A. Losovsky

The Labour Movement

The Basic Problems of the
International Trade Union Movement

(20 December 1921)

From International Press Correspondence, Vol. 1 No. 18, 20 December 1921, pp. 145–147.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2019). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.

The international labor movement has far from recovered from the wounds which the working-class received during the war. We are not speaking of physical wounds, nor of material losses; we are speaking of the moral setback which the entire working-class underwent during the war. National limitations and national patriotism, the hope for an improvement in living conditions through the conquest of new markets by the national capitalists, the support of war-policies and communal work – all of these were principles which characterized the labor movement in the most important countries during the war. The war was able to last four years only because in all countries the trade unions constituted the main support of the war policies, inasmuch as the trade-union leaders held the discontented masses in check by promising them great reforms after the victory had been won, and on the other hand persuading the ruling classes to make concessions voluntarily in order to prevent a revolutionary mass movement. Jan Oudegeest, the secretary of the Amsterdam I.T.U.F. has admitted this quite frankly in the July issue of the International Labor Movement. He writes as follows: “We should not forget that especially in the warring countries, the governments, being unable to carry on war without the co-operation of the working class, made various concessions to the trade unions, which enabled the latter to get through certain reforms which under other circumstances would have required years of activity on the part of the trade-unions.” In this manner the labor unions, which came into existence as organs of self-defense for the working-class against the capitalist exploiters, became a part of the capitalist machine. These strained relations between the labor unions and the capitalist governments became particularly clear immediately after the war when after the slaughter had come to an end, all the pent-up hatred of the working masses against their oppressors came to the fore. At this point the trade-union organizations became the saviours of the capitalist economic system. After the November revolution in Germany the leaders of the capitalist organizations openly admitted that the trade unions protected “the state against anarchy”. The trade unions of the Entente also acted as the saviours of the bourgeoisie.

Immediately after the war the trade unions of all countries appeared on the international stage; they were permitted to participate in the drawing-up of certain articles of the peace of Versailles, they extended their holy “united front” from the national to the international stage, and were thus grafted into capitalist state and the “League of Nations”. In this manner progress made by the trade unions during the war came to a dead stop. Quite formally the trade-union organizations thus become organs of the capitalist state and supports of the capitalist regime.

Until now the trade unions have in no way been international Even before the war, there existed between them only an artificial outward unity; they were merely a number of national organizations which were not closely connected either through uniformity in tactics or through a common understanding of the class struggle. National interests outweighed class interests.

Congresses and manifestos were a sort of tribute which had to be paid to international solidarity. Outside of this they were nothing but a certain manifestation of a Sunday spirit In its essentials, however, the trade-union movement was confined to national limits. Rarely did the struggle exceed these limits. If before the war, the trade-union movement was only formally international, during the war this internationalism completely disappeared and made itself felt only in those small international groups and organizations which from the very first day of the war came out with all their energy against the war ideology. The wild-fire spreading of the war, the unceasing slaughter and waste and the constantly growing misery of the masses which these caused brought down the protest of the workers against them. The greater the discontent became, the more likely did the revival of international thought become. In spite of this the trade-union movement remained confined to its national limits even after the war.

The Amsterdam International consists of a number of national organizations, every one of which (with the exception of revolutionary minorities) is ready, in case of a conflict with another country, to defend its “fatherland” to the bitter end. So for example, the Polish organizations which have joined Amsterdam consider Upper Silesia as belonging to them, whereas the German organizations which have likewise joined Amsterdam consider Poland’s seizure of Upper Silesia a contemptible robbery.

The organizations which are nationally limited and which are based upon trade unionism are thus unable to form any international organization. Equally un-international are the industrial organizations of the metal-workers, miners and textile workers. This was most clearly to be seen in the greatest recent strikes and conflicts. We thus see that the main problem of the international trade-union movement consists in creating a true international of trade-union organizations. The most that can be expected of the old and new international unions is to register events. They do not lead the movement; they hop after it. They do not search for new ways and means; they trot about in the old place. They attempt to reconcile the interests of the national organizations but they never approach the working class with general proletarian class problems. Indeed, they cannot possibly do otherwise. Due to its nature, the Amsterdam International can never become an international organization. Only when its national components determine to place the general class interests of the proletariat above their individual national interests, can an international organization come into existence and grow. But there are no such organizations in the Amsterdam International. All such organizations have joined the Red Trade Union International.

The struggle between Amsterdam and Moscow is thus essentially a struggle for the creation of a real international organization, a struggle for placing the interests of the international proletariat above the interests of the proletariat of any particular country; it is a struggle for the creation not of a formal but of an energetic international union of the working masses against international capital, it is a struggle for the introduction and carrying out of national and international actions in particular trades, a struggle for the consolidation of the international proletariat as a class and for its bitter opposition against the international bourgeoisie. It is only a question of fight, of struggle. It is just this which is the cause of all the differences of opinion between Moscow and Amsterdam; it is the struggle, the fight, which differentiates the trade-union movement in ail countries into followers of Moscow and followers of Amsterdam.

In order to create a truly international organization, we must conquer the trade-union organizations of various countries, and break the national spirit of isolation, characteristic of them; we must inculcate new ideas into them and finally transform a tool in the hands of the social-reaction into a tool of the social revolution.

We shall now discuss the second problem which at present confronts the trade-union movement in all countries. This problem is put in the form of a question, “Will it be possible to direct the trade unions into new channels or is it a hopeless task – necessitating the destruction of the old and the building of new organizations?” Fortunately there is only an insignificant group in the trade-union movement which is in favor of destroying the unions; this group argues that the unions constitute a capitalist machine which must unconditionally be destroyed, if we hope to achieve success in the social struggle.

We are inclined to believe that the proponents of this viewpoint consider the unions from a metaphysical point of view. Unions do not as a fact consist merely of governing cliques or of the trade-union bureaucracy; the unions essentially consist of the working masses themselves, formed into an organization. At the present moment the total trade-union membership of all countries amounts to 50,000,000. It would therefore be a clear case of suicide to abandon these millions of workers and to form “pure”, revolutionary unions; it would mean isolating ourselves from the masses and would amount to the forming of a sect. It is characteristic of the adherents of this point of view, that notwithstanding the fact that they hope to destroy powerful international imperialism, they designate the victory of the revolutionary groups over the trade-union bureaucracy as hopeless. The supporters of this viewpoint have no faith in the working masses. Their position is founded upon a pessimism which we must work against with all our might. We oppose this idea of destruction, which is itself dangerous to the revolutionary movement, with the declaration that the working masses must be conquered. This means however, that we must not abandon the unions. “Into the masses!” is our watchword. And if the upper layer has grown into the capitalist state, the same cannot under any circumstances be true of the masses. The ever-growing clash of interests drives the masses against the capitalist state and against their own conservative machine. Our task consists in increasing this pressure of the masses and in freeing them of the ideologic and organizational influence of the capitalist and socialist reformers. This emancipation is progressing rather fast, particularly now, under the ruthless capitalist offensive.

Two occurrences are at the present moment becoming noticeable on the whole front of the international labor movement, in connection with the capitalist offensive; on the one hand a certain stagnation, a certain hesitation and unsteadiness in the front ranks; on the other hand we notice an active fermentation, a growing rebellious spirit and a general hatred and contempt tor the existing social order. The vanguard is standing still while the army is advancing further on the lines of the class struggle; through its offensive, capitalism draws the working-class together and thus clears the ground for a united proletarian action. We now come to the third problem which the international trade-union movement faces, namely, to the question of the ways and means of destroying the attacking enemy.

What means of combat and what methods has the Amsterdam organization at its disposal? For several years they were continually promising social peace? They worked together with the capitalists in the International Labor Bureau of the League of Nations in drawing up social laws. Their policy as a whole was based upon the presumption of a liberalism of the ruling classes. And here everything comes to naught. The working hours are increased, the wages reduce; working-contracts are abolished. The bourgeoisie which until the middle of 1920 was retreating, has now again mobilized its forces and is starting a well-organized attack. The old trade-union organizations are yielding to this pressure; they voluntarily agree to reductions in wages. Under the pressure of the masses they sometimes participate in their actions, but they always strive to bring these actions to an end as soon as possible. In short: the capitalist advance has broken the backbone of the Amsterdam International The capitalist attack must be met with a determined resistance or must be yielded to. But is the Amsterdam I.T.U.F. capable of resisting? No! for the fight which it is carrying on is confined not only to strictly national, but even to narrow professional and trade aims. How can it actually call the working masses to an international strike, when its affiliated organizations consider this question from the standpoint which their individual national industrial interests in the international market demand? Amsterdam is compelled by necessity to limit itself to a national scale and not to extend its activities on an international scale.

The Amsterdam International has 8,000,000–10,000,000 worker, more than we but in spite of its colossal membership, it has not yet outgrown its childhood in the labor movement.

This was was established by the giant long drawn-out class struggles of recent date, as for example the miners’ strike in England and the textile strike in France. When one trade strikes in a given country, the others, which do not wish to endanger the capitalist economic system, do not join in, and instead of a fight of the entire working class, only small skirmishes take place between isolated divisions of workers and the mighty enemy which is armed to the teeth.

The essential difference between the Red Trade Union International and Amsterdam, is to be found not only in the different conception and comprehension of the ways and means of the social conflict, but is chiefly to be found in the fact that the old unions look upon every trade-union organization as an end in itself, whereas we consider them as a means to an end, that is, as a tool in the hands of the Social Revolution and the social reconstruction. When an isolated fighting group finds itself in a critical situation, the Amsterdamers are not able and do not want to bring up the reserve troops, that is, those groups of workers which could have a decisive influence upon the struggle, as for example: the railroad workers, the gas workers, those employed on the electric railway, those employed in the food industries and the like. We, on the other hand, consider the action of the workers in the public service and state enterprises as the main weapon in the present struggle against the capitalist offensive. The one means the domination of the spirit of collaboration, the other the maintenance of the viewpoint of the class division even in the smallest conflicts. We thus have compromise as the objective before and during the fight on the one hand, and the sharpening of the social conflict, and the attempt to draw the greatest possible masses into the fight on the other.

The most difficult problem now confronting the trade-union movement is the creation of a united front against the attacking capitalists. Notwithstanding the outer stimuli in the political struggle, and in spite of the existence of two or three political labor parties in every country, the trade unions, in most cases, still retain their uniform structure. This cannot be an accidental occurrence. There must therefore be important reasons and interests which, in spite of the intensity of their political desires, compel the working class to strive for unity in their trade-union organizations. The reason for this continued unity is to be found in the fact that in spite of all their mistakes and defeats, and in spite of repeated betrayals by their leaders, the trade unions as such continue to defend the immediate material interests of the working-class. In the unusually difficult and complicated situation in which the working-class at present finds itself, a victory without a united front is not only impossible, but the working class is not even in a position to repel the capitalist attack.

But in what manner is this united front to be organized?

The Amsterdamers suggest that the united front should be organized on the basis of a refusal to intervene in the trade-union movement of other countries, and of silence upon certain vital points which split the working masses. As reformists, they demand the recognition of class co-operation as the basis for unity. As far as we are concerned we are decidedly for a united front. We are ready to organize it together with the Amsterdamers and other trade-union organizations, but only on the basis of defending the conquests of the working class, and not on that of voluntary retreat. It is the task of the revolutionary unions to utilize the concrete and practical questions of the everyday struggle as a starting point tor a united front. We are not to content ourselves by merely putting the abstract question as to whether this one or that is for or against the class struggle; but we must ask whether he is for or against revolutionary resistance against advancing capitalism, and whether he is for or against the struggle for the retention of past conquests, for or against the struggle for the social laws which the proletariat is about to lose. In short, it is the task of the revolutionary trade unions to concentrate the attention of the broad masses upon the question as to the means at present to be employed in repulsing the attack of the class-enemy, and at the same time to prepare the ground for assuming the offensive.

And finally the fourth question, that of the present relations between the Red Trade Union International and the Communist International. The transformation of the trade-union movement into a truly international movement means at the same time transforming it into a Communist movement, for only then can the working-class be international in spirit, in character, in its methods of struggle and in the ways and means in which it solves all its problems, when it is at the same time Communist. Being substantially a Communist movement, it cannot remain separated from the Communist International. In this manner it is compelled by its course of development to create a real international headquarters, which is fired by the spirit and the ideas of Communism, and which leads it to become one with the Communist current and to create a united International comprising all forms and sections of the labor movement The Red Trade Union International and the Communist International in no way represent two parallel lines; that is just why the trade-union organizations and the Communist Party of every country do not constitute two parallel organizations which never cross each other in their activities. On the contrary, they must be compared with two lines which frequently cross each other and which find their meeting point in the united International. It is difficult to say how long it will take for these Internationals which are still separated by their programs and tactics, yet so closely related, to unite. The labor movement still has to overcome so many prejudices, not only that of the advantage of the reformist trade-union movement, but also revolutionary prejudices. These prejudices are chiefly expressed in the separation of politics from economics, in the attempt to isolate the unions from the political parties of the proletariat and in the desire to play these two forms of the labor movement against each other. Of course, these prejudices will be overcome. The labor movement will be cured of its reformist disease and of a number of infantile diseases of the left, only through the growth of the revolutionary movement in all countries, only when the struggle against the bourgeoisie becomes more acute and pressing necessity leads to a concentration of all the forces at the disposal of the working class into a weapon which will repulse the class enemy.

If we examine the history of development in the trade-union movement from the end of the nineteenth century up to the present day, we see what colossal progress it has made. From a subjective viewpoint the process goes on at an exceedingly slow rate; from the historical viewpoint, however, the labor movement has taken a colossal step forward, and with every year it approaches its goal at an accelerated speed. The greater this acceleration becomes and the greater and the bitterer the class struggles become, the nearer the international trade-union movement comes to a solution of its fundamental problem. No matter how difficult the times we live in are, no matter how heavy the burden is which at present threatens to crush the working class of all countries and no matter what ideological effects this pressure by the international bourgeoisie may have – we nevertheless have every reason for facing the future with optimism. The wounds which the war has inflicted upon the labor movement are gradually healing. National isolation is disappearing. The Amsterdam International is gradually losing ground. The prerequisites for truly international unity are coming into existence. The old trade-union movement is slowly but surely dying out. And in its stead, a revolutionary class-trade-union movement is coming up, which is embodied in the Red Trade Union International!

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