August Bebel


The Trade Union Movement

I shall deal with the trade union movement only to the extent that I think I can count myself among those who assisted at its birth. The year 1868 might be called the birth-year of the German trade unions, but with certain restrictions. I have already mentioned the fact that the year of prosperity, 1865, carried in its train a large number of strikes in various cities, most of which failed because the workingmen were not organized and had no funds. Now they were forcibly reminded of the fact that both these things are necessary. A large number of mostly local trade unions were formed, but it was soon recognized that these were not adequate either. Just as the General Association of German Cigar Makers was founded Christmas, 1865, at Fritzsche’s instigation, so in the year 1866 the book printers, who, from the outset, remained strictly neutral towards political labor parties, followed suit. But this did not prevent Richard Haertel from declaring, in a meeting of Berlin printers, in October, 1873: “In his capacity as president of the federation, he considered it best not to join any party formally, but in spirit we belong to the Social-Democratic Party, with the Eisenach program.” Strictly speaking, he could not say so for all printers, for many of them belonged to the General Association of German Workingmen. A union of goldsmiths also existed even before 1868, with its own organ, and so did the General Union of German Tailors. On the whole, little had been done so far by the leaders of the political movement for the organization of trade unions. It was principally Liebknecht who created an understanding for trade union organization by his lectures on English trade unionism in the Leipsic Workingmen’s Educational Club, and in public meetings in that city and others. In May, 1868, we also had discussed the foundation of trade unions at headquarters, but the amount of current business, and, above all, the necessity of creating clearness in the federation by means of a program, prevented us from occupying ourselves immediately with the elaboration of the plan. In the Summer of 1868, Max Hirsch had traveled to England for the purpose of studying the trade unions there, and he published a report on them in the Berlin “Volkszeitung.” This may have induced Schweitzer and Fritzsche to forestall Hirsch, who hoped to attach the workingmen to the Progressive Party by means of trade unions. Both of them now went into action, at the instigation of Fritzsche, as I am inclined to believe, who fully recognized the significance of the trade unions, but who would also have given the new organizations a different form, if he could have had a free hand independently of Schweitzer. The Brunswick members presented the following motion thru Fritzsche, who had instigated it in agreement with Schweitzer and also with the consent of Bracke, at the general convention of the General Association of German Workingmen in Hamburg, on August 25, 1868:

“The general convention declares: (1) Strikes are not a means of altering the foundation of the present mode of production, and thus improving the condition of the working class fundamentally, but they are a means of promoting the class-consciousness of the workingmen, of breaking down police supervision, and, if backed by a proper organization, of eliminating some pressing evils of present society, such as excessive hours of labor, child labor, and the like. (2) The general convention instructs the president of the association to call a general congress of German workingmen for the purpose of founding universal trade unions that shall work to this end.”

The first part of the resolution was adopted, the second was defeated. But, on the other hand, the workingmen’s convention of Nuremberg decided, a few days later, without much debate, to entrust the headquarters with the organization of trade unions. This was the opposite conception of that held by the majority of the General Association of German Workingmen. After that vote in Hamburg, Schweitzer and Fritzsche declared that they would call a workingmen’s congress for the foundation of trade unions in their capacity as Reichstag members. But when opposition made itself heard against this, Schweitzer threatened to resign immediately if instructions were given preventing his doing this, and that he would leave the association. This threat had the desired effect. The congress took place on September 27th, and on the following days, in Berlin. Not less than 206 delegates were present, who had mostly been elected in workingmen’s meetings, and who represented 140,000 workers. The following remarks of Schweitzer, in a speech opening the congress, were significant:

“England is by far the richest country of tie world in the matter of capital, and if the industry of other countries has, nevertheless, mastered the English, it is due to the fact that the English laborers are making so much trouble for their capitalists. That may also be done in Germany, and even more easily. The German workingmen can ruin the German industry altogether, if they want to do so, and they have no interest in maintaining it, so long as they derive but the scantiest wages from it.... [T]he German workingmen, if they are strongly organized, can drive the German industry out of competition, and if the capitalists don’t like that, they may pay higher wages.” This was not a very able argument, but perhaps it was not intended to be.

The congress established so-called workers’ groups, under the control of a central board, composed of Schweitzer, Fritzsche and Karl Klein of Elberfeld, as president and vice-presidents. This organization was not very happily chosen, and was due to Schweitzer, who, under no circumstances, would permit any part of a movement under his influence to have any independence.

Schweitzer, who was very anxious to obtain a favorable answer from Marx for his enterprise, had written a letter to him on September 13th, and inclosed a draft of his constitution. Marx, who had misunderstood the first letter, replied only to a second letter of Schweitzer. The following passages refer to Schweitzer’s organization:

“So far as the Berlin congress was concerned, the time did not press, since the law on coalition had not been passed as yet. You should have conferred with the leaders outside the Lassallean circle and drawn up a common program and called a joint congress. Instead of that, you left no other alternative but to follow you or to take up a position against you. This congress itself seemed but an enlarged edition of the Hamburg congress (the general congress of the General Association of German Workingmen). As for the draft of the constitution, I consider it a failure in the matter of principle, and I think I have as much experience in trades unionism as any contemporary. Without going into details at this point, I will merely say that this form of organization, while suitable for secret societies and sects, contradicts the nature of trades unionism. If it were possible - I declare it to be utterly impossible - it would not be desirable, least of all, in Germany. There, where the laborer is under the thumb of bureaucracy from childhood and believes in the authority of the instituted government, the first duty is to make him self-dependent.

“Your plan is impractical also in other respects. In your organization you have three independent powers of different origin: (1) The committee, elected by the unions; (2) the president, a wholly superfluous personality, elected by general vote;(1) (3) the congress, elected by the locals. This makes everywhere for friction, and this hinders rapid action. Lassalle made a serious mistake when he borrowed the `person elect’ of universal suffrage from the French constitution of 1852. In a trade union movement that person is utterly out of place. It turns mostly on money questions, and you will soon discover that there all dictatorship comes to an end.

“However, whatever the faults of the organization, they may perhaps be eliminated more or less by a rational practice. I am willing, as the secretary of the International, to act as mediator between you and the Nuremburg majority, which has joined the International direct - of course, upon a rational basis. I have written to Leipsic to this effect. I do not ignore the difficulties of your position, and I never forget that every one of us depends more upon circumstances than upon his will.

“I promise you, under all circumstances, that impartiality which my duty demands. On the other hand, I cannot promise that I shall not some day, in my capacity as a private writer, as soon as I may consider it absolutely necessary in the interest of the labor movement, publish a frank critique of the Lassallean superstition, as I did at one time with that of Proudhon.Assuring you personally of my sincere good will, I remain,Yours loyally, Karl Marx.”

The newly created organization did not suit Schweitzer very long. As was to be expected, various tendencies towards independence soon made themselves felt in the workers’ groups. Schweitzer opposed them energetically in the “Social-democrat” of September 15th. He complained that some people were trying to separate the federation of workers’ groups from the General Association of German Workingmen, and place it under an independent leadership. He warned against this attempt. Three months later he went still farther. In No. 152 of the “Social-democrat“ he announced, under date of December 29th, that wishes had been expressed on various sides to amalgamate the different unions in one single general union. To this end he had elaborated a plan which he published in the same number. Fritzsche had previously severed his connection with the General Association of German Workingmen and with the federation of workers’ groups, and resigned from his position as vice-president. Schweitzer had also been abandoned by Louis Schumann, president of the General Association of German Shoemakers, York, president of the General Association of German Wood Workers, and Schob, president of the General Association of German Tailors.

The general convention of the General Association of German Workingmen, which met in Berlin in January, 1870, consented to fulfill Schweitzer’s wish, and decided to amalgamate the unions within the time between the convention and July 1st, and to found a new association under the name of General Association of German Trade Unions. Immediately after the general convention of the General Association of German Workingmen, the convention of the General Federation of German Workers’ Groups met. The majority of its delegates likewise declared in favor of Schweitzer’s proposition. Luebkert, the president of the General Union of German Carpenters, expressed the opinion that the trade unions were at bottom merely training schools for the political education of the workers. Zilowsky was also in favor of amalgamation for the purpose of doing away with the hankering for the title of president, to which he attributed much of the division in the unions. Hartmann, Schallmeyer and Vater of Hamburg also spoke in favor of amalgamation for similar reasons as the preceding speakers.

Amalgamation was favored by delegates representing 12,500 votes, and opposed by delegates representing 9,000 votes. Altho the constitutionally required two-thirds majority necessary for the dissolution of the association had not been obtained, the majority decided, nevertheless, to found a new association, which should be known by the name of General Association for the Assistance of German Workingmen, and which should take the place of the workers’ groups on July 1st.

This decision was not followed by a number of workers’ groups. The opposition to trades unions remained alive among some of the most influential members of the General Association of German Workingmen, so that even at its general convention in 1872, Toelcke introduced the motion that the convention should decide to dissolve all unions existing within the party by the side of the General Association of German Workingmen, especially the General Association for the Assistance of German Workingmen, the Workingmen’s League of Berlin, the General Union of German Masons, the General Union of German Carpenters and all membership groups belonging to them. Their equipment should be transferred to the General Association of German Workingmen and their members join this association. But his motion could not be adopted, because the general convention had no power to dissolve organizations standing outside of the General Association of German Workingmen.

What other leaders than Toelcke thought may be seen from the following statement of Hasenclever: “If the League (Berlin Workingmen’s League) has fulfilled its end, we shall take care ourselves that it will disappear.” Hasselmann said: “We have founded the league merely for the purpose of attracting trade unions to us, and we have succeeded very well in this." So we did not intend to do anything particular with this league, it was merely a means to an end. Grottkau and others expressed themselves in a similar way: Finally, the following motion was adopted: “The general convention should express the desire that the trade unions existing within our party should be dissolved as soon as possible, and their members transferred to the General Association of German Workingmen. It is the duty of the members of the General Association of German Workingmen to work in this direction.”

If Mende can be trusted - and, so far as I am aware, his statement has not been contradicted - Schweitzer had promised Mende and the Countess Hatzfeldt, when making an agreement with them in the Spring of 1869, to let the trade union movement recede more and more into the background on the plea that they were in contradiction with Lassalle’s views. I shall revert to this later. The views of the members of the General Association of German Workingmen changed later on in favor of trades unions.


We, on our part, performed the work assigned to us by the Nuremberg convention, and drew up a normal constitution for trade unions. I was the author of the original. As soon as it had been completed, it was sent in large numbers to the organizations, with the request to become active in the organization of international trade unions, this being the title chosen by us. I also went to work at it. This title really went a little too far, for we could count only on starting organizations in the German speaking countries. But the name was mainly intended to express a tendency. In fact, quite a number of such organizations were started, such as the international unions of manufacturing and factory employees, hand laborers, masons and carpenters, metal workers, wood workers, tailors, leather workers, cap makers, shoe makers, bookbinders, miners and smelter men.

It was evident that when the political movement suffered from the existing divisions, the trade union movement would suffer still more from them. Fritzsche was made to feel this in his own flesh during the following year, for the violent factional fights reduced the membership of his association from 9,000 to 2,000. It is true that this falling off was due partly to the bankruptcy of the Berlin and Leipsic productive associations of the tobacco workers which had been founded after a lost strike.

We in Leipsic tried to prevent schisms in the trade union movement as much as possible. At the end of October, 1868, we called a well attended workingmen’s meeting, in conjunction with members of the General Association of German Workingmen. The order of business was: The trades unions. Liebknecht was the reporter, and recommended the following resolution:

“Whereas, The foundation of trades unions, after the model of the English, is necessary for the organization of the working class in defense and maintenance of its interest; and for the invigoration of its class-consciousness; and,

“Whereas, The resolutions of various workingmen’s congresses have already suggested and made a beginning in the organization of trades unions, the present meeting of workingmen decides to carry on energetically the formation of such trades unions and instructs a committee to be elected for this purpose to take the necessary steps and to establish connections especially with the workingmen’s banks, etc.”

A committee was then elected, in which Seyfert and Taute, of the General Association of German Workingmen, were seated by the side of Liebknecht and myself. The committee invited members of all unions in order to discuss with them the question of organizing labor unions. This conference took place with myself as chairman. The following resolution, drawn up by Liebknecht and myself, was unanimously adopted:

“The conference decides: The labor unions founded, or to be founded, by the majority of the Nuremberg workingmen’s convention, and by the majority of the Berlin workingmen’s convention, should work in the direction of the following aims:

“(1) That both sides, after joint agreement, call a common general convention for the purpose of unification and amalgamation.

“(2) That until such a unification and amalgamation can become a fact, the trades unions on both sides enter into a mutual agreement, particularly for the purpose of assisting each other with funds and, if possible, of electing a joint provisional committee.

“(3) That both sides reject, under all circumstances, any and all community with the Hirsch-Dunker unions, which, founded by enemies of the working class, have no other purpose but that of undermining the organization of the workers and degrading the workers to the role of instruments of the bourgeoisie.”

This request was not received favorably by the other side. In No. 141 of the “Social-democrat” of December 2, 1868, Schweitzer published a resolution to the effect that the executive and the central committee of the General Association of German Workingmen had jointly rejected our demands, and that they called upon the workingmen “to oppose every attempt to divide the movement in favor of personal animosities of individuals.”

This signified the momentary failure of our attempt to come to an agreement.

On our side, the trade union question was again discussed at the Eisenach congress in August, 1869. We found fault especially with the rule advocated by Schweitzer, that the admission of members should be made dependent upon the political views of applicants. Greulich spoke in favor of an international organization, for the problem was to bring the masses into the trade unions. It was these unions which the capitalist feared, not our petty pennies. Finally, a resolution was adopted on motion of York, favoring the unification of unions. A motion of Motteler was also adopted, to the effect that the trade unions should work for the establishment of mutual agreements (cartels). The national convention of Stuttgart, in June, 1870, once more had the trade union question upon its order of business. The proceedings moved in the old channels. The question of unity once more played the principal role. With the year 1871, the unions began to develop better, favored by a period of prosperity, and so they assumed a mere independent attitude. The epoch of prosperity, which lasted until the beginning of 1874, carried in its wake an untold number of strikes in all lines. This phenomenon gave rise, even at the end of May, 1871, to long discussions in the Leipsic Workingmen’s Club, culminating in the adoption and publication of the following resolutions:

“(1) Strikes are but one of the palliatives which do any result in any lasting remedy; (2) the aim of the Social Democracy is not merely to procure higher wages within the present capitalist mode of production, but to abolish this mode of production altogether; (3) under the present capitalist made of production the level of wages is regulated by supply and demand, and cannot be driven beyond this level even by the most successful strikes; (4) in recent times several strikes have notoriously been instigated by the manufacturers for the purpose of waving a plausible reason for raising the prices of commodities during the fair, and such stakes do not benefit the workingmen, but only the manufacturers, for they raise the prices of commodities more than they do wages; (5) lost strikes encourage the manufacturers and discourage the workingmen - consequently they are doubly injurious to our party; (6) the great manufacturers sometimes derive an extra advantage from strikes, for while they prevent the small manufacturers from running their plants, they enable the large capitalists to dispose of their supplies with greater profit; (7) our party is not in a position at present to support so many strikes materially.

“In view of all these facts, the party members are urgently requested to go on a strike only in cases where a hitter necessity compels them to it, and where sufficient means are available. They are also requested to proceed more systematically than heretofore, and to follow a plan of organization comprising all of Germany. As the best way to secure funds and organizations, we recommend the foundation and maintenance of trades unions.”

In Vienna, the central organ of the Austrian party members, the “Volkswille,” published similar reflections and recommendations, since the strike fever was seizing larger circles also in Austria. These recommendations were good, but they were followed only in rare instances. Nevertheless, the union movement showed a welcome development in those years.

About the middle of June, 1872, a union congress met in Erfurt, in which especially the question of a central board for the unions and the creation of a special trade union paper were discussed. In an article, published on June 8th, in the “Volksstaat,” I outlined my program for the congress and elaborated my views concerning the best way of uniting the unions among themselves. Among other things, I said: “It cannot be denied that the labor union movement in Germany is still in a bad way. This is due to the division of the workers into various factions that fight each other bitterly. It is bad enough that workingmen oppose each other in different political organizations, but it is worse to see workingmen of the various unions fight each other in every factory or even in every shop. This is particularly bad, because it is not a principle that is at stake, but merely a form of organization which is changeable and must be adapted to circumstances. Under this curse the movement is suffering. It is also to be regretted that the masses permit themselves to be made fanatic by unscrupulous men, and it proves that a part of the working class is suffering from mental limitations. People sneer at the ossification of Christianity which has eighteen centuries behind it, an age that is calculated to make for ossification. But the new social movement is only ten years old, and already it is showing symptoms of ossification. Of course, these would be overcome, but for the present they hinder the development ... The future of the working class rests upon the trade union movement; it is this movement by which the masses arrive at class-consciousness, learn to combat the power of capital, and so naturally make Socialists of the workingmen.” Then I explained my suggestion for organization in detail.

At the Erfurt trade union congress, in which six labor organizations were represented, the manufacturing and factory workers, the metal workers, the wood workers, the tailors, the shoemakers, the masons and various professional clubs, a federation of unions and a labor union paper, “The Union,” were endorsed. On motion of York, the following resolution was adopted unanimously:

“Whereas, The power of capital oppresses and exploits all workers, regardless of the fact whether they are Conservative, Progressive, Liberal or Socialist, the congress declares it to be the most sacred duty of the workers to set aside all party division, and to create the prerequisites of a successful and powerful resistance upon the neutral soil of a uniform trade union organization, to fortify their threatened existence and to fight for an improvement of their condition as a class. Particularly, the various sections of the Social Democratic Labor Party are in duty bound to promote the labor union movement to the best of their ability, and the congress expresses regret over the fact that the general convention of the General Association of German Workingmen in Berlin should have adopted a resolution to the contrary.”

When I mine back to freedom in the Spring of 1875, after a long stay in the fortress and in prison, August Geib suggested that I should take charge of the editorship of the central organ of the labor unions, “The Union,” in place of brave York, who, unfortunately, had died on New Year’s Eve, 1875. He offered me $50.00 per month. The party and the unions had meanwhile become financially stronger. Geib thought that I might easily assume the editorship in addition to my business. I declined. It was impossible to be active in the labor union movement in addition to my business and my party work.

In the meantime the Prussian government had begun the persecution of both the Socialist parties and of the trades unions. The public prosecutor, Tessendorf, who had won his spurs upon this field in Magdeburg, had been called to Berlin in 1874, in order to continue this persecution on a larger scale. Tessendorf fulfilled the government’s expectations. By his charges he accomplished not merely the suppression of the party organizations, but various trades unions also fell victims to him. Then came the year 1878, with its attempt on the life of the king, and with its anti-Socialist laws, and one blow destroyed what had been created by more than ten years of work with untold sacrifices in time, money, energy and health.

1. Here Marx made the following marginal remark: “In the constitution of the International Workingmen’s Association a president is also mentioned. But in reality he never had any other function but that of presiding at the sessions of the General Council. At my suggestion the office was abolished in 1867, after I had already declined if in 1866, and his place was taken by a chairman, who was elected at each weekly session of the General Council. The London Trades Council also has only a chairman. Its permanent official is only the secretary, because he performs a continuous business function.”

Thus wrote the “dictator” of the International. I must state for myself that Marx and Engels, even in their correspondence with me, never showed themselves as anything but advisers, and in several important instances, their advice was not taken, because I considered that I was more familiar with the situation. Nevertheless I never had any serious differences with them.A. B.

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