Trade-Union Controversy

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Trade-Union Controversy


a debate in the RCP (Bolshevik) in late 1920 and early 1921 on the role and tasks of trade unions, conducted against the background of the Soviet state’s transition from the Civil War to peaceful construction.

The new tasks of construction required a change in the policy of the party and the Soviet state and in the forms and methods of political, organizational, and ideological work that had evolved in wartime conditions. The Central Committee of the RCP(B) was preparing to replace the policy of war communism with the New Economic Policy, which was designed to strengthen the alliance of the working class with the peasantry on an economic basis; measures were being devised to develop the creative initiative of the toiling masses and draw them into the task of socialist construction. Under these conditions the role of trade unions (which numbered more than 6.8 million members in late 1920) would be increased. In order to strengthen the trade unions and intensify their activity, which had diminished during the war years, the Central Committee considered it necessary to abandon the military methods of trade-union work and move on to a consistent worker’s democracy in trade-union organizations. This move was opposed by L. D. Trotsky, a member of the party’s Central Committee.

At the Fifth All-Russian Conference of Trade Unions and in theses presented to the Central Committee (November 1920), Trotsky demanded a further “tightening of the screws”—the establishment of a military regime in trade unions—and a “shake-up” of their leadership cadres by administrative methods. The Plenum of the Central Committee (Nov. 8-9, 1920) rejected Trotsky’s theses and at V. I. Lenin’s proposal created a commission to work out measures aimed at developing trade-union democracy. In violation of party discipline, Trotsky carried the differences on the question of trade unions outside the Central Committee and forced on the party a controversy that diverted its resources from the solution of pressing practical questions and endangered the unity of party ranks. Trotsky’s antiparty action revived opposition elements in the RCP(B) and increased the vacillations among unstable party members, vacillations brought about by political and economic difficulties.

The differences over the role of trade unions were in fact differences over the principles of party policy in the period of peaceful construction, over the party’s attitude toward the peasantry and the nonparty mass in general, and over the methods of involving the toiling masses in the construction of socialism. This determined the character and sharpness of the controversy. The platform of the Trotskyites (Trotsky, N. N. Krestinskii, and others) demanded the immediate turnover of trade unions to state control—their conversion to an appendage of the state apparatus. This policy contradicted the very essence of trade unions and in fact was tantamount to their liquidation. The Trotskyites advocated methods of coercion and administration by mere injunction as the basis of trade-union work.

The so-called Workers’ Opposition group (including A. G. Shliapnikov, S. P. Medvedev, and A. M. Kollontai) put forth the anarcho-syndicalist slogan of turning over management of the national economy to the trade unions in the form of an “All-Russian Congress of Producers.” The Workers’ Opposition contraposed the trade unions to the party and the Soviet state and rejected state guidance of the national economy.

The “Democratic Centralists” (including T. V. Sapronov, N. Osinskii, M. S. Boguslavskii, and A. S. Bubnov) demanded freedom of factions and groupings in the party and opposed one-man management and firm discipline in production. N. I. Bukharin, lu. Larin, G. la. Sokol’nikov, E. A. Preobrazhenskii, and others formed a “buffer” group, which in words advocated a reconciliation of differences and the prevention of a split in the party but in deed supported the Trotskyites. During the debate most of the “buffer” group openly sided with Trotsky. The platforms of all of the opposition groups, despite all their differences, were antiparty and alien to Leninism. The party opposed them with a document signed by V. I. Lenin, la. E. Rudzutak, J. V. Stalin, M. I. Kalinin, G. I. Petrovskii, F. A. Sergeev (Artem), A. S. Lozovskii, and others—the so-called Platform of the Ten. It clearly defined the functions and tasks of trade unions and underscored their enormous role in rebuilding the national economy and developing socialist production.

The struggle against the opportunist groupings and currents was waged by most of the members of the RCP(B) Central Committee, headed by Lenin. Articles and speeches by Lenin helped Communists and those not in the party to understand the controversy and were of decisive importance in exposing the opportunistic essence of the opposition groupings and their disorganizing and divisive activity: these writings and speeches included his speech of Dec. 30, 1920, “The Trade Unions, the Present Situation, and the Mistakes of Comrade Trotsky” (1921), the article “The Party Crisis” (1921), and the pamphlet Once Again on the Trade Unions, the Present Situation and the Mistakes of Comrades Trotsky and Bukharin (1921). Lenin showed the importance of trade unions as an educational’organization; as schools of administration, management, and communism; and as one of the most important links of the party with the masses. He provided a thorough justification for the need to conduct trade-union work above all by the method of persuasion.

The overwhelming majority of party members united around the Leninist line of the RCP(B) Central Committee, and the oppositionists suffered a total defeat everywhere. The Tenth Congress of the RCP(B), of March 1921, summed up the results of the controversy, adopted Lenin’s platform and condemned the views of the opposition groups. In the special resolution “On Party Unity,” adopted at Lenin’s proposal, the congress directed that all opposition groups be disbanded immediately and that no factional activities be allowed in party ranks in the future. The ideological defeat of the antiparty groups during the controversy was of enormous significance in carrying out the transition to the New Economic Policy, strengthening party unity, and further developing Soviet trade unions. Lenin’s directions on the role of trade unions as a school of communism are today still one of the most important principles of CPSU policy concerning trade unions.


Lenin, V. I. “O professional’nykh soiuzakh, o tekushchem momente i ob oshibkakh t. Trotskogo.” Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 42.
Lenin, V. I. “Krizis partii.” Ibid.
Lenin, V. I. “Doklad o roli i zadachakh professional’nykh soiuzovna zasedanii kommunisticheskoi fraktsii s”ezda 23 ianvaria: Zakliuchitel’noe slovo po dokladu o roli i zadachakh professional’nykh soiuzov na zasedanii kommunisticheskoi fraktsii s”ezda 24 ianvaria [II Vserossiiskii s”ezd gornorabochikh 25 ianvaria-2 fevralia 1921].” Ibid.
Lenin, V. I. . “Eshche raz o profsoiuzakh, o tekushchem momente i ob oshibkakh tt. Trotskogo i Bukharina.” Ibid.
Lenin, V. I. “Rech’ pri otkrytii s”ezda 8 marta; Otchet o politicheskoi deiatel’nosti TsK RKP(b) 8 marta; Zakliuchitel’noe slovo po otchetu TsK RKP(b) 9 marta; Rech’ o professional’nykh soiuzakh 14 marta; Doklad ob edinstve partii i anarkho-sindikalistskom uklone 16 marta; Rech’ pri zakrytii s”ezda 16 marta [X s”ezd RKP(b) 8-16 marta 1921].” Ibid., vol. 43.
“Rezoliutsii X s”ezda RKP(b): O edinstve partii, O sindikalistskom i anarkhistskom uklone v nashei partii, O roli i zadachakh profsoiuzaov.” In KPSS v rezoliutsiakh i resheniiakh s”ezdov, konferentsii i plenumov TsK, 8th ed., vol. 2. Moscow, 1970.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.