Karl Kautsky

On socialism and trade unionism

(November 1906)

From Socialist Standard, November 1906.
Transcribed by Adam Buick.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

At the Annual Congress of the German Socialists held during the last week of September, the most important questions discussed were the “Relations of the Socialist Party to the Trade Unions”, and “The Political General Strike”. The Executive and General Councils of the Party submitted a resolution (introduced by Bebel) which was drawn up so as to fully satisfy those elements in the Trade Unions and the Socialist Party that believed in the Trade Unions having a free hand in their actions, while being expected to co-operate with each other when mutually deemed practical and advantageous.

Kautsky and 32 other comrades moved as an amendment the following addition:

“In order, however, to insure on the part of the Trade Unions together with the Party uniformity of thought and action, which is an indispensable condition for the victorious progress of the class-struggle of the Proletariat, it is absolutely necessary that the Trade-Unions be dominated by the spirit of Socialism. It is therefore the duty of every member of the Party to act in this sense within the Trade Unions, and to consider himself bound by the resolutions of the Party Congresses in his actions in Trade Unions as well as in all others of a public character. This is demanded in the interest of the Trade Union movement itself, as the Socialist movement is the highest and most far-reaching form of the class-struggle of the proletariat, and no working-class organisation, no working-class movement can completely accomplish its aims unless it is permeated by the spirit of Socialism.”

In support of the foregoing amendment Kautsky said:

As to our proposed addendum, which the Executive decline to support, I must confess that their action has disappointed me very much. I thought that in that addition we said nothing that should not be self-understood by every comrade, and that one cannot reject what is self-understood. I believe that this resolution is necessary as a consequence of the resolution justified by Bebel. I consider that resolution to be incomplete. If our addendum is not accepted what does Bebel’s resolution say? It recognises that it is necessary to take, from time to time, action together with the Trade Unions. I am fully convinced that the joint action of the Party and the Trade Unions must be the future form of action. Bebel recognises that the form of future action must be that the functionaries of the Trade Unions in every case arrive at an understanding. But here the resolution ends. Yet here only begins the difficulty. Then the question arises, what happens if such understanding is not come to? The reply is very simple. If it does not come to an understanding, it does not come to action. How can we come to action?

Our own Party has, the larger it has grown, become in a certain sense an awkward apparatus. It is not easy to bring new ideas into that apparatus. And should the case arise that the Trade Unions are wanting a rest, what prospects would there open up before us by the Trade Unions hanging on as a brake to the already awkward party organisation? And just because we recognise that we have in each case to co-operate with the Trade Unions it becomes necessary for us to see to it that the Trade Unions should be composed of such elements as to ever make it impossible for those Unions to act as brakes upon the Party. And therefore it is the duty of the Party to deal with the Trade Unions in such a way as to prevent them from hampering the Party. That that should be done in the interest of the Party requires no explanation.

The question, however, may be raised – and I believe that is the reason for opposing our addendum – whether the Trade Unions would not suffer by this joint action: whether the Socialist propaganda would do harm to the Trade Unions? I am of the opinion that the Trade Unions would lose nothing but on the contrary would profit by such action, because they would thereby be enabled to accomplish their great task. And now only I come to the point I was really anxious to make clear. It is the question whether it would be detrimental to the Trade Unions if they acted in the spirit of Socialism. I deny its being detrimental.

Upon what are based the powers of the Trade Unions to attract members? Firstly, upon their system of mutual benefits and, secondly upon the character of a fighting organisation. Now the system of mutual benefits is such as to limit the power of the Trade Unions to attract members very considerably. By the offer of mutual benefits the Trade Unions reach but a small circle of the workers. This is proved by the position of Trade Unions in England. The benefits granted, the amount fixed for the same, and those for contributions, depend upon the wages of the contributors. The greater the amounts of benefit granted the more the Trade Unions get confined to such of the workers as may receive high wages. That is proved by the Trade Unions in England, which for the last ten years have been in a state of stagnation while the membership of the German Trade Unions has increased by leaps and bounds.

And why is that? The English workers themselves have recognised that. They have themselves said that the English Trade Unions are decaying because they have not the Socialists which should imbue them with the Socialist spirit. What is the difference between the English working-class movement and the German? The English working-class movement have the benefit system much better organised than the German workers have, because there is no State Insurance in England, and in spite of the superior benefit system the English Trade Unions are in a state of stagnation. In England we have the neutrality of the Trade Unions, they are lacking Socialist principles and that proves that it is Socialism which has caused the progress of the German Trade Unions. Socialists have founded the German Trade Unions, Socialists are its administrators, and it is the Socialists who have imparted to these Unions the vigour they possess.

No party in Germany commands such respect as the Socialist Party. The German Socialist Party is the representative of all the exploited – of all men and women who are up in arms against the present system of exploitation. And the Free Trade Unions may show themselves ever so free and neutral, yet they are regarded by the mass of the people to be Socialist. That is fortunate for the Free Trade Unions, for the entire confidence which the mass of the people bestow upon the Socialist Party they also place in the Trade Unions and that constitutes the main strength of the Trade Unions. If we push that more in the future we shall only increase the power of attraction of the Trade Unions.

With the power of attraction is closely related the Party discipline. If we create a class of comrades for whom that discipline does not exist: we only weaken what is the strongest lever of the class-struggle of the proletariat, which is the greatest help to the Trade Unions themselves. We must under all conditions insist upon Party discipline. The Trade Unions will not fare badly upon observing it. The Socialist Party has never passed a Resolution which has injured the Trade Unions or hampered their agitation. After all only such affairs come here into question which enter the sphere of the Trade Unions as well as that of the Party; but if once the case should arise that the Trade Unions should feel themselves injured in their own sphere by a Resolution of the Party, that could only be if the Trade Unions place the particular interests of their members higher than the common interest, and then we should so much more insist upon the common interest being placed higher and that it should prevail.

I point to France where for a time a number of comrades were permitted to stand outside Party discipline. When Millerand became Cabinet Minister it was declared: A Cabinet Minister acts under such peculiar conditions that he stands outside Party discipline. That created the category of a comrade on leave for whom the Party discipline does not exist. And soon, also, the members of Parliament took a fancy to that position. They, too, were averse to standing under Party discipline. Finally, also, their constituents declared that there was no need for themselves being obedient to discipline with the result that the solidarity of the Party was with the greatest difficulty sustained by various amputations and by the expulsion of 18 members of Parliament from the Party.

This example should be a warning to us. We must under no circumstances permit that a special class of comrades be created who are given a discipline of their own. I admit that a comrade who is at the same time a Trade Unionist may experience a serious conflict of conscience; but we want to make that impossible by seeing to it that Party and Trade Unions, Party Congress and Trade Union Congress may equally be possessed of the Socialist spirit. What my addendum demands is already being practised in Germany in a number of towns where the members of the Party are zealously active in the Trade Unions as for instance in Hamburg and just there the relations are most harmonious. There the Party as well as the Trade Unions thrive. The addendum contains by no means a declaration of war against the Trade Unions, on the contrary it aims at creating a basis upon which alone successful and uniform action of the Party and Trade Unions together could be made possible.


Last updated on 26.11.2003