Max Bedacht
Third Congress of the Communist International

Speech in Discussion of Trade Union Question
July 6, 1921

Source: Published in To the Masses: Proceedings of the Third Congress of the Communist International, 1921 (, pp. 726-729
Translation: Translation team organized by John Riddell
HTML Markup: David Walters for the Marxists Internet Archive, 2018
Copyright: John Riddell, 2017. Republished here with permission

Comrades, on behalf of the American delegation I must explain two concepts on which you may possibly have a misimpression: first, regarding the delegation of the American party to the Second Congress, which has repeatedly been referred to as being infected with a ‘radical infantile disorder’; and, second, with regard to the speech made here a few minutes ago by Comrade Haywood.

As far as the first point is concerned, it is true that the delegation of the American party last year displayed some symptoms of such an infection, which resulted from the practice of the revolutionary movement in the United States during the last twenty-six years.1

The conception that it is impossible to reform the trade-union federations, that their structures are counterrevolutionary, and that – regardless of their number – the union federations could not possibly provide assistance to revolutionaries in drawing the workers into revolutionary action: all this has become a slogan. Twenty-six years of propaganda on this issue left their mark and have influenced the new Communist movement in the United States. After the Second Congress, even before the theses were brought back to the United States, the American comrades did not close their minds to the need to approach the elections together with the broad working masses and to win over a significant segment of these masses.

What we have witnessed is that twenty-six years of separating the revolutionaries from the trade-union federations has not had good results. The number of revolutionaries who split off was less than ten thousand, and their departure from the union federations made these instruments for class struggle even more reactionary. Another important fact opened the eyes of the American comrades regarding the false position they had taken. This was the slogan advanced by both the revolutionary and the reactionary wings of the trade-union movement. We are referring here to the revolutionary William Haywood and the reactionary Samuel Gompers, who both wanted the same thing, that is, that the revolutionaries leave the trade-union federations. Now obviously when the revolutionary comes to the same conclusion as the reactionary, something is not right.

We now see that something of this spirit is still with us, and it was extolled today by Comrade Haywood. He demanded revolutionary or industrial union federations as the primary condition for revolution, even drawing the conclusion that the revolution in Russia would have been more successful if the IWW – or rather the spirit of the IWW – had been present here. He comes to the even more peculiar conclusion that it was not the Communists who made the revolution and were victorious but the working class as a whole. Now we don’t want to dispute this fact, because after all it was the working class in its majority. But it was the Communists who permeated the working class and brought it forwards and upwards in the revolution and to the ultimate founding of the proletarian dictatorship. We and Comrade Haywood of the IWW have come to the conclusion that ultimately it is not the structure but the spirit and understanding of the working masses that makes the revolution. To repeat, it is not the structure that makes the revolution but the revolution that creates the structures.

We are fully aware of the revolutionary potential of the IWW and have acknowledged it. Otherwise, we could have presented a large amount of evidence that this stance of the IWW has not prevented it from being an enemy of Soviet Russia – at least from permitting its editors, not just one but a whole number of them, to criticise the Russian Soviet republic. Let me single out one incident in order to show you the spirit that prevailed among the members of the IWW, a revolutionary organisation. On one occasion an article appeared in Solidarity that opposed the dictatorship of the proletariat and maintained that Russia was not a state of the working class. And why? Because the workers were not permitted to travel freely from one spot to another and to seek employment wherever they please, a freedom guaranteed to workers in the United States, provided of course that they can find work somewhere.

Well, we Communists thought that it is not the structure that prevents an organisation from being revolutionary, but rather the revolutionary spirit of the workers that makes them capable of tearing down all existing structures that stand in their path.

Now I come to the question of liquidating the IWW. We, or rather the delegates of the Red International of Labour Unions, have been accused of wanting to carry out the liquidation of the IWW, or at least to assist in this process. Comrade Haywood provided you with some statistics, and I will do so as well. He tried to show you that the AFL is declining and breaking apart, while the forces of the IWW are growing. I would like to cite the figures provided by the AFL in their yearly reports. In 1918, after the War, the AFL had 2,726,478 members. In 1919 the total rose to 3,260,068 members. In 1920 it reached 4,078,740, while in 1921 it fell to 3,906,528. The figures show an increase of 533,000 in the first year after the War, an increase of 818,600 in the second, and a loss of 172,000 in the last of these years. That makes a net increase of 1,280,000.

But this increase in membership should absolutely not be seen as evidence that the revolutionary spirit of the AFL has also grown. We are familiar with the AFL’s dark side. We know that it is shot through with corruption. We will cite only the fact that this corruption increased after the War. On the other hand, we have the IWW, which has existed for fifteen or sixteen years and, according to its official reports, counts 15,674 members. I believe I am justified in estimating the number of members on the basis of the dues they pay, and the figure cited above is derived on this basis. Of course these figures cannot be regarded as absolutely precise. They are determined by dividing the total of membership dues received by 25 cents, the amount paid by each member. Unemployment and other causes contributed to a decline in membership dues, which should not mean a decline in membership. Be that as it may, we can certainly assume that the IWW at present has not more than 25,000 members, and probably less.

You have been told that the IWW is an industrial association. Please excuse me if I probe this question more fully. It is not really a question of programme. But since Comrade Haywood touched on it only briefly, speaking only of the IWW and not about unionism, I must take the liberty of speaking to this point.

The IWW is itself divided into industrial organisations. It can be pictured as a wheel in which each spoke represents a particular industry and a particular division.

Now the proposal before us is that in sectors where the IWW does not have substantial influence, revolutionaries should throw all their energies into work in and through the federations and trade unions. In other branches of industry, by contrast, such as mining, lumber, agriculture, and food, the IWW has the greatest influence and other organisations have almost none, and here revolutionaries and Communists must focus all their energy on the IWW divisions. This should be the focus and the foundation of the organisation. That is the programme presented to you by a number of comrades representing trade unions.

I have used up my time and must close. I will wind up by saying only that the Communists of the United States have learned that it is impossible to bring the workers to revolutionary action by creating new organisations that in and of themselves would guarantee the goal of revolution. We have learned that it is not the structure but the spirit and zeal that counts. We must carry it into all the existing organisations, into the mills, the mines, the factories, and make them the foundation for revolutionary action. True revolutionaries and Communists can work much better when they do not divide themselves off from the masses but rather remain inseparably part of them, working in the interests of the revolution. In this way, they can show workers that ‘something is rotten in the state of Denmark’ and show them the true revolutionary course of action for each organisation.

Down with the barriers posed by the inadequate structures of these organisations! Create new structures that are genuinely helpful in leading the revolution, leading the United States working class forward to the same goal as the workers of Russia, to the dictatorship of the proletariat!


1. At the Second Congress, the US delegation expressed disagreements with the proposed policy of working in the American Federation of Labour and abstained from the vote on the trade-union theses. Riddell (ed.), Workers of the World and Oppressed Peoples, Unite! (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1991), vol. 2, pp. 606–11. Bedacht’s mention of ‘the last twenty-six years’ presumably refers to the 1895 founding of the Socialist Trade and Labor Alliance, formed by the Socialist Labor Party as a left-wing alternative to the American Federation of Labor.