Read THE TRADE UNIONS of The Crisis in Russia 1920, free online book, by Arthur Ransome, on

Trade Unions in Russia are in a different position from that which is common to all other Trades Unions in the world. In other countries the Trades Unions are a force with whose opposition the Government must reckon. In Russia the Government reckons not on the possible opposition of the Trades Unions, but on their help for realizing its most difficult measures, and for undermining and overwhelming any opposition which those measures may encounter. The Trades Unions in Russia, instead of being an organization outside the State protecting the interests of a class against the governing class, have become a part of the State organization. Since, during the present period of the revolution the backbone of the State organization is the Communist Party, the Trade Unions have come to be practically an extension of the party organization. This, of course, would be indignantly denied both by Trade Unionists and Communists. Still, in the preface to the All-Russian Trades Union Reports for 1919, Glebov, one of the best-known Trade Union leaders whom I remember in the spring of last year objecting to the use of bourgeois specialists in their proper places, admits as much in the following muddleheaded statement:

“The base of the proletarian dictatorship is the Communist Party, which in general directs all the political and economic work of the State, leaning, first of all, on the Soviets as on the more revolutionary form of dictatorship of the proletariat, and secondly on the Trades Unions, as organizations which economically unite the proletariat of factory and workshop as the vanguard of the revolution, and as organizations of the new socialistic construction of the State. Thus the Trade Unions must be considered as a base of the Soviet State, as an organic form complementary to the other forms of the Proletariat Dictatorship.” These two elaborate sentences constitute an admission of what I have just said.

Trades Unionists of other countries must regard the fate of their Russian colleagues with horror or with satisfaction, according to their views of events in Russia taken as a whole. If they do not believe that there has been a social revolution in Russia, they must regard the present position of the Russian Trades Unions as the reward of a complete defeat of Trade Unionism, in which a Capitalist government has been able to lay violent hands on the organization which was protecting the workers against it. If, on the other hand, they believe that there has been a social revolution, so that the class organized in Trades Unions is now, identical with the governing, class (of employers, etc.) against which the unions once struggled, then they must regard the present position as a natural and satisfactory result of victory.

When I was in Moscow in the spring of this year the Russian Trades Unions received a telegram from the Trades Union Congress at Amsterdam, a telegram which admirably illustrated the impossibility of separating judgment of the present position of the Unions from judgments of the Russian revolution as a whole. It encouraged the Unions “in their struggle” and promised support in that struggle. The Communists immediately asked “What struggle? Against the capitalist system in Russia which does not exist? Or against capitalist systems outside Russia?” They said that either the telegram meant this latter only, or it meant that its writers did not believe that there had been a social revolution in Russia. The point is arguable. If one believes that revolution is an impossibility, one can reason from that belief and say that in spite of certain upheavals in Russia the fundamental arrangement of society is the same there as in other countries, so that the position of the Trade Unions there must be the same, and, as in other countries they must be still engaged in augmenting the dinners of their members at the expense of the dinners of the capitalists which, in the long run (if that were possible) they would abolish. If, on the other hand, one believes that social revolution has actually occurred, to speak of Trades Unions continuing the struggle in which they conquered something like three years ago, is to urge them to a sterile fanaticism which has been neatly described by Professor Santayana as a redoubling of your effort when you have forgotten your aim.

It ’s probably true that the “aim” of the Trades Unions was more clearly defined in Russia than elsewhere. In England during the greater part of their history the Trades Unions have not been in conscious opposition to the State. In Russia this position was forced on the Trades Unions almost before they had time to get to work. They were born, so to speak, with red flags in their hands. They grew up under circumstances of extreme difficulty and persecution. From 1905 on they were in decided opposition to the existing system, and were revolutionary rather than merely mitigatory organizations.

Before 1905 they were little more than associations for mutual help, very weak, spending most of their energies in self-preservation from the police, and hiding their character as class organizations by electing more or less Liberal managers and employers as “honorary members.” 1905, however, settled their revolutionary character. In September of that year there was a Conference at Moscow, where it was decided to call an All-Russian Trades Union Congress. Reaction in Russia made this impossible, and the most they could do was to have another small Conference in February, 1906, which, however, defined their object as that of creating a general Trade Union Movement organized on All-Russian lines. The temper of the Trades Unions then, and the condition of the country at that time, may be judged from the fact that although they were merely working for the right to form Unions, the right to strike, etc., they passed the following significant resolution: “Neither from the present Government nor from the future State Duma can be expected realization of freedom of coalition. This Conference considers the legalization of the Trades Unions under present conditions absolutely impossible.” The Conference was right. For twelve years after that there were no Trades Unions Conferences in Russia. Not until June, 1917, three months after the March Revolution, was the third Trade Union Conference able to meet. This Conference reaffirmed the revolutionary character of the Russian Trades Unions.

At that time the dominant party in the Soviets was that of the Mensheviks, who were opposed to the formation of a Soviet Government, and were supporting the provisional Cabinet of Kerensky. The Trades Unions were actually at that time more revolutionary than the Soviets. This third Conference passed several resolutions, which show clearly enough that the present position of the Unions has not been brought about by any violence of the Communists from without, but was definitely promised by tendencies inside the Unions at a time when the Communists were probably the least authoritative party in Russia. This Conference of June, 1917, resolved that the Trades Unions should not only “remain militant class organizations... but... should support the activities of the Soviets of soldiers and deputies.” They thus clearly showed on which side they stood in the struggle then proceeding. Nor was this all. They also, though the Mensheviks were still the dominant party, resolved on that system of internal organizations and grouping, which has been actually realized under the Communists. I quote again from the resolution of this Conference:

“The evolution of the economic struggle demands from the workers such forms of professional organization as, basing themselves on the connection between various groups of workers in the process of production, should unite within a general organization, and under general leadership, as large masses of workers as possible occupied in enterprises of the same kind, or in similar professions. With this object the workers should organize themselves professionally, not by shops or trades, but by productions, so that all the workers of a given enterprise should belong to one Union, even if they belong to different professions and even different productions.” That which was then no more than a design is now an accurate description of Trades Union organization in Russia. Further, much that at present surprises the foreign inquirer was planned and considered desirable then, before the Communists had won a majority either in the Unions or in the Soviet. Thus this same third Conference resolved that “in the interests of greater efficiency and success in the economic struggle, a professional organization should be built on the principle of democratic centralism, assuring to every member a share in the affairs of the organization and, at the same time, obtaining unity in the leadership of the struggle.” Finally “Unity in the direction (leadership) of the economic struggle demands unity in the exchequer of the Trades Unions.”

The point that I wish to make in thus illustrating the pre-Communist tendencies of the Russian Trades Unions is not simply that if their present position is undesirable they have only themselves to thank for it, but that in Russia the Trades Union movement before the October Revolution was working in the direction of such a revolution, that the events of October represented something like a Trade Union victory, so that the present position of the Unions as part of the organization defending that victory, as part of the system of government set up by that revolution, is logical and was to be expected. I have illustrated this from resolutions, because these give statements in words easily comparable with what has come to pass. It would be equally easy to point to deeds instead of words if we need more forcible though less accurate illustrations.

Thus, at the time of the Moscow Congress the Soviets, then Mensheviks, who were represented at the Congress (the object of the Congress was to whip up support for the Coalition Government) were against strikes of protest. The Trades Unions took a point of view nearer that of the Bolsheviks, and the strikes in Moscow took place in spite of the Soviets. After the Kornilov affair, when the Mensheviks were still struggling for coalition with the bourgeois parties, the Trades Unions quite definitely took the Bolshevik standpoint. At the so-called Democratic Conference, intended as a sort of life belt for the sinking Provisional Government, only eight of the Trades Union delegates voted for a continuance of the coalition, whereas seventy three voted against.

This consciously revolutionary character throughout their much shorter existence has distinguished Russian from, for example, English Trades Unions. It has set their course for them.

In October, 1917, they got the revolution for which they had been asking since March. Since then, one Congress after another has illustrated the natural and inevitable development of Trades Unions inside a revolutionary State which, like most if not all revolutionary States, is attacked simultaneously by hostile armies from without and by economic paralysis from within. The excited and lighthearted Trades Unionists of three years ago, who believed that the mere decreeing of “workers’ control” would bring all difficulties automatically to an end, are now unrecognizable. We have seen illusion after illusion scraped from them by the pumice-stone of experience, while the appalling state of the industries which they now largely control, and the ruin of the country in which they attained that control, have forced them to alter their immediate aims to meet immediate dangers, and have accelerated the process of adaptation made inevitable by their victory.

The process of adaptation has had the natural result of producing new internal cleavages. Change after change in their programme and theory of the Russian Trades Unionists has been due to the pressure of life itself, to the urgency of struggling against the worsening of conditions already almost unbearable. It is perfectly natural that those Unions which hold back from adaptation and resent the changes are precisely those which, like that of the printers, are not intimately concerned in any productive process, are consequently outside the central struggle, and, while feeling the discomforts of change, do not feel its need.

The opposition inside the productive Trades Unions is of two kinds. There is the opposition, which is of merely psychological interest, of old Trades Union leaders who have always thought of themselves as in opposition to the Government, and feel themselves like watches without mainsprings in their new rôle of Government supporters. These are men in whom a natural intellectual stiffness makes difficult the complete change of front which was the logical result of the revolution for which they had been working. But beside that there is a much more interesting opposition based on political considerations. The Menshevik standpoint is one of disbelief in the permanence of the revolution, or rather in the permanence of the victory of the town workers. They point to the divergence in interests between the town and country populations, and are convinced that sooner or later the peasants will alter the government to suit themselves, when, once more, it will be a government against which the town workers will have to defend their interests. The Mensheviks object to the identification of the Trades Unions with the Government apparatus on the ground that when this change, which they expect comes about, the Trade Union movement will be so far emasculated as to be incapable of defending the town workers against the peasants who will then be the ruling class. Thus they attack the present Trades Union leaders for being directly influenced by the Government in fixing the rate of wages, on the ground that this establishes a precedent from which, when the change comes, it will be difficult to break away. The Communists answer them by insisting that it is to everybody’s interest to pull Russia through the crisis, and that if the Trades Unions were for such academic reasons to insist on their complete independence instead of in every possible way collaborating with the Government, they would be not only increasing the difficulties of the revolution in its economic crisis, but actually hastening that change which the Mensheviks, though they regard it as inevitable, cannot be supposed to desire. This Menshevik opposition is strongest in the Ukraine. Its strength may be judged from the figures of the Congress in Moscow this spring when, of 1,300 delegates, over 1,000 were Communists or sympathizers with them; 63 were Mensheviks and 200 were non-party, the bulk of whom, I fancy, on this point would agree with the Mensheviks.

But apart from opposition to the stratification of the Trades Unions, there is a cleavage cutting across the Communist Party itself and uniting in opinion, though not in voting, the Mensheviks and a section of their Communist opponents. This cleavage is over the question of workers control. Most of those who, before the revolution, looked forward to the workers control, thought of it as meaning that the actual workers in a given factory would themselves control that factory, just as a board of directors controls a factory under the ordinary capitalist system. The Communists, I think, even today admit the ultimate desirability of this, but insist that the important question is not who shall give the orders, but in whose interest the orders shall be given. I have nowhere found this matter properly thrashed out, though feeling upon it is extremely strong. Everybody whom I asked about it began at once to address me as if I were a public meeting, so that I found it extremely difficult to get from either side a statement not free from electioneering bias. I think, however, that it may be fairly said that all but a few lunatics have abandoned the ideas of 1917, which resulted in the workmen in a factory deposing any technical expert or manager whose orders were in the least irksome to them. These ideas and the miseries and unfairness they caused, the stoppages of work, the managers sewn up in sacks, ducked in ponds and trundled in wheelbarrows, have taken their places as curiosities of history. The change in these ideas has been gradual. The first step was the recognition that the State as a whole was interested in the efficiency of each factory, and, therefore, that the workmen of each factory had no right to arrange things with no thought except for themselves. The Committee idea was still strong, and the difficulty was got over by assuring that the technical staff should be represented on the Committee, and that the casting vote between workers and technical experts or managers should belong to the central economic organ of the State. The next stage was when the management of a workshop was given a so called collegiate character, the workmen appointing representatives to share the responsibility of the bourgeois specialist. The bitter controversy now going on concerns the seemingly inevitable transition to a later stage in which, for all practical purposes, the bourgeois specialist will be responsible solely to the State. Many Communists, including some of the best known, while recognizing the need of greater efficiency if the revolution is to survive at all, regard this step as definitely retrograde and likely in the long run to make the revolution not worth preserving.

The enormous Communist majority, together with the fact that however much they may quarrel with each other inside the party, the Communists will go to almost any length to avoid breaking the party discipline, means that at present the resolutions of Trades Union Congresses will not be different from those of Communists Congresses on the same subjects. Consequently, the questions which really agitate the members, the actual cleavages inside that Communist majority, are comparatively invisible at a Trades Union Congress. They are fought over with great bitterness, but they are not fought over in the Hall of the Unions-once the Club of the Nobility, with on its walls on Congress days the hammer and spanner of the engineers, the pestle and trowel of the builders, and so on-but in the Communist Congresses in the Kremlin and throughout the country. And, in the problem with which in this book we are mainly concerned, neither the regular business of the Unions nor their internal squabbles affects the cardinal fact that in the present crisis the Trades Unions are chiefly important as part of that organization of human will with which the Communists are attempting to arrest the steady progress of Russia’s economic ruin. Putting it brutally, so as to offend Trades Unionists and Communists alike, they are an important part of the Communist system of internal propaganda, and their whole organization acts as a gigantic megaphone through which the Communist Party makes known its fears, its hopes and its decisions to the great masses of the industrial workers.