The Trade Union Debate in the Russian Revolution

ImageThe immediate effect of the Russian Revolution was the disappearance of large sections of the landed aristocracy in the countryside and the abandonment of factories by managers and technicians. It must be remembered that industrial workers made up a tiny fraction of the population. During the Second Trade Union Congress[1] in 1919, the congress passed an ambiguous resolution that neither made unions an organ of the state nor independent. The unions were to be part of the Supreme Council of National Economy, the authority that governed the economy. However, the reality of the situation on the ground was that early on trade unions took over managing and organizing production.

C.L.R. James breaks down the role of unions in revolutionary Russia into three stages: trade union or working class control over production, co-management with the state and finally state control. It wasn’t until the Tenth Party Congress of the Russian Communist Party (RCP) that the trade union question was finally addressed with all it political implications on the table. Over the course of 1920 Trotsky began advocating for the state to militarize the economy. What he meant by this was for production to come to be completely subsumed to state rationalization.[2] Trotsky’s argument was that if Russia was a workers’ state than trade unions should be part of the state. However, Lenin disagreed, he argued that it was fantasy to think that a workers’ state had been created in Russia. Lenin, did not argue that unions should have complete control over the economy, because he foresaw a deep contradiction in trade-union management over production. Lenin saw that trade unions overseeing the economy would be responsible for both production of goods and for the protection of their members. They would have to use coercion and pressure at the same time as trying to be relevant to their members.

Thus, Lenin rejected the notion of trade-union independence over the economy because the “contradictions will inevitably give rise to disputes, disagreements friction, etc. A higher body is required with sufficient authority to settle these at once.” This authority for Lenin was the RCP. Lenin did see co-management as the preferred, if flawed, way forward.[3] Trade unions for Lenin were schools of communism to train and educate the working class.[4] Therefore orders could not come from above and workers had to educate and decide how to discipline themselves. The RCP would be first among equals in regards to soviets, it would set the course and use state coercion but it would have limited authority inside the unions.

Lenin’s position in regards to the trade unions was imperfect to say the least. What does this partial sovereignty over production and discipline mean? If the unions were weak enough to lose most of the early political battles wouldn’t the state eventually takeover? However, Lenin was pointed in the right direction. The issue here, as it was later in the Spanish Revolution, was that organizations built to struggle for workers’ power, trade unions, were unable to institute radical change as is. Lenin’s gesture was aimed at trying to create a new political way forward that avoided the pitfalls of the positions of Trotsky and the Worker’s Opposition. These positions were in effect mirrors of each other as both advocated for the trade unions to control production. The only difference was that one was under state control and the other was independent.

Lenin advocated the raising of political consciousness and the changing of social relations through the trade unions. This incidentally was also Mao Tse-Tung’s main criticism of Stalin’s collectivization. As Mao states, “first the production relations have to be changed, then and only then the productive forces can be broadly developed.” This was the major hurdle in both Russia and Spain. Social relations of production needed to be changed and new organizational methods needed to be invented that could do this while at the same time undertaking the necessary production to solidify political gains in a time of war.

The triangular trade union debate points to the complexities and limits of syndicalism as a political project (It also requires a thorough discussion of the role of the state). The flawed positions of Lenin, Trotsky, and the Workers’ Opposition are a manifestation of the uneven development of revolutionary consciousness present within any revolution and the inherent contradiction this presents to the concept of workers’ control and workers’ organizations.


[1] As Sorenson notes the Bolsheviks had already defeated the advocates for independent trade unions at the First Trade Union Congress in 1918. (Sorensen 1969, 33)

[2] Keep in mind that Trotsky had just spent the last years running the war effort.

[3] Lenin was also very clear that unions were the product of the capitalist system and that in a socialist or communist society trade unions would be rendered moot. Lenin saw this happening in the distant future. (James 2009, 161)

[4] Lenin uses the term transmission belt and school interchangeably.

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