Lenin on “Reactionary” Trade Unions

Chapter Six of "Left-Wing" Communism: An Infantile Disorder

One of the most difficult questions facing any socialist movement is its relation to the trade unions. Modern day trade unionism is an integral part of the capitalist system. It functions to further the interests of working people within capitalism by trying to get their commodity (labor power) paid for at the highest price possible in relation to its value. This price can be measured in wages as well as benefits wrested from the capitalist class by means of negotiations, demonstrations, work stoppages, sit ins, and strikes. Under capitalism unions qua unions are not revolutionary organizations. Some unions and union members are, in fact, even reactionary. In the U.S., for example, about 40% of unionized workers voted for the Republican reactionary Mitt Romney in the 2012 general election.

In chapter six of his work “Left-Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder, Lenin addresses himself to the relation Marxists should have with the capitalist trade union movement. He refers to the trade unions under capitalism as “reactionary” because he was writing in a revolutionary period in which socialist as well as capitalist oriented trade unions both existed. This is not that time so I shall dispense with the term “reactionary” except in direct quotations.

At the beginning of this chapter Lenin notes that the ultra-Left in Germany consider it very revolutionary to condemn the German unions as compromising, nationalistic, and counter-revolutionary and that no communists should have anything to do with them. Lenin intends to give reasons why he thinks these ideas are wrong and are just a lot of “empty phrases.”

Lenin will first make remarks about the situation in Russia. He does so to remind us what the purpose of this work is; i.e., to apply “to Western Europe whatever is universally practicable, significant and relevant in the history and present-day tactics of Bolshevism.” We may not find as many things today, ninety years later and in non-revolutionary conditions (but growing pre-revolutionary movements are afoot in the anti-austerity struggle and the fight back against the banks), as people in Lenin’s day found but there still are some practicable ideas in Lenin’s work.

One such idea is that as the struggle today intensifies Marxist parties will start to grow into larger and larger mass parties (as happened to the Bolsheviks after 1917) and many of the new members will be “careerists and charlatans” out to feather their own nests with no real dedication to the workers. Lenin says they only “deserve to be shot”-a la the Chinese Communist Party’s response to extremely corrupt officials. This may be a little too “proactive” for our sensibilities these days, but we should be aware of such people and kick them out of the movement and warn the workers about them. If conditions become more revolutionary, we can expect the working people to handle these types as they see fit.

Another point made by Lenin is really not so relevant in the current situation, but should still be mentioned in case the working class actually finds itself exercising state power in the future. That is the relation of the worker’s party to the institutions of the state. We must not look at the state as some kind of independent institution that all political parties share in and whose main departments are headed now by one party, now another or a combination of parties. The bourgeoisie is an unnecessary parasitical exploiting class with no useful role to play in modern society except to oppress working people and exploit them. This class will no longer have a role to play in the political life of a state controlled by workers so no state institution will make any political or organizational decisions without consulting with, and taking guidance from, the worker’s party.

With respect to the trade unions, Lenin says that the party “relies directly” upon them. Trade unions are formally non-party organizations but the party, in Russia (and presumably in any future worker’s  state), actually controls the leadership positions in all the unions and the unions carry out the party line. There are millions of workers only a relatively small number of whom (the most class conscious) are members of the party. The trade unions are the vehicle by which the party keeps in touch with the working masses and keeps the class unified in its struggle to defeat the bourgeoisie and build socialism. Under capitalism the unions are not typically led by leaders committed to building socialism and thus the unions function to uphold bourgeois rule despite their struggles for better pay and working conditions.

Marxists should be in the union movement and hopefully get themselves elected to leadership positions by the rank and file. Marxists union members should be carrying on socialist education and agitation and explaining to workers why they will never be secure in their lives, jobs, or pensions under capitalism.

There are two main positions that the Marxists should push that will differentiate them from the opportunistic and pragmatic labor leaders. The first is to fight against the view that bourgeois democracy is the only form of democracy that should be supported. Direct worker’s democracy, in whatever form it takes (worker’s councils, soviets, etc.), should be the ideal. The second idea to fight is that the union movement should be politically “independent.” In Russia that would have amounted to the workers having unions independent from workers’ political power running the state. In our pre-revolutionary situation the unions should support and be affiliated with political parties having a pro-working class agenda. An intellectually mature working class will have its own political party or parties reflecting working class values and led by working people themselves. In the U.S., I repeat, it is absolutely scandalous that forty percent of unionized workers vote Republican in general elections.

However, it is not sufficient just to maintain contact with the workers and the people in general through the trade unions. Lenin says that other types of non-party organizations have to be set up and institutions developed whose membership consists of workers and petty bourgeois elements who are not members of the party. In the West these organizations have been given the uncharitable name of “front groups” by the bourgeoisie. Their real purpose, according to Lenin, is to allow the party to understand the “temper” of the people and “to come closer to them, meet their requirements” and “promote the best among them” to leadership positions. This is a thoroughly democratic way for the people and the party to interact for the common interests of the working class and its allies.

In Russia all of this party work was carried out by means of the Soviets which Lenin says are a form of democratic expression far superior to anything created by bourgeois democracy. While making these remarks Lenin also mentions exactly what type of workers’ rule is involved in the “Dictatorship of the Proletariat” (DP). The DP is not a dictatorship of all the working people, or a dictatorship of workers and peasants. In Russia it is “a dictatorship of the urban proletariat” and the DP is meant to lead the agricultural population (a backward majority) towards supporting the rule of the urban working class. It has as one of its main functions to lead the mass of poor peasants  and to wage “a systematic struggle against the rich, bourgeois, exploiting and profiteering peasantry, etc.” In the West of the 21st Century such a DP has no existential basis and would not make a good role model for the type of workers’ democracy required to establish socialism.

In Lenin’s day such a DP was what was required. The Russian Marxists had arrived at these ideas after 25 years of intense struggle against the Russian feudalists and bourgeoisie, and from their point of view the ultra-left antics of some German “Communists” and others of pitting “leaders” against the “masses” and advocating abandoning the trade union movement and also other forms of legal struggle sounded like “ridiculous and childish nonsense.”

Lenin admitted that the old bourgeois craft unions and distinctions between workers are a legacy left to socialism by capitalism and that the trade unions too are riddled with bourgeois attitudes and prejudices. But he said this is the material we have to work with and it will take years and years of work to develop the industrial unions of the future which will represent whole industries  and lead to the abolition of the division of labor between people. This goal is the goal of fully developed Communism and in 1920 only the first baby steps were being taken. Lenin warned that, “To attempt in practice, today, to anticipate this future result of a fully developed, fully comprehensive and mature communism would be like trying to teach higher mathematics to a child of four.” This warning was another in the species of not trying to skip stages and prematurely try to bring about remote future possibilities. Perhaps all the errors of Soviet collectivization and also of the Great Leap Forward could have been prevented had Lenin’s views been taken seriously.

Lenin here seems to reject the whole idea of “social engineering” and the idea of creating the “the new Soviet man.” He says we have to build socialism with the type of people “bequeathed” to us by the capitalist system and not try to build it “with human material specially prepared by us.” If Lenin’s successors had followed this advice, they would have been much more tolerant of the frailties of human nature and open to different ideas and notions of how to go about building on the foundations of socialism created under his direction. They could have avoided the paranoia and purges of the 1930s and 40s.

Reflecting again on the trade unions, Lenin remarks that they evolved out of the primitive isolation and disunity of the early working class and were an essential form of a working class organization that developed to unify and unite workers and give to them class consciousness. Now it is the Communist Party which is the highest form of working class organization and which expresses the highest level of class consciousness and the trade union movement, born as it was under capitalist conditions, has revealed that, compared to the revolutionary class conscious workers, it has backward tendencies related to narrow minded craft interests.

Lenin uses the term “Communist” in relation to the Party in a way which leads me to think he didn’t really believe Communist parties had arrived at a stage of development where they deserved to be called “Communist.” He says, “The Party will not merit the name until it learns to weld the leaders into one indivisible whole with the class and the masses.” I don’t think that ever happened in the Soviet Union but the reasons for this failure to weld an indivisible whole are to complex to discuss here.

At any rate, whatever the limitations displayed by the trade union movement, this movement was indispensable for the development of the working class and every capitalist country has produced trade unions which represent the interests of the working people in the economic contest with the capitalists. The unions will be necessary in the transfer of the management of the economic life of socialist countries to the working class, not to the separate unions, and eventually to all working people. For this reason Lenin calls the unions a “school of communism” that will be the training ground for workers in the building of socialism.

Nevertheless at the present time there are many backward attitudes and ideas floating about in the ranks of the trade unions and many of these attitudes will remain even if working people eventually gain state power. How should we deal with them both now and in the future? Repression was not an option favored by Lenin. He says these backward attitudes are INEVITABLE considering the historical context in which the unions were formed. Not to understand this is to show complete ignorance of the role of the party. It would be “folly” to either evade this problem or try to “leap over it” [even a great leap won’t work]. The role of the party is to educate and enlighten the backwardness that living under capitalism will inevitably imprint on large sections of the working people. The Party’s job is to win the support of the masses and to maintain and extend that support through education and example. Obviously shooting people or sending them to the Gulag is not a good way to carry out that assignment. It will take many years of patient work and struggle to carry out that mission. Presumably the party that fails in this mission will not be around in the long run.

Paradoxically, Lenin thinks the labor leadership in the more advanced countries of the West are more opportunist and play upon the credulity of the workers than those in backward Russia. This is because Russia was going through a real revolutionary awakening and the the vast majority of the workers chose to follow the Bolshevik wing of the Marxist movement rather than the Menshevik wing which was opportunistic and social chauvinist. Lenin is particularly vitriolic when he refers to the Western labor leaders calling them “the craft-union, narrow-minded, selfish, case-hardened, covetous, and petty-bourgeois ‘labour aristocracy,’ imperialist-minded and imperialist-corrupted” leadership. This type of leadership has to be fought against and completely driven out of the trades union movement. Marxist trade unionists still have that daunting task before them.

Taking all this under consideration, Lenin warns that the attempt of Marxists to assume political power “should not be made” until the majority of workers are firm supporters of the Party. This stage in the struggle will vary “in different countries and in different circumstances; it can be correctly gauged only by thoughtful, experienced and knowledgeable political leaders of the proletariat in each particular country.” It s thus still, it seems, the primary mission of Marxists to educate the working people and remind them that, while it is necessary to work in bourgeois trade unions and to contest bourgeois elections (to hold off the right and protect the interests of the working class), these forms of bourgeois democracy are not a solution to the problems of exploitation, unemployment, and preventing war, and must be replaced with real democratic institutions based on working class political power. The faux democracy of the West is part of the problem, not part of the solution leading to human liberation from capital.

It is, of course, the case, Lenin says, that Marxists uphold the interests of the working people AGAINST the opportunistic labor bureaucrats (“the ‘Labour Aristocracy'”). This is “an elementary and most self-evident truth”. The ultra-left’s error is to think that because some unions, or even most unions, in the West have a pro-capitalist  top  leadership that Marxists should abandon the trade unions and create ARTIFICIAL organizations to compete with them. This is infantile. The only way to help the workers better understand what the issues are is for Marxists to work in the labor movement with them and expose those “agents of the bourgeoisie in the working class movement.”  Lenin particularly likes Daniel De Leon ‘s (the leader of the now moribund Socialist Labor Party) formulation: “labour lieutenants of the capitalist class”.

Lenin maintains that Marxists cannot leave the backward workers to the mercy of these capitalist labor leaders or under the influence of those workers Engels described as having “become completely bourgeois.” Lenin’s reference is to a letter Engels sent to Marx in 1858 in reference to British workers. I’m going to quote it because, with a few slight adjustments, Engels’ observations hold true for many workers  today in the West.

Engels wrote to Marx from Manchester on October 7, 1858 that, in effect labor leadership could move to the right, because “the English proletariat is actually becoming more and more bourgeois, so that this most bourgeois of all nations is apparently aiming ultimately at the possession of a bourgeois aristocracy and a bourgeois proletariat ALONGSIDE the bourgeoisie. For a nation which exploits the whole world this is of course to a certain extent justifiable. The only thing that would help here would be a few thoroughly bad years….” Well, the bad years are once again upon us. I hope we can make the best use of them.

With regard to the trade union movement, Lenin finds the ultra-left “Marxists” to be acting in a “frivolous” manner with regard to mass work. Their “ridiculous ‘theory'” of not wanting to work in the union movement betrays a fundamental principle of mass organization which is  to WORK WHEREVER THE MASSES ARE TO BE FOUND. Marxists have a duty to work in the union movement and educate the workers by exposing the baseness and class collaborationist nature of the pro-capitalist labor leaders. The nature of this type of work has to be fine tuned and take into consideration the specific features of the working class and its history in each country but it cannot be ignored.

It is particularly childish of the “Left opposition” to demand brand new unions be set up with but one requirement for membership: accepting the Soviet system and the dictatorship of the proletariat. Lenin says that the Communists have been running Soviet Russia for almost three years and it would be ruinous for them to make such a demand on Russian workers for union membership. “The task,” he says, facing Marxists “is to CONVINCE the backward elements, to work AMONG them, and not FENCE THEMSELVES OFF from them with artificial and childishly ‘Left’ slogans.”

Not only should Marxists work in the trade union movement, but, in fact Lenin even favored Marxists, following the idea of being where the masses were, joining the Black Hundreds (the Russian KKK of the time) so as to win the backward workers and peasants away from the organization. I cannot, however, envision Leftists in the U.S. flocking to the Tea Party Movement to enlighten its working class members and win them away from the reactionary Republican party (however correct that tactic might be).

So much then for Lenin’s views on the relation that a Marxist party should have with the trade union movement. I will next examine his views about working in bourgeois parliaments.

Thomas Riggins is currently the associate editor of Political Affairs online. Read other articles by Thomas.