Lenin on the Trade Union Controversy at the Tenth Party Congress

Vladimir Lenin, The Role of the Trade Unions under the Proletarian Dictatorship. March 14, 1921


1. The general aims and the role of the trade unions during the dictatorship of the proletariat were adequately defined at the preceding congresses and conferences of the Party and the trade unions. Already the First All-Russian Congress of Trade Unions, which took place early in January, 1918, i.e., shortly after state power passed into the hands of the Soviets, stated in its resolution the following: “At the present moment, the center of gravity in the work of the trade unions must be shifted to the field of economic organization. Trade unions, being class organizations of the proletariat, organized on industrial lines, must take upon themselves the principal task of organizing production and restoring the shattered productive forces of the country. They should aim to participate most emphatically in the work of all centers regulating production, to organize workers’ control and the registration and distribution of workers, to organize exchange between villages and cities, to participate most actively in the demobilization of industry, to fight against sabotage, to enforce the duty of universal labor, etc.

“In their developed form, after having been transformed by the socialist revolution which is now taking place, the trade unions will become instruments of state authority, working in subordination to other organizations for the realization of new principles in the organization of economic life.”

Already our Party Program of 1919 called attention to the fact that “the organizational apparatus of the socialized industry must be based, first and foremost, on a trade-union foundation. Since according to the laws of the Soviet Republic and the existing practice, they are already participating in all local and central organs of industrial administration, the trade unions-so declares our party program-must achieve a de facto concentration of the entire administration of the whole national economy considered as a single economic unit. This will ensure the closest possible tie between the central machinery of state administration, the national economy, and the large masses of the toilers. In this way the trade unions will facilitate the widest possible participation of the toiling masses in the management of the economy.”

Likewise, the Ninth Congress of the Communist Party (in 1920) resolved: “The tasks of the trade unions are mainly in the sphere of economic organization and education. In accomplishing these tasks, the trade unions are to act not as a self-contained and organizationally isolated force, but as a component part of the basic machinery of the Soviet state under the leadership of the Communist Party.” The Ninth Congress further states: “Since the Soviet state is the widest organization which concentrates the entire social strength of the proletariat, it is clear that the trade unions, in the course of development of the proletarian consciousness and the growth of creative initiative of the masses, must gradually become transformed into auxiliary instruments of the proletarian state and not vice versa.”

The Second and Third All-Russian Congresses of Trade Unions, as well as the Fifth AI1-Russian Conference of Trade Unions, defined the general tasks of trade unions during the period of the proletarian dictatorship in the same spirit.

These definitions retain their full force at the present moment and stand in no need of any change. The problem facing the Tenth Congress is not that of finding new theoretical formulations of the role of trade unions during the epoch of the dictatorship of the proletariat, but rather one of determining the ways in which the theories already formulated are to be realized in life.

Position of the Trade Unions after Three Years of Civil War

2. The critical conditions of the three years of civil war kept the trade unions from the successful discharge of their aims. The trade unions, like other workers’ organizations, had to give almost all their forces to the front. Nevertheless, the unions played an important role in economic construction. Immediately following the November Revolution, the trade unions were the only organization which, concurrently with the introduction of workers’ control, could take and had to take upon themselves the work of organizing production and managing industrial enterprises. The state apparatus for the management of the national economy in the first period of Soviet rule had not yet been in working order, and the sabotage of factory owners and of the higher technical personnel presented in an acute form the problem of preserving industry and re-establishing the normal functioning of the country’s economy.

In the next period, when the management of enterprises was being organized by the Supreme Council of National Economy, the trade unions worked side by side with the state economic organization. This parallelism was explained and justified by the weakness of the state organizations. The role of the trade unions in the organization of production was confined mainly to participation in the formation of Glavki and Tsentry. This work was of a sporadic nature, and what is more, it frequently led to situations in which the delegated workers lost touch with the trade unions which sent them to the Glavki. This, in turn, prevented the trade unions and their representatives in the economic organizations from influencing the work of these organizations. If the participation of workers in the operation of the economic organs is to become more effective, it is essential that the workers who are assigned to the Glavki by the trade unions should maintain uninterrupted contact with these unions and that the trade unions should participate more closely in the organization and the administration of production…

The inauguration of a new period finds the trade unions in a rather weak position relative to the enormous tasks which the economic front is placing before them. The peculiarities of the present transitional period, as of every transitional period, create formidable difficulties for the trade unions. Nevertheless, what the trade unions are going through now is not a typical trade-union crisis, not a breakdown, but the beginning of a new growth. In this respect the fortunes of the trade unions do not differ from those of the Party and of the Soviets.

The Trade Unions as the Prop of the Proletarian Dictatorship

3. The Russian Communist Party is maintaining the dictatorship of the proletariat in a country where the peasant population has a preponderant majority. However, since at this time the peasantry is no longer threatened with the restoration of the power of the landlords, the preservation of the proletarian dictatorship is bound to encounter new difficulties. The successful realization of this dictatorship is possible only when the trade unions

are imbued with a unity of purpose and will and are functioning as mass organizations that are open to every proletarian, no matter what the level of his class-consciousness.

Trade Unions as a School of Communism

4. The most important role of the trade unions in Soviet Russia is their role as a school of communism. Only the trade unions, insofar as they are concerned with every aspect of a worker’s life, can perform the task of giving the large masses of backward workers the rudiments of a political education. The predominant mass of trade-union membership (6,970,000 members, of whom about half a million are members of the Party) consists of non-party men. Communism is built with the human material which we inherited from capitalism. The trade unions of Soviet Russia are gradually turning into organizations which include every worker. The trade unions are organizing toilers who under capitalism were alien to the proletarian family (store clerks, hospital attendants, art workers, etc.). Reeducating these vast masses, bringing them closer to the more advanced proletarian groups, and training them for the task of socialist construction constitute the most important objectives of the trade unions in their role as a school of communism…

The half a million party men, who are now members of the trade unions, should by patient, continuous, and persistent effort win over to the side of our party the millions of non-party workers who at present constitute the majority in the trade-union movement.

The Fusion of the Trade Unions with the State

5. The rapid fusion of The trade unions with the state would be a great political mistake. At the present stage of development this would greatly interfere with carrying out the above-mentioned tasks by the trade unions. The present position of the trade unions vis-a-vis the state is unique. The trade unions at present are already discharging a number of functions of state organs. These Soviet state functions are bound to increase gradually. Nevertheless, the Congress is bound to state that any artificial speeding up of the fusion of the trade unions with the state, while contributing little to the improvement of the economic position of the Republic, would greatly hamper the role of trade unions as a school of communism. The main problem is to conquer the vast non-party masses.

Methods of Persuasion and Methods of Compulsion

6. The principal method of trade-union work is not the method of compulsion, but the method of persuasion. This does not in the least exclude the possibility that in case of necessity the trade unions should apply the principles of proletarian compulsion (compulsory mobilization of tens of thousands of trade-union members, disciplinary courts, etc.). Reorganizing the trade unions by orders from above is certain to defeat its own end. The methods of workers’ democracy, which were so sharply curtailed in the three years of cruel civil war, should be re-established first of all, and on a wide scale, in the trade-union movement. It is necessary first of all to re-establish the system of electing officials for the various trade union organs, instead of appointing them from above. The trade unions should be built on the principle of democratic centralism. At the same time the most energetic struggle should be undertaken to ensure that centralization and militarized forms of work do not degenerate into bureaucracy and “stand-pat-ism.” The recourse to labor militarization will be crowned with success only to the extent that the Party, the Soviets, and the trade unions succeed in explaining to the masses of toilers the necessity of these measures for the salvation of the country.

The Party and the Trade Unions

7. The Russian Communist Party, as represented by its central and local organizations, is unquestionably directing, as it did in the past, the ideological work of the trade unions. The Communist factions of the trade unions are wholly subordinate to the party organizations as defined by a special statute. Al the same time the Tenth Congress of the Russian Communist Party warns, in the most insistent and categorical form, all party organizations, as well as individual comrades, against petty tutelage and excessive interference in the daily work of the trade unions. To be sure, the selection of the leading personnel of the trade-union movement must be under the supervisory control of the Party. But the party organizations must strictly adhere to the methods of proletarian democracy, particularly in the trade unions, where the selection of leaders must be made by the organized masses themselves.

In selecting leaders for the most important trade-union positions, the Party must make sure that the appointees are good managers who fully understand the significance attached to the production aims. The Party must also make sure that the above qualifications of the prospective leaders are combined with devotion to communism, a sense of discipline, and, especially, with experience in working with large masses of workers and skill in handling them. It cannot be forgotten, not even for a minute, that trade-union work requires great attention and sympathetic response to the minutest needs of the toiling masses.

The Trade Unions and the Political Departments

8. In the course of the civil war, the Party was forced, in exceptional cases, to sanction the organization of political departments which, to a certain extent, were replacing the trade unions. Such an exception was Glavpolitput.

The Ninth Party Congress, which adopted a resolution establishing Glavpolitput, underlined the temporary character of this institution. In practice, however, Glavpolitput and its adjunct, Tsektran, manifested a tendency to break away from the trade-union masses and to oppose the trade-union organizations. This resulted in a deviation from the normal methods of trade-union democracy.

The Tenth Party Congress endorses the abolition of Glavpolitput, as well as the decision of the Party Central Committee which called upon Tsektran to give up its peculiar methods of work and to adopt the procedures of normal workers’ democracy…

{The remaining part of the Resolution enumerated the measures that would re-establish the methods of trade-union democracy. These measures can be briefly summarized as follows:

1) Participation of trade unions in the preparation of a unified economic plan and of a production program;
2) Participation in the formation of economic administrative organizations;
3) Control over production by assisting the economic agencies in carrying out the production plans;
4) Registration and distribution of the labor force;
5) Establishment of wage scales, both in money and in kind;
6) Production propaganda directed toward raising labor productivity and assistance in labor mobilization;
7) Enforcing labor discipline by means of disciplinary courts and the Committees on Labor Desertion.}

Source: James Bunyan, ed., The Origins of Forced Labor in the Soviet State, 1917-1921 (Stanford: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1967), pp. 221-245, with minor modifications.

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