, were fused together into the first effective left-wing trade union movement in this country, the American section of the Red International of Labor Unions.


In the brief years of its work the Trade Union Educational League has wrought a profound clarification in the entire labor movement. Starting out with a great campaign from coast to coast and in every labor union, for amalgamation and a labor party—slogans expressing the two deepest and most fundamental needs of the American labor movement—the T. U. E. L. has reached the minds of hundreds of thousands of trade unionists and influenced the decisions of at least 2,000,000. From the broad slogans that stir the masses, it has intensively developed the issue of revolutionary unionism until today it represents the organized struggle within the unions against every phase of capitalistic influence and bourgeois ideology. While it battles for the formation of an all-embracing farmer-labor party, to express the broad political struggle of the toiling masses at the present moment of development, it is at the same time rallying the smaller groups of conscious revolutionary workers to the more bitter and intense struggle against the subtler forms of class collaboration. It is no accident that the T. U. E. L. is at once a leading factor throughout the labor movement in the struggle for a labor party, in which millions are enlisted, and at the same time is organizing the resistance to the nefarious “B. & O.” class collaboration scheme of the railroad union bureaucrats, to the poisonous effects of which the workers are only beginning to be aroused.

Of course the tremendous progress made by the Trade Union Educational League, in establishing the left-wing as a power in the trade unions, has not been unopposed. Long before the bureaucrats generally realized what menace the T. U. E. L. was to their comfortable swivelchair life, the old fox Gompers had sounded the alarm. As the leftwing campaigns shook the labor movement and registered success after success in almost every legislative gathering of the working class, the officialdom took alarm and rallied every force of the union machinery, the capitalist press, and the State. The Federal Government was used in an attempt to railroad Foster to prison, along with 70 other trade union militants and Communists. The capitalist press has teemed with organized and inspired propaganda against the left-wing. The union journals have been full to overflowing with denunciation and provocation against the T. U. E. L. militants. And, direct from the Amsterdam International, headquarters of reaction in the world's labor movement, has been imported the policy of expulsions and splits against the leftwing.

Space will not permit even the briefest review of the development of the American left-wing movement in the trade unions. Those who have missed reading THE LABOR HERALD, monthly organ of the Trade Union Educational League since March, 1922, can find the rich experience of these few years embodied therein. Back numbers and bound volumes can be obtained from the League office. Just as this book of Losovsky’s is necessary to everyone who would understand the world’s labor movement today, so is THE LABOR HERALD necessary to every left-wing unionist who wishes to be an effective participant in the great revolutionary struggle now going on for the leadership of the American labor movement.

Although the American class struggle has so far developed the most primitive trade unionism, in ideology and organizational form, yet the struggle itself, in the direct clashes with the employing class, its private armed forces and the State, has been more bitter and violent than in perhaps any other country previous to the revolutionary period. The reactionary leadership and antiquated program and structure of the American labor movement could not prevent the giant forces generated by American capitalism from coming to expression in great struggles. It is enough to cite Homestead, Pullman, Ludlow, McKees Rocks, Lawrence, Mesaba, the steel strike, Herrin, West Virginia, and the whole history of the coal miners, to understand that the American working class contains within itself the forces of proletarian revolution corresponding to the productive forces of American Capitalism, the greatest in the world. Delayed in coming to expression by the peculiar conditions of American social development, the forces of revolution in the American trade union movement will be all the more sweeping and rapid in their development, all the more decisive and relentless, when the chains of capitalist ideology, of reformism, of Gompersism, are finally broken.

April 28, 1924.

Next: I. The World’s Trade Union Movement Before and After the War