A. Lozovsky

Fundamental Problems of the World Trade Union Movement
and the Fifth Congress of the Comintern

Source: The Communist International, 1924, No. 4 (New Series), pp. 41-54, (5,631 words).
Transcription: Ted Crawford
HTML Markup: Brian Reid
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Some comrades think that the time has come for the Comintern to revise its tactics in the trade union movement. In Germany there are already advocates of these “new” tactics, which after all are not as new as their advocates imagine. But as this question has been raised, we must be well acquainted with the conditions under which the present struggle of the working class has to be carried on. If on the strength of a thorough analysis of the economic conditions and trade union movement throughout the world we were compelled to change our tactics, the Comintern would not be worth its name if it did not change its line of action. We have no special reverence for slogans and are always ready to change our tactics whenever necessary. For this reason we must deal seriously with this question, and our point of issue must not be abstract discussions concerning the usefulness of new ideas, but the concrete conditions under which Communists have to fight for the leadership of the working masses. If it is shown that the “new tactics” are better adapted than the old to enlist the sympathies of the masses, it would be criminal folly on our part if we refused to adopt them. This is the only criterion.

No doubt a turning point has been reached in the Labour movement. We witness at present a great revival of economic struggles in France, Germany, and Great Britain. Conflicts of considerable magnitude spring up one after the other. Hundreds of thousands of workers have been brought into action, and the workers are not only showing greater activity in defence but are also attacking. It would be premature to say that the general retreat is over. What is happening now in some branches of industry is nothing in the nature of a general offensive. It merely shows that there is a big move forward in working class ranks, but that there is no uniformity in their activity. These forces have not yet learned to act in unison. Nevertheless the signs are that the period of the capitalist offensive and the defeats inflicted separately on the various sections of the proletariat have taught their lesson. In all countries there is a better understanding of the necessity of international action and of bringing large masses into the struggle. We are only at the beginning of a revival which (there is every reason to believe) will last several years. It is this revival of the economic as well as of the political struggle which raises before us a number of practical questions that require an immediate answer.

The capitalist offensive considerably reduced the numerical strength of all trade unions. This applies to all reformist organisations, but the German trade unions were the greatest sufferers. The powerful German trade union movement has become considerably weakened. Instead of the former membership of eight and one-half millions, the reformist trade unions can only boast at present five million members. Some say that even this figure is an exaggeration. There are no exact data, and to get a correct idea of the diminution in trade union membership, one has to rely on various symptoms and indirect data: one cannot put any faith in the official communications of the All-German Trade Union Federation (A.D.G.B.). Considerable reductions have also taken place in Great Britain, France, Italy, the Scandinavian countries, etc. It is significant that in France the United Confederation of Labour is growing, while the reformist General Confederation of Labour is losing members. This general slump in the trade union movement is not only a natural consequence of the failure of the unions to counteract the capitalist offensive, but is mainly caused by the disinclination of the leaders of the trade union movement to organise the workers for struggle. If we add to this the financial bankruptcy of the unions, especially in countries with a depreciated valuta, and the fact that it is utterly impossible to fulfil even purely trade union obligations, we shall understand the reason of reduced trade union membership. An important reason for the decline of trade union influence is the failure of the trade union leaders to organise any resistance to the capitalist offensive. The Amsterdamers evolution to the right went on apace, and in the year 1923, and in the beginning of 1924, we had glaring examples of the treachery of the Amsterdam leaders. It is sufficient to refer to the conduct of the reformists in Italy, and to the role played by the trade union bureaucracy in Germany for the last eighteen months. In conjunction with the Social-Democrats, the Amsterdamers succeeded in ruining a promising and growing movement towards the end of 1923. Moreover, the Amsterdamers excelled themselves: their present role is that of strike-breakers. This is the climax of Social democratic development. Social democracy and its ally trade union bureaucracy, have become the main support of fascist reaction and a strike-breaking apparatus for employers’ organisations. This must be taken into account when we define our tasks and consider the adoption of effective methods of struggle.

As the trade union bureaucracy is becoming more and more an adjunct of fascist reaction and a strike-breaking body, it is compelled to take very drastic measures against the growing opposition. This is its present historic mission. It is only in the capacity of a strike-breaking organisation and of a disorganiser of the working class movement and struggles that trade union bureaucracy is still of some use to the bourgeoisie. In this role the trade union bureaucracy sticks at nothing. For instance, the last months of a very acute struggle of the workers in Germany for their elementary demands were coincident with the expulsion from the unions of all revolutionary elements and attempts on the part of the trade union bureaucrats to split the Labour movement at all costs. With characteristic cynicism some of these bureaucrats declared, “it is better to have only half the former membership provided it is loyal, than to allow Communists to interfere with and hinder our work. It is better to have fifty per cent. without Communists than one hundred per cent. with them.” But the trade union bureaucrats would be satisfied with less. If it is impossible to retain fifty per cent. they will rest content with forty and even ten per cent., provided the apparatus remains in their hands and provided they can prevent the Communists from organising the workers for the struggle against capitalism. These gentry will not leave the organisations unless they are forcibly ejected from them.

Lately, the struggle against the opposition has assumed a very acute character. This is explained by the fact that a revolutionary workers’ movement is developing rapidly in spite of enormous difficulties. This applies to countries with parallel revolutionary organisations (France, CzechoSlovakia, Yugo-Slavia, etc.), as well as to countries where the revolutionary elements still remain within the trade unions. In this respect, one can say that the United Confederation of Labour and the Federation of Trade Unions in Czecho-Slovakia have considerably grown during the last eighteen months. Even reformists do not deny this fact. In France the leader of the struggle is the United Confederation of Labour, while the reformist Confederation spends its time in pacifist talk about peaceful methods of improving the conditions of the working class. We witness a similar growth in Czecho-Slovakia. Of considerable interest is the growing movement in Germany and in Great Britain. In the former, the revolutionary movement is continually attracting new masses of workers, while, in the latter, the masses have had such an object lesson from the Labour Government that they see there is no other way open to them but the way of revolution. It is this growth of revolutionary forces and the fear of losing its influence which drives the trade union bureaucracy to schismatic tactics, and induces it to break up organisations rather than that they shall fall into the hands of the Communists. This is obviously the reason for the provocative conduct on the part of the bureaucrats, such as insistence, on solemn promises and signatures, refusal to endorse and even expelling elected representatives, etc. There have been repeated examples of this monstrous conduct during the last eighteen months which witness to the profound democratism of the Amsterdamers. The gentlemen who shout on the highways and bye-ways about democracy tread underfoot the most elementary democratic rules of workers’ organisations, provided they can retain in their hands the trade union funds and apparatus.

Such in general outline is the situation in the trade union movement, and we are brought right up to the question: should Communists allow themselves to be provoked by the action of the Amsterdamers or not? We all know that the insolence of the Amsterdamers will increase as our influence grows, and excessive sensitiveness will only show that Communist nerves are not up to the mark. Indeed, what reprisals can we make to their acts of provocation? These acts have not commenced only recently. We have passed through a whole period of provocation, mass expulsions, etc. Nevertheless we did not allow our indignation to run away with us, we controlled our feelings and continued our tactics for the capture of the trade unions, employing every time new means and methods for permeating the masses: and this is really what matters most. Yet there are comrades who say that “capture the trade unions” is already obsolete because the trade union bureaucracy is determined to prevent the Communists from capturing the trade unions. But this is not new to us. Of course, the bureaucrats will do their utmost to prevent us from capturing the trade unions, but we must not interpret the slogan: “Capture the Trade Unions” in this bald way. The Communist International never regarded the capturing of the unions as the capturing of the apparatus and the funds of the unions; it was always taken to mean winning over the masses, the rank and file of the trade union members. Has anything changed in this connection? Have we fulfilled the tasks we set ourselves; if so, to what extent? If we examine one country after the other, we shall see that our conquests on this field were considerable, but nevertheless there are still millions of workers who are outside of our influence and still follow the reformists. This being so, what would have happened if we had allowed ourselves to be provoked and had substituted the slogan of capturing the unions by a slogan of forming new unions or splitting unions? Had we done so, we certainly would have lost, especially under present conditions, when the working class is fully alive to the necessity of unity for an effective resistance to the capitalist offensive. Provocation must not be tolerated. It is time to cease giving in—so say our impatient comrades. We cannot accept such a slogan as a general rule. Of course, we cannot tolerate provocation, and, of course, we must not retreat. But there are moments when the revolutionary party does not resort to provocation, because it does not want to allow itself to be provoked, and retreats in order the, better to advance later. To lay down a general rule in this connection, and to make every provocation of the Amsterdamers an excuse for changing our trade union tactics, would be the height of folly. Has the slogan “capturing the trade union masses” become obsolete? Not in the least. The Fifth Congress of the Communist International will have to confirm this slogan. It is applicable both for countries where the opposition is inside the trade unions, as well as for countries with parallel organisations, as in France and Czecho-Slovakia. The slogan “Capture the Trade Unions” is the most important Comintern and Profintern slogan, and must on no account be relinquished. We must reject all attempts coming from Communist circles to induce us to abandon this slogan which has been instrumental in bringing over millions of workers to our side.

But the political success of this slogan can only be assured if it goes parallel with the slogan of: “Fight for Unity.” Here, too, we meet with new tendencies. These tendencies, which found their expression at the Frankfurt Congress of the German Communist Party, can be summed up as follows: the slogan of the fight for trade union unity has lost its meaning because circumstances and conditions have changed. We must give up the slogan which can only benefit our enemies. This new point of view is connected with the rejection of the slogan of the conquest of trade unions. The error of such an attitude is obvious. If Communist Parties and the Comintern were to give up the struggle for the unity of the trade union movement, it would be an irretrievable mistake. For are we not fighting for working class unity, are not all our efforts directed towards united proletarian organisations? All the activities of the Comintern are devoted towards the formation of proletarian organisations based on the class struggle. It would be a catastrophe for Communism if every rank and file worker were to interpret these “new tactics” as follows: the Communists are for trade union unity when they are in the majority, and for a split when they are in the minority. Such a policy is absolutely contrary to the methods of the Comintern. We are for trade union unity even when we are in the minority, because in the end trade union unity will work to our advantage. It is only by going forward under the banner of unity, by mobilising the masses under this slogan and by carrying on a relentless struggle against any form of split, that Communist Parties and the Communist International will be able to make their political influence duly felt among the masses. If we were to give up this slogan, we would place a very strong weapon lit the hands of our enemies. We would make it possible for those who really split the Labour movement, who betray it almost daily, to parade as champions of unity, while the more determined section of the working class, which carries on a relentless struggle against the bourgeoisie, would appear in the light of striving to cause a split. This would be a topsy-turvy way of doing things.

Comrades who oppose the slogan of the capture of Trade Unions and of the struggle for unity, by so doing reject the slogan of the united front, both from the top and the bottom. What is the meaning of united front from the bottom? It means that we strive to unite in action all workers irrespective of their tendency; that we do our utmost to unite them against capitalism; that in time of stress we draw all workers into common action, and finally that we endeavour to keep workers of different political opinions in one and the same trade union, gradually winning them over to the side of Communism. How can we speak of a united front from the bottom if we declare ourselves in favor of a split? What kind of united front could we advocate under such conditions? If we are against unity of the trade union movement, then to be logical we must be against all forms of unity in the Labour movement. Why should we be against unity in the trade union movement, and for unity in factory committees? Where is the logic of this? There is no logic in it. This viewpoint logically leads to the repudiation of any united front whatever. Such a viewpoint leads to the complete isolation of the Communists. A Communist who allows himself to be isolated from the masses is not worth his salt. One cannot have a high opinion of a Communist Party which invents slogans which are bound to weaken its contact with the masses. Comrades who oppose the slogan of “Capture the Trade Unions” and unity in the trade union movement, oppose the slogan of the united front from the bottom. And it cannot be otherwise. With the repudiation of the struggle for trade union unity, the united front slogan falls to the ground.

But this is making a fetish of organisation, some comrades will say. Not a bit of it. Certainly, the Comintern cannot be accused of making a fetish of organisation. For us organisation is not an aim in itself, and it is not from this viewpoint that Communists must approach the question of unity or splitting in the trade union movement. If a split were in the interests of revolution, it would have to take place. The interests of the revolution is the supreme law. But the fact is that those who speak against struggle for trade union unity and against the tactics of winning over the masses, cannot give any valid reasons for the attitude. Surely, such reasons as: “We must not tolerate provocation,” “We must not give way,” “We must not compromise,” etc., cannot be regarded as satisfactory. This is sentimentality, not politics. It would be different if these comrades could prove that the Labour movement in all countries, including Germany, would gain by splits. But, comrades who are particularly keen on this question themselves admit that, in the event of splits, for instance, in Germany, many workers who now follow the Communist Party would not join the new organisation. In other words, all attempts to organise new unions would be ignored by millions of workers who at present are in sympathy with us, and, of course, by the millions who now follow the reformists, but who to-morrow will follow us. Thus it is quite clear that our policy is not based on the fetish of organisation, on the conception that organisation is an aim in itself, that unity must be maintained at any cost, but that it is based on the conviction that splits which may lead to our becoming isolated from the masses are inexpedient, nay even politically harmful. This is how struggle for unity must be interpreted. We would commit a great mistake if we approached the question of trade union unity or splits purely from the organisational viewpoint, for this is a great political problem, and, if we do not properly solve it, it may cost the Communist International very dearly. This does not mean that we shall not organise those who were expelled from reformist unions, and those who have not yet been organised in trade unions, etc. Nothing of the kind. It means that we must struggle for the unity of the trade union movement, that we must mobilise the masses under this slogan and must continue our permeation of the reformist organisations until we succeed in getting rid of the bureaucrats and bureaucratism, and in rallying an overwhelming majority of the proletariat to our platform.

This brings us to the problem of the organisation of the unorganised. Strictly speaking, the entire Work of the Comintern and the Communist Parties consists in organising the unorganised. From the Communist viewpoint, not only non-party workers, but even workers belonging to trade unions and the Social-Democratic Party are unorganised, for only the Communist Party can be rightly regarded as a real proletarian organisation. This question arose recently when workers began to leave their trade unions en masse. Hence we have to deal not only with unorganised workers, but also with workers who have left their respective organisations for some reason or other. This category includes passive elements, as well as active elements who have become disappointed with the trade unions. One must say that with the exception of two or three countries, a large majority of the working class is at yet unorganised. Suffice it to say that out of ten to eleven million workers and employees in France, there are in the two Confederations only seven hundred thousand members; that out of thirty million workers, employees and officials in the United States of America, only four million are organised in trade unions; and that even in Germany, where the percentage of organised workers is very high, there are many millions of workers who do not belong to any organisation. It is only natural that this question must occupy the attention of the Communist parties. It is a very important question which must be given due consideration. Communist parties must above all take the initiative in establishing trade unions in those branches of industry where they do not yet exist. There is a considerable number of such industries in the United States, and also in other countries. Efforts must also be made to bring new categories of workers into the working class struggle. How is this to be done? It can only be done by continuously extending the scope of our work, by permeating new sections of the population, by extending beyond the narrow craft limits, and by going right into the masses and building up a special party apparatus for this purpose. But it would be a highly dangerous process if, under the slogan of the organisation of the unorganised, we began to form dual organisations. This would inevitably lead to splits, for it is impossible to create a new union, side by side with the metal workers’ union, say, without by this very fact drawing all the revolutionary elements out of the old union. At the Comintern Congress we shall have to work out detailed forms and methods which shall be adaptable to each country. Certainly this question must receive our attention and it is essential to draw fresh millions of, town and country workers into the struggle.

The most effective means for organising the unorganised and for drawing large masses into the struggle is the initiation, development, and extension of the activities of factory and workers’ committees. The Social-Democrats have succeeded in taking all the life out of the existing factory committees, and our task until now has been revolutionising these factory committees. The best work in this direction was done in Germany, where there is a fairly strong revolutionary factory committee movement. But even in Germany, where social antagonism has become very acute and circumstances compel the working masses to take up the struggle, it cannot be said that everything has been done in the direction of extending the network of factory committees and of getting political control over them. And yet factory committees are the only means for effectively organising large masses of workers. The factory committee represents all the workers in the factory; it is on the spot; the workers feel it is their own committee and usually have confidence in it. We must learn to retain this confidence. We must set to immediately on the preparatory work for converting the factory committees into the base of the unions. The factory committee must be more active. It must not only be active on revolutionary holidays, but on, ordinary days, too, and conduct the ordinary organisational, political and educational work. There are many ways and means of attracting unorganised workers into our movement through factory committees. The best method is: increased activity on the part of our organisations. Unorganised workers will support factory committees and their connection with them will become more intimate provided they see that the initiative is always in our hands, and that Communists are bold fighters in the struggle for the everyday needs of the working class. Only through factory committees shall we be able to remedy the lack of organisation among the workers, for these committees are primary organisational nuclei of a highly developed trade union movement. We must set to work immediately to establish the factory committees and extend the trade unions. The formation of industrial unions on the basis of the factory committees must be the main feature of our Communist work throughout the country.

How can the work of the factory committees be made more effective? The only way in which the factory, committees can become a force is by creating nuclei in the factories. The prerequisite for exercising any serious influence on the masses, especially in the places of their employment, is the formation of Party nuclei in the factories. This is a new field of activity for our Parties. Only three to four per cent. of the tasks we have set ourselves have been carried out. Our parties are only just beginning to form nuclei, and yet it is useless even to think of revolution if we have no sound basis in every factory. We have experienced the October-November defeat in Germany, and we know all the weak points of our Party. All our Communist Parties have the same weak points. It is a question of breaking as quickly as possible with the past. There must be no delays, no procrastination. We must veer round sharply, for no trade-union-political work is possible if we have no compact groups within the factories. How can you expect the factory committee to do useful work if it has no fraction in the factory? How can you expect any serious revolutionary work from it if the soul of the committee—the Communists—are all at sixes and sevens? How can you expect satisfactory results from the factory committee movement if Communists are organised not in their place of employment, but in the place where they reside? This type of organisation cuts the Communists off from their factory, from the place of production, and from the life of the workers. It isolates them from the masses with which they should be organically connected. Therefore, we are justified in saying that the pre-requisite for the correct functioning and revolutionisation of the factory committees is the establishment of factory nuclei and the intensification of their work

Factory nuclei are needed not only from the trade union but also from the political viewpoint. For only if we have fundamental nuclei in the factories shall we be able, when the time comes, to build up our functions from the bottom to the top, and thus be able to counteract the strength of the reformist organisations by the strength of our compact Communist organisations’ apparatus. Let us now consider how we are progressing with the formation of fractions within the unions. Progress in this direction, is not very satisfactory as yet. Even where fractions are comparatively well organised (in Germany) they are not up to the mark. What are the chief shortcomings of our fractional work in the unions? In some countries Communist Parties considered, and still consider, this work to be of secondary importance, while in other countries this work is conducted too formally. Many imagine that by establishing a trade union department, the question is almost solved. Such a department cannot be useful unless it crowns the formation of a network of fractional organisations built up from the bottom. The building up of our fractions from the factory to the industry, and from the industry to the country as a whole, demands energetic organisational-political activity. We must do our utmost to strengthen and improve our trade union press and the trade union columns in our Party publications. We must look upon trade union work not as of secondary importance, but as one of the most important tasks of the Party which, if left undone, will alienate the masses from the Party. We must study carefully the experience of countries where fractional work in the trade unions had good results, and we must profit by this experience. We have at our disposal various forms and methods for the organisation of opposition. The most effective of these forms and methods are: fractions, opposition blocs, trade union propaganda leagues, etc. But apart from the forms of organising the opposition, one thing is clear: opposition will grow, develop and exercise political influence provided it rests on firmly-welded fractions knowing their own minds.

One of the most important problems now confronting the Communist parties is the question of the growing economic struggle of the proletariat and of the strike-breaking activities of the reformist leaders. A whole series of conflicts and mass strikes are taking place which are opposed by the reformists, who contract agreements with employers in order to sabotage them. The workers, therefore, are compelled to fight not only against the employers supported by the bourgeois State, but also against their own unions. Under these circumstances the question of leadership in these strikes and conflicts is of great importance. We must admit that we have done very little on this field as yet. Spontaneous strikes, of course, produce their own leaders. But we have not paid sufficient attention to the fact that workers, deprived of their leaders, frequently suffer defeat in spite of their heroism. The formation of fighting organs capable of assuming leadership in unofficial strike movements will have to be seriously considered by the parties. Fighting cadres will have to be formed, for it must always be borne in mind that even a small strike is a very important battle in the working class movement. We have to deal with well-organised employers who have an extensive organisation and a well managed press at their disposal, and who will do their utmost to strangle us. On the other hand, tens of thousands of workers, treacherously abandoned by their leaders in the midst of the fight, are yearning for a way out of their present slavery. To form fighting cadres and a leading organ under such conditions is a task of considerable magnitude. It is a question of winning over to our side large masses of workers. The Parties cannot be mere spectators in the great strikes and conflicts which are at present convulsing every country. They must take an active part in them, and wherever trade union leaders abandon the workers in their struggle, the opposition controlled by our Parties must create organs capable of leading and directing the strike movement, bearing in mind that these organs after all will form the fighting cadres needed for the guidance and leadership of more extensive battles. The problem of the formation of fighting organs, committees of action, etc., is closely connected with the unification of all opposition forces. Almost in every country we have various forms of opposition: an opposition wing within trade unions, wings split off from various organisations, expelled trade union members, unattached unions, etc. All opposition groups must be welded together with Communist cement, otherwise there will be continued waste of efforts and overlapping. We cannot create cadres without using the existing material. There is no other human material but the material which is to be found in the working class and its organisations. That is why it is so important for our Communist Parties to amalgamate all the opposition unions, and in times of acute struggle to form fighting organs like strike committees, committees of action, etc., to attract to this work all the elements of the opposition movement, and continually to bring forward such new forces to the front. In many countries our Communist Parties have already developed into mass Parties. Every single day of this struggle will bring new and ever-growing demands. Communist Parties cannot do justice to these demands unless they be firmly welded with the Labour movement in general and with the trade union movement in particular. We must get rid of the pessimism under which many comrades are labouring when they say: “We shall never be able to capture the unions; let us, therefore, concentrate on the formation of new forms of the Labour movement, etc.” All this is a sign of weakness, and not of strength. It is an indirect admission that bureaucracy is unconquerable. The Communist Party has set itself the task to overthrow capitalism. Is it possible that we will allow ourselves to be checkmated by trade union bureaucracy? We must get hold of the masses—and everything else will follow.

We see, therefore, that there is no reason whatever for the Comintern to change its tactics, and that this “something new” discovered in some countries is anything but new. We had an example of the new tactics immediately after the German revolution in the slogan “destruction of trade unions,” brought forward by the German Communist Labour Party. We would like to ask those comrades who parade this old slogan in the guise of something new how they explain the disappearance of the Communist Labour Party from the political arena? How did it happen that the tendency which had a majority in Heidelberg is no more, while the minority of the Heidelberg Congress, whose tactics were endorsed by the Comintern, recently polled close on four million votes? This happened because the Heidelberg majority took up a wrong position on the question of Communist attitude to mass labour organisations, because the Communist Labour Party adopted a sectarian viewpoint; it declaimed about revolution but did not made it; it made a principle of destroying the union; and because it strove to invent new forms of organisation while failing to see the millions of workers in the old organisations. Is not this a warning example to our Communist Parties? Is not the fate of the German Communist Labour Party a warning to those who are inclined to swerve from the right path? We have witnessed many changes during the last few years. We have grown up, and we can afford to apply new methods and forms of propaganda and struggle. We have grown much stronger, but this is because we applied the tactics of capturing the trade unions and fought for unity in the trade union movement. Let those who advocate the seemingly new, but in reality very old and inadequate tactics, bear in mind this very simple and yet important fact.

Moscow, May 12th, 1924.