Ellen Wilkinson

The Red Trade Union Congress

Source: The Communist, September 17, 1921
Publisher: Communist Party of Great Britain
Transcription/HTML Markup: Brian Reid
Proofreader: David Tate
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.

WHILE the great Congress of the Third International was meeting in Moscow, a less imposing, but equally important conference was held in the Dom Soyusus (House of the Trade Unions), a great building, which before the Revolution, was the Banqueting Club of the Moscow nobility. At this conference three hundred and fifty delegates, from thirty-eight countries, met to inaugurate a Trade Union International, which should unite the revolutionary industrial movements in these countries.

The idea of such an organisation originated with the trade unionists of Petrograd, who realised, even under the Kerensky régime, the necessity of a world-wide organisation of the revolution was to be safeguarded. The months of blockade made it impossible to go further with the scheme until, during the visit of the Labour Delegation last year, Robert Williams and Purcell happened to be in Moscow at the same time as certain French and Italian trade union leaders. A preparatory scheme was drawn up by the Russians in conjunction with their visitors, and an Executive Committee was appointed to carry out the details. Propaganda bureaux were established in most of the leading countries to expose the counter-revolutionary activities of the Amsterdam International, and to secure the direct representation of trade unions at the Inaugural Conference planned for May 1st, 1921. The result of this work was seen in the unexpectedly large gathering which finally met in July.

The fundamental difference between this conference and that of the Third International must be realised if its work is to be understood. The delegates to the Communist International were duly accredited representatives from established national parties. For the trade union Congress the net has been thrown wide, and all left wing trade union organisations and sections were welcomed in order that the differences dividing the various revolutionary industrial movements might be discussed and, if possible, composed.

* * *

These conflicting elements fell into three main groups—the Syndicalists, which included representatives from France, Spain and Italy, and who wanted an autonomous trade union international entirely, independent of the Communist Party; the Communists, led by the Russians with backing in each delegation, who desired to see the trade unions as part of the one, all-embracing, Communist International; and a Centrist Group, which included most of the English and American delegates (with the exception of the I.W.W.), who believed that there should be close connection between the two, but whose experience in their own countries had taught them that revolutionary propaganda among the trade unions would have far greater effect at present if it were undertaken by an industrial organisation clearly differentiated from the political party however close might be the working alliance.

After a heated debate, it was finally decided by a majority of 285 to 32 that the Red Trade Union International should maintain its organisation, but should work in the closest contact with the Third International, exchanging with it three executive members.

A feature of the debate had been the appeal by Rosmer (the French representative on the provisional executive) to the French Syndicalists not to allow the future to be determined by the dead hand of the Charte d’Amiens, which, while it had composed grave differences in 1906 by cutting the Syndicalists away from politics, could not be regarded as Holy Writ in those changing times. After the vote had been taken, Tommasi, the leader of the French delegation, roused the conference to enthusiasm by a generous speech in which he pledged his constituents to abide by the vote of the majority in order to secure a united revolutionary front. That this magnificent gesture was repudiated by the Lille Conference and Tommasi forced to resign on his return shows how difficult was the problem which this Conference had to face.

Those present who had experienced revolutionary crises continually emphasised the fact that only those movements had been successful when political, industrial, and any other kind of action had all been used together in the fight. What had been the experience in Italy because of this artificial distinction? When the factories were seized and Giolitti was criticised for not using his troops, he retorted, “Why should I tie up the Italian army among the factories where they would be at a serious disadvantage when the trade union leaders themselves have assured me that this is an economic movement which they will not allow to assume a Political complexion!” Events proved Giolitti right. The fatal distinction between the different wings of the workers’ army did more for the Italian bourgeois than all their tanks and guns.

The will to create a united disciplined army was present in all sections of the congress. Tommasi’s speech had shown that even the Syndicalists realised that the old fatal division could not continue in the revolutionary ranks, but securing overwhelming majorities from delegates emotionally under the influence of a revolutionary régime does not solve the problems that have to be faced when these men and women return to the hard facts of home.

Next in importance to this issue was the debate on trade union structure. As all were agreed on the necessity of industrial as opposed to craft unionism, the discussion crystallised round the question as to whether Communists should work within the existing unions or whether they should break away and form new “ideal” unions, and what should be their attitude if they were expelled from the existing unions, as frequently happens in Germany. The I.W.W. delegates led the fight for militant new unions. Bill Haywood drew a dark picture of the corruption of the craft unions in the American Federation of Labour, how they refused to organize the unskilled, and charged enormous entrance fees, sometimes as much as 500 dollars. “Such organisations,” he declared passionately, “are not trade unions, they are Job Trusts.” The other side was shown by a young veteran of the great steel strike. “Twenty-five years ago,” he said, “the advanced men in the American trade union movement got fed up with the old gang and formed the I.W.W. What has been the result? The I.W.W. has fought itself to a standstill, and has now less than 15,000 members, while the trade unions from which it has withdrawn the rebels are the most conservative in the world.” The Congress was overwhelmingly against the policy of the I.W.W., and declared that Communists must stay in the old unions, fighting the reactionary bureaucracy, and if they found themselves expelled they must organise themselves, not as separate trade unions, but as the bitter enemies and critics of the old guard.

* * *

These general principles settled, the Conference passed on to the consideration in detail of the tactics of the trade unions. The result of these deliberations will shortly be published as a pamphlet called “The Aims and Tactics of the Trade Unions” but in view of the Cardiff Congress it is perhaps worth while to give a brief summary here.

After a careful survey of the organisations in the various countries, and their actions in the recent crises, the programme of action declares that the economic condition of the workers is such that an immediate offensive is necessary.

Direct action must be the basis of all trade union tactics, not merely strikes but boycotts, street demonstrations, violent opposition to the conveyance of goods to or from blackleg enterprises, and the seizure of factories, all direct action, on however limited scale, being used to prepare the workers for social revolution and the dictatorship of the proletariat.

How is this direct action to be made effective? The thesis combats first the idea of the workers in any one enterprise owning allegiance to several unions. It emphasises that the first duty of the revolutionary is to advocate at all conferences and meetings the fusion of similar unions and the organisation of the workers on he basis of “One enterprise—one Trade Union.” Every factory must be made a fortress of the Revolution. The old delegate system must be replaced by factory (or plant) committees elected by all the workers irrespective of their political opinion. No attempt must be made to restrict these committees to members of the Party. The Communists must be the core, not the committee, and the influence of the Party must be felt through these cores. In present conditions the first task of these committees will be to force control of dismissals, and the maintenance by each industry of its unemployed. The closing of factories or departments is often used as a means of purifying them of revolutionary elements, and the workers should force an audit of accounts, and an enquiry into the real reason for stopping production. The workers, instead of acquiescing in the closing of factories, even after such enquiries, must prepare to take them over. If despite the world shortage of goods the owners say that they cannot find markets, then production must be carried on despite the employers, and distribution be arranged internationally. International organisations must be built up, the ability to stop transport and the extraction of coal being one of the most powerful weapons in the hands of the workers. The world situation must be carefully followed in order that the best moment may he chosen for international action.

The workers ’ faith in the sanctity of agreements, continues the thesis, must be broken down. It has been carefully put into the heads of the leaders of the old unions by the bourgeoisie, who themselves never scruple to break agreements when it suits them. A collective agreement is only an armistice in the endless struggle between capital and labour. Equally must any joint control or participation in the profits of capitalism be fought by the revolutionaries. In view of the organisation of corps of strike breakers by the capitalists in every country, the trade unionists must carefully organise special strike battalions to protect their members against ill-treatment, and to prevent the dispatch of goods to or from “tainted” enterprises.

* * *

The tenour of the report is best summarized by the conclusion of an article on the relations of the two internationals by Zinovieff. (I have, unfortunately, to translate from a French translation from the German translation.) “Every economic struggle is a political struggle, that is to say, a class struggle. Such a struggle can only be truly revolutionary, it can only be realised with the maximum of utility for the working class as a whole if the revolutionary trade unions work in the closest collaboration with the Communist Party of that country. The theory and practice of the division of the working class into two autonomous sections is very pernicious, especially at the actual moment of revolution. Each action demands a maximum concentration of forces, the highest tension of all the revolutionary energy of the working class, that is to say, of all the revolutionary and Communist elements. Isolated action by the Communist Party and by the revolutionary workers’ unions are doomed to failure in advance. That is why Unity of action, an organic connection between the Communist Parties and the trade unions constitutes the condition precedent to success in the struggle against capitalism.”

With this as an ultimate aim and as the desirable policy, all revolutionaries will agree. The question for the Western countries to decide is whether this can best be done by the Party or by a separate organisation closely linked with the Party, but securing affiliation direct from trade unions in those countries where trade unionism is not the product of a revolutionary situation as in Russia, but a well-established organisation, hoary with tradition, and crusted with abuses. If the strong determination of the Congress that new unions must not be formed is to be honoured, it follows that the revolutionaries must work through the unions as they exist, with all their prejudices thick upon them. If the work of winning the trade unions can be undertaken immediately by a section of the Party, well and good. But can this be done? The propagandists of the Red Trade Union International in this country have found that it is not doctrines but labels that have been their main difficulty, the minds, eagerly open to the revolutionary gospel in its industrial dress were closed, by prejudice to the political party.

On the other hand, the tendency of the Western workers to regard trade unions as ends in themselves, and not as forming one weapon out of several in the hands of the proletariat must be guarded against. A young Soviet official remarked to the writer, “I almost expect an Englishman to cross himself when he mentions the word trade union.” The policy of the Communist International is clear and consistent, and however our tradition may cause us to rebel we, cannot escape the challenge. The ardour of the rebel does not of itself make a Communist or an effective revolutionary. Steam can only work through carefully constructed machinery.

The Communist International says there is but one aim for us—the overthrow of world capitalism. To secure this there can only be one army, the International of the Revolutionary Proletariat. This may for convenience be divided into regiments and corps, but they are all part of the one movement, imbued with the same ideas, owning allegiance to the one authority, the World Congress of the Third International, and its general staff, the International Executive.

The conception is magnificent, the logic irresistible. If we really desire the Revolution, this is the only way to get it.