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Joe Knight Speech to the Comintern, 1921

In 1921, Ella Reeve Bloor, a leader of the U.S. communist movement, traveled to Winnipeg to persuade R.B. Russell, the leader of the One Big Union to attend the first Congress of the Red International of Labor Unions, but Russell declined. Bloor then went to Toronto and convinced Joe Knight, who was the OBU's main organizer in Ontario and a sympathizer of the underground communist movement in Canada, to attend.

He traveled to Moscow with the U.S. delegation, and attended sessions of both the Third Congress of the Communist International and the founding Congress of the RILU (also knows as Profintern, the Russian abbreviation). He appears in the Congress proceedings under the pseudonym "Morgan."

The International’s leadership had proposed to the congress that Communists should seek to take part in major established trade unions, even if their leadership was in the hands of pro-capitalist officials. During the congress debate on this point, a number of delegates, including the renowned U.S. Communist Bill Haywood, questioned this view, counterposing an orientation to smaller unions such as the U.S.-based Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), that attempted to present a revolutionary trade union alternative.

Knight’s speech to the congress took place on July 7, 1921, the day after Haywood’s remarks. After criticizing Haywood for giving a false picture of the IWW, Knight argued that the Winnipeg general strike experience confirmed the correctness of the Communist International leadership’s proposals for trade union work.

Knight’s remarks, presented here for the first time in English, are translated from the German stenographic transcript published in Protokoll des III. Weltkongresses der Kommunistischen Internationale, Hamburg: Verlag der Kommunistischen Internationale, 1921, vol. 2, pp. 850-855.  The translation is by John Riddell.

Comrades, the Third Communist International’s relationship to the trade union movement has particular significance for both the union and Communist movements in the United States and Canada. The truth is that there is no workers’ movement in these countries capable of pulling the revolutionary masses along with it. Let me remind you of the facts presented by Comrade Haywood in his talk – facts that are full of meaning. It must be brought home to those who are struggling against this illusion, it must be explained to them that the organization portrayed to you claims to be a workers’ organization not only of the United States but of the entire world and is proclaimed as a workers’ organization to the four corners of the world.

You should give no credence to Haywood, when he presents such hollow formulations from the platform of the Third Congress. Such empty advertisements for the IWW in the United States have caused us considerable damage. The organization has claimed that it has 800,000 members. That sounds so grand: 800,000 members and 15 years of activity! And yet the most recent reports of this organization informs us that they have no more than 15,000-16,000 members. I suggest that members of the KAPD study the history of the IWW in the United States very closely. This will give them a picture of what the future holds in store for them.

The attempt to found an ideal industrial organization in the framework of a system of slavery is in itself childish and absurd. This is shown by the fact that all previous attempts to do this have failed. Is it not somehow preposterous to try to establish a new society in the “shell of the old”? I recently saw an interesting picture in one of their publications. It was a map of the IWW’s affiliates. They were displayed on a map of the world in such a fashion that the centre was located in New York, and there we had the Industrial Workers of the World. As I looked at it, I thought,   who should sit in the middle of this?  Either Daniel de Leon or William Haywood. The United States and Canada are flooded with the pictures, cards, and drawings from the IWW. But the key slogan of their propaganda is not “overthrow capitalism” but “admire the perfection of our organizational forms.” That is the full and indisputable truth.

Here is a copy of an official IWW publication, from which I will read you the following passage: “The IWW has not yet been able to establish direct contact with the Russian unions. Nonetheless, we are convinced that not a single voice will be raised against joining such a trade union International. On the other hand, however, we believe that only a very few IWW members will be prepared to adhere directly to the political Third International.” Quite true. “We have always been just a workers’ organization. We still are, and hope to solve the entire social problem on the basis of industrial unionism. We want to build industrial federations as instruments for production and distribution. The central councils of these federations will serve as agencies for local and regional administration. Industrial federations and central councils must be subordinate to the overall administration of the IWW. That is how we propose to solve social problems. The moment that we include a political party in our program, whether it is communist or not, we deviate from our principles and destroy our own independence. If we accept the proposal of the Third International, we give up our leadership position in the world workers’ movement, and accept as our masters and leaders the members of a political party who have been recruited from all layers of society. The Industrial Workers of the World have tasted the fruits of intellectual independence and now feel themselves to be masters of their own fate. They will never enter into such a proposal in earnest. Their goal is to achieve workers’ rule. For 15 years they have strived for this and have now become a world movement. They will hardly agree to a program that puts them under the tutelage of a political party.”

This excerpt is from an official publication of the Industrial Workers of the World. As you see, they fear the Third International because it challenges the IWW’s claim to world leadership. “World leadership” – with a membership of 15,000-16,000.

Let us take the main principle on which the IWW rests – quitting the old union federations. Based on my experience, I can speak of this with some authority. Someone or another may well say: “You yourself belong to a dual union. You belong to the One Big Union in Canada.” That is true. I belong to this union, which does not compete with the IWW. However, the One Big Union does not presume to be a world organization. It sees itself only as a revolutionary conduit. It was born out of specific conditions, and we had no choice in the matter.

From the very beginning of the war, in 1914-15, the workers of Canada workers were driven into a corner not only by their government, but by their own reactionary officialdom. They were sacrificed to the military machine. What was the situation of the Socialist Party, the only revolutionary party in America at that time? It either had to go into the trade unions and participate in the struggles of the workers there, or it had to try to continue its old educational and propaganda activity, at the risk of going under without having fulfilled its historic revolutionary role. So under the pressure of circumstances we joined the unions of western Canadian. Revolutionaries did not go into the trade unions as individuals in order to bore from within. They did not give up their individuality in order to gain a good position. To some degree they were disciplined by the organization, which supervised its members.

From Vancouver to Winnipeg, a span of 2,000 miles, revolutionaries conducted continuous correspondence regarding policy. They discussed how to build the union, win over the masses, and elect delegates to congresses and conferences. Thanks to the tactic of “boring from within,” the socialists were present at the Ottawa congress of 1917 with 51 delegates, which represented a powerful fraction. That moment marked the beginning of a new epoch for the Canadian movement.

What was the outcome of this policy? Here certain opponents will take the floor and call out, “You should not agree to compromises.” But what really happened? We had gained control of the council, that is, the old Winnipeg trade union council. The various trade unions had elected Socialists as delegates, who actively defended the workers’ interests. They were revolutionaries. They did not limit themselves to the parliamentary struggle. Their goal was rather to utilize the movement for revolutionary ends.

Then came the strike, or as some here have put it, the “collective bargaining of the workers with the employers.” Some “collective bargaining”! The whole Winnipeg strike was actually a matter of tactics and revolution. We used something as commonplace as collective bargaining to unite the workers. The metalworkers went on strike to obtain better conditions. The employers wanted to negotiate only with individual groups, like the lead workers, the sewer workers, the boilermakers, and so on. But the metalworkers said, “No, we are going to unite. We will form a committee, and you will have to negotiate with us collectively.”

The comrades from the council immediately seized the opportunity. “Collective bargaining on such a small scale? No. We must involve all the workers in the region into the metalworkers’ struggle.” Their work was so outstanding, they succeeded so splendidly in forging the workers’ unity, that the Winnipeg strike of 1919 has become a milestone in the history of the American workers’ movement. The meaning of the strike was understood by not only two or three but by all unions. All the workers joined the strike, even the civil servants and the postal and telegraph employees. They all participated in the big general rally and in the strike, which lasted seven weeks. A situation was created in which we were only one step away from taking power. Nothing was done in Winnipeg except by order of the strike committee, which was no less powerful than the state itself. Of course, Winnipeg is not the same thing as Canada as a whole. But had the struggle in Winnipeg gripped all of Canada, we would certainly have had a revolution. We had a reactionary state against us, and the masses did not follow us. The strike had to be broken off after most of our people had been thrown in jail.

I ask you – do you not think that the policies of the Winnipeg revolutionaries were correct? We had control of the organization. And if you have not succeeded in achieving this, you should blame the principles, or the rigidity of the organization, or the functionaries, but only yourselves for not having found the right way to link up with the workers. That is my experience. I am sharing it with you Communists and trade unionists so you can benefit from it in the future.

Let me add just one thing. There is also the matter of the supremacy of the Communist party, which is feared by some. What nonsense! How do Communists propose to take command of the unions? Can they perhaps go to the trade unions and say, “We have come in order to dominate you”?

No. We must work from within, take part in their struggles, win their trust, and then try to get elected by them to the most important posts in the revolutionary movement. So I completely agree that we must go into the trade unions. I would add that we in the trade unions must maintain as close a connection with the Communist party as possible, because its goal is not to be active as a political/industrial organization, but rather to build a unified, great revolutionary army of the workers of the world to overthrow capitalism.

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