In this essay written in 1920, the Bolshevik left communist Gabriel Miasnikov examines the limitations of the Russian trade unions in the context of what he perceived to be the economic and political supremacy of the soviet institutions, but concludes that the trade unions must be preserved for purposes of domestic public relations (due to the habits of the Russian workers) and international propaganda (due to the predominant concepts concerning revolution outside of Russia where soviet-type institutions do not exist or are quickly destroyed and revolution is conceived as a trade union affair) and therefore they must be given something to do to keep them busy.
The Same, Only In a Different Way1 – Gabriel Miasnikov
I can recall two incidents that convinced me that the leadership cadres of our trade unions do not have a correct idea of the role and significance of the trade unions here in Russia, and in the capitalist countries, before and after the social revolution.
It cannot be said that our workers movement is at the present time in any condition to carry out the social revolution, since it must still look forward to the social revolution, if not at home (in Russia), then in all the capitalist countries of the world, and therefore it must direct its actions towards seeing to it that this revolution takes place and, in order to bring this about, it must strive to preserve the old organizational forms of the trade unions alongside the soviets of workers and deputies in Russia.
In June 1917, when the soviets had just re-emerged and had consolidated their positions, some comrades asked me to collaborate in the drafting of a Statute for trade unions and factory committees. And I did not refuse their request, but I did make it clear to them that I was only reluctantly agreeing. Why? Because, I responded, there are soviets here that organize all the workers in accordance with the characteristics of production.
Throughout that period I naturally found myself in the opposition, but there was no time for bickering, just for work, work, and more work….
To this very day I have not changed my opinion about this, and I believe that my point of view has been vindicated in the wake of the October revolution. What, then, are the soviets of deputies?
In 1905, at a large industrial complex in the Urals, we elected one deputy for each section to participate in the negotiations with the management of the complex during the strike. The deputies met in a soviet, thus forming a soviet of deputies. Later, the soviets of deputies were also the directive organs in all the workers demonstrations.
I do not know if the soviets of deputies that were first formed in Petersburg in 1905 were organized the same way; I do not know, but I think that the answer is no, they were organized in a different way. They were formed spontaneously and were determined by the units of production of the factories in which they arose. This was also the case in 1917. Later we began to form factory and workshop committees. Alongside the factory deputy we also had shop stewards, and subsequently, workshop committees. In our experience, it often happened that a deputy would perform both the duties of the factory deputy as well as those of a shop steward or the president of a workshop committee; but these were isolated instances, because, generally speaking, these committees arose alongside of and separate from the soviets, which were the institutions of the workers movement to which the workers were most accustomed.
Prior to the October revolution of 1917 the trade unions hardly even existed and played no significant role, because every struggle had a distinctly political character and the bulk of the forces were mobilized by the soviets of deputies; and this was why, in view of the fact that the trade unions were immersed in the life of the working people, they were entirely dragged into the struggle (a struggle for the conquest of political power) by the power of the soviets, as an auxiliary organ of the latter.
This shows that those comrades who think there is nothing outside of the trade unions are mistaken, because there are institutions that are strictly united with each factory, each department, each workshop: these institutions are the soviets.
Having granted this to be the case, however, someone might say that the soviets are only political bodies and nothing more, which express the connection on the political terrain between political power and the masses, but that the connection between the trade unions and the factories, because it is by its nature purely related to labor, is not a concern of the soviets. Anyone who thinks this is true, however, is mistaken and falls prey to absurd contradictions.
For, in effect, if by politics one understands not just general discussions about how soviet Russia should be ruled, but also the technical details of how it should be ruled, then the word “rule” naturally applies to industry, since any pretense to ruling a country without ruling its industry is utterly absurd.
In a duality (trade unions-soviets) converging around the activity of the of two co-existing and often overlapping mass organizations, nothing would stand in the way of overcoming organizational difficulties. The deputies of the factories would form the corresponding local branch of the soviet of the economic council. This vital connection would give the soviets of deputies a degree of power that they have not possessed since the outbreak of the October revolution.
All the deputies (if one accepts my proposal of this duality of soviets and trade unions) would be divided into different sections depending on the characteristics of production. In these sections all the preparatory work for the soviet plenum is conducted, each deputy performing all the work pertaining to his section. In the soviet of deputies, then, there will no longer be fanatics of the assemblies, but speakers who are specialists, who will address the most difficult and urgent questions of the complex life of soviet Russia. Concerning this very interesting question, however, I shall have something to say later; for now we shall deal with the organizational role of trade union work.
What are the tasks of the soviet power, of the soviets as mass organizations of the working class, which possess all the means of state power? Their tasks consist in totally crushing the opposition of the exploiters, employing all measures necessary to prevent a possible resurrection of the bourgeoisie and its organized attacks as a worldwide force, establishing a national power and organizing production, and with regard to the latter seeking, if this is possible, to produce more material goods in order to improve the living conditions of the workers. And what, alongside of these tasks, are the tasks of the trade unions? To help, help, help and help again….
And just what are our trade unions really doing today? They control and organize production, labor, and cultural works, preparing the entire population for active and conscious participation in the rule of the state.
But this is all too much, and that is why they are actually doing nothing. For whom do they control? No one. This may seem to be merely indulging in hyperbole, but it is not so much hyperbolic as it is true, because if the trade unions are really in control of anything, then what is the purpose of the workers and peasants inspectorates?
Is it the purpose of the trade unions to organize production? No. There is (not in all trade unions, however) a disastrous section of the economy, that of the blabbermouth morons, a sector whose members suppose that they are doing something and that they have the power to do it; not exactly by actually doing anything, since they are not allowed to do anything, but because they propose to do something to such and such an effect, but not as a result of their own views, but as a result of the purposes of others, purposes that are not so bad—that is, those of the supreme economic council.
This supreme economic council, however, is ineffective. But even though it is ineffective, it is no worse than the trade union sections that in most cases do absolutely nothing, since they do not know what they are supposed to do.
If there is still bureaucracy and routine, the inseparable accompaniments of working in these conditions, in the economic councils, there is, however, neither bureaucracy nor routine in the trade union sections, because they do nothing.
So how do you propose to achieve the organized participation of the masses of the workers in the nomination and election of persons to serve in the economic administration? In order to achieve this goal, the trade unions would have to work very effectively.
The workers soviets have the right to say that they have effectively carried out other tasks and that they will also learn to bring these matters pertaining to elections and so on to fruition. Under their supervision there will be extremely valuable organizations, abandoning any conceivable form of meetings of fanatics, in order to become a specialized and expert mechanism in economics. But the organization of production does not consist solely in this. It also consists in the drafting of programs, in the implementation of these programs, in the organization of the forces of labor. Things the trade unions do not do. Do the trade unions work for the realization of the programs of production of all the factories, each in relation with the other, in a harmonious way? No. They have not done this and they will not do it. Who will do it? Who else, again, but the competent organizations of the soviets dedicated to production: the administrative bodies, the economic councils, etc. What advantages do the trade unions have in these bodies? They control them. Do not laugh, comrades. If we examine the council of trade unions of Petrograd, for example, the largest in Russia, we find a comrade of unimpeachable integrity who directs the economic section. But this honorable comrade has absolutely no understanding of production programs, neither with regard to practical questions (because he is not a worker), nor with regard to theory (because he is not trained in the technical aspect of economics). What kind of control can we expect from him? If, for example, he suddenly discovers that he must draft a program, or maybe even has to implement one? But if, instead of him, we have trained experts working in the economic sections, why would they have to perform the same job as the economic councils? Why, after all, if the economic councils do not do their job effectively and have to be bailed out again and again?
Finally, there is one more thing: the organization of labor. What do we mean by the organization of labor? The establishment of pay rates and norms, accounting and distribution. Why, however, should this task be specifically attributed to the trade unions? A soviet institution does the same job, and if all the comrades from the trade unions who are occupied with questions of the pay rates and norms of the trade unions were to be integrated into the corresponding sections of the economic councils, the effective performance of this task would not be at all impaired, but would even be improved.
As for the activities of the trade unions in cultural work, in these conditions they have the semblance of a newborn baby that suddenly becomes old, which is why it is better not to speak of them at all.
With regard to the question of who will look after the interests of the workers, the responsibility for which is said to have been placed in the hands of the workers themselves—how can it be in their hands, if there are no trade unions of this kind? Against this view, the apparatus of the soviets is flexible and adaptable enough for the soviet of deputies to find a way to exchange an alleged tutelage of the workers for an authentic one.
Another task of the trade unions is to try to solve the problem of the excessive distance the workers have to travel to get to their workplaces. But an organization that is not loved by the workers (as is the case where the trade union is responsible for addressing this issue) will not be accepted among the workers, and therefore the institutions of the soviets will have to assume responsibility for carrying out this task, as well.
The trade unions, then, are compelled in our Russian reality to perform some of the work of the state, insofar as they do not have any tasks that are suited to their capabilities that could be fundamentally distinguished from the tasks of the soviets of deputies.
So why do they still exist? Due to an old habit, which the Russian working class cannot overcome, as it thinks that the trade unions are the organizations that defend the interests of the workers. In order to avoid causing disaffection among the working people of Russia in the event that the trade unions were to simply disappear, and to prevent foreigners from denouncing their suppression, the trade unions must be preserved at all costs….
Today, it is only with such arguments that the existence of the trade unions can be justified.
Throughout the rest of the world the revolution has been conceived by the trade unions most clearly as an event that will be carried out under the aegis of the trade unions themselves, and this is why they must be preserved, as long as other ways of dealing with the broad masses of the workers of other countries cannot endure. And if it is necessary to preserve them, then they must be given the task of performing a share of the work of the state.
This way of addressing the question will also determine the character of the trade unions. In order to avoid any “misunderstandings”, I must nip them in the bud by saying that I am not advocating that the trade unions should be officially recognized as state institutions.
So what conclusions have we reached? The trade unions must be preserved, because they are the most adequate form for the organization of our influence on the proletariat of all the other countries in the world.
It would be worthwhile to preserve these organizations exclusively for the performance of this role, but this is impossible, and that is why a share of the work of the state with regard to the organization of production in soviet Russia must be entrusted to them. But it remains to be determined what part of production should be entrusted to them, precisely and clearly, conferring real responsibility, and not just in words. The soviets of deputies must be organized by sections in accordance with the characteristics of production in order to run the machinery of economic life of the republic in its totality, it being necessary that their labor should be intensified by every means.
December 3, 1920
Translated in July-August 2014 from the Spanish translation included in:
Frits Kool and Erwin Oberländer, editors, Documentos de la revolución mundial. I. Democracía de trabajadores o dictadura de partido, translated into Spanish by Carlos Díaz, Zero-Zyx, Madrid, 1971, pp. 146-151. Originally published in German under the title, Arbeiterdemokratie oder Parteidiktatur, Walter-Verlag, Zurich, 1968.
- 1 G. Miasnakov, “To zhe, da ne to”, in Partiia i soiuzy (Party and Trade Unions), edited by G. Zinoviev, Moscow, 1921, pp. 278-282 (written in 1920).