The backbone of Leninist organization: workplace cells

Alpaslan Savaş

The struggle between capital and labor has been going on for more than two centuries. We know that throughout this long history both social classes have taken many crucial lessons, the most important of which is about organization. As long as the working class has a strong organization, it managed to push the capitalist back. On the contrary, as the bourgeoisie succeeded in keeping its antithetical class disorganized, it managed to become a force.

Being the space where capitalist exploitation takes place, workplaces have been the domain where this paradigm has made its appearance felt in the strongest sense. Today, capitalism has managed to reorganize workplaces as spaces where the disorganization of workers is assured. And how did it manage to do that? Through various measures including the technical organization of work, establishing competitive relations between workers, control of the outcomes of production activities and provision of services, paving the way for the organization of nationalist/conservative ideologies among workers, etc.

However, workers have conventionally been the strongest at places of production and service provision. They used to share their problems with their co-workers, act together to solve their grievances or make new gains. The organization of workers at the workplace had brought many gains such as the eight-hour working day, unionization, right to paid leave, wage bargaining, etc.

But today, workplaces have become the bastions of the capitalists. If the communist movement would ever put an end to the disorganization of the working class, it must liberate workplaces from being spaces where the capitalists have a free hand.

The preparation for the Revolution

The argument claiming that organization of the working class at workplaces is limited to economic struggle has been refuted again and again within the course of class struggles. History is full of defeats suffered by the social class which wage a fight to settle for something less than the political power in pitched battles. It is sufficient to recall the several years after the October Revolution to see that. In crushing the 1918 German Revolution, the bourgeoisie took advantage of not only the betrayal of social democracy, but also the lack of a revolutionary vanguard that would organize the working class at workplaces and spread such organization throughout the country. Likewise, the industrial workers’ strike in France in 1919, the big miners’ strike in Britain in 1921 and the occupation of factories in Italy in 1920 ended up in similar defeats. The storm of the October Revolution was not enough for the working class to overthrow the bourgeoisie in the homeland of capitalism. It was evident that there were other requirements for a revolution in Europe:

The first stage of the postwar revolutionary movement is coming to an end to a large extent. The revolution is proceeding, but not along a straight line. The current task is to continue the fundamental preparation for the revolution.[1]

Lenin was addressing the communist parties at the Third International Congress of the Comintern in 1921, underlining the need to prepare for the revolution. At the same congress, the Comintern put forth how preparation for the revolution should be done. At the Congress where all parties were called for Bolshevization, reorganization of parties on the basis of workplace cells was referred to as an element of Bolshevization.

Bolshevism, not trade unionism! From the very beginning in Russia and from the moment right after the revolution started to retreat in Europe, the response of the communists to the problem of working-class organization at workplaces was crystal clear.

Trade unionism was the response of the bourgeoisie and its addressee was the Second International. The disengagement of Lenin and his comrades from the Second International, which had transformed trade unions, cooperatives and workers’ parties into huge mass organizations, at early 1900s was not a coincidence. The Second International was degenerated as it made compromises with the bourgeoisie in all aspects, became its tool against the working class, and destroyed itself by approving the war budgets of bourgeois governments in 1914. Until the time when the bourgeoisie called it for duty once again as the thunderclouds of a European revolution piled up after the October Revolution…

The bourgeoisie was scared of Bolshevism to death. It failed to find a solution to that menace. Besides, the fear of death propagated not only in Russia, but all-around Europe, even the world. Bolshevism became materialized as a world communist party in the Third International.

Bolsheviks and Bolshevism

In order to fully understand the Comintern’s insistence on Bolshevization and workplace-based organization as an element of it, we should take a closer look at the organizational practices of the Bolshevik Party. In Russia, the Bolsheviks tried to organize their main cells at workplaces – in factories, workshops, farms, naval ships, etc. – in almost all periods. Even though the Bolshevik Party was small in size, this practice enabled them to establish direct contact and closer ties with the proletariat compared to the Mensheviks.

In Czarist Russia the cells ... utilised all the grievances in the factories; the gruffness of the foremen, deductions from wages, fines, the failure to provide medical aid in accidents, etc., for oral agitation at the bench, through leaflets, meetings at the factory gates or in the factory yards, and separate meetings of the more class-conscious and revolutionary workers.[2]

It is evident that the Bolsheviks tried to utilize all grievances at shop-floor level to organize the workers. They employed work-related problems such as low wages, fines, occupational accidents, etc. as tools to get in contact with and organize workers.

But organization for what?

The Bolsheviks always showed the connection between the maltreatment of factories, and the rule of the autocracy ... At the same time the autocracy was connected up in the agitation of the party cells with the capitalist system, so that at the very beginning of the development of the labour movement the Bolsheviks established a connection between the economic struggle and the political.[3]

In this manner, the Bolsheviks have rendered workplaces domains of political struggle and as well as one-to-one or en masse organization.

We know that the Leninist answer to the question of how to fill the void between current and historical interests of the working class is the “theory of the vanguard party”. The Bolshevik workplace organization was the practical manifestation of this theoretical answer.

And this was a colossal preparation for the revolution. At its preparatory stage, the Bolshevik Party worked patiently through meetings, rallies, speeches delivered during meal breaks, distributing copies of Iskra between benches, etc.

The insistence of the Comintern

It is an indisputable fact that Lenin was the most brilliant political genius of the era. However, he was also one of the greatest organizers of all times. At the Third Congress of the Comintern, where he highlighted that “the current task is to get prepared for the revolution”, Lenin told the communist parties that the preparation he was talking about was “factory-based organization”. The Comintern turned Lenin’s appeal into a resolution under the slogan “to the masses”.

Unfortunately, we cannot say that the resolution was implemented with the same zeal. Only three years later, in its Fifth Congress, the Comintern managed to put the resolution on its main agenda once again.

Three years was a rather long time for going into action in early 1920s. Class struggles were arduous, and compared to other periods, the cost of any delay was quite large for the delayed party, for the capitalist class was taking swift measures against the October Revolution everywhere, particularly in Europe.

In its Fifth Congress in 1924, the Comintern once again brought up the issue of Bolshevization – the transformation of communist parties on the basis of workplace cells as an element of Bolshevization – and the implementation of widespread organization policies under the slogan “to the masses” without delay. However, the given situation in class struggles was rather different compared to the immediate aftermath of the October Revolution. At the same Congress, the Comintern defined the objective conditions of capitalism as “partial, relative and transitory stability”. In fact, this definition was confirmed in a short while. Within periods of five years each, first, the economic crisis that shook the world and second, the political crisis that ended up in a new world war erupted. Hence, the importance of the “preparatory period” pointed out by Lenin was revealed. The major earthquake of capitalism was approaching and communists all around the world were, on the one hand, equipping their parties, and on the other hand, launched a crucial breakthrough at workplaces, within the working class.

Seeping into the working class

From early 1920s until its last congress in 1936, the Comintern never backed down from its insistence on Bolshevization and organization on the basis of workplace cells as a major element of it. Many written and practical works on this subject were produced.

The Congress in which the issue became central approved the “Motion for a Resolution on the Organization of Factory Cells” drafted by the Executive Committee of the Communist International (ECCI) a few months ago.[4]

The organization of the party must be adapted to the conditions and purposes of its activity. (…) The final goal of our party is the overthrow of bourgeois rule, the conquest of power by the working class, the attainment of communism. Its immediate task is to win over the majority of the working class by active participation in the daily struggle of the working masses and the leadership of that struggle. This can be accomplished only by the closest association of our party organization with the working masses in the factories.[5]

The goal was quite straightforward: ensuring the party to establish the closest connections possible with, and to penetrate into and increase its influence among the working class. The Comintern did not design a model, but rather proposed the parties to reorganize themselves according to this goal.

As a matter of fact, the same motion for resolution also stated that even though the decision to render workplace cells the fundamental structure of communist parties had been made in the Third Congress, the decision could not be put into effect in most of the sections. Furthermore, the reason why German Revolution suffered a blow in 1923 once again after the defeat of 1918 was mainly associated with this fact:

The experience of the German revolution (end of 1923) has, however, shown most clearly that, in the absence of cells based on the factories and of close connections with the working masses, the latter cannot be drawn into the struggle and led, their moods cannot be rightly appraised, the moment most favourable to us cannot be exploited, nor victory won over the bourgeoisie.[6]

I already mentioned that the Bolsheviks had been there, within the social class that they would lead. The Comintern advised communist parties to do what communists in Russia had done, to seep into, to settle within the class:

13. The primary organization of the party, its foundation, is the factory cell (in factory, mine, workshop, office, etc.), to which all party members working at that place must belong.... It must have at least three members.

14. In factories in which there are only one or two party members, they shall be attached to the nearest factory cell…. Note: Party members who do not work in a factory, etc. shall, as a rule, be attached to factory cells in their neighbourhood; otherwise they form street cells.

15. The cell is the organization which connects the party with the workers and small peasants. The functions of the cell are to carry out party work among the nonparty working masses by means of systematic communist agitation and propaganda: to recruit new members, distribute party literature, issue a factory newspaper, conduct cultural and educational work among the party members and workers in the factory, to work persistently and uninterruptedly to win all official positions in the factory, to intervene in all industrial conflicts and demands by the employees, to explain them from the standpoint of the revolutionary class struggle, to win the leadership in all struggles of the employees by persistent and unflagging work.

16. To conduct its current work the cell elects a committee, consisting of three to five members…. The committee is responsible for the work of the cell.[7]

The decisions cited above were drafted by the Organization Department of the ECCI in January 1925, immediately after the Fifth Congress which reiterated the call for Bolshevization. They were approved in April and published a month later. In the report drawn up to be submitted to the Sixth Congress, we read the following note on the implementation of these decisions:

The ECCI report to the sixth Comintern congress stated that from the middle of 1925 the sections had begun to revise their statutes under the guidance of the organization department. A great deal of resistance had been encountered, but for most European countries the work had been completed. In the colonial and Latin American countries, it had only just begun.[8]

Apparently, it was not easy. They have maintained their efforts persistently and patiently.

After the Fifth Congress, the Comintern have made assessments on the organization of communist parties on the basis of workplace cells for several times. They tried to identify the achievements, shortcomings and requirements. An assessment made at the Tenth ECCI meeting held in 1929 provided striking findings on the point where communist parties had reached in terms of forming workplace cells at a time when capitalism was going through a deep economic and political crisis. Along with proposals on remedies to be pursued, these findings provided the basis of a circular which was published in December 1930. The circular listed the most important shortcomings in the workplace-cell work as follows:

1. There are very few factory cells….

2. The majority of existing factory cells are concentrated in small-scale plants. There are very few in large plants, and these are as a rule numerically weak and politically with little influence.

3. Existing factory cells are as a rule not active enough and have no contact with the daily life of the factories.

4. Among the workers who are party members there is a strong tendency to evade factory-cell work, and consequently not all of them belong to the factory cell. The Czechoslovak CP, for example, stated that on 1 July 1930, 57 per cent of its members were industrial workers, but only 14 per cent were organized in factory cells. (…)

6. The work of the factory cells is very bad, and frequently completely disconnected from the work of the party as a whole, in consequence of the inadequate attention paid to factory-cell work by the leading party bodies.[9]

The circular also established that workplace cells were not associated sufficiently with the central political agenda of the party and highlighted the potential problems this may create:

In the big political campaigns conducted by the party, the factory cells as a rule take only a very minor part, sometimes none at all. Usually political campaigns are run in the old way, repeatedly condemned by the Communist International, inherited from the social-democratic parties—general agitation, popular meetings, participation by members in their home area but not where they work; the driving forces in the campaign are still the central party press and agitators sent out by the party centre. ... It is said that the weakness of the factory cells makes it impossible to organize campaigns around them. … This means that in practice nothing is done to reorganize the party on a factory-cell basis, and that the party is not in a position to bring our slogans to the masses of workers and to expose the treacherous and counter-revolutionary work of the social-democrats, the reformists, and the fascists....[10]

The Comintern underlined that not only the establishment of workplace cells, but also their ability to take part in the political work of the party was essential. Besides, the hostile forces were not simply sitting back and doing nothing; fascism was propagating within the working class like a tumor. In fact, the Comintern was echoing a simple rule: “if you are not organized, the opposite party is.” It was evident that time was running out and the Comintern urged the party central committees to take measures:

The central committees of the communist parties must take every measure to see that the entire system of party leadership must be turned to face the factories. Above all the entire party press must be recast for this purpose. … Articles must be written in simple language, so that the average workman, including the non-political workman, still unaccustomed to specific political expressions and formulations, can understand them. ... In addition to articles of a general character, party newspapers must carry a great many letters from different districts and factories.[11]

It was underlined that cells must be supported in order to achieve the desired effectiveness at their respective workplaces. In this respect, the Comintern summoned the party committees to take the lead within the party organization:

Factory cells can grow stronger and become the decisive party units only if the party committees which guide their work give them constant daily help. … Instead of the present bureaucratic contact, maintained by circulars, the party committees must establish direct and lively contact with the factories and factory cells.[12]

The Comintern also pointed to the difficulties encountered in forming workplace cells. It stated that, in practice, the gravest difficulties were experienced at workplaces where no party members or only one or two members exist, and put forward various proposals to overcome these problems:

Help in forming factory cells should be given by the street cells in the neighbourhood of the factory concerned. The street-cell members should make contact with the factory workers, wait for them when they leave the factory, or catch them on their way to work, make their acquaintance in the local public-houses, or call on them in their homes. […]

Once contact has been established, by these or other means, with three to five workers in the factory, they must be immediately organized into a factory cell. However weak numerically the cell may be, it must at once set energetically about establishing further contacts and recruiting new members into the ranks of the communist party, and do its best to establish connections with departments of the factory where there are not yet party members. The party committee must pay most careful attention to this work and must give unceasing help to the comrades in correcting their mistakes and if necessary sending in some officials to help them in their work…[13]

Several methods to spread through the workplace were also addressed. The Comintern’s proposals in this respect are actually nothing short of a course in organization:

A party member cannot be active in the factory as a whole, but only in one shift in one shop. … He must first find out all about the workers in his shift, whether there are any party members or sympathizers there . . . and with them create the core of the workshop party cell. With this basis established, they must ascertain the political colouring of their workmates, which of them are members of reformist unions, of the social-democratic party, of fascist organizations, etc. This knowledge is absolutely essential for every party member. When they are doing their party work in the shop, party members must first of all, naturally, establish contact with revolutionary-minded non-party workers, and also try to approach revolutionary-minded members of reformist unions and of the social-democratic party, and also individual fascist workers…[14]

Risks that may arise while carrying out organizational work were called to attention. Recommendations pertaining to the persistence and security of the organization were made:

In all capitalist countries the factory cell can operate only as a conspirative organization. Consequently, its work, and the work of each member, must be conducted in such a way that the various police agents in the factory should as far as possible be unable to find out which of the workers are communists, and should in no case learn about the practical work done by the communist party, about its political propaganda and agitation among the factory workers, and the organizational consolidation of its influence in the factory. In its work, therefore, the factory cell must strictly observe the primary conspirative rules. This applies both to illegal and to legal communist parties.[15]

However, it was reminded that security concerns would never be allowed to lead to a break from the workers at the workplace:

When instructing the cells in conspirative methods, party committees must at the same time explain that these rules should in no circumstances be applied in a way that cuts the cell off from the masses in the factory; that, while adopting conspiratorial methods in regard to the police and their agents, they must always make the workers aware of their existence, employing such means as leaflets and factory news-sheets, holding meetings, etc. The most important duty of a factory cell is to react immediately to every event in the factory and in the country, to issue appropriate slogans in the name of the party for organizing and conducting the struggle for working-class interests...[16]

After this circular was issued in 1930, workplace cells were again on the main agenda of the eleventh meeting of the ECCI held in 1931. Not only recommendations, but also methods to overcome these difficulties were discussed and the resulting practices were evaluated.

The Comintern did not become disinterested on the issue in subsequent years; it always maintained its determination that communist parties should be organized on the basis of workplace cells. As of late 1920s, many communist parties have made significant organizational achievements among the working class due to the Comintern’s persistence. Throughout Europe, tens of thousands of workers at thousands of workplaces have become acquainted with communist parties.


Today, we may not be living in a world where the Comintern provides guidance to the communist movement. But communist parties must be as persistent as the Comintern to take root among the working class and to get organized/form organizations at workplaces to this end. Thus, the discussions held by the international communist movement in 1920s and the resulting practices maintain their currency.

Besides, we should also take note of developments which render organization based on workplace cells necessary and enhance its opportunities today compared to 1920s. We may point out the following issues:

The level of proletarianization has increased. One aspect of this development is the quantitative increase in the working class. Compared to 1920s, wage-earners constitute a far greater portion of the society.

In line with the increase in the quantity of wage-earners, the number of spaces where they exist, i.e. workplaces, has proliferated. During 19th and 20th centuries, for communist parties, the definition of a workplace was mainly limited to factories where mass production techniques were employed. Today, on the contrary, in addition to factories engaged in mass production, scores of workers are employed at places where services are provided. Similarly, the number of small businesses has increased considerably.

Working hours have been extended. The workers spend more time at their workplaces today. Flexible work does not shorten this time.

The interventions of the bourgeois state to the working-class movement have been diversified. Trade unions are one of the objects of these interventions. The main logic of intervention is to keep the rate of unionized workers as low as possible (deunionization) and to bring trade unions under the control of the state or capitalist organizations. Today, international trade union movement has been brought under the control of international monopolies through GUFs (Global Union Federations), having a stance that is even worse than IInd International’s collaborationism.

Turkey is among the countries which has experienced one of the harshest interventions in this respect. Through this intervention, which started with the banning of revolutionary unions after the fascist coup of September 12 (1980) and sustained by the policies of AKP governments, the majority of unions has been brought under the direct control of the opposing class. In most of the major industries, workers are also waging a struggle against these unions in order to claim their rights.

Yet, the union movement maintains its importance both in the world as well as in Turkey. It is crucial to organize the class-oriented union movement represented by WFTU at the national scale. The need for class-oriented unions in Turkey has been increasing every passing day. In order to create progressive examples among unions, the communist movement must reinforce workplace organizations.

Communist Party of Turkey has been carrying out its efforts to strengthen its workplace organizations mainly based on this perspective. Let us conclude with several examples of the TKP’s efforts to organize workplace cells in various branches of the industry and services:

We are talking about tens of sub-sectors and thousands of workplaces which are distributed among industry, service, construction and energy sectors, which have different problems and internal dynamics. This implies a heterogeneous structure that renders employing the same organizational methods and strategies impossible.

1.5 million workers are employed in automotive, iron and steel, machine manufacturing businesses. Workplace cells formed in these businesses, where unionization rates are relatively higher, expand their outreach by taking the problems encountered in their factories, trying to create a workplace committee that includes other workers in the factory where possible. The organizational work of party cells in these factories mainly overlap with the agenda of unionization. In most of these factories, party cells lead the drive for unionization at the workplace. Party cells act according to the nature of the union that exists at the workplace. If the union has a democratic structure that is appropriate to carry out organizational work, the party cell participates in the workplace committee of the union, and if there is no such committee, the party cell tries to create one under the organizational body of the union. If the organization in question is a “yellow” union under the direction of the capitalists, the party cell primarily gets organized while trying to protect itself.

Workplace organizations of party cells in the service sector vary in terms of quality and quantity. For instance, large plazas in various parts of Istanbul are among the targets of party cells. Party cells established to get organized in plazas act among white-collar workers employed in these businesses. Under the leadership of these workplace cells, we have managed to create examples of workplace committees in the main plazas of various banks in the last year.

Moreover, there are companies in the service sector that have offices all over the country. For example, an organizational work which has started with a small number of workers in a retail store chain, eventually managed to become an organization that aims to represent and is capable of addressing all workers employed in the company. They have been carrying out their efforts as part of a solidarity network established by the party based on their demands.

[1] Foster, William Z.; “Üç Enternasyonal Tarihi” (“History of the Three Internationals”), Yazılama Yayınları, November 2011, p.296

[2] Piatnitsky, O., “The Bolshevisation of the Communist Parties by Eradicating the Social-Democratic Traditions”, Communist International Publication, 1934, p.6; cited in Molyneux, John, “Marxism and the Party”, Pluto Press, 1978, available at:

[3] Piatnitsky, ibid., p. 6; cited in Molyneux, J., ibid.

[4] The definition of “factory cells” in Comintern documents can be regarded as synonymous to “workplace cells”, for the documents do not imply only industrial businesses. The second term is preferred in the rest of this article.

[5] Degras, Jane, “The Communist International 1919-1943 Documents”, Volume II (1923-1928), p. 79.

[6] Ibid, p. 80.

[7] Ibid, p. 174.

[8] Ibid, p. 172.

[9] Degras, J.; “The Communist International 1919-1943”, Volume III (1929-1943), pp.143-144

[10] Ibid., p. 144.

[11] Ibid., p. 144.

[12] Ibid., p. 145.

[13] Ibid., pp. 145-146.

[14] Ibid., p. 146.

[15] Ibid., p. 146.

[16] Ibid., p. 147.