Fritz Heckert

The Labor Movement

The Party and the Trade Unions
in Germany

(10 October 1922)

From International Press Correspondence, Vol. 2 No. 87, 10 October 1922, pp.  658–659.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2021). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.

The beginnings of the German trade union movement – The practice of the former Social Democratic Party – The subordination of the Party to the trade union bureaucracy – Its consequences: 1914 – Confusion of ideas after the Revolution – The Communist tactics


In Germany, more than in every other country, the question of the relationship between the workers’ party and the trade union has at all times played an important role. We may justly say that the trade union movement in Germany owes its life to the Social Democracy. Founded by Socialist workers, its development always remained bound up with that of Socialism. The anti-Socialist law of 1878 ruined at the same time both the party and the trade unions.

After their abrogation, the trade unions turned reformist and their leaders hoped to divert them from the influence of the Social Democratic Party. The political neutrality of the trade unions was affirmed, as well as the necessity for giving them an independent central direction. Perceiving a hidden motive in the plan, formulated by Karl Legien, of creating a “general council of the German trade unions” whose rights would be equal to those of the party, William Liebknecht sharply attacked the project at the Congress of the Social Democratic Party in Cologne, 1893. Accusing the trade union leaders of the intention to turn the masses away from the class struggle and to lead them to reformism, he declared that the independence of the unions would only be a concession to the bourgeoisie, accustomed as they were to regard labor organizations as subversive, and that all opportunism of this sort was only in adaptation to the bourgeois state. The majority of the Socialist workers under the influence of labor leaders all belonging to the Democratic Party, found the fears of William Liebknecht exaggerated. No one wished to believe that it would be possible ever to separate the party from the unions. The Congress of the Social Democrats decided that all members of the Party ought to belong to the trade unions while the trade union Congress enjoined its members to affiliate with the Party. The trade unions were regarded as recruiting fields of the Party.

When the revisionist movement arose about 1900, it hoped to gain support in the labor organizations. When, in 1903, Theodor Boemelburg, president of the bricklayers’ union pronounced that celebrated sentence at the Congress of Cologne, “The trade unions and the Party are but one and the same”, it was already then no more than a hollow phrase. The trade union leaders made use of the General Council of Trade Unions to extend their influence over the party and to attempt to dominate it. The Social Democratic Congress of Mannheim (1906) decided that the Central Committee ought to come to an understanding with the trade unions before any mass movement. In that way the General Council of Trade Unions became a new central executive organ of the working class. Certainly, in signing the pact of Mannheim, it assumed the same obligation on its part; but this cost it nothing, as it was resolutely hostile to all mass actions. Boemelburg declared, “The general strike is a general madness!” and unanimous applause drowned his voice.

When the imperialist war broke out, the victory of the trade union bureaucracy over the Central Committee of the party was an accomplished fact. On the 4th of August 1914, the trade union leaders flatly declared that they would compel the leaders of the party to vote the war credits and to realize the fatal union with the bourgeoisie. The party capitulated unconditionally. The dictatorship of the Council of Trade Unions over the Social Democratic Party was so little concealed that when during the summer of 1915 a feeble opposition manifested itself in the party, the labor bureaucracy uttered the following threats:

“We must support with all our power the majority of the Central Committee of the party and urge it on to the path we deem good. And even if the opposition should seize power, we would not be able to remain neutral, and would be obliged to create a new party.”

Fritz Ebert then received the warm congratulations of Leipart, the president of the General Council of Trade Unions, for having energetically emphasized the will of the Central Committee of the party to continue at all cost the policy of August 1914. The Social Democratic Party of Germany was preparing to follow the path of denials, betrayals and counter-revolution, under the impulsion of the bureaucratic trade unions, up to the eve of the November Revolution, up to August 8th, 1918.

Since before the war a small group of militant revolutionaries, under the leadership of Rosa Luxemburg, had been battling to lead the trade unions back to the class struggle. But its efforts met with little success. Though gagged during the war, it was yet they who recommenced serious propaganda for revolutionary action in the trade unions. We have not forgotten that at the significant Congress of the Independent Social Democratic Party at Gotha, during Easter 1917, Hugo Haase exclaimed: “The trade unions are the most resistant ramparts of reaction. Without them the war would have been ended long ago!” But at no time did the leaders of the Independent Party cause a breach in these ramparts.

Since the war, during the Revolution, and up to the present, the labor leaders and the Social Democrats have persisted on the path they had traced before the war, and their constant collaboration with the bourgeoisie has been but the logical consequence of this spirit.

During the Proletarian Revolution, nationalism, reformism, and the deeds of the trade union bureaucracy during the war and the revolution, produced such disgust in the end, that the workers came to the most divergent conclusions as to the relationship between the party and the trade unions.

Some thought that so much treason had been possible only because there existed two parallel organizations (party and trade unions) and that it was necessary to create a united political and economic organization.

Others believed the cause of the social-patriotic deviations to be found in the form of the trade union organizations. They advocated the establishment of unions on a federal basis, which would assure the broadest autonomy to every organization and locality.

Still others urged the most complete political neutrality of the unions.

The confusion was increased by the direct action of the working masses, organized in factory and workshop councils at the beginning of the revolution. From these direct actions the militants drew the conclusion that the epoch of trade unions had been ended and that it was necessary to replace them by factory councils.

To arrive at real revolutionary lucidity, the German proletariat had to undergo a long series of failures and defeats in its struggle against the capitalists and the State, in its efforts designed to establish new unions, in its attempts to put new trade union doctrines into practice.

In the course of these experiences, the number of workers grew who recognized that trade unions are necessary organizations, that they have certain definite primary tasks to fulfill during the revolution and the period of transition from Capitalism to Socialism. On this basis it was possible to agree upon action.

Since 1920, sincere revolutionists have been convinced that the trade unions could tackle their tasks only on condition of definitely breaking with their former policy of collaboration of classes. This collaboration, in fact, subordinated the vital interests of the proletariat to the conservation of capitalism; sacrificed the eight-hour day, wages, the production of labor. If the workers wish to maintain or improve their conditions of living they must defend themselves against capitalism; and the least resistance today has revolutionary consequences. In order successfully to oppose its class-enemy, the proletariat as a whole ought to stand up against it; whence the need for a united front, the first condition for proletarian action against capitalism. To this condition we can add another: the international concentration of the active proletarian forces. These conditions are well founded, and it is they that divide the proletariat into two opposing camps: one of the revolutionary class struggle, and the other of cooperation with the bourgeoisie.

The more the revolutionary influence extended into the unions, the more energetically reacted the trade union bureaucracy. To combat the latter, to defend itself, to enlighten the working class upon the dangers of cooperation with the bourgeoisie, the revolutionary workers organized in the Communist Party created fractions or “cells” in the unions. These new groups undertake systematically to win the unions for revolutionary action. They interest themselves in all the aspects of the workers’ life and aim for united action of all the proletarian elements. The Communist workers of Germany have also commended the decisions of the Second Congress of the Communist International on the functions of trade unions.

The Central Committee of the German Communist Party has established a Trade Union Council which gives a single direction to all the Communist nuclei in factory, shop, or union, and organizes national and local groupings, we are benefiting today from the practical experience of 18 months of assiduous labor. In our struggle to conquer the unions we sustained grave losses. Thousands of good militants have been expelled from the unions by the reformist bureaucracy. The General Council of Trade Unions has just proclaimed that the principal task of the unions consists actually in fighting the Communist cells. Despite everything, however, we have succeeded in binding ourselves more and more strongly to the working masses. The elections of the factory committees, of local trade union committees, of representatives to the congress constantly attest to the growth of our influence. In 1921 the Communist who was a member of a “cell” was very simply expelled from the trade union organization. This year the Congress of German trade unions has recognized the Communist “cells”, not legally to be sure, but actually. The bureaucracy had to yield before facts.

We are only in the beginning of our work, but we cannot doubt of success. We shall lead the trade unions back to the class struggle. Better yet! – Our revolutionary activity in the trade union movement strengthens it. if after so much deception the German trade unions still remain the organizations of the masses they are, it is in a large measure thanks to us. It is our activity which has restored confidence to the workers.

The extension of the revolutionary movement among the trade unions cannot but proceed together with the extension of Communist influence over the masses. The unions are again becoming the recruiting field of the revolutionary political organization of the proletariat. And we are seeing the day approach when the party and the trade unions will constitute anew but a single revolutionary force directed against the capitalist system.

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