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The Red International of Labour Unions (RILU)

April 5, 2021

A Survey of Comintern Auxiliary Organizations, Part 2

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By John Riddell: “In the 1920s, the Red International of Labour Unions was by far the most powerful and important of the auxiliary organizations related to the Comintern,” according to its historian, Reiner Tosstorff.[1] E.H. Carr goes further, suggesting that the Red International “sometimes seemed to rival the Communist International itself in importance.”[2]

The Red Trade Union International, often referred to by both the acronym RILU or the Russian short form, Profintern, unified several distinct threads of the pre-1917 labour movement. RILU sought to incorporate three revolutionary traditions: revolutionary anarcho-syndicalism, revolutionary oppositionists in the pro-Social Democratic unions, and the trade-union expression of anti-colonial freedom movements.

Survey of Comintern Auxiliary Organizations: Contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Red International of Labour Unions (RILU or Profintern).
  3. Communist Youth International (KIM)
  4. Communist Women’s Movement
  5. International Workers’ Relief (MRP)
  6. International Red Aid (MOPR)
  7. Communist Work in Cooperatives
  8. Red Sport International (Sportintern)
  9. Peasant International (Krestintern)

The most authoritative syndicalist currents invited to join RILU were the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), based in the U.S. but with branches in other English-speaking countries; the revolutionary syndicalists who would soon form the Unitary General Confederation of Labor (CGTU) in France; and the National Confederation of Labor (CNT) in Spain. The IWW never joined RILU, but a large body of syndicalists in France, Spain, and other countries did so.

RILU appealed to militant rank-and-file formations, notably the Shop Stewards movement in both Britain and Germany, which led workers’ resistance during the war to the pro-war and pro-government policies of the trade union leadership and, after 1917, defended the newly founded Soviet republic in Russia.

The revolutionary syndicalist forces, while generally supportive of the Russian Soviet Republic, held two distinctive positions that conflicted with the outlook of the Comintern leadership: they insisted on their unions’ total independence from political parties and political action; and they rejected participation in the unions led by reformist Social Democratic forces.

These issues were debated at the second Comintern world congress in Moscow in 1920 during 30 hours of trade union commission sessions and a full day of plenary debate. Comintern leadership proposals encountered what the International’s president Grigorii Zinoviev referred to as a “most vexatious resistance.” At one point, Jack Tanner of the British Shop Stewards movement announced that delegates from Britain were walking out of the commission. Eight of the 66 congress delegates in the commission voted against the trade union theses that were ultimately adopted.

Still, enough agreement was achieved to permit almost all the unionists who took part in the debate to work together in a common framework. This partial accord found expression in a gathering of participating trade unionists held parallel to the July 1920 Comintern congress. The conference founded the International Council of Trade Unions (Mezhsovprof), launched as a preliminary formation serving to clear the way for formation of a trade-union International.[3]

The diverse currents in the international union council agreed in their opposition to the reformist-led International Federation of Trade Unions (IFTU), the predominant world trade union body at that time. Revolutionary unionists referred to the IFTU, after its place of formation, as the “Amsterdam International.” The union council condemned the Amsterdam federation for its close links to the imperialist-dominated League of Nations and the League-sponsored International Labour Organization.

A year after the union council’s formation, the Comintern Executive Committee urged unionists to attend a world congress of revolutionary trade unionists, which convened in Moscow on 3 July 1921. The 380 delegates at the congress, said to represent some 15 million members, launched RILU, the new revolutionary trade union International, as a revolutionary alternative to the Amsterdam federation. RILU was organically linked to the Comintern through exchange of delegates and joint sessions at the leadership level.

Where the Amsterdam-affiliated national unions were predominant, RILU urged its supporters to join them and work as a disciplined force (“fraction”) within them, while maintaining their ties with the Moscow-based union International. Pro-Amsterdam union leaders saw such conduct as a threat to their control and took action against RILU activists within their unions’ ranks, expelling a considerable number. These measures further embittered relations between the two union Internationals.

The apparent contradiction between opposing the Amsterdam federation while working with its member unions sparked discord even among Comintern-affiliated unionists, particularly as the Comintern in 1921 moved toward a “united front” policy of seeking unity in action with reformist-led workers’ organizations.

An influential current in the German Communist movement, inspired by Paul Levi, suggested that RILU dissolve, but the Comintern firmly rejected that option. Instead, RILU developed a flexible orientation, functioning sometimes as a minority current within pro-Amsterdam unions, sometimes as the union majority, and sometimes as the leadership of national labour confederations. RILU also sought to maintain a foothold in the Amsterdam-aligned industrial secretariats.[4]

At both the Fourth Comintern Congress and the Second RILU Congress in 1922, it was decided to drop the term “organic link” with reference to the Comintern–RILU relationship, in order to smooth the road to affiliation of the mass French syndicalist federation (CGTU). RILU’s independence was affirmed, but its informal collaboration with the Comintern remained close.

Meanwhile, the union movement in the early 1920s slipped into crisis as a result of declining membership and the capitalist offensive against basic working-class interests. In 1923, a left wing within the Amsterdam federation found common ground with the Soviet Russian unions and through them with RILU.

RILU went on to win significant support in the colonial and semi-colonial countries, an arena that the pro-Amsterdam union bureaucracy grouped around the IFTU had largely ignored.[5]

Abrupt Reversals

In 1928, the Comintern’s Sixth World Congress adopted a disastrous ultraleft course. Communists in each country were directed to break with the Amsterdam-affiliated unions in each country and organize independent revolutionary unions. This policy was formally abandoned seven years later, when the Comintern’s Seventh World Congress adopted the “Popular Front” orientation.

The Seventh Congress policy set aside the goal of revolutionary workers’ and peasants’ governments and sought to form alliances with Social Democratic and progressive bourgeois formations in imperialist countries, with the hope of unification of the two union Internationals. The “red” trade unions were closed down. But a return to the pre-1928 policies, with their provocative combination of hostility to Amsterdam and support of its affiliates, was now seen as insufficient. The Comintern leadership sought a reconciliation with Amsterdam, and RILU stood as an obstacle to that goal.

Already in early 1936, Comintern General Secretary Georgi Dimitrov talked openly of the possible need to dissolve RILU. The Comintern Executive Committee took the matter in hand and began to dismantle the supposedly independent RILU – secretly, since it had no statutory right to do so. Formal dissolution followed in December 1937.[6]

A volume of annotated documents of the Red Trade Union International is in preparation as part of the Comintern Publication Project. The Founding of the Red Trade Union International: Proceedings and Resolutions of the First Congress, 1921, edited by Mike Taber, is targeted for publication in 2022.


[1]. Reiner Tosstorff, Profintern: Die Rote Gewerkschaftsinternationale 1920–1937, Paderborn: Schöningh, 2004, p. 13. For the English translation, see Tosstorff, The Red International of Labour Unions 1920–1937, translated by Ben Fowkes, available from Haymarket Books.

[2]. E.H. Carr, Socialism in One Country, 1924–25, Harmondsworth: Pelican, 1972, vol. 3, p. 974.

[3]. John Riddell, ed., Workers of the World and Oppressed Peoples, Unite, New York: Pathfinder, 1991, vol. 1, p. 49.

[4]. Mike Taber, ed., The Communist Movement at a Crossroads, Plenums of the Communist International’s Executive Committee, 1922–1923, Leiden: Brill, 2018, pp. 226–8.

[5]. See Daniel Gaido, “The Red International of Trade Unions (RILU),” in Science and Society, vol. 85, no. 1 (January 2021), pp. 136–8.

[6]. Tosstorff, Profintern, pp. 696–707.

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