The Bolsheviks and international trade union work

Submitted by martin on 3 September, 2019 - 8:43 Author: Paul Vernadsky

Review: Reiner Tosstorff, The Red International of Labour Unions (RILU) 1920-1937. Haymarket (2018)

In the aftermath of the 1917 Russian revolution, the Bolsheviks sought to advance the international socialist revolution through the formation of the Communist International (the Comintern). The first five years of the Comintern are replete with lessons for socialists, including crucial conceptions such as transitional demands, the united front and the workers’ government. One crucial sphere of the Comintern’s work concerned the trade unions, crystallised in the foundation of the Red International of Labour Unions (RILU), also known as the Profintern.

However RILU has generally had a bad press, both from academics and socialist activists. Historian Geoffrey Swain concluded that “the Profintern will never be more than a footnote in the history of the international labour movement – it never amounted to much”. Similarly, the SWP’s Tony Cliff and Donny Gluckstein argued in Marxism and Trade Union Struggle that “the trouble with the whole concept of RILU was not merely that it was ambiguous, but that it was fundamentally wrong”. RILU failed because “it was attempting the impossible – to be an official mass union body committed to Communist politics before a revolutionary crisis made such an organisation possible”.

Reiner Tosstorff’s book, The Red International of Labour Unions (RILU) 1920-1937, originally in German (2004) and now in English (2018) provides the most systematic history of the Profintern to date. Tosstorff is more positive about RILU and through the careful selection of material long buried in the archives, provides a far more nuanced interpretation of its strengths and limitations.


Trade union internationalism has a long pedigree. Two centuries ago early socialists recognised that capital respects no boundaries and that solidarity cannot be confined to national borders. The First International (1864-72), which Marx and Engels built around these principles, included different kinds of trade unions, parties and individuals. Similarly the Second International (1889-1914), although dominated by social democratic parties, still included trade unionists at their congresses.

Permanent, continuous, official level international trade union organisation began with the International Trade Secretariats formed in the last decade of the nineteenth century. From 1901 the German trade union bureaucrat Carl Legien formed an international secretariat of high level union leaders, which met biannually. At its Zürich meeting in 1913, the international secretariat was renamed the International Federation of Trade Unions (IFTU). The number of trade unionists affiliated involved roughly 13 million members in 19 countries. However the majority of trade union bureaucrats sided with their own governments during the First World War, corralling their unions into backing the orgy of chauvinism that pitted worker against worker in abject slaughter.

Nevertheless, once the killing stopped, the IFTU was resuscitated. After some preliminary meetings, the Amsterdam congress refounding the IFTU took place between 28 July and 2 August 1919. The congress claimed to represent a total membership of 19 million trade unionists. Its representatives took part in the Versailles Treaty process and the founding of the International Labour Organisation. The IFTU set the overall context in which the Communist International had to conceive its international trade union work. The Bolshevik trade union leader Solomon Dridzo, (known as Lozovsky) summed up the basic problem with the IFTU:

“[The IFTU] was not a fighting organisation… it was an international information bureau for the exchange of statistical material, an international post box or something of that nature. What was missing above all was the characteristic feature of a workers’ international: the predominance of the interests of the class as a whole over the interests of the individual components of the international.”


Another highly significant contextual factor was also present, which the Bolsheviks had to relate to, was the rich layer of syndicalist militants. These were longstanding workers’ organisations, led by militants who reacted to the growing bureaucratisation of the socialist parties and the mainstream trade unions in the decades before the First World War by organising their own caucuses, fractions and in some cases, separate unions.

Tosstorff follows the broad definition of syndicalism proposed by Wayne Thorpe and other historians. Syndicalists viewed class conflict as inevitable under capitalism. They espoused not only short-term goals but also long term revolutionary objectives, especially the inauguration of a collectivised, worker-managed socioeconomic order. They considered the decisive agency of workers' action to be the revolutionary trade union, which united workers as workers, unlike political parties, which grouped multi-class supporters only as voters. They were extraparliamentary, advocating direct action by organised unions over indirect, mediated action through the political process. Finally, they deemed the general strike to be the ultimate revolutionary weapon as well as labour’s most effective means of combating capitalist wars.

In 1906 the French CGT was the only self-designated national syndicalist organisation in Europe. By 1914 it was one of half a dozen such organisations and significant syndicalist unions or groups existed in European countries. Within this tendency, Thorpe includes the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and the National Shop Stewards Movement. Syndicalists organised their own international gatherings and many would oppose the First World War.

The Russian experience 1917

The Bolsheviks themselves had decades of trade union experience to draw upon. Russian Marxists had supported strikes and organising underground workers’ circles since the 1880s. They had supported the great strike waves during the mid-1890s and again in 1912-14. They took part in open trade union organising during the 1905 revolution, along with building workers’ councils (soviets).

In 1917, Petrograd had one of the highest levels of unionisation in the world – 90% density in industrial unions. By the end of the year, 2.7m Russian workers were organised in more than 2,000 industrial unions. The Bolsheviks won majorities in the factory committees, which they committed to transform into organs of the trade unions at the factory level, and grappled with conceptions of workers’ control. By October 1917 the Bolsheviks won majority support in the soviets.

RILU’s founding

The Comintern was founded in Moscow on 2-6 March 1919. The delegates were mostly not trade unionists, but socialist militants who rallied to the Russian revolution. The congress established the Executive Committee of the Communist International (ECCI), chaired by Zinoviev and published a magazine, Communist International. Towards the end of 1919, Zinoviev and then the Russian trade unionist Tsyperovich made the first public calls for a “red trade union international”.

At an ECCI meeting on 16 June 1920, Zinoviev enumerated the three possible perspectives for a red trade union international: a communist fraction within the IFTU; or an independent revolutionary trade union international; or a trade union section within the Comintern. After discussions with range of trade union militants who had made it to Russia, the International Trade Union Council (ITUC) founded on 15 July 1920. Lozovsky claimed that it represented 9 million trade unionists.

The ITUC elected a Central Council of representatives from a range of unions and a small Executive Bureau, made up of the Russian trade union leader Mikhail Tomsky, the French syndicalist Alfred Rosmer and Lozovsky as the Comintern representative. The ITUC was housed in the Russian unions (VTsSPS) building and published a monthly journal, The International Workers Movement. By spring 1921, the ITUC already had a staff of more than one hundred, although as Rosmer recalled there was no trace of luxury, with little heating and a menu of fish soup. They spent almost a year preparing to found the Red International of Labour Unions.

The founding congress of RILU held its first session on 3 July and continued until 19 July 1921. It held 19 plenary sessions, interrupted by Third Comintern Congress (which trade unionists also went to). Some 380 delegates attended RILU, some with impressive mandates. Thus the English delegate JT Murphy reported that more than 460 trade union branches, 10 trades councils and six district committees of British trade unions supported the call for a revolutionary trade union international.

The congress set four conditions for membership of RILU: recognition of the revolutionary class struggle; support for the goal of the dictatorship of the proletariat; break connections with IFTU; and all workers in a particular country who support RILU to act in unison. A key question debated was the relationship between RILU and the Comintern. Rosmer’s resolution advocating close cooperation, an “organic” link, was carried by 287 votes to 37. Lozovsky’s subsequent manifesto described RILU as “in alliance” with Comintern. It began publishing a magazine, Red Trade Union International and other propaganda materials through regional bureaus.

The second RILU Congress took place between 19 November and 2 December 1922, overlapping with the Fourth Comintern Congress. Some 213 delegates from 41 countries, claiming to represent 12 million trade unionists (including 12 national federations) debated a range of questions. The most important discussion concerned the relationship between the Comintern and the RILU. The key consideration was the French CGTU, which had broken from the CGT but had not resolved its international affiliation. The Bolshevik leadership reached a compromise agreement with the CGTU shortly before the RILU congress began, agreeing to remove the “organic link” formulation.

RILU’s decline

Tosstorff argues that by 1922, “the RILU was able to establish itself firmly as an organisation, while experiencing a certain decline in political influence”. However a political constellation began to develop that would question RILU’s existence. In Russia, Lenin died and the troika of Stalin, Zinoviev and Kamenev took over the leadership, to the exclusion of Trotsky. In Germany, the KPD failed to take advantage of the crisis during 1923 to seize power and was on the defensive.

The Fifth Comintern Congress, convened from 17 June to 8 July 1924, began the bureaucratisation of the Comintern through so-called ‘Bolshevisation’ (of monolithic, Moscow-approved communist leaderships) and to abandon key strategic and tactical conceptions such as the united front. The third RILU Congress took place soon afterwards (8-22 July 1924) and faced calls for its liquidation.

Rosmer wrote to his comrade Monatte that RILU was not a genuine international because an international could not be made out of minorities. Organisations were needed. He felt RILU had completed its task and would not be able to grow any further. It had lost the support of many syndicalist centres. The German delegation’s memorandum to the Fifth Comintern Congress argued that “perhaps it would have been better if from the very beginning the tactic of cell building had been conducted within the internationally unified trade union movement”. It was an open secret at the congress that the Russian trade unions aimed to secure entry into the IFTU and wanted to get rid of the RILU.

RILU was effectively redundant. It held no congress for the next four years and the Central Council met only once during this period. It began to lose the expertise of valuable cadres, such as Rosmer and Andreu Nin, who supported the opposition to Stalinism. In July 1927, the Dutch NAS affiliate officially broke with the RILU, declaring itself in solidarity with Trotsky.

Worse, a Russian trade union delegation went to London, 6-8 April 1925 and established the Anglo-Russian Committee with TUC leaders. It held five meetings between September 1925 and April 1927, publishing the Trade Union Unity magazine. It miserably failed the test of solidarity during the General Strike in May 1926, providing cover for the British trade union bureaucracy. It succeeded only in its diplomatic task: helping to protect the Stalinist bureaucracy’s ‘socialism in one country’.

By the time the Fourth RILU Congress convened between 17 March and 3 April 1928, Stalinism had consolidated its grip on the Russian state as well as the Comintern. RILU would support the Stalinist Third Period lurch towards the sectarian ‘dual unions’. RILU would hold its final congress on 15-30 August 1930. It was dissolved without a murmur by the ECCI Secretariat on 27 December 1937.


On the face of it, RILU was a failure. It never came close to rivalling the IFTU for the affiliation of the bulk of the trade union centres across the globe. It was unable to secure a foothold in the majority of international trade secretariats. RILU could not give instructions to the communist trade union fractions and therefore it did not influence real industrial struggles or rank and file movements. As Tosstorff puts it, RILU “simulated a power and a strength that it did not possess”. But the RILU experience deserves to be unpicked if a fully rounded assessment is to be made.

Was RILU flawed from the start? Immediately after the ITUC was formed, a debate took place at the Second Comintern Congress. The English shop steward Jack Tanner argued that it was inconsistent to urge the workers to stay in the unions, but to split them internationally. However the contradiction was not absolute. The trade unions themselves were actually mass organisations of workers, whereas the international bodies were composed mostly of venal union leaders. To break with these labour lieutenants of capital was very different from abandoning or splitting the unions.

Was RILU merely a front organisation, completely subordinate to the Comintern? It was certainly instigated, funded and ideologically led by the Bolsheviks and their co-thinkers. As such the “organic link” accurately described the relationship from the beginning. After 1922 RILU became increasingly the trade union wing of the Comintern – and later simply a tool of Stalinism. Nevertheless, the early years of the ITUC and RILU involved genuine debate and joint collaboration, with compromises made by the Bolsheviks to maintain the involvement of the best syndicalist militants. It would be a mistake to read back RILU’s later degeneration back onto the early years, when it did have some autonomy and certainly some life as a joint campaign.

Did RILU conflict with serious trade union strategy? In the first year after RILU was founded, it came in for a range of criticism from leading German communists. KPD leader Ernst Friesland claimed that “the ambiguities of the RILU impede any serious trade union work”, while August Thalheimer said it had led to the liquidation of communist trade union work. Wilhelm Hauth, a KPD trade union specialist, openly raised the demand for the dissolution of the RILU in Die Internationale (January-February 1922). He wryly observed that “The entry of the Russian trade unions into the Amsterdam international would therefore remove one of the reasons for the existence of the RILU”. In the course these debates, the KPD lost a layer of experienced trade unionists – although RILU was rarely the deciding factor in this respect.

What undermined RILU? Chiefly, the change in the situation and the resulting reorientation by the Comintern. At the Fifth Comintern Congress in 1924, Zinoviev pointed out that RILU was founded “at a moment [1920] when it seemed that we would be able to break through the enemy front in a frontal attack and quickly conquer the trade unions”. By 1922, if not earlier, the revolutionary wave had ebbed. The Comintern leadership reassessed and developed a new set of tactics, based around winning a majority of workers through united front work. But the call for communists to cooperate with social democratic parties and trade unions conflicted with the logic of RILU.

RILU’s raison d’etre

If RILU was not and could not guide communist work in the reformist trade unions, what was the point of it? The answer is that RILU was originally conceived as an alliance between syndicalists and communists. At the founded conference of the ITUC in 1920, Rosmer explained that the body had arisen as a “compromise” between the conceptions of the Bolsheviks and the syndicalists. Lozovsky would also use the same descriptor.

RILU did not form part of the Marxist conception of the role of the trade unions and such an organisation was not originally envisaged by the Bolsheviks. However they were aware of the sizable syndicalist current, with whom they had worked in exile. Many of these syndicalist militants rallied to the Russian revolution. It was politically essential and tactically astute of the Bolsheviks to draw these syndicalists into joint activity. The RILU was a primary means of this collaboration.

RILU was also necessary because the “tried and tested” communist union strategy of “boring from within” was not sufficient in the context of post-war industrial struggles. In many states, the level of union density was very low and often confined to highly skilled or peculiar sectors. This left a vast field of unorganised workers that communists had to relate to. The trade union bureaucracy also had such a grip on unions as to make effective communist fractions very arduous. Some militants had been expelled for fighting this bureaucracy, but continued to organise separately. The RILU was a lever into this milieu.

RILU was also a means of communist party building. Thus the Communist Party of America recruited some 2,000 members from the IWW: perhaps 20% of the party in its early years were former IWW activists. The Comintern made great efforts to convince the best syndicalist militants that their conception of an “active minority” was only an underdeveloped form of the revolutionary party that had led to victory in 1917. Recruiting and integrating a militant layer of activists into communist parties was facilitated by joint activity building RILU. Winning the likes of Rosmer, Nin, Victor Serge and others were tremendous gains for the Bolsheviks.

Tosstorff argues astutely argues that the RILU allowed the Bolsheviks to win support from a movement which had previously been sceptical towards Marxist social democracy. After the leading syndicalists had either joined the communist parties or split away, the RILU’s original role was over. It lost its own distinct momentum and became simply the trade union apparatus of the Comintern, implementing its line until it ultimately consumed by Stalinism. But the early experience still has important lessons for the present.

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