Role of Trade Unions in the October Revolution

Padam Kumar

Trade unions played a leading role in the October revolution. That’s why we can see today the right of the working people to associate in trade unions and other social and public organizations is guaranteed by the Constitution of the USSR (art. 51). We cannot ignore the leading character of trade unions even today. At the beginning of 1975 the trade unions had 106 million members (see Table 1).

Table 1. Trade union membership in pre-revolutionary Russia and the USSR

Year Number
1905 80,000
1907 245,000
1913 45,000
1918 2,638,000
1925 7,740,000
1932 16,500,000
1949 28,500,000
1954 40,400,000
1959 52,781,000
1963 68,000,000
1966 80,000,000
1968 86,000,000
1972 98,000,000
1974 103,000,000

According to V. I. Lenin’s definition, the trade unions are educational organizations designed to involve and instruct people—schools of administration, management, and communism that play an important role in carrying out political and economic tasks and in involving the working people in the management of production (V. I. Lenin, Poln. sobr. sock, 5th ed., vol. 42, p. 203) [From "Draft Theses on the Role and Functions of the Trade Unions under the New Economic Policy", Collected Works, 4th ed., vol. 42, p. 379.]

The book “What Is to be Done”? and other works by Lenin, as well as the resolutions of the Second Congress of the RSDLP (1903), pointed out the necessity of establishing trade unions to protect the class interests of the proletariat under tsarism and imperialism and emphasized the role and significance of trade unions as a school for class struggle. The importance of party leadership of the trade unions was noted, and the theoretical and organizational principles of the trade union movement were defined. Underscoring the historical inevitability and necessity of the formation of trade unions as an organization of the industrial proletariat, Lenin wrote that "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” (ibid, vol. 41, p. 33-34) [From " 'Left-Wing' Communism, an Infantile Disorder," ibid, vol. 20, p. 41.]

On the occasion of 100th anniversary of the great socialist revolution, we must learn the lessons of the legacy of the Soviets, as an organ that unified and organized the masses in trade unions and mobilized in struggle for the overthrow of the tsarist power, against the bourgeoisie and for the construction of the workers' and the people’s power.

The role of the trade unions for overthrowing the tsarist regime, was important as comrade Lenin pointed out that “the trade unions in the leaderships of Bolsheviks, in their class character, their determination of power, their philosophy and qualitative leap in which they evolved, they did not confine themselves to demand only for wages and the eight hour day; they fought for more; for political power, for the government, for the leadership, of the state and society.”

This was how they grew and became representative bodies of the working class; later to fronts of armed resistance against the class enemy to overthrow it; and besides demanding social and economic gains, they included political demands; including the highest; the seizure of political power and the rule of working class and peasantry. In this creative dynamics trade unions became the embryo of the popular mass struggle.

The forerunners of the trade unions in Russia were the strike committees and the strike funds for resistance, which originated at enterprises during the mass working-class movement of 1895-96 and restricted their activity to economic tasks.

The Social Democratic groups and the League of Struggle for the Emancipation of the Working Class, which led the strike struggle before trade unions were organized, played an important role in preparing workers for the founding of mass trade unions.

Unlike the trade unions of western Europe, the trade unions of Russia were founded during the epoch of imperialism; when there was already a revolutionary Marxist party of the proletariat. As a result, the Russian trade unions were revolutionary and militant.

A qualitatively new type of trade union emerged spontaneously during 1905-07. During the January strikes of 1905, strike committees, Soviets of factory deputies, and other workers’ organizations were established at the largest enterprises in the industrial cities.

In 1905 in the context of the typographers’ strike that mobilized the solidarity of the majority of the working class of the city with demonstrations, clashes with the troops and barricades.

The workers’ organizations, which gave rise to the first trade unions, led the strikes and fought for the improvement of working conditions. Trade union organizations emerged in March 1905 at the Putilov, Obukhov, and Semiannikov plants and at many other plants in St. Petersburg.

Trade unions were soon established in virtually all the major cities and industrial centres in central Russia and the national border regions. Most of the unions were founded between October and December 1905.

The trade unions organized workers by industry and occupation (shop). Most of the small unions united workers in a single trade. The trade unions organized strikes and work stoppages and set aside a portion of their resources for strike funds. They established dining halls, hostels, and employment offices for the unemployed; negotiated with management to improve working conditions; established evening and Sunday schools for workers, as well as libraries and reading rooms; and published newspapers and journals. The regulations of many trade unions included demands for higher wages, the eight-hour workday, free medical care, the abolition of fines, and permission to celebrate May 1.

From the time trade unions were organized, the Bolshevik Party waged a stubborn struggle against the petit bourgeois parties—the Mensheviks and the Socialist Revolutionaries (SR’s)—for leadership of the trade unions and for their transformation into party strongholds. The Bolshevik Party also struggled against reformist and anarcho-syndicalist tendencies in the trade union movement, and it opposed trade union neutrality. In his article “Trade Union Neutrality,” Lenin wrote that the party should work in the trade unions “not in the spirit of trade union neutrality but in the spirit of the closest possible relations between them and the Social Democratic Party” (ibid, vol. 16, p. 427) ibid, vol. 13, p. 460]. Bolsheviks headed the major industrial trade unions. Most of the non-industrial, small trade unions were under the influence of the petit bourgeois parties.

In the autumn of 1905 inter-union bodies were established in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Kharkov, and certain other proletarian centres. The main task of the newly established central trade union bureaus was to unify the trade unions and prepare for an all-Russian trade union congress.

Representatives of trade union organizations from St. Petersburg, Kharkov, Ekaterinoslav, and Nizhny Novgorod participated in the Moscow Conference renamed the First All-Russian Conference of Trade Unions, which opened on Sept. 24, 1905. The conference exposed the divisive politics of the Mensheviks, who opposed the Bolshevik proposal for convening an all-Russian congress of trade unions and advocated an “all-workers’ congress,” which they viewed as a means of establishing a “broad” workers’ party instead of a revolutionary Marxist party of the working class. At the First All-Russian Conference of Trade Unions, the first attempt was made to centralize the trade union movement by preparing for the convocation of an all-Russian congress of trade unions. The Second All-Russian Conference of Trade Unions (St. Petersburg, February 1906) elected an organizational commission for the convocation of the trade union congress.

With the decline of the revolution and the intensification of repression, it became impossible to convene a trade union congress. Between 1905 and 1907 more than 100 trade union newspapers and journals were published in Russia. After the suppression of the December armed uprisings, many trade unions were crushed. By the beginning of 1908 there were 95 illegal trade unions, which used both legal and illegal forms of struggle, including participation in various societies and congresses associated with the people’s universities, factory physicians, the fight against alcoholism, and the women’s movement. A new revolutionary upsurge began in 1910, as the strike struggle intensified. The Bolshevik press paid a great deal of attention to the trade unions. For example, in a section entitled “The Trade Union Movement,” the newspaper Pravda provided systematic information on trade union activity and published articles presenting Lenin’s point of view on the trade union movement.

Many trade union organizations were suppressed during World War I (1914-18). Trade unions led by the Bolsheviks opposed the imperialist war and called on the workers to boycott the war industries committees.

The idea of the Bolshevik party that the defeat of the 1905 did not mean the end of the struggle for the emancipation of the working class movement.

The desire for freedom and democracy of the working masses, the strike struggle of millions of workers in the form of trade unions. The victory of the February revolution overthrew the rule of tsar but established a government of bourgeoisie.

The mobilization of the trade unions, the peasant uprisings, the revolts of the soldiers on the battlefronts especially the trade unions of St Petersburg and Moscow.

October 25 (November 7) 1917, the planning of the Bolsheviks became a reality. And the vanguard of the revolution played its role in the forms of trade unions.

The victory of the February Revolution of 1917 created the conditions for trade union activity. In March-April 1917, 130 trade unions were organized in Petrograd and Moscow. Throughout the country, a total of about 2,000 trade unions were established, organizing up to 1.5 million people. Factory committees (fabzavkoms, or FZK’s) were established. With the assistance of the trade unions and the factory committees, the Bolshevik Party involved the working people in meetings and demonstrations against the policies of the bourgeois Provisional Government and its supporters, the Mensheviks and SR’s.

The Third All-Russian Conference of Trade Unions was held in Petrograd in June 1917. The delegates included 73 Bolsheviks; 17 non-party delegates who supported the Bolsheviks; 105 SR’s, Mensheviks, and Social Democrats belonging to no faction; and delegates affiliated with the non-Bolshevik groupings. The conference discussed basic questions, such as control over production and over the distribution of output, the relationship between the trade unions and the factory committees, and the struggle against unemployment. As a result of the numerical preponderance of the SR’s and the Mensheviks, conciliatory SR-Menshevik resolutions were adopted on the most important questions, but the resolutions did not receive support in the provinces. The provisional All-Russian Central Council of Trade Unions (VTsSPS) elected by the conference had 35 members, including 16 Bolsheviks. It became the central body of the trade union movement. In 1917 the Sixth Congress of the RSDLP (Bolshevik) passed the resolutions The Tasks of the Trade Union Movement and The Party and the Trade Unions, which were important to the development and consolidation of the trade unions. Members of the trade unions and the factory committees participated in the defeat of General Kornilov’s counterrevolutionary revolt. During the period when the October Socialist Revolution was prepared and carried out, representatives of the trade unions and the factory committees joined the bodies directing the armed uprising, procured and stored weapons, organized the instruction of detachments of the Red Guard, established ties with the soldiers, and carried out the measures outlined by the revolutionary military committees.

After the victory of the October Revolution of 1917 there were fundamental changes in the role and tasks of the trade unions, which were transformed from semi-legal organizations of the oppressed and exploited classes into social associations of the proletariat, which had become the ruling class. The trade unions played a major role in the struggle to establish and consolidate Soviet power, in the destruction and re-creation of the machinery of state, in the organization of workers’ control, in the nationalization of industry, and in the inculcation of conscious labour discipline in the workers. Trade union associations focused on the working and living conditions of the working people. Evaluating the role of the trade unions, Lenin wrote in the spring of 1920: “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” (ibid., vol. 41, p. 31). [From " 'Left-Wing' Communism, an Infantile Disorder", ibid, vol. 31, p. 48.]

Non-political trade unions are not revolutionary unions

The role of trade union in the great October revolution could not be possible if the trade unions were non-political. In “What is to be done” Lenin pointed out the difference between a political spontaneous upsurge and non-political spontaneous upsurge i.e. “the famous St. Petersburg industrial revolts of 1896 were simply the resistance of the oppressed, whereas the systematic strikes represented the class struggle in embryo. Taken by themselves, these strikes were simply trade union struggles, not yet social-democratic struggles.”

The First All-Russian Congress of Trade Unions, which was held in Petrograd from January 7 to January 14 (January 20-27), 1918, was attended by 416 delegates with a casting vote and 75 with a consultative vote, including 273 Bolsheviks, 21 Left SR’s, six Maximalists, six anarcho- syndicalists, 66 Mensheviks, ten Right SR’s, and 34 non-party delegates. The trade union congress pointed out that the trade unions should concentrate on questions of economic organization, including participation in all-central bodies regulating production, the organization of workers’ control, the registration and distribution of labour power, the organization of exchange between the city and the countryside, the struggle against sabotage, and the enforcement of the universal obligation to work. In addition, the trade union congress recognized the necessity of merging the factory committees and the trade unions and affirmed the principle of organizing trade unions by industry. The demands of the SR-Menshevik delegates for trade union “neutrality” were rejected by the trade union congress, which passed a resolution stating that neutrality “conceals actual support for bourgeois policies and the betrayal of the interests of the working class.” The trade union congress emphasized that the trade unions should completely support the policies of Soviet power.

The resolution of the party central committee was published in Proletary, No.-17 along with an article entitled “the trade unions and the social democratic party” that “among the proletarian parties the question of neutrality is unlikely not to evoke any serious controversy. The case is different with the non-proletarian quasi-socialist parties like our Socialist- Revolutionaries, who are in the fact the extreme left wing of the revolutionary bourgeois party of the intellectuals and progressive peasants.”

Click here to return to the April 2018 index.