International Communist Party The Union Question

Historical-programmatic basis of revolutionary communism as concerns the relationship between party, class, class action and workers’ economic associations
(From “Il Programma Comunista” No.22, Nov.8, 1971)

MARX-ENGELS - Il Programma Comunista, 1971, n.22
- Premise - From “Situation of the Working Class in England” (Engels 1844‑45) - “The Poverty of Philosophy” (Marx 1846‑47) - “The Manifesto of the Communist Party” (Marx‑Engels 1848) - “Wages, Prices and Profits” (Marx 1865) - Resolution proposed by Marx and approved by the General Council - General Council’s Instructions to the delegates to the International Congress, Geneva 1866 - “The Political Action of the Working Class”, London Conference, 1871 - “Political Indifferentism”, Marx 1873 - Engels’ letter to Bebel of March 1875.

MARX - Il Programma Comunista, 1971, n.23
- Premise - “Capital”, Book 1, ch 8‑15 - Marx’s letter to Bolte dated November 29, 1871 - Lenin - Premise - “What is to be done?”, 1901 - “The Neutrality of Trade Unions”, 1908 - “Left‑Wing Communism, an Infantile Disorder”, 1920 - Trotsky‑Lenin - Premise - “Terrorism and Communism”, 1920

THE COMMUNIST INTERNATIONAL 1920 - Il Programma Comunista, 1971, n.24
- Premise - “Theses on The Trade Union Movement, Works Councils and the Communist International” - Red Trade Union International 1921 - Premise - “Deliberation on the Question of Tactics” - Communist Left 1920‑26 - Premise - Theses of the Communist Abstentionist Fraction, 1920 - “Party and class”, 1921

COMMUNIST LEFT 1920‑26 - Il Programma Comunista, 1972, n.1
- Premise - “The United Front”, 1921 - “The Democratic Principle”, 1922 - Rome Thesis, 1922 - Communist International, IV Congress, Draft Theses Presented by The P.C.d’Italia, 1922 - Lyon Thesis, 1926

INTERNATIONAL COMMUNIST PARTY - Il Programma Comunista, 1972, n.2
- Premise - “Trade Union Splits in Italy”, 1949 - “Revolutionary Party and Economic Action”, 1951 - “Theory and Action in Marxist Doctrine”, 1951 - Characteristic Thesis of the Party, 1952 - “Considerations on the organic activity of the party”, 1965 - “Theses on the historical duty, action and the structure of the world communist party”, 1965 - “Supplementary theses”, 1966


It is appropriate, aiming at a systematic resumption of the fundamental themes of the so‑called trade union question, in its theoretical postulates as well as in its reflections of practical direction, to reproduce a series of excerpts from the classic Marxist texts constituting the doctrinal and programmatic body of the Party itself.

From their reading the continuous line from Marx and Engels to Lenin and to us, in the ups and downs of the revolutionary class struggle, on which the organization of the political Party was created, appears in full light.

This text is meant to be a contribution to the reaffirmation of inalienable principles in the period of open counter-revolution that has been raging for nearly half a century, during which proletarian generations have gone astray and even lost the sense of the most basic conceptions of class and revolutionary struggle.

“Probing” into the class past is the historical method the Party uses to decipher the trivial today and the luminous tomorrow, aware that it is not in anyone’s brain or consciousness that the solution to the serious problems afflicting the working class, driven by the contradictions of capitalist society toward the path of revolution, is to be found.

The Party is aware that the re‑establishment of principles in every field of its action is the conditio sine qua non for qualifying itself to lead the working class in every economic, social and political struggle aimed at the conquest of power. Defense of the Program is struggle against the enemies of revolution and communism, against the defilers of revolutionary Marxism. This unrelenting struggle is littered with obstacles erected by the rotting capitalist regime, of which traitorous opportunism is the most blatant product.

In proclaiming hatred of capitalism, Revolutionary Communism points to the crushing of the false social-communist parties as the indispensable action for the destruction of the society of capital. Against them stand organized Communists in the proletarian ranks, in the economic associations which the class has created, and is creating in the heat of its conflict with capital. To abandon this struggle would mean renouncing forever the defeat of the historical enemy and its agents disguised as friends of the workers.

The war on opportunism in the ranks of the organized proletariat is thus a categorical imperative, a programmatic cornerstone, not an opinion. In the knowledge that, not only the situation preceding the insurrectional struggle, but also any phase of decisive increase in the party’s influence among the masses cannot take shape without a layer of economic organizations with an immediate purpose and high numerical participation between the party and the class, within which there is a permanent party network (communist trade union nuclei, groups and fraction).

From “Situation of the Working Class in England”, Engels 1844‑45

It will be asked,“Why, then, do the workers strike in such cases, when the uselessness of such measures is so evident?” Simply because they must protest against every reduction, even if dictated by necessity; because they feel bound to proclaim that they, as human beings, shall not be made to bow to social circumstances, but social conditions ought to yield to them as human beings; because silence on their part would be a recognition of these social conditions, an admission of the right of the bourgeoisie to exploit the workers in good times and let them starve in bad ones...

They (the workers’ associations, or trade unions) imply the recognition of the fact that the supremacy of the bourgeoisie is based wholly upon the competition of the workers among themselves; i.e., upon their want of cohesion. And precisely because the Unions direct themselves against the vital nerve of the present social order, however one‑sidedly, in however narrow a way, are they so dangerous to this social order. The working‑men cannot attack the bourgeoisie, and with it the whole existing order of society, at any sorer point than this...

These strikes, at first skirmishes, sometimes result in weighty struggles; they decide nothing, it is true, but they are the strongest proof that the decisive battle between bourgeoisie and proletariat is approaching. They are the military school of the working‑men in which they prepare themselves for the great struggle which cannot be avoided; they are the pronunciamentos of single branches of industry that these too have joined the labour movement... And as schools of war, the Unions are unexcelled.

From “The Poverty of Philosophy”, Marx, December 1846-June 1847

In spite of both of them, in spite of manuals and utopias, combination has not yet ceased for an instant to go forward and grow with the development and growth of modern industry... Thus combination always has a double aim, that of stopping competition among the workers, so that they can carry on general competition with the capitalist. If the first aim of resistance was merely the maintenance of wages, combinations, at first isolated, constitute themselves into groups as the capitalists in their turn unite for the purpose of repression, and in the face of always united capital, the maintenance of the association becomes more necessary to them than that of wages... In this struggle – a veritable civil war – all the elements necessary for a coming battle unite and develop. Once it has reached this point, association takes on a political character.

Economic conditions had first transformed the mass of the people of the country into workers. The domination of capital has created for this mass a common situation, common interests. This mass is thus already a class as against capital, but not yet for itself. In the struggle, of which we have noted only a few phases, this mass becomes united, and constitutes itself as a class for itself. The interests it defends become class interests. But the struggle of class against class is a political struggle... Do not say that social movement excludes political movement. There is never a political movement which is not at the same time social.

From “The Manifesto of the Communist Party”, 1848

But with the development of industry, the proletariat not only increases in number; it becomes concentrated in greater masses, its strength grows, and it feels that strength more. The various interests and conditions of life within the ranks of the proletariat are more and more equalised, in proportion as machinery obliterates all distinctions of labour, and nearly everywhere reduces wages to the same low level. The growing competition among the bourgeois, and the resulting commercial crises, make the wages of the workers ever more fluctuating. The increasing improvement of machinery, ever more rapidly developing, makes their livelihood more and more precarious; the collisions between individual workmen and individual bourgeois take more and more the character of collisions between two classes. Thereupon, the workers begin to form combinations (Trades’ Unions) against the bourgeois; they club together in order to keep up the rate of wages; they found permanent associations in order to make provision beforehand for these occasional revolts. Here and there, the contest breaks out into riots.

Now and then the workers are victorious, but only for a time. The real fruit of their battles lies, not in the immediate result, but in the ever expanding union of the workers. This union is helped on by the improved means of communication that are created by modern industry, and that place the workers of different localities in contact with one another. It was just this contact that was needed to centralise the numerous local struggles, all of the same character, into one national struggle between classes. But every class struggle is a political struggle... This organisation of the proletarians into a class, and, consequently into a political party, is continually being upset again by the competition between the workers themselves. But it ever rises up again, stronger, firmer, mightier.

From Marx, “Wages, Prices and Profits”, Report to the General Council of the International Workingmen’s Association, July 20 and 27, 1865

The whole history of modern industry shows that capital, if not checked, will recklessly and ruthlessly work to cast down the whole working class to this utmost state of degradation...

In checking this tendency of capital, by struggling for a rise of wages corresponding to the rising intensity of labour, the working man only resists the depreciation of his labour and the deterioration of his race...

The slave receives a fixed and constant amount of maintenance; the wages laborer does not. He must try to get a rise of wages in the one instance, if only to compensate for a fall of wages in the other. If he resigned himself to accept the will, the dictates of the capitalist as a permanent economical law, he would share all the miseries of a slave, without the security of the slave...

The determination of its real level (i.e., the level of the profit essay), is decided only by the incessant struggle between capital and labor; the capitalist constantly trying to reduce wages to their minimum physical limit, while the worker constantly exerts pressure in the opposite direction. It boils down to the question of the power relations of the warring parties... It is precisely this need for general political action that provides us with proof that in the purely economic struggle capital is the stronger. But, if the working class gave in through cowardice in its conflict with capital, it would itself deprive itself of the ability to undertake any larger movement.

At the same time, and quite apart from the general servitude involved in the wages system, the working class ought not to exaggerate to themselves the ultimate working of these everyday struggles. They ought not to forget that they are fighting with effects, but not with the causes of those effects; that they are retarding the downward movement, but not changing its direction; that they are applying palliatives, not curing the malady. They ought, therefore, not to be exclusively absorbed in these unavoidable guerilla fights incessantly springing up from the never ceasing encroachments of capital or changes of the market. They ought to understand that, with all the miseries it imposes upon them, the present system simultaneously engenders the material conditions and thesocial forms necessary for an economical reconstruction of society. Instead of the conservative motto: “A fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work!” they ought to inscribe on their banner the revolutionary watchword: “Abolition of the wages system!”

From the Resolution proposed by Marx at the end of his report and approved by the General Council

The general tendency of capitalist production is not to raise the average normal wage, but to reduce it. The Trade Unions do a good job as centers of resistance against the attacks of capital; in part they prove ineffective because of an irrational employment of their force. They generally fall short of their purpose because they limit themselves to guerrilla warfare against the effects of the existing system, instead of at the same time striving for its transformation and using their organized force as a lever for the ultimate liberation of the working class, that is, for the ultimate abolition of the wage system.

From the General Council’s Instructions to the delegates to the International Congress in Geneva, September 1866

Capital is concentrated social force, while the workman has only to dispose of his working force. The contract between capital and labour can therefore never be struck on equitable terms, equitable even in the sense of a society which places the ownership of the material means of life and labour on one side and the vital productive energies on the opposite side. The only social power of the workmen is their number. The force of numbers, however is broken by disunion. The disunion of the workmen is created and perpetuated by their unavoidable competition among themselves.

Trades’ Unions originally sprang up from the spontaneous attempts of workmen at removing or at least checking that competition, in order to conquer such terms of contract as might raise them at least above the condition of mere slaves. The immediate object of Trades’ Unions was therefore confined to everyday necessities, to expediences for the obstruction of the incessant encroachments of capital, in one word, to questions of wages and time of labour. This activity of the Trades’ Unions is not only legitimate, it is necessary. It cannot be dispensed with so long as the present system of production lasts. On the contrary, it must be generalised by the formation and the combination of Trades’ Unions throughout all countries. On the other hand, unconsciously to themselves, the Trades’ Unions were forming centres of organisation of the working class, as the mediaeval municipalities and communes did for the middle class. If the Trades’ Unions are required for the guerilla fights between capital and labour, they are still more important as organised agencies for superseding the very system of wages labour and capital rule.

From the IX Resolution on “The Political Action of the Working Class” adopted by the September 1871 London Conference of the International Workingmen’s Association

Considering, that against this collective power of the propertied classes the working class cannot act, as a class, except by constituting itself into a political party, distinct from, and opposed to, all old parties formed by the propertied classes;

That this constitution of the working class into a political party is indispensable in order to ensure the triumph of the social revolution and its ultimate end — the abolition of classes;

That the combination of forces which the working class has already effected by its economical struggles ought at the same time to serve as a lever for its struggles against the political power of landlords and capitalists;

The Conference recalls to the members of the International:

That in the militant state of the working class, its economical movement and its political action are indissolubly united.

From: “Political Indifferentism”, Marx 1873

The working class [argue anarchists] must not constitute itself as a political party; it must not, under any pretext, engage in political action, for to combat the State is to recognize the State: and this is contrary to eternal principles. Workers must not go on strike; for to struggle to increase one’s wages or to prevent their decrease is like recognizing Wages: and this is contrary to the eternal principles of the emancipation of the working class!... Workers must not struggle to establish a legal limit to the working day, because this is to compromise with the masters... Workers must not even form single unions for every trade, because by so doing they perpetuate the social division of labor, as they find it in bourgeois society... In a word, workers should fold their arms and stop wasting their time in political and economic movements... In practical everyday life, workers must be the most obedient servants of the State; but in their hearts they must protest energetically against its very existence, and give proof of their profound theoretical contempt for it by acquiring and reading literary treatises on its abolition; they must further scrupulously refrain from putting up any resistance to the capitalist regime apart from declamations on the society of the future, when this hated regime will have ceased to exist!

It cannot be denied that if the apostles of political indifferentism were to express themselves with such clarity, the working class would make short shrift of them and would resent being insulted by these doctrinaire bourgeois and displaced gentlemen, who are so stupid or so naive as to attempt to deny to the working class any real means of struggle. For all arms with which to fight must be drawn from society as it is.

From Engels’ letter to Bebel of March 1875

Here relates to the Programme of the German Workers’ Party, which he, along the lines of K. Marx’s “Critique of the Gotha Programme”, sharply criticizes.

There is absolutely no mention [in the draft programme] of the organization of the working class as a class through the medium of trade unions. And that is a point of the utmost importance, this being the proletariat’s true class organisation, in which it fights its daily battles with capital, in which it trains itself, and which nowadays can no longer simply be smashed, even with reaction at its worst (as presently in Paris). Considering the importance this organization is likewise assuming in Germany, it would in our view be indispensable to accord it some mention in the programme and, possibly, to leave some room for it in the organisation of the Party.


From the wealth of fundamental Marxist texts, we only excerpt the following passages. In them the deterministic basis from which the proletariat’s defensive struggles on the economic terrain arise is succinctly described. The class does not come to the explication of its historical role, fulfilled through the class struggle and its highest form, the insurrection and seizure of power, by ideological virtue, but as a result of the diuturnal classist exercise of defense against social degradation, to which the capitalist class would condemn it eternally if it could determine the distribution of surplus value at will. The level of wages, Marx comments, is determined by the balance of power between the wage‑earning class and the capital class.

There arises from this for the proletariat the deterministic necessity to organize itself in resistance associations, or trade unions, as strongly centralized as bourgeois power is centralized; but there also arises the irrepressible need for the class organized in economic associations to break the precarious and labile equilibrium from time to time achieved on this ground – the ground of the opposition of “right” to “right”, both consecrated by the law of commodity exchange – by launching its historic revolutionary offensive.

This offensive is possible only if the proletariat constitutes itself as a class, if, that is, it arms itself with a historical program, a method of action, a fighting organization: in short, with the Party.

From “Capital” - Book 1 - chapters 8 and 15

We see then, that, apart from extremely elastic bounds, the nature of the exchange of commodities itself imposes no limit to the working‑day, no limit to surplus-labour. The capitalist maintains his rights as a purchaser when he tries to make the working‑day as long as possible, and to make, whenever possible, two working‑days out of one... and the labourer maintains his right as seller when he wishes to reduce the working‑day to one of definite normal duration. There is here, therefore, an antinomy, right against right, both equally bearing the seal of the law of exchanges. Between equal rights force decides. Hence is it that in the history of capitalist production, the determination of what is a working‑day, presents itself as the result of a struggle, a struggle between collective capital, i.e., the class of capitalists, and collective labour, i.e., the working-class...

Second. The history of the regulation of the working‑day in certain branches of production, and the struggle still going on in others in regard to this regulation, prove conclusively that the isolated labourer, the labourer as “free” vendor of his labour-power, when capitalist production has once attained a certain stage, succumbs without any power of resistance. The creation of a normal working‑day is, therefore, the product of a protracted civil war, more or less dissembled, between the capitalist class and the working-class.

The variation in the magnitude of surplus-value presupposes a movement in the value of labor-power caused by the variation in the productive force of labour. The limit of this variation is given by the new limit of labor power...

The amount of this fall... depends on the relative weight, which the pressure of capital on the one side, and the resistance of the labourer on the other, throw into the scale.

From Marx’s letter to Bolte dated November 29, 1871

We quote this famous passage because it clearly highlights the dialectical relationship between economic and political struggles. A relationship that is, on the one hand, of mutual determination and, on the other hand, of elevating the former to the higher level of the frontal clash of the wage‑earning class against Capital. It is reflected in the dialectical relationship between economic and political movements and their organizations and which, if it can only come from their crystallizing, is, however, also the necessary condition of their further development in the sense of their polarization toward the historical goal of the class.

The political movement of the working class has as its object, of course, the conquest of political power for the working class, and for this it is naturally necessary that a previous organisation of the working class, itself arising from their economic struggles, should have been developed up to a certain point.

On the other hand, however, every movement in which the working class comes out as a class against the ruling classes and attempts to force them by pressure from without is a political movement. For instance, the attempt in a particular factory or even a particular industry to force a shorter working day out of the capitalists by strikes, etc., is a purely economic movement. On the other hand the movement to force an eight‑hour day, etc., law is a political movement. And in this way, out of the separate economic movements of the workers there grows up everywhere a political movement, that is to say a movement of the class, with the object of achieving its interests in a general form, in a form possessing a general social force of compulsion. If these movements presuppose a certain degree of previous organisation, they are themselves equally a means of the development of this organisation.

Where the working class is not yet far enough advanced in its organisation to undertake a decisive campaign against the collective power, i.e., the political power of the ruling classes, it must at any rate be trained for this by continual agitation against and a hostile attitude towards the policy of the ruling classes. Otherwise it will remain a plaything in their hands...


The passages refer to three different but closely related periods. The first just precedes the formation of the Bolshevik Party and the revolution of 1905, and points to the communist militants the task of importing into the class that consciousness of the ultimate ends and the way to reach them which only the Party can give, breaking the narrow framework of the trade-unionist mentality in which every immediate and spontaneous economic organization inevitably falls if left to itself.

The second, from the counter-revolutionary period following the 1905 defeat, rejects the absurd theory of the neutrality of trade unions (dear to immediatists of both right and left, reformists and anarchists) and sets the Party the task of achieving a close union with the trade unions, “for which the Party must be a guide”.

The third, written after the October victory and the founding of the Communist International, reiterates the need for revolutionary militants to carry out their revolutionary activity in “even the most reactionary” trade unions, and to import into the mass workers’ bodies in general the communist program, with a view to generalizing the class struggle on a world scale: a task that takes on a wholly specific character in the face of workerist deviations of various origins that claim to “build” from scratch organisms that are in themselves uncontaminated and uncontaminable, the bearers of that revolutionary consciousness and direction that only the Party possesses.

From “What is to be done?” - 1901‑1902

But there is spontaneity and spontaneity. Strikes occurred in Russia in the seventies and sixties (and even in the first half of the nineteenth century), and they were accompanied by the “spontaneous” destruction of machinery, etc. Compared with these “revolts”, the strikes of the nineties might even be described as “conscious”, to such an extent do they mark the progress which the working-class movement made in that period. This shows that the “spontaneous element”, in essence, represents nothing more nor less than. consciousness in an embryonic form. Even the primitive revolts expressed the awakening of consciousness to a certain extent. The workers were losing their age‑long faith in the permanence of the system which oppressed them and began... I shall not say to understand, but to sense the necessity for collective resistance, definitely abandoning their slavish submission to the authorities. But this was, nevertheless, more in the nature of outbursts of desperation and vengeance than of struggle. The strikes of the nineties revealed far greater flashes of consciousness... The revolts were simply the resistance of the oppressed, whereas the systematic strikes represented the class struggle in embryo, but only in embryo. Taken by themselves, these strikes were simply trade union struggles, not yet Social Democratic struggles. They marked the awakening antagonisms between workers and employers; but the workers, were not, and could not be, conscious of the irreconcilable antagonism of their interests to the whole of the modern political and social system, i.e., theirs was not yet Social-Democratic consciousness. In this sense, the strikes of the nineties, despite the enormous progress they represented as compared with the “revolts”, remained a purely spontaneous movement.

We have said that there could not have been Social-Democratic consciousness among the workers. It would have to be brought to them from without. The history of all countries shows that the working class, exclusively by its own effort, is able to develop only trade union consciousness, i.e., the conviction that it is necessary to combine in unions, fight the employers, and strive to compel the government to pass necessary labour legislation, etc.

“The Neutrality of Trade Unions”, March 4, 1908

Our whole Party... has now recognised that work in the trade unions must be conducted not in the spirit of trade-union neutrality but in the spirit of the closest possible relations between them and the Social-Democratic Party. It is also recognised that the partisanship of the trade unions must be achieved exclusively by S.D. work within the unions, that the S.D.’s must form solid Party units in the unions, and that illegal unions should be formed since legal ones are impossible... a socialist party and trade unions exist in every capitalist country, and it is our job to define the basic relations between them. The class interests of the bourgeoisie inevitably give rise to a striving to confine the unions to petty and narrow activity within the framework of the existing social order, to keep them away from any contact with socialism; and the neutrality theory is the ideological cover for these strivings of the bourgeoisie...

The Bolsheviks argued that at the present time there could not be a strict separation of politics from occupation, and hence drew the conclusion that “there must be close unity between the Social-Democratic Party and the trade unions, which it must lead”.

From “Left‑Wing Communism, an Infantile Disorder” 1920

The trade unions were a tremendous step forward for the working class in the early days of capitalist development, inasmuch as they marked a transition from the workers’ disunity and helplessness to the rudiments of class organisation. When the revolutionary party of the proletariat, the highest form of proletarian class organisation, began to take shape (and the Party will not merit the name until it learns to weld the leaders into one indivisible whole with the class and the masses) the trade unions inevitably began to reveal certain reactionary features, a certain craft narrow-mindedness, a certain tendency to be non‑political, a certain inertness, etc. However, the development of the proletariat did not, and could not, proceed anywhere in the world otherwise than through the trade unions, through reciprocal action between them and the party of the working class. The proletariat’s conquest of political power is a gigantic step forward for the proletariat as a class, and the Party must more than ever and in a new way, not only in the old, educate and guide the trade unions, at the same time bearing in mind that they are and will long remain an indispensable “school of communism” and a preparatory school that trains proletarians to exercise their dictatorship, an indispensable organisation of the workers for the gradual transfer of the management of the whole economic life of the country to the working class (and not to the separate trades), and later to all the working people.

In the sense mentioned above, a certain “reactionism” in the trade unions is inevitable under the dictatorship of the proletariat. Not to understand this means a complete failure to understand the fundamental conditions of the transition from capitalism to socialism. It would be egregious folly to fear this “reactionism” or to try to evade or leap over it, for it would mean fearing that function of the proletarian vanguard which consists in training, educating, enlightening and drawing into the new life the most backward strata and masses of the working class and the peasantry. On the other hand, it would be a still graver error to postpone the achievement of the dictatorship of the proletariat until a time when there will not be a single worker with a narrow-minded craft outlook, or with craft and craft-union prejudices. The art of politics (and the Communist’s correct understanding of his tasks) consists in correctly gauging the conditions and the moment when the vanguard of the proletariat can successfully assume power, when it is able — during and after the seizure of power — to win adequate support from sufficiently broad strata of the working class and of the non‑proletarian working masses, and when it is able thereafter to maintain, consolidate and extend its rule by educating, training and attracting ever broader masses of the working people.

Further. In countries more advanced than Russia, a certain reactionism in the trade unions has been and was bound to be manifested in a far greater measure than in our country. Our Mensheviks found support in the trade unions (and to some extent still do so in a small number of unions), as a result of the latter’s craft narrow-mindedness, craft selfishness and opportunism. The Mensheviks of the West have acquired a much firmer footing in the trade unions; there the craft-union, narrow-minded, selfish, case‑hardened, covetous, and petty-bourgeois “labour aristocracy”, imperialist-minded, and imperialist-corrupted, has developed into a much stronger section than in our country. That is incontestable. The struggle against the Gomperses, and against the Jouhaux, Hendersons, Merrheims, Legiens and Co. in Western Europe is much more difficult than the struggle against our Mensheviks, who are an absolutely homogeneous social and political type. This struggle must be waged ruthlessly, and it must unfailingly be brought—as we brought it—to a point when all the incorrigible leaders of opportunism and social-chauvinism are completely discredited and driven out of the trade unions. Political power cannot be captured (and the attempt to capture it should not be made) until the struggle has reached a certain stage. This “certain stage” will be different 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...

We are waging a struggle against the “labour aristocracy” in the name of the masses of the workers and in order to win them over to our side; we are waging the struggle against the opportunist and social-chauvinist leaders in order to win the working class over to our side. It would be absurd to forget this most elementary and most self‑evident truth. Yet it is this very absurdity that the German “Left” Communists perpetrate when, because of the reactionary and counter-revolutionary character of the trade union top leadership, they jump to the conclusion that... we must withdraw from the trade unions, refuse to work in them, and create new and artificial forms of labour organisation! This is so unpardonable a blunder that it is tantamount to the greatest service Communists could render the bourgeoisie. Like all the opportunist, social-chauvinist, and Kautskyite trade union leaders, our Mensheviks are nothing but “agents of the bourgeoisie in the working-class movement” (as we have always said the Mensheviks are), or “labour lieutenants of the capitalist class”, to use the splendid and profoundly true expression of the followers of Daniel De Leon in America. To refuse to work in the reactionary trade unions means leaving the insufficiently developed or backward masses of workers under the influence of the reactionary leaders, the agents of the bourgeoisie, the labour aristocrats, or “workers who have become completely bourgeois” (cf. Engels’s letter to Marx in 1858 about the British workers).

This ridiculous “theory” that Communists should not work in reactionary trade unions reveals with the utmost clarity the frivolous attitude of the “Left” Communists towards the question of influencing the “masses”, and their misuse of clamour about the “masses”. If you want to help the “masses” and win the sympathy and support of the “masses”, you should not fear difficulties, or pinpricks, chicanery, insults and persecution from the “leaders” (who, being opportunists and social-chauvinists, are in most cases directly or indirectly connected with the bourgeoisie and the police), but must absolutely work wherever the masses are to be found. You must be capable of any sacrifice, of overcoming the greatest obstacles, in order to carry on agitation and propaganda systematically, perseveringly, persistently and patiently in those institutions, societies and associations—even the most reactionary—in which proletarian or semi‑proletarian masses are to be found. The trade unions and the workers’ co‑operatives (the latter sometimes, at least) are the very organisations in which the masses are to be found. According to figures quoted in the Swedish paper Folkets Dagblad Politiken of March 10, 1920, the trade union membership in Great Britain increased from 5,500,000 at the end of 1917 to 6,600,000 at the end of 1918, an increase of 19 per cent. Towards the close of 1919, the membership was estimated at 7,500,000. I have not got the corresponding figures for France and Germany to hand, but absolutely incontestable and generally known facts testify to a rapid rise in the trade union membership in these countries too.

These facts make crystal clear something that is confirmed by thousands of other symptoms, namely, that class-consciousness and the desire for organisation are growing among the proletarian masses, among the rank and file, among the backward elements. Millions of workers in Great Britain, France and Germany are for the first time passing from a complete lack of organisation to the elementary, lowest, simplest, and (to those still thoroughly imbued with bourgeois-democratic prejudices) most easily comprehensible form of organisation, namely, the trade unions; yet the revolutionary but imprudent Left Communists stand by, crying out “the masses”, “the masses!” but refusing to work within the trade unions, on the pretext that they are “reactionary”, and invent a brand‑new, immaculate little “Workers’ Union”, which is guiltless of bourgeois-democratic prejudices and innocent of craft or narrow-minded craft-union sins, a union which, they claim, will be (!) a broad organisation. “Recognition of the Soviet system and the dictatorship” will be the only (!) condition of membership.

It would be hard to imagine any greater ineptitude or greater harm to the revolution than that caused by the “Left” revolutionaries! Why, if we in Russia today, after two and a half years of unprecedented victories over the bourgeoisie of Russia and the Entente, were to make “recognition of the dictatorship” a condition of trade union membership, we would be doing a very foolish thing, damaging our influence among the masses, and helping the Mensheviks. The task devolving on Communists is to convince the backward elements, to work among them, and not to fence themselves off from them with artificial and childishly “Left” slogans...

These men, the “leaders” of opportunism, will no doubt resort to every device of bourgeois diplomacy and to the aid of bourgeois governments, the clergy, the police and the courts, to keep Communists out of the trade unions, oust them by every means, make their work in the trade unions as unpleasant as possible, and insult, bait and persecute them. We must be able to stand up to all this, agree to make any sacrifice, and even—if need be—to resort to various stratagems, artifices and illegal methods, to evasions and subterfuges, as long as we get into the trade unions, remain in them, and carry on communist work within them at all costs. Under tsarism we had no “legal opportunities” whatsoever until 1905. However, when Zubatov, agent of the secret police, organised Black-Hundred workers’ assemblies and workingmen’s societies for the purpose of trapping revolutionaries and combating them, we sent members of our Party to these assemblies and into these societies... They established contacts with the masses, were able to carry on their agitation, and succeeded in wresting workers from the influence of Zubatov’s agents. (In note: The Gomperses, Hendersons, Jouhaux and Legiens are nothing but Zubatovs, differing from our Zubatov only in their European garb and polish, and the civilised, refined and democratically suave manner of conducting their despicable policy). Of course, in Western Europe, which is imbued with most deep‑rooted legalistic, constitutionalist and bourgeois-democratic prejudices, this is more difficult of achievement. However, it can and must be carried out, and systematically at that.


The two excerpts refer to the period of the proletarian dictatorship and the Civil War, and show how our claim of the trade union as the “transmission belt” of the Party applies for Marxists, not only for the phase prior to the seizure of power, but, and all the more so, for the subsequent phase. There, on the one hand, the corporate narrowness of even broad strata of the working class still subsists and that, on the other hand, the Party must leverage for the performance of its economic and military tasks on organizations grouping the broadest strata of the class which, through the Party, exercises dictatorship. The union must continue to be a school of war, for social warfare is not ended but by the complete destruction of bourgeois relations and their “habit” sequelae even in the ranks of the proletariat.

From “Terrorism and Communism” - Trotsky, 1920

The dictatorship of the proletariat, in its very essence, signifies the immediate supremacy of the revolutionary vanguard, which relies upon the heavy masses, and, where necessary, obliges the backward tail to dress by the head. This refers also to the trade unions. After the conquest of power by the proletariat, they acquire a compulsory character. They must include all industrial workers. The party, on the other hand, as before, includes in its ranks only the most class-conscious and devoted; and only in a process of careful selection does it widen its ranks. Hence follows the guiding role of the Communist minority in the trade unions, which answers to the supremacy of the Communist Party in the Soviets, and represents the political expression of the dictatorship of the proletariat.

The trade unions become the direct organizers of social production. They express not only the interests of the industrial workers, but the interests of industry itself. During the first period, the old currents in trade unionism more than once raised their head, urging the unions to haggle with the Soviet State, lay down conditions for it, and demand from it guarantees. The further we go, however, the more do the unions recognize that they are organs of production of the Soviet State, and assume responsibility for its fortunes – not opposing themselves to it, but identifying themselves with it. The unions become the organizers of labor discipline. They demand from the workers intensive labor under the most difficult conditions, to the extent that the Labor State is not yet able to alter those conditions.

The unions become the apparatus of revolutionary repression against undisciplined, anarchical, parasitic elements in the working class. From the old policy of trade unionism, which at a certain stage is inseparable from the industrial movement within the framework of capitalist society, the unions pass along the whole line on to the new path of the policy of revolutionary Communism.

From “Left‑Wing Communism, an Infantile Disorder” 1920

The connection between leaders, party, class and masses, as well as the attitude of the dictatorship of the proletariat and its party to the trade unions, are concretely as follows: the dictatorship is exercised by the proletariat organised in the Soviets; the proletariat is guided by the Communist Party...

In its work, the Party relies directly on the trade unions, which, according to the data of the last congress (April 1920), now have a membership of over four million and are formally non‑Party. Actually, all the directing bodies of the vast majority of the unions, and primarily, of course, of the all‑Russia general trade union centre or bureau (the All‑Russia Central Council of Trade Unions), are made up of Communists and carry out all the directives of the Party. Thus, on the whole, we have a formally non‑communist, flexible and relatively wide and very powerful proletarian apparatus, by means of which the Party is closely linked up with the class and the masses, and by means of which, under the leadership of the Party, the class dictatorship is exercised. Without close contacts with the trade unions, and without their energetic support and devoted efforts, not only in economic, but also in military affairs, it would of course have been impossible for us to govern the country and to maintain the dictatorship for two and a half months, let alone two and a half years. In practice, these very close contacts naturally call for highly complex and diversified work in the form of propaganda, agitation, timely and frequent conferences, not only with the leading trade union workers, but with influential trade union workers generally; they call for a determined struggle against the Mensheviks, who still have a certain though very small following to whom they teach all kinds of counter-revolutionary machinations, ranging from an ideological defence of (bourgeois) democracy and the preaching that the trade unions should be “independent” (independent of proletarian State power!) to sabotage of proletarian discipline, etc., etc.

We consider that contacts with the “masses” through the trade unions are not enough. In the course of our revolution, practical activities have given rise to such institutions as non‑Party workers’ and peasants’ conferences, and we strive by every means to support, develop and extend this institution in order to be able to observe the temper of the masses, come closer to them, meet their requirements, promote the best among them to state posts, etc. Under a recent decree on the transformation of the People’s Commissariat of State Control into the Workers’ and Peasants’ Inspection, non‑Party conferences of this kind have been empowered to select members of the State Control to carry out various kinds of investigations, etc...

Capitalism inevitably leaves socialism the legacy, on the one hand, of the old trade and craft distinctions among the workers, distinctions evolved in the course of centuries; on the other hand, trade unions, which only very slowly, in the course of years and years, can and will develop into broader industrial unions with less of the craft union about them (embracing entire industries, and not only crafts, trades and occupations), and later proceed, through these industrial unions, to eliminate the division of labour among people, to educate and school people, give them all‑round development and an all‑round training, so that they are able to do everything. Communism is advancing and must advance towards that goal, and will reach it, but only after very many years. To attempt in practice, today, to anticipate this future result of a fully developed, fully stabilised and constituted, fully comprehensive and mature communism would be like trying to teach higher mathematics to a child of four.

We can (and must) begin to build socialism, not with abstract human material, or with human material specially prepared by us, but with the human material bequeathed to us by capitalism. True, that is no easy matter, but no other approach to this task is serious enough to warrant discussion.


The trade union theses of the 2nd Congress of 1920 sanction the task of the communists in the workers’ unions to import into the broad organized masses the revolutionary program and submit them, in a perspective of revolutionary advance, to the influence and eventually to the direction of the Party, not hesitating for this to work in the old reformist organizations, even the most reactionary, but at the same time supporting and trying to influence those that have arisen in reaction to them in order to free them from anarcho-syndicalist prejudices.

While claiming trade union unity as a favorable condition for the development of such work, and ruling out artificially provoked splits, the theses give the directive to support splitting on a national scale when it becomes materially inevitable; and they also lay the foundations of the Red Trade Union International as an antithesis to the “yellow” Amsterdam Trade Union International, dependent on the League of Nations and therefore on world imperialism.

Fully endorsed by the Left, the theses also speak unequivocally on factory councils, denying that they can be considered substitutes for trade unions.

From the “Theses on The Trade Union Movement, Works Councils and the Communist International”, 1920


1) The trade unions created by the working class during the period of the peaceful development of capitalism represented workers’ organizations designed to fight for the increase of wages in the labor market and for the improvement of the conditions of wage labor. Revolutionary Marxists were forced to come into contact with the political party of the proletariat, the Social Democratic Party, in order to wage a common struggle for socialism. The same reasons that, except on rare occasions, had made the international social democracy not a weapon of the proletariat’s revolutionary struggle for the overthrow of capitalism, but an organization that diverted the proletariat from revolution according to the interests of the bourgeoisie, had the effect that, during the war, the trade unions most often presented themselves as parts of the military apparatus of the bourgeoisie, which helped to exploit the working class with the greatest possible intensity in order to conduct the war in the most energetic manner for the interests of Capital.

By organizing essentially the skilled workers, the best paid by the bosses, being confined in their corporate narrowness, shackled by a bureaucratic apparatus completely alien to the masses, sidetracked by their opportunist leaders, the trade unions have not only betrayed the cause of social revolution, but even that of the struggle for the improvement of the living conditions of the workers they organize. They have abandoned the proper terrain of the trade union struggle against the bosses, and replaced it with a program of peaceful transactions at any cost with the capitalists.

This policy was conducted not only by the liberal Trade Unions in England and America, by the German and Austrian free trade unions, self‑styled socialists, but also by the French trade unions.

2) The economic consequences of the war, the complete disorganization of the world economy, the insane rise in the cost of living, the large-scale employment of women’s and child labor, the worsening conditions of housing, all of these push the great proletarian masses on the path of struggle against capitalism.

By the extent and character it takes on more and more every day, this struggle is a revolutionary struggle that objectively destroys the foundations of the capitalist order. The increase in wages achieved by this or that category of workers through economic struggle is immediately nullified by the rise in the cost of living. Now the rise in prices must further accentuate, because the capitalist class of the victorious countries, while bleeding Eastern and Central Europe dry with its policy of exploitation, is not only unable to reorganize the world economy, it is increasingly disorganizing it.

In order to succeed in the economic struggle, the broad masses of workers who remained until now outside the trade unions, flow into them. Thus, a mighty increase in trade unions can be seen in all countries, which no longer represent the organization of only the advanced elements of the proletariat, but of its broad masses. By entering the trade unions the masses seek to make them their weapon of battle.

Class antagonism, which becomes more acute every day, prompts the trade unions to organize strikes, which spread in waves throughout the capitalist world, constantly interrupting the process of production and trade. By increasing their demands to compensate for the rising cost of living, the working masses feel the hard effects of it, and thereby destroy the basis of all capitalist calculations, this elementary premise of every organized economy.

The trade unions, which had become during the war the organs for influencing the working masses to the advantage of the bourgeoisie, are now organs of the destruction of capitalism.

3) But the old trade union bureaucracy and the old forms of trade union organization hinder in every way this transformation of the character of the trade unions. It tries in every way to keep the unions standing as organizations of the working-class aristocracy by keeping in place the rules that make it impossible for the worst‑paid working masses to join the unions.

The old trade union bureaucracy also endeavors to replace the strike weapon, which takes on more and more every day the character of a revolutionary conflict of the proletariat with the bourgeoisie, with a policy of conciliation with the capitalists, a policy of long‑term contracts that lose all meaning if only because of the staggering and uninterrupted rise in prices. It seeks to impose on the workers the policy of joint commissions, “Joint Industrial Councils”, and to obstruct, with the help of laws and the capitalist State apparatus, the organization of strikes.

At critical moments in the conflict, the bourgeoisie sows discord among the struggling working masses and prevents the isolated actions of individual working-class categories from merging into a general class struggle. It is supported in these attempts by the antiquated form of organization of trade unions, which divides the workers of a branch of industry into separate occupational groups, although the process of capitalist exploitation binds them all together.

It relies on the power of the ideological tradition of the old working-class aristocracy, although the latter is unceasingly weakened by the abolition of the privileges of particular proletarian groups as a result of the general breakdown of capitalism, the leveling of the situation of the working class, and the generalization of its misery and insecurity.

In this way the trade union bureaucracy divides the mighty flow of the workers’ movement into meager rivulets, trades off the general revolutionary aims of the movement against partial reformist claims, and generally obstructs the transformation of the struggle of the proletariat into a single revolutionary struggle for the destruction of capitalism.

4) Given the influx of powerful working-class masses into the trade unions and given the objectively revolutionary character of the economic struggle these masses support in antithesis to the professional bureaucracy, it is necessary for communists in all countries to enter the trade unions and work to make them conscious organs of struggle for the overthrow of the capitalist regime and the triumph of communism. They must take the initiative in the creation of trade unions where none yet exist.

Any voluntary desertion of the trade union movement, any artificial attempt to create particular trade unions without being forced into it either by exceptional acts of overpowering by the trade union bureaucracy (dissolution of individual revolutionary groups in the trade unions by opportunistic centrals) or by petty aristocratic politics that preclude the great masses of low‑skilled workers from entering trade union organizations, represents an enormous danger to the communist movement.

It threatens to isolate from the masses the vanguard workers, endowed with greater class consciousness, and hand them over to opportunist leaders working for the interests of the bourgeoisie. The hesitations of the working masses, their indecisive attitude and their accessibility to the sophistries of the opportunist leaders can be overcome in the course of the struggle, which is becoming more and more acute, only to the extent that the broader strata of the proletariat learn through their experience, through their victories and defeats, that never will the capitalist economic system allow them to achieve humane living conditions; to the extent that the vanguard communist workers will learn, in the economic struggle, to be not only the proponents of the ideas of communism, but also the most resolute leaders of the economic struggle itself and of the trade unions. Only in this way will it be possible to drive the opportunist leaders out of the trade unions. Only in this way will communists be able to take over the leadership of the trade union movement and make it an organ of the revolutionary struggle for Communism. Only in this way will it be possible to overcome the fragmentation of the trade unions, to replace them with organizations by industry which will make it possible to eliminate the bureaucracy alien to the masses and to replace it with an apparatus of factory delegates, leaving only the most strictly necessary functions to the Central Unions.

5) Since Communists attach more importance to the purpose and essence of trade union organization than to its form, they must not retreat from a split in trade union organizations if the renunciation of the split would amount to renunciation of revolutionary work in the trade unions, renunciation of the attempt to make them an instrument of the revolutionary struggle, renunciation of organizing the most exploited strata of the proletariat. But even if such a split turns out to be necessary it must be consummated only if the communists succeed by incessant struggle against the opportunist leaders and their tactics, by the most intense participation in the economic struggle, to convince the broad working masses that the split is being undertaken not for revolutionary ends still remote and incomprehensible to them, but for the concrete and most direct interest of the working class in the development of its economic struggle.

Where a split is necessary, communists must vigilantly examine whether such a split will not lead them to isolate themselves from the working class mass.

6) Where the split between the opportunist and revolutionary leadership of the unions has already taken place, where, as in America, unions with revolutionary though not communist tendencies exist alongside the opportunist unions, communists have an obligation to support these revolutionary unions, to support them and help them to rid themselves of their syndicalist prejudices and to place themselves on the ground of communism, which alone can serve as a sure compass in the tangle of economic struggle.

Where, within the framework of the trade unions or outside of them, organizations such as Shop Stewards Committees, Betriebsraete (Factory Councils), etc., are formed in the factory, which aim to fight against the counter-revolutionary tendencies of the trade union bureaucracy and to support the direct and spontaneous actions of the proletariat, Communists must naturally support them with all their energy.

But the support given to revolutionary trade unions must not mean the exit of communists from the opportunist trade unions that are in turmoil and moving onto the terrain of class struggle. On the contrary, by striving to accelerate this evolution of the mass unions that come to be on the path of revolutionary struggle, the communists will be able to exercise the function of an element that unites ideally and organizationally in the common struggle for the destruction of capitalism, the syndically organized workers.

7) In the epoch of capitalism’s disintegration, the proletariat’s economic struggle turns into political struggle much more rapidly than in the epoch of capital’s peaceful development. Every major economic conflict can directly confront the workers with the problem of Revolution. It is therefore the duty of communists to make it clear to the workers, at all stages of the economic struggle, that this struggle can only be successful if the working class defeats the capitalist class in an open battle and, through dictatorship, undertakes the work of socialist edification.

Starting from this premise, communists must strive, as far as possible, to achieve full unity between the trade unions and the Communist Party, subordinating them to the effective leadership of the latter as the vanguard of the proletarian revolution. To this end the communists must organize communist fractions everywhere in the trade unions and factory councils and, with their help, take over the trade union movement and direct it...


The trade unions already tended in peacetime toward international unification, because during strikes the capitalists resorted to workers from other countries as scabs. But, before the war, the Trade Union International had only secondary importance. It was concerned with the organization of mutual financial relief and a social statistics service, not with the organization of common struggle, because unions headed by opportunists sought to avoid any revolutionary struggle of international extent.

The opportunist leaders of the unions, the lackeys of the bourgeoisie, who, during the war, were each in his own country, now seek to rebuild the Trade Union International and make it a weapon for the direct struggle of international capital against the proletariat. Under the direction of Jouhaux, Gompers, Legien, etc., they set up a “Bureau du Travail” at the League of Nations, this organization of international capitalist brigandage. They seek to stifle strike movements in all countries by forcing workers to submit to the arbitration courts of capitalist State representatives, and, through compromises with the capitalists, to obtain concessions in favor of skilled workers to thus break the growing unity of the working class.

The Amsterdam Trade Union International is thus a surrogate for the failed Brussels Second International. Instead, communist workers belonging to unions in every country must strive to create an international front of union struggle. It is no longer a question of pecuniary relief in the event of a strike: it is necessary that, at the moment of impending danger to the working class of one country, the trade unions of the other countries as mass organizations should contribute to its defense and do the impossible to prevent the bourgeoisie of their own country from giving aid to that of another which is in struggle with the working class.

The economic struggle of the proletariat increasingly becomes in every country a revolutionary struggle. Therefore the trade unions must consciously make use of all their forces for the support of every revolutionary action both in their own country and in others; and, to this end, not only pursue in each country the maximum centralization of the struggle, but do so on an international scale, joining the Communist International, uniting with it in one army, whose different units lead the battle in concert by supporting one another...


Of the RILU we quote the part of the theses on the question of tactics presented at the I World Congress in July 1921, concerning the analysis of trade unions in their respective countries before, during and after the first imperialist war.

We do not reproduce the other theses because, in principle shared by the Left, they would be a slavish repetition of them.

The description of the state of the world labor movement, on the other hand, accords well with the Left’s prognosis that social-democratic reformism would pave the way for the most brutal overpowering of even the economic defense bodies of the proletariat by the ruling class, thanks to it victorious over the working class. And finally to the framing of the latter into “unions” of complete State emanation and corporate nature.

The RTUI arose as the international union of class unions, oriented through the influence of the Communist Party toward revolution and proletarian dictatorship, as opposed to the Amsterdam International. The RTUI was the trade union organ of the CI. The close connection, the “transmission belt”, between the only party of the proletariat and the trade union movement, by whose means the working class could victoriously make its revolutionary advance, was being realized in the world arena.

This is a historical condition, indicating that tomorrow’s class resurrection entails the reconstitution not only of the world communist party, but also of the red trade union organization, influenced or directed by the party.

It should be noted that in 1925‑26 the Left vigorously opposed the dissolution of the RTUI sought by Stalinism, and its hinted reunification with the Amsterdam International.

The text is a translation of that published as a pamphlet by the PCd’I in 1921.

From the “Deliberation on the Question of Tactics”, 1921


7) During the nineteenth century and the first decades of the twentieth, essentially three characteristic types, three basic groups, were formed in the trade union movement: Anglo-Saxon (tradeunionism), German-Austrian (social democratic reformism) and Franco-Spanish (revolutionary syndicalism).

In the world trade union movement, these three fundamental groups differed as much in the nature of their work as in their methods. Three different ideologies, three different programs of action, were expressed in them.

8) The fundamental character of the Anglo-Saxon trade union movement consisted in its strict corporatism, apoliticism, neutralism toward socialist parties and concentration of all attention on the immediate and concrete problems of the day.

Tradeunionism viewed the social struggle with a corporatist criterion, and with these narrow views claimed to solve all social and economic issues. It mainly brought together the upper strata of the working class, and its ideology represented the philosophy of the working-class aristocracy.

By the theorists and practitioners of tradeunionism, capital and labor were regarded not as two deadly class enemies, but as two mutually complementary factors of society, the harmonious development of which was to lead to peace between capital and labor and the equitable distribution of social goods between them.

9) The Austro-Germanic labor movement, which appeared later than the Anglo-Saxon and took place under different conditions, from the very beginning was interpenetrated by socialist ideas. The labor movement of Austria and Germany was baptized by social democracy, and thus its ideology was imbued with social democratic spirit. But the social-democratic program and tactics took on the character of reformism, and thus the trade unions of Germany were the cradle of reformism, the ideological content of which consists, as is well known, in the political field in the prospect of peaceful and gradual evolution tending toward socialism through democracy, in the softening of class antagonism, in the fearful renunciation of revolution and class terror, and in the hope that the development of democratic institutions will automatically lead to socialism without upheaval and without revolution. Instead, in the strictly trade union field it expresses the tendency to keep trade unions away from the revolutionary political struggle, to preach neutrality toward revolutionary socialism, with an intimate connection with reformist socialism, and finally with the overvaluation of collective agreements and the tendency to create equal right, that is, to build social relations whereby, while the bourgeois political and economic regime remains, equality of right between workers and entrepreneurs can nevertheless be reconciled with the preservation of the system of exploitation.

10) Revolutionary syndicalism, which arose as a reaction to the opportunism of the French Socialist Party, had in its fundamental concept a truly revolutionary content. It launched the idea of direct action, of the immediate struggle of the masses, propagandized the general strike, affirmed the necessity of violently overthrowing capitalism, conducted anti‑militarist agitation and propaganda, affirmed the anti‑State theory proclaiming that trade unions were the only organizations capable of making the social revolution and building socialist society with their own forces. The theorists of this movement claimed that revolutionary syndicalism was the synthesis of Proudhonism and Marxism.

11) Revolutionary syndicalism thus formulated a set of concepts (in this precisely consists its merit) such as to make it superior to other forms of the workers’ movement and to place it alongside revolutionary socialism. Such concepts, such as that of direct action, of the revolutionary pressure of the masses on capitalism and the State, of the overthrow of capitalism the preaching of social revolution, represent the merit of revolutionary syndicalists and the practical side of their theories in general. Conversely, we encounter in syndicalism the concept of independence, neutralism toward all political parties, including that of the proletariat, the denial of the proletarian State, the overestimation of the general strike, and an erroneous demeanor regarding the workers’ partial aspirations. Economy and politics are two different things for revolutionary syndicalists, while on the other hand, it is well known that politics is nothing but the “concentration of the economy”. The separation between these two factors, despite its apparent revolutionary essence, is exploited by the bourgeoisie, which by its own account has never practically separated in its struggle the economy from politics.

12) The trade union movement was formed and developed mainly in the period of the peaceful and organic development of capitalist society; and thus it bore certain characters, which then, especially during the war, were to enable the bourgeoisie to make use of it for its class aims. These particular characters are: petty corporatism, the isolation of the trade unions, the struggle of many of them against women’s labor, the nationalist and patriotic spirit resulting from the confusion between the interests of national industry and those of the working class. They found their greatest expression during the war, when class interests came into conflict with national interests.


13) The world war, caused by the antagonism between the various national capitalisms revealed the extent to which the working class and its organizations were under the influence of bourgeois society. In most of the major countries of Europe, as soon as war was declared, the trade unions ceased to exist as class organizations of struggle and immediately converted into imperialist war organizations, whose function was to help the government and the bourgeoisie defeat, with their combined forces, the competitor in the world market. The old groupings of the labor movement disappeared. In every country the leaders of the trade unions, with few exceptions, fought each other on the battlefronts, instead forming alliances with the bourgeoisie of their country: the interests of the national bourgeoisie were placed before class interests.

14) The World War period is that of the moral dissolution of trade unions in all capitalist countries. Most union leaders appear as agents of the government: they spontaneously take on the task of stifling all attempts at revolutionary protest, sanction at various times the worsening of working conditions, agree to bind the workers to the factories according to the wishes of the capitalist, they renounce achievements obtained through long struggles, in short they carry out without a word everything the ruling classes order.

15) The discontent against the war, and the manifestations of it, which occurred more and more frequently already during the war itself, were stifled from their birth by the leaders of the old labor movement themselves. The fear of revolution, which compelled the ruling classes for many years to refrain from war actions and adventures, disappeared, since not only the bourgeoisie but also the trade unions whose leaders had turned into the watchdogs of capitalism now stood against the revolution. This represented the most resounding moral victory of the ruling classes, and at the same time a solemn defeat of the working class in the World War period.

16) The nationalist work of the leaders of the labor movement sowed deep discord among the masses. Instead of the preaching of class struggle and hatred, for a few years only calls for the fusion of all forces against the national enemy, in defense of the “fatherland” and for the “sacred union” of classes were voiced by the workers’ representatives. This propaganda

of treason, made with the support of the bourgeois press and with the financial help of the government, was the main cause of the continuation of the war and of the countless sacrifices, to which the working class was subjected as a result of the world war. The war demonstrated the utter failure of all the various organizations of the labor movement. The leaders of the Trade-Unions of England and America, the trade unions of Austria and Germany, and the revolutionary unions of France, found themselves together on the ground of betrayal of the interests of the working class.


17) The essential features, which the policy of the trade union leaders of various countries had during the war, remained essentially unchanged afterwards. This policy consisted in prolonging the sacred union of classes, concluded during the war, and in subordinating the interests of the working classes to the reconstruction of capitalist economy.

18) In France this policy acquired an exceedingly repulsive character, since its exponents were the revolutionary syndicalists of yesterday, those who called themselves anti‑State and anti‑militarist.

The General Confederation of Labor, through the mouths of its leaders, claiming the honor of working in the Commissions for the drafting of the Treaty of Versailles, took the initiative of forcing the German workers to compensate France for the losses caused to it by the war, disintegrated the revolutionary strike movement, fought alongside the government and the bourgeoisie as a whole the very idea of social revolution, proclaiming the principle of the reconstruction of capitalism on the basis of the cooperation of all the “vital forces” of modern society, i.e. workers, entrepreneurs and government representatives. This tactic fueled the arrogance of the bourgeoisie, corrupting workers’ consciousness, and generating distrust in the masses toward revolutionary watchwords and appeals. The more the General Confederation of Labor was made subordinate to the bourgeoisie, the more it extolled the independence and autonomy of the movement, referring in this regard to the “Charter of Amiens”.

19) Against this unprecedented betrayal, against the shameful violation of the elementary revolutionary principles of the working class, there arose and spread in France a strong protest movement that found its expression and direction in the Central Committee of the Revolutionary Trade Unions. The revolutionary opposition already brought together almost half of the members of the General Confederation of Labor, but despite this increase in numbers, it was weak because of its insufficient internal unity. The entire opposition was united in the struggle against the manifest and covert betrayal of the interests of the working class, but although it was really fighting this struggle and even bringing back victories in it thanks to the united front, nevertheless it itself had not yet determined clearly enough its concrete intentions, its program and the watchwords of the struggle. The opposition, consisting of anarchists, revolutionary syndicalists and communists, proclaimed the motto: “let us return to the Charter of Amiens”. An insufficient watchword, if only by the mere fact that even the majority of the General Confederation of Labor referred to it.

20) The “Charter of Amiens”, summarizing the protest of the working masses against the opportunism of the Socialist Party, could not serve as a basis for concrete action, not only because it had been written fifteen years before the war and revolution, but especially because from the outset it did not resolve all the questions that the working class had before it. The world war, the decline of capitalism, the revolution, all of this required the minority of the General Confederation of Labor of France not to close itself within the confines of the now aging Charter of Amiens, but rather to work out a new program in accordance with the new state of affairs.

21) In Germany, the leaders of the German professional trade unions essentially assumed the part of saviors of the bourgeoisie and the Germanic war clique after the war. The 1918 revolution really frightened the German bourgeoisie, so much so that they themselves turned to the German trade unions to safeguard their dominance in the face of social revolution.

The union leaders concluded an agreement with the German bourgeoisie around joint labor commissions that served as the basis for all the activity carried out after the war by the German labor movement. The domination of the bourgeoisie in the political and economic fields: this was the result of this joint system. The consequence of this arrangement was the active help given by the trade unions in the work of repressing the revolutionary movement. The leaders of the German trade unions worked ardently to defend capitalism, not even hesitating to this end to support the bloody repressions carried out by the bourgeoisie against the working class.

22) Such counter-revolutionary attitude of the trade union bureaucracy had raised the indignant protests of the working masses. These protests began to take concrete form with the formation within the trade union movement of opposition groups and communist nuclei, which branched out in a vast network throughout Germany and assumed the character of a mass phenomenon. The pessimism provoked by the attitude of the trade unions also found its expression in the watchword of the “destruction of the trade unions”, a motto which, however, conflicted with the true interests of the working class and those of the social revolution. In addition to the opposition that arose within the old unions, several groupings also arose outside (Independent Workers’ Union of Gelsen-kirchen, General Workers’ Union, Trade Unionist Union), each of which had developed on its own instead of carrying out a concerted struggle against the capitalists and their flankers nested in the professional unions. These already existing groupings were joined by those expelled by the trade union bureaucracy, which, intimidated by the growth of opposition nuclei within the old trade union movement, had proceeded to expel individuals, as well local union sections accused of “communism”.

23) In England, immediately after the war, the trade unions waged a dogged struggle to obtain improvements in working conditions and to consolidate the positions they had won. The grandiose strikes by miners and other categories of workers,demonstrated the strength and firmness of the English proletariat in the struggle. But, in the same period following the war, the full strength of the bond that bound some of the leaders of the labor movement to the bourgeoisie had been revealed. Every strike, every serious conflict, bumped first of all against a centralized resistance within the organizations concerned and the other trade unions. These peculiarities, in addition to the unquestionable process of ideological revolutionization. however rather confused, represented the essential character of the British labor movement, which nevertheless,in comparison with the pre‑war period, had certainly taken a great step forward.

24) The Factory and Workshop Committees, which had arisen spontaneously during the war and were relatively very influential in the years 1917and 1918, had then declined in importance, despite the spread of revolutionary ideas and the inevitability of revolutionary struggle among the proletarian masses of England. The weakness of the organized opposition elements is explained by the fact that they had not adequately coordinated their activity among the masses. The fusion of all these revolutionary elements could have been achieved through the broadening and deepening of the activity of the Workers’ Committees. A goal that could be achieved not by detaching the best workers of the masses organized in the trade unions, and forming other organizations outside, but in directing their activity within them.

The most conscious, most revolutionary and active elements in the factories must concentrate activity on all levels of the trade union movement, from the lowest, to the highest, striving everywhere to win the positions of responsibility and leadership. This is the main way to carry out systematic and persistent work, apt to achieve concrete and permanent results in a country with such an extensive labor movement and yet so imbued with conservatism.

25) In America, more than elsewhere, union leaders revealed themselves as agents of capital. To Gompers and his clique that presided over the American Federation of Labor, even the Amsterdam International seemed too revolutionary, so they refused to join it. The A.F.L. placed all its hopes in the good faith of the bourgeoisie and did not want to know about the possibility of a struggle for the establishment of a new social regime. Here was the typical and classic example of the collusion between the leaders of the working class and the bourgeois State. This dependence on the bourgeoisie and the American billionaires constituted the substantial reason why all these Gompers clamored for the autonomy of the labor movement.

The A.F.L. represented the best support for the bourgeoisie determined to annihilate the revolutionary movement, even though it itself was then dragged into the struggle against the bourgeoisie, since the latter, not satisfied with such subjugation, wanted to make even greater profits than it had already made.

Thus, although the A.F.L. as such so far took no part in the struggle, isolated detachments, and local organizations sprang up, which increasingly came into conflict with the State apparatus and the interests of capital. Although they still remained within the organization, yet in reality they were moving further and further away from the fundamental principles on which the A.F.L. was based.

26) The American independent organization of the “Industrial Workers of the World” (I.W.W.) was too weak to replace the old unions.

The IWWs had purely anarchist prejudices against political struggle, dividing themselves into two opposing camps in that question of cardinal importance which is the dictatorship of the proletariat. The autonomous unions existing alongside these two organizations were only formally independent of the A.F.L., while most of them were morally dependent on the whole ideology and practice of its counterrevolutionary leaders. The problem of creating revolutionary nuclei and groups within the A.F.L. and the autonomous unions was of the utmost urgency. There was no other means of winning over the working masses except to make a systematic struggle within the old trade unions.

27) In ltaly, the situation had taken on an altogether peculiar character: the great majority of the Italian proletariat had adhered to the viewpoint of revolutionary struggle and the dictatorship of the proletariat; on the other hand, the leadership nucleus of the Confederazione Generale del Lavoro (CGL) had great distrust of revolutionary methods of struggle, and so, in theory and in practice, came much closer to reformist socialism than to revolutionary socialism.

In addition to the CGL, there were the “Unione Sindacale Italiana” and other autonomous unions, which unlike the American ones were deeply imbued with the revolutionary spirit. These, in their practical activities, accepted the directives of the Communist International and the Red Trade Union International.

28) In the other countries of Europe and America, the labor movement had made a great breakthrough. Within the old trade unions in several countries a resolute minority of opposition had been formed (Czechoslovakia, Poland, etc.), while elsewhere (Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Norway) the majority already stood with the advocates of social revolution and the dictatorship of the proletariat.

* * *

This specific situation of the labor movement throughout the world showed what a profound change had taken place among the vast working masses. The teachings of the war and the Russian Revolution had not been in vain for the multitudes of workers.

The revolutionary spirit manifested in the trade unions was the result of the natural unfolding of things.

For the leaders of the Red Trade Unions, the problem lay in following the revolutionary process and directing it toward the resolute struggle against the bourgeois regime, for the dictatorship of the proletariat.


The texts cover a complex period, from the birth of the Communist Party under the leadership of the Left to its ouster, from the victory of fascism to the defeat of the world communist movement.

If we were to publish all the texts of programmatic restatement and documentation of the activities of our current, we would fill an entire volume. We will limit ourselves to a few fundamental texts, which make it possible to follow the programmatic and battle positions of the Party that we directed or influenced.

It will be the task of subsequent specific texts, in particular future volumes of the History of the Communist Left, to recall the gigantic activity carried out at the time in this sector, all the more important in that it was not carried out by a party with millions of members, but by a few dozen militants, whose strength consisted precisely in possessing a sound and correct programmatic orientation.

The Left, in unison with Lenin, repudiates the Latin, German and Dutch workerist “leftism” and reaffirms that the link with the class and the leadership of the party on it are impossible without a significant influence on the workers’ trade unions and class organisations in general, even if the red trade unions themselves were subjected to the direction of reactionary forces, tending towards an increasing rapprochement with the capitalist State in order to bring the trade union movement under the protection of the bourgeois State. Fascism, after having destroyed, with the complicity of democracy or social democracy, along with the proletarian political movement also the class trade union movement, founded forced, State-controlled trade unions in an attempt to organise the productive forces centrally and unitedly within the framework of fundamental bourgeois anarchy. The Left was the only one to understand the dialectical nexus between opportunism and fascism, and to oppose all the initiatives of the International itself aimed, from a distorted viewpoint, at the conclusion of blocs, alliances and even mergers between the Communist and false social-democratic Left and opportunist parties, between Moscow and Amsterdam in the trade union field, with the prospect, condemned by us from the outset, of strengthening the revolutionary attack front. When the fascist trade unions prevailed and the social-democratic leadership of the CGL eliminated itself, the Left launched the watchword of defending and strengthening the Red Trade Unions. It was left alone, even in the Party, to proclaim, with the sabotage of the State-controlled unions, the rebirth of class organisation.

From the Theses of the Communist Abstentionist Fraction of PSI, 1920

II - Criticism of other schools
- Point 10
- Point 11

- Point 4
- Point 5
- Point 6
- Point 13

From “Party and class”, 1921


We have published significant excerpts from theses or articles of the Communist Left, before and after the Leghorn Congress, to show how our view of the relationship between economic struggles and general political struggles to prepare the revolutionary seizure of power, as well as our conception of the party task in the heat of class fight and within the trade union organizations (even when led by opportunists), fully coincided with the theses advanced by the Bolsheviks, and particularly so by Lenin; and how the few disagreements on tactical questions we had with the Third International had no effect whatsoever on the total agreement we had on fundamental principles.

From the same excerpts it appears evident how the Communist Party of Italy, led by the Left, had set up in 1921‑23 a vigorous trade union action.

We continue publishing texts of the time, to further highlight the continuity of both the positions of principle and the practical action the Left maintained along the whole period ending with the devastating triumph of the Stalinian degeneration, i.e., until 1926.

From “The United Front”, in “Il comunista” of October 28 1921

Revolutionary communism is based on the unity of the struggle for the emancipation of all the exploited, and at the same time it is based on the well‑defined organisation into a political party of that “part” of the workers who have the best consciousness of the conditions of the struggle and the greatest decision to fight for its ultimate revolutionary goal, thus constituting the vanguard of the working class.

Those who find a contradiction between the invocation and union of all the workers and the fact of separating a part of them from the others, organising them into a party with methods that differ from those of all the other parties, even those that make reference proletariat and call themselves revolutionaries, would show that they have not understood our programme, because in truth those two concepts have the very same origin.

The first struggles the workers wage against the ruling bourgeois class are struggles of more or less numerous groups for partial and immediate ends.

Communism proclaims the need to unify these struggles, in their development, so as to give them a common goal and method, and speaks for this of unity above individual trade categories, above local situations, national or racial boundaries. This unity is not a material sum of individuals, but is achieved through a shift in the direction of action of all individuals and groups, when they feel they constitute a class, i.e., they have a common purpose and programme.

If, therefore, in the party there is only a part of the workers, nevertheless in it there is the unity of the proletariat, since workers of different trades, of different localities and nationalities, participate in it on the same level, with the same aims and the same organisational rules.

A formal federative union, of trade unions, or perhaps an alliance of political parties of the proletariat, while having greater membership than the class party, does not achieve the fundamental postulate of the union of all workers, because it lacks cohesion and unity of purpose and methods.

However, communists affirm that trade union organisation, the first stage of workers’ associative consciousness and practice, which sets them against the bosses, albeit locally and partially, precisely because only a further stage of consciousness and organisation of the masses can lead them to the terrain of the central struggle against the present regime precisely because it gathers workers together by their common condition of economic exploitation, and by bringing them closer to those of other localities and trade union categories, directs them to achieve class consciousness; the union organisation must be a single one, and it is absurd to split it up on the basis of different conceptions of the general proletarian action programme. It is absurd to ask the worker who organises for the defence of his interests what his general vision of the struggle is, wh ich are his political views; he may have none, or a wrong one, but this does not meke him incompatible with trade union action, from which he will draw elements for his further orientation. That is why communists, as they are against trade union splits, when the majority of members or the cunning of opportunist leaders make them assume a non revolutionary attitude; accordingly they work for the unification of the presently split trade union organizations, with the aim of having in each country a unique national trade union central.

Whatever the influence of opportunist leaders, trade union unity is a favourable factor for the diffusion of the revolutionary political ideology and organization, and the class party makes within the united trade union his best recruitment and his best campaign against the wrong methods of struggle that others propound within the class.

From “The Democratic Principle”, 1922

From “Theses on Tactics”, CPofI, 2nd Congress, Rome, 1922

III. Relations between the Communist Party and the Proletarian Class
- Point 10
- Point 11
- Point 12
- Point 13
- Point 14
- Point 15
- Point 16

IV. Relations between the Communist Party and other Proletarian Political Movements
- Point 19
- Point 20

From Draft Theses Presented by The P.C.d’Italia at the IV World Congress, 1922

The conquest of the masses cannot be achieved by mere propaganda of party ideology and by mere proselytism, but by participating in all those actions to which the proletarians are driven by their economic condition. It must be made clear to the workers that these actions cannot by themselves ensure the triumph of their interests: they can only provide an experience, an organizational achievement and a will to struggle to be part of the general revolutionary struggle. This is achieved not by denying such actions, but by stimulating them by inciting the workers to undertake them and by presenting to them those immediate demands which serve to bring about an ever‑widening union of participants in the struggle...

Through actions for partial claims the Communist Party realizes a contact with the masses which enables it to make new proselytes: for, by supplementing with its propaganda the lessons of experience, the Party gains sympathy and popularity and gives birth around itself to a wider network of organization connected on the one hand to the deepest strata of the masses and on the other hand to the leading center of the Party itself. In this way the unified discipline of the working class is prepared. This is achieved by the systematic noyautage of trade unions, cooperatives and all forms of organization of working class interests. Similar organizational networks must arise as soon as possible in all fields of party activity: armed struggle and militia action, education and culture, work among youth and women, penetration of the army, and so on. The goal of such work is the realization of not only ideological but also organizational influence of the Communist Party on the largest part of the working class. Accordingly, in their work in the trade unions Communists tend to realize the maximum extension of the base of them as of all organizations of a similar nature, fighting every split and advocating organizational unification where the split exists, provided they are guaranteed a minimum of opportunity to work for Communist propaganda and noyautage. Such activity in special cases may also be illegal and secret.

The communist parties, while working with the program of securing the leadership of the trade union centers, an indispensable apparatus for maneuvering in revolutionary struggles, by the means of winning the majority of the organized, accept in all cases discipline to the decisions of the latter and do not demand that in the statutes of the trade union and related organizations, or in special parts, a commitment to party control be sanctioned.

From Draft theses presented by the Left at Lyon Congress, 1926

8. - The Union Question

International questions - Point 8. Union question

Italian questions - Point 11. Draft programme of party work


The group of texts reproduced here covers the twenty years from 1949 to 1966.

The titles indicate with sufficient exactitude the order of the problems set out in them as a true historical and programmatic balance sheet. This is the main task for our organisation in the perspective of the resumption of the revolutionary class struggle, which has been largely absent in the last half‑century.

A “democratic” twenty‑year period has already passed, following the fascist twenty‑year period, and we are able to draw up another historical balance sheet that can be summarised in the lapidary phrase: fascism has fallen on the battlefield of the last imperialist war, but it lives and breathes in the economic, social and political spheres, in spite of the parliamentary showcase, universal suffrage and the whole paraphernalia of democracy.

This is all the more reason to curse bourgeois democracy, with which the working class was once more led to accept the persistence of the capitalist regime, the parties of betrayal, the national “communist” parties, being mainly responsible for this operation.

How does fascism live and thrive under the cloak of post‑war democracy? In the economic field we have the supremacy of a statist or semi‑statised economy, the triumph, therefore, of the capitalist monopoly par excellence. In the social sphere, there is the iron control of the broad working masses by official parties, run by gangs of professional counter-revolutionaries, and by trade union centres, run by careerists submissive to the bourgeois State. In the political sphere, the total disempowerment of the “legislative power” (parliament) to the advantage of the “executive power” (government), with the general elections falling to the level of farce for the bourgeoisie itself; “popular” intoxication of a purely Mussolinian brand, rich of patriotism and nationalism, on the basis of the class collaboration already typical of democracy and raised to the level of a permanent regime by fascism. In the field of theory, total contempt for any body of principles, analogous to Mussolini’s claim of repudiation of any doctrinal “constraint”.

It is in this balance that the trade unions of today stand, different from the trade unions of yesterday, even if they have identical or similar acronyms.

They march every day more and more in the same direction as the only fascist trade unions, that of subjection to the political State of Capital. The rebirth of class unions or of any intermediate class bodies, free from capitalist State and regime constraints, will therefore be mandatory for the proletariat.

The way of this rebirth is not and cannot yet be in the field of vision of the Party and of the class struggle. Would it either come from the conquest “by beatings” of economic organisations that are more than “reactionary” (Lenin), such as the existing ones, or arise by other means from the interweaving of proletarian struggles on the wave of a general class revival, it is certain that the existence of intermediate organisms, economic, social and political, is a prerequisite for the revolutionary direction of the class by the Communist Party.

If breaking up the class associative network is a necessary objective of capitalism and its lackeys, it is dialectically incumbent on the class political party to direct the proletariat to its reconstruction. It is also in view of this task that the Party weaves the network of its factory and trade union groups, with which it organises the healthy forces of the working class, however numerically weak they may be today, on the basis of a clear and rigid opposition to both capitalism and opportunism, these two faces of the same counter-revolutionary reality, in the field of demands as well as in the political and organisational field. These groups are not and do not aim to become “new” trade unions, moreover “pure”, “uncorrupted”, etc., but they certainly represent the vanguard and the leaven of the class. Thanks to them, the proletariat will finally be able to regain its fighting organs, of which the main one, the irreplaceable one, is the Party.

Trade Union Splits in Italy”, in “Battaglia Comunista” no. 21/1949

From “Theory and Action in Marxist Doctrine” and “Revolutionary Party and Economic Action”, 1951

From “Characteristic theses of the party”, 1951

- Point II.4
- Point II.6
- Point II.8

- Point IV.4
- Point IV.8
- Point IV.9
- Point IV.11

From “Considerations on the organic activity of the party when the general situation is historically unfavourable”, 1965

- Point 8
- Point 12

From “Theses on the historical duty, action and the structure of the world communist party”, 1965

- Point 9

From “Supplementary theses on the historical task, the action and the structure of the world communist party”, 1966
- Point 2