Red International of Labor Unions

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Red International of Labor Unions

Russia 1921


During 1919-1920 the inspiration of the Russian Revolution, combined with the conditions of economic and political crisis that accompanied the end of World War I, produced a wave of mass strikes and revolutionary struggle that swept across the world. The formation of the Red International of Labor Unions (RILU), or Profintern, was both a product of this dramatic situation and a response to it.

RILU was one of the most important of the subsidiary organizations that was established under the auspices of the Third (Communist) International. Communist leaders saw it as providing a focal point for the world's revolutionary trade unionists and anarcho-syndicalists that could rival the reformist-led International Federation of Trade Unions (IFTU). The founding congress took place in Moscow on 3-19 July 1921 with 380 delegates from 41 countries.

Bitter political arguments with syndicalist delegates undermined the organization's potential support, however, and optimistic expectations of rapid communist advance were soon to be confounded by the partial stabilization of the European economy, the ebbing of working-class struggle, and the continued strength of social democracy. Many existing trade union centers remained loyal to Amsterdam and, with the exception of France and Czechoslovakia, the RILU only really succeeded outside western Europe. The organization, which effectively became an adjunct of the Russian-dominated Comintern, finally dissolved in 1937.


  • 1906: Founding of the British Labour Party.
  • 1911: Revolution in Mexico, begun the year before, continues with the replacement of the corrupt Porfirio Diaz, president since 1877, by Francisco Madero.
  • 1916: Battles of Verdun and the Somme on the Western Front. The latter sees the first use of tanks, by the British.
  • 1918: The Second Battle of the Marne in July and August is the last major conflict on the Western Front. In November, Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicates, bringing an end to the war.
  • 1921: As the Allied Reparations Commission calls for payments of 132 billion gold marks, inflation in Germany begins to climb.
  • 1921: Canadian scientists Frederick Banting and Charles Herbert Best isolate insulin, an advance that will alter the lives of diabetics and greatly reduce the number of deaths associated with the disease.
  • 1921: Washington Disarmament Conference limits the tonnage of world navies.
  • 1921: In a controversial U.S. case, Italian-born anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti are tried and convicted of armed robbery and murder. Despite numerous protests from around the world, they will be executed six years later.
  • 1924: V. I. Lenin dies, and thus begins a struggle for succession from which Stalin will emerge five years later as the undisputed leader of the Communist Party, and of the Soviet Union.
  • 1928: Discovery of penicillin by Alexander Fleming.
  • 1931: Financial crisis widens in the United States and Europe, which reel from bank failures and climbing unemployment levels. In London, armies of the unemployed riot.
  • 1936: Germany reoccupies the Rhineland, while Italy annexes Ethiopia. Recognizing a commonality of aims, the two totalitarian powers sign the Rome-Berlin Axis Pact. (Japan will join them in 1940.)

Event and Its Context

RILU was one of the most important of the subsidiary organizations established under the auspices of the Third (Communist) International, known as the Comintern. The Comintern, formed in Moscow 1919, set itself the task of winning over that section of the working class that had been disillusioned by social democracy by encouraging and sponsoring the building of revolutionary communist parties of the Bolshevik type. Unlike the Second International, which had been a loose federal body that allowed varying degrees of independence for its national sections, the Comintern sought to be a single centralized and exclusively communist world party. The Comintern's structure reflected a conception of the world as a single battlefield on which to wage the class war with one army and one high command; the aim was to ensure that the 1914 collapse of the Second International into reformism and nationalism was never repeated. Against a background of revolutionary upheaval, a number of newly radicalized militants from the rapidly growing communist parties and others from antiparliamentary syndicalist traditions made the journey to Moscow to participate in the Comintern's deliberations.

At the Comintern's second Congress in June 1920, Grigory Zinoviev, the president of the Comintern, offered a proposal that was supported by the All-Russian Congress of Trade Unions to form a new revolutionary trade union international that would operate alongside the party-structured Comintern. Communist leaders viewed the proposal as providing a focal point for attracting the world's revolutionary trade unionists and syndicalists that could rival the reformist-led International Federation of Trade Unions (IFTU), generally known as the Amsterdam International after the location of its headquarters. Despite the Amsterdam International's recent growth, the authority of its reformist leaders had been severely damaged by their conduct during the war in renouncing prior internationalist commitments. On the expectation of renewed social explosions and working-class revolutions in the coming years, a new "Red" trade union international, it was believed, could woo national trade unions to break from their allegiance to the IFTU and affiliate to Moscow.

Provisional International Council

During the Comintern Congress, a group representing the Russian, Italian, and Bulgarian trade union delegations, and some members of the British delegation, met to give their general approval to the Russian initiative. However, syndicalist delegates who insisted on trade union independence from political organizations rejected Zinoviev's proposal that the new union body be constituted as a trade union section of the Comintern. Their counterproposal was an invitation to all unions who supported the Comintern's revolutionary anticapitalist platform to attend a broader conference that would decide how to structure and launch the new trade union international. The congress elected a Provisional International Council of Trade and Industrial Unions (Mezhsovprof) composed of Solomon Lozovsky (Russia) as president and Tom Mann (Britain) and Alfred Rosmer (France) as vice presidents. The provisional council was responsible for organizing the founding congress of the Red International to be held in May 1921.

Founding Congress

The inaugural congress of the Russian-sponsored Red International of Labor Unions (Krasnyi internatsional professionalnykh soyuzov or Profintern), took place in July 1921. The meeting was scheduled to coincide with the Comintern's Third Congress. Some 380 delegates from 41 countries, composed of different syndicalist currents and the trade union fractions of communist parties, represented minority groups within the unions. For two weeks it thrashed out the basic principles of the new international, in the process revealing a serious division of opinion. The first argument was whether revolutionaries should stay inside the existing reformist unions. American delegates from the Industrial Workers of the World, supported by some syndicalists from Europe, argued that, because the existing unions, such as the AFL, had betrayed the cause of workers, new revolutionary union bodies should be set up to replace them. By contrast, the Bolshevik leaders, supported by most communist delegates, argued that rather than abandoning the unions to their reactionary leaders and in turn isolating themselves from the working class, revolutionaries should enter the unions and attempt to win them to their cause.

The question of the relationship between the new international and the Comintern became the major debate. The Russians favored an "organic" connection between them and a similar connection at the national level between communist parties and national sections of the Red International. Sections of the French, German, Italian, and Spanish delegations, however, continued to oppose any connection with political movements. Many syndicalists were worried that the RILU would simply become a subordinate appendage of the Comintern and that the trade unions would be transformed into subsidiary organizations under the control of the communist parties. After a long and bitter debate, a large majority voted to accept an alternative resolution that the new international be structured as a separate organization linked to the Comintern by fundamental political agreement. The resolution also affirmed the need for a "close and real connection" between the revolutionary unions and the communist parties in applying the joint decisions of the RILU and Comintern. Yet it proved to be a Pyrrhic victory. News of the decisions taken at the RILU congress elicited a storm of protest from the syndicalist movement in the West, including the Spanish Anarcho-Syndicalist Trade Union Confederation (CNT) and Italian Syndicalist Union (USI), who subsequently broke away to establish their own separate syndicalist international.

Activity and Organization

The newly formed Red International produced a Programme of Action that called for the worldwide overthrow of capitalism and the establishment of an international republic of soviets on the Russian model. It detailed the strategy and tactics to be followed by "Red Trade Unions." All trade union action was to be seen as leading to mass actions: demonstrations, factory occupations, and ultimately armed insurrection. Amalgamation, though local, district, and national trade union machinery would be the key tool for attaining industrial unionism. Members of the national RILU sections were to form factory cells and press for workers' control of production and the organic unity of the Communist Party and the revolutionary trade unions. The leadership reaffirmed hostility toward Amsterdam in the most militant terms, although the older unions in the West proposed the tactic of conquering from within using cell-building tactics, rather than repudiation, restructuring, or abandonment.

The basic organizational structure institutionalized Russia's pre-eminent position within the RILU in the arrangements for finance and in provision for extra Russian membership in its executive organs. By 1923 the organization and chain of command of the new trade union international were firmly established. The supreme governing body was the annual RILU Congress. Between congresses an executive bureau, consisting of representatives of the various national sections, was to decide policy. The RILU failed to organize annual congresses, and only four more occurred between 1922 and 1930. The executive bureau became a deliberate assembly and met only occasionally. The driving force of the organization was its full-time secretariat, notably Russian general secretary Losovsky. In practice the organization became little more than an adjunct of the Comintern.

Failure and Demise

The RILU's optimistic expectations of rapid communist advance were soon confounded by the partial stabilization of the European economy, the ebbing of working-class struggle, and the continued strength of social democracy. Working-class retreat was symbolized by the failure of the "March Action" in Germany and of the French, Italian, and British communist parties to win mass support. At the Fifth Comintern Congress in 1924, Zinoviev admitted that the RILU had been founded at a time when the movement was on the ascendant and looked as if it could win over the trade unions en masse, whereas in fact the movement had ebbed and developments were much slower than anticipated.

After just one year the RILU claimed a total membership of 17 million worldwide, but this figure failed to distinguish between affiliated unions and revolutionary minorities within the reformist unions and did not account for the continued connection of some individual unions with the Amsterdam International. The RILU was in fact far smaller, with the 6.5 million Russian trade unionists providing a solid core, but with the communists able to bring only party trade union fractions into the new international. Many existing British, German, and French trade unions remained loyal to Amsterdam and, with the exception of France (where the communists set up their own confederation) and Czechoslovakia, the RILU only really succeeded outside western Europe.

The failure of the RILU, however, was also related to the ambiguous nature of its structure. British shop steward leader J. T. Murphy claimed that the slightest suggestion of splitting the trade unions would have denied the effort the support of the labor movement. Yet as other participants pointed out, it proved totally contradictory to work within the Amsterdam unions on a national level, while at the same time attempting to split them from Amsterdam in favor of an alternative revolutionary trade union body based in Moscow on an international level. Ironically, as soon as the RILU was founded, the Comintern, faced with the decline in revolutionary struggle, adopted new "united front" tactics that required it to cooperate with the very body that it had been set up to destroy. From November 1922 to 1927, the communists unsuccessfully attempted to bring about a merger of the RILU and the Amsterdam International before pushing it into a disastrous Stalin-inspired ultraleft phase between 1928 and 1934, and then finally dissolving the discredited international in 1937.

Key Players

Lozovsky, Solomon (1878-1952): Dissident Bolshevik starting in 1903, Lozovsky played an important part in the Soviet trade unions and was general secretary of the RILU from its inception in 1920 to its dissolution in 1937. He was a prolific orator and pamphleteer and author of Marx and the Trade Unions (1935). In 1949 he was arrested and died in a prison camp.

Mann, Tom (1856-1941): British trade union organizer and leader of the prewar Industrial Syndicalist Education League, Mann became a founding member of the Communist Party and chairman of the British Bureau of the RILU.

Murphy, J. T. (1888-1965): Wartime shop stewards' leader and founding member of the British Communist Party, Murphy was a key figure on the International Trade Union Council that set up the RILU. Murphy was later elected to the executive committee of the Comintern but was expelled from the Communist Party in 1932.

Rosmer, Alfred (1877-1964): A French revolutionary syndicalist, Rosmer played a leading role in Moscow establishing the RILU and winning other syndicalists to the Comintern. He was appointed to the leadership of the French Communist Party in 1921 but was expelled after becoming a supporter of Trostky's Left Opposition.

Zinoviev, Grigory (1883-1936): One of Lenin's closest Bolshevik Party collaborators from 1903 until 1917, he became president of the Communist International. In 1923 he joined with Stalin and Kamenev against Trotsky; in 1925 he broke with Stalin and formed the Joint Opposition with Trotsky, and in 1927 Zinoviev capitulated to Stalin but was one of the main defendants in the 1935 show trial, after which he was shot.

See also: First International; Industrial Workers of the World; International Federation of Trade Unions; Russian Revolutions; Second International.



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Constitution of the Red International of Labour Unions, Adopted at the First World Congress Held in Moscow, July 1921. Moscow, 1921.

Murphy, J. T. The "Reds" in Congress: Preliminary Report of the First World Congress of the Red International of Trade and Industrial Unions. (Pamphlet.) London: British Bureau of RILU, 1921.

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Additional Resources


Adibekow, G. M. Die Rote Gewerkschafts-International:Grunriss der Geschichte der RGI. Berlin: Tribune, 1973.

Broué, P. Historie de l'Internationale Communiste,1919-1843. Paris: Fayard, 1997.

Resis, A. "Comintern Policy Towards the World Trade Union Movement: The First Year." In Essays in Russian and Soviet History, edited by J. S. Curtiss. New York: Columbia University Press, 1963.

Sworakowski, W. S. The Communist International and Its Front Organisations: A Research Guide and Checklist of Holdings in American and European0Libraries. Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution, 1965.


Manifesto of the Provisional International Council of Trade and Industrial Unions to the Organised Workers of Great Britain, January 1921 (signed by M. Tomsky, A. Rosmer and J. T. Murphy). London: British Bureau of the Provisional International of Trade and Industrial Unions, 1921.

Murphy, J. T. Stop the Retreat! An Appeal to Trade Unionists. (Pamphlet.) London: Red International of Labour Unions, 1922.

Second World Congress: Resolutions and Decisions 19November to 2 December 1922. London: Red International of Labour Unions, 1923.

The Tasks of the International Trade Union Movement:Resolutions and Decisions of the Third World Congress of the RILU, Moscow, July 1924. London: National Minority Movement, 1924.

Williams, G. The First Congress of the Red Trades Union International at Moscow. (Pamphlet.) Chicago: Industrial Workers of the World, 1922.

—Ralph Darlington