Karl Radek

The Labour Movement, Shop Committees
and the Third International

(June 1920)

Source: The Communist International, June–July 1920, no. 11–12, pp. 2177–2186.
Transcription: Ted Crawford.
HTML Mark-up: Brian Reid.
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2007). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.


The labour unions, created by the working class during the period of the peaceful development of capitalism, were organizations of the workers for the struggle for the increase of the price of labour at the labour market, and the improvement of labour conditions. The revolutionary Marxists endeavoured by their influence to unite them with the political party of the proletariat, the Social Democracy, for a joint struggle for Socialism. For the same reasons that the international Social Democracy, with a few exceptions, proved to be not an instrument of the revolutionary struggle of the proletariat for the overthrow of capitalism, but an organisation which held back the proletariat from revolution in the interests of the bourgeoisie, the labour unions proved to be in most cases, during the war, a part of the military apparatus of the bourgeoisie, helping the latter to pump out of the working class as much sweat as possible in order that the more abundantly might the blood of the proletariat flow in the interests of capitalist profits. Containing chiefly the skilled workmen, the better paid, limited by their professional narrow-mindedness, fettered by a bureaucratic apparatus, which had removed itself from the masses, demoralised by their opportunist leaders, the labour unions betrayed not only the cause of the Social Revolution, but even also the struggle for the improvement of the conditions of life of the workmen organized by them. They set aside the point of view of the industrial struggle against the employers, and replaced it by the program of an amicable arrangement with the capitalists, at any cost whatever. This policy was carried on not only by the independent unions of England and America, not only by the would-be “Socialist” free industrial unions in Germany and Austria, but by the Syndicalist unions in France as well.

2. The economic consequences of the war, the complete disorganisation of world economy, the insane prices, the unlimited application of the labour of women and children, the aggravation of the dwelling conditions, all these are forcing the large masses of the proletariat into the struggle against capitalism. This struggle is revolutionary warfare, by its proportions and the character that it is assuming more and more every day; a warfare destroying objectively the bases of the capitalist order. The increase of wages, obtained one day by the economic struggle of one or other category of workers, is the next day nullified by the high prices, which must continue to rise, because the capitalist class of the victorious countries, ruining by their policy of exploitation central and eastern Europe, is not only not in a position to organize world economy, but is indefatigably disorganising it. For the success of their economic struggle, the larger masses of workers who up to this time have stood apart from the labour unions, are now flowing into their ranks in a powerful stream. In all capitalist countries a tremendous development of the labour unions is to be noticed, which now become organisations of the chief masses of the proletariat, not only of its advanced parts. Flowing into the labour unions, these masses strive to make them their weapons of battle. They compel the labour unions to lead strikes, which flow in a broad wave over the entire capitalist world, constantly interrupting the process of capitalist production and exchange. Increasing their demands in proportion to the rising prices and their own exhaustion, the working masses undermine the bases of all capitalist calculations—that elementary premise of every well-organised economic management. The labour unions, which during the war had been organs of compulsion over the working masses become in this way organs for the annihilation of capitalism.

3. The old labour bureaucracy and the old forms of organization of the labour unions are in every way impeding such a change in the nature of the labour unions. The old labour bureaucracy is even now endeavouring to replace the strike methods, which are ever more and more acquiring the character of revolutionary warfare between. the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, by the policy of arrangements with the capitalists, the policy of long term contracts, which have lost all sense simply in view of the constant insane rise of prices, At the most tense moments of the struggle the labour bureaucracy sows trouble and confusion among the struggling masses of the workers, impeding the fusion of the struggle of various categories of workmen into one general class struggle, In these attempts it is helped by the old organization of the labour unions according to crafts, which breaks up the workmen of one branch of production into separate professional groups, notwithstanding their being bound together by the process of capitalist exploitation. This old system of organization rests on the force of tradition of the ideology of the old labour aristocracy, which is now constantly being weakened by the process of suppression of the privilege of separate groups of the proletariat through the general decay of capitalism. In this way the professional bureaucracy breaks up the powerful stream of the labour movement into weak streamlets, substitutes partial reformist demands for the general revolutionary purposes of the movement, and on the whole delays the transformation of the struggle of the proletariat into a revolutionary struggle for the annihilation of capitalism.

4. Bearing in mind the rush of the enormous working masses into the labour unions and also the objective revolutionary character of the economic struggle which these masses are carrying on spite of the labour bureaucracy, the Communists must join such unions in all countries, in order to make of them conscient organs of the struggle for the suppression of capitalism and for Communism, All voluntary withdrawal from the industrial movement, every artificial attempt to organize special unions without being compelled thereto by exceptional acts of violence on the part of the labour bureaucracy, such as expulsion of separate revolutionary local branches of the unions by the opportunist officials, represents a great danger to the Communist movement. It threatens to tear away the most advanced, the most conscious workers from the masses, already on their way towards Communism; it threatens to hand over these masses to the opportunist leaders, playing into the hands of the bourgeoisie ... The luke-warmness of the working masses, their ideological indecision, their tendency to yield to the arguments of opportunist leaders, can be overcome only during the process of the ever-growing struggle, by degrees, as the wider masses of the proletariat learn to understand, by experience, by their victories and defeats, that objectively it is already impossible to obtain human conditions of life on the basis of capitalist methods of management; and by degrees as the advanced Communist workmen learn through their economic struggle to be not only preachers of the ideas of Communism, but also the most determined leaders of the economic struggle of the labour unions—only in this way will it be possible to remove from the unions their opportunist leaders, only in this way will the Communists be able to take the lead of the labour movement and make of it an organ of the revolutionary struggle for Communism. Only in this way can they prevent the division of the labour unions, and replace them by industrial unions—remove the old bureaucracy and replace it by the apparatus of factory-representatives, leaving only the most necessary functions to the center.

5. Placing the object and the essence of labour organizations above their form, the Communists ought not to hesitate before a split in such organizations, if a refusal to split would mean abandoning revolutionary work in the labour unions, and giving up the attempt to make of them an instrument of revolutionary struggle. But even if such a split should be necessary, it must be carried into effect only at a time when the Communists have succeeded by their incessant warfare against the opportunist leaders and their tactic, by their most active participation in the economic struggle, in persuading the wider masses of workmen that the split is occurring not because of the far-away and as yet incomprehensible aims of the Revolution, but on account of the concrete immediate interests of the working class in the development of its economic struggle. The tactics of the Communists, in case a necessity for split arises, must be a continuous most attentive study of the surrounding conditions, and of the question whether such a split might not lead to the Isolation of the Communists from the labour masses.

6. Where a split between the opportunists and the revolutionary labour movement has already taken place before, where, as in America, alongside of the opportunist labour unions, there are unions with revolutionary tendencies—although not Communist ones—there the Communists are bound to support such revolutionary labour unions, to persuade them to abandon Syndicalist prejudices, and to side with the Communist Party, which alone is able to serve as a trustworthy compass in the complicated question of the economic struggle. But the support of the revolutionary labour unions should not mean for the Communists the leaving of the opportunist labour unions, which are in a state of ferment and passing over to the class struggle. On the contrary, by approaching this evolution of the unions on their way to a revolutionary struggle, the Communists will be able to play the part of an element uniting the politically and industrially organized workmen in their joint struggle for the suppression of capitalism.

The economic struggle of the proletariat becomes a political one during an epoch of the decline of capitalism much quicker than during an epoch of its peaceful development. Every serious economic collision may end in an open revolutionary engagement, in which the workers will be placed face to face with the question of Revolution. Therefore it is the duty of the Communists in all the phases of the economic struggle to point out to the workers, that the success of the struggle is only possible if the working class conquers the capitalists in open fight and by means of dictatorship proceeds to the organisation of a Socialist order. Consequently, the Communists must strive to create as far as possible complete unity between the labour unions and the Communist Party, and to subordinate the unions to the practical leadership of the Party, as the advanced guard of the workers’ revolution. For this purpose the Communists ought to have Communist factions in all the labour unions and acquire by their means an influence over the labour movement and direct it.


1. The economic struggle of the proletariat for the increase of wages and the improvement of the conditions of life of the masses is developing more and more into a blind alley. The economic crisis, embracing one country after another in ever-increasing proportions, is showing to even unenlightened workmen that it is not enough to demand an increase of wages and a shortening of the work—hours, that the capitalist class is less capable every day of re-establishing the normal conditions of public economy, and of guaranteeing to the workers at least those conditions of life which it gave them before the world war. Out of this growing conviction of the working masses are born their efforts to create organizations which would be able to commence a struggle for the salvation of the situation by means of workers’ control over production, by means of shop committees. This aspiration to create shop committees, which is more and more taking possession of the workmen of different countries, must be supported most energetically by the Communist Parties. Therefore it is a mistake to form the shop committees out of such workmen only who are already struggling for the dictatorship of the proletariat; on the contrary, the duty of the Communist Party is to organize all the workmen on the ground of the economic crisis, and to lead them toward the struggle for the dictatorship of the proletariat by developing the struggle for workers’ control over production, which they all understand.

2. The Communist Party will be able to accomplish this task, if, taking part in the struggle in the shop committees, it will instill into the minds of the masses the consciousness that a systematic reconstruction of the public economy on the basis of a capitalist order, which would mean its new enslavement by the government in favour of the capitalist class, is now totally impossible. The organization of the economic management corresponding with the interests of the working masses, is only possible when the government is in the hands of the working class, when the strong hand of the labour dictatorship will proceed to the suppression of capitalism and to the new Socialist organization.

3. The struggle of the shop committees against capitalism has for its immediate object workers’ control over production.

The workers of every enterprise, every branch of industry, no matter what their trade, suffer from the “sabotage” of production on the part of capitalists, who frequently consider it more profitable to stop production in order that it might be easier to compel the workers to agree to unsatisfactory labour conditions, and not to invest new capital in industry at a moment of a general rise in prices. The need to protect themselves against such sabotage of production by the capitalists unites the workmen independently of their political opinions, and therefore the shop committees elected by the workmen of a given enterprise, are the organizations in which the widest masses of the proletariat enter. But the disorganisation of capitalist management is the result not only of the conscious will of the capitalists, but it is in a still greater degree the result of an inevitable decline of capitalism, Therefore in their struggle against the consequences of such a decline, the shop committees must go beyond the limits of control in separate factories. The factory committees of separate factories will soon be faced with the question of workers’ control over whole branches of industry and their combinations. And as any attempt on the part of the workmen to exercise a control over the supplying of the factories with raw material, or to control the financial operations of the factory owners, will meet with the most energetic measures against the working class on the part of the bourgeoisie and the capitalist government, the struggle for workers’ control over production must lead to the struggle for a seizure of power by the working class. After such a seizure of power by the proletariat the shop committees will be the first managers of the industry, until the time when general state economic organisations will be formed in which the working class will establish the management of the factories and the direction of the whole economic life of the country from the point of view of the interests of the whole population, and will utilise for this purpose all the scientific forces bequeathed by capitalism.

4. The campaign in favour of the shop committees must be conducted in such a way that into the minds of the popular masses, even not directly belonging to the factory proletariat, there should be instilled the conviction that the bourgeoisie is responsible for the economic crisis, while the proletariat, under the motto of workers’ control of industry, is struggling for the organization of production, for the suppression of speculation, disorganization and high prices. The duty of the Communist Parties is to struggle for control over production on the ground of the most insistent questions of the day, the lack of fuel, the transport crisis—to unite the different groups of proletariat and to attract wide circles of the petty bourgeoisie, which is becoming more and more proletarized day by day, and is really suffering extremely from the economic crisis.

5. The shop committees cannot be substitutes for the industrial unions. During the process of struggle they may form unions according to the industries, and create a general apparatus for the direction of the struggle. The industrial unions are already now centralized fighting organs, although they do not embrace such wide masses of workmen as the shop committees are capable of, these latter being organizations which are accessible to all the workers of a given enterprise. The division of tasks between the shop committees and the industrial unions is the result of the historical development of the Social Revolution. The industrial unions organize the working masses for the struggle for the increase of wages and shortening of work-hours on a national scale. The shop committees are organized for workers’ control over production, for the struggle against the crisis, embracing all the workmen of the enterprises; but their struggle can only gradually assume the character of a national one. Only after the seizure .of the power will the shop committees be able to become the factory nuclei of industrial unions, which jointly with the local and central labour authorities, will form special economic managing organs.

6. The duty of the Communists consist in inspiring the industrial unions and the shop committees with a spirit of determined struggle, and the consciousness and knowledge of the best methods of such struggle—the spirit of Communism. In execution of this duty the Communists must practically subordinate the shop committees and the industrial unions to the Communist Party, and thus create a proletarian mass organ, a basis for a powerful centralised party of the proletariat, embracing all the organisations of the proletarian struggle, leading them all to one aim, to the victory of the working class, to the dictatorship of the proletariat.


1. The labour unions tried to form international unions even in time of peace, because during strikes the capitalists used to invite workers from other countries as strike-breakers, But the International or the labour unions had only a secondary importance before the war. It made one union support another when needful, it organized social statistics, but it did nothing for the organization of a joint struggle, because the labour unions, under the leadership of opportunists, strove to avoid all revolutionary collisions on an international scale. The opportunist leaders of the labour unions, who each in his own country during the war was the flunkey of his bourgeoisie, are now striving to revive the International of labour unions, attempting to make it the weapon against direct struggle between world capital and the world proletariat. Under the direction of Legien, Jouhaux, Gompers, they are creating a Labour Bureau of the League of Nation, that organization of international capitalist robbery. In all countries they are attempting to crush the strike movement by means of laws, compelling the workmen to submit to the arbitration of representatives of the capitalist State. They are endeavouring to obtain concessions for the skilled workers by means of agreements with the capitalists, in order to break in this way the growing unity of the working class. The Amsterdam International of labour unions is thus a substitute for bankrupt Second International of Brussels.

The Communist workers who are members of the labour unions to all countries must on the contrary strive to create an international battle front of labour unions. The question now is not monetary relief in case of strikes; but when a danger is threatening the working class of one country, the labour unions of the others, being organizations of the larger masses, should all arise to its defense; they should make it impossible for the bourgeoisie of their respective countries to render assistance to the bourgeoisie of the country engaged in the struggle against the working class. The economic struggle of the proletariat in all countries is daily becoming more and more a revolutionary struggle. Therefore the labour unions must consciously use their forces for the support of all revolutionary struggles in their own and in other countries. For this purpose they must not only, in all other countries, strive to attain as great as possible centralisation of their struggle, but they must do so on an international scale by joining the Communist International and uniting into one army, the different parts of which shall carry on the struggle conjointly, supporting one another.

Last updated on 18.10.2011