J. Walcher

The Labour Movement

The German Trade Unions in 1920

(18 November 1921)

From International Press Correspondence, Vol. I No. 9, 18 November 1921, pp. 76–77.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2019). 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 narrow mechanical bureaucratic understanding will admit the struggle only as the product of the organization. Living dialectic development, on the contrary, makes the organization originate as a product of the struggle.”
(Rosa Luxemburg, Mass Strike, Party and Labor Unions)

As the storm of the Russian Revolution of 1905 forced the German workers to consider the question of mass strikes, it was chiefly the labor-union leaders who opposed the mass strikes with a vehemence which is not very usual with this class of individuals. “General strike is general absurdity”, the sceptical said. Others said, “We are not strong enough yet to be able to risk such a daring trial of strength.” It was implied tacitly that in the first place the entire German working class must be organized io the last man before a proletarian mass strike is thinkable. Rosa Luxemburg retorted to the labor-union leaders at that time in the remarkable polemic from which we have taken the quotation given at the head of this article that this conception was entirely utopian and unacceptable.

She wrote:

“The workers should be entirely organized before they can take up any sort of direct class struggle! But the relations and the conditions of capitalist society and bourgeois government bring it about that in the ordinary course of events without stormy class combats, certain ranks and indeed the mass, the most important, the most deeply grounded strata of the proletariat, the ones most oppressed by capital and by the government, cannot even be organized at all.

This prediction, based on the Marxian interpretation of history, will be confirmed in a remarkable way by the following yearly balance of the German labor unions. Before the war, for instance, the Central Federation of Clerks (now the Central Federation of Employees) had a membership of about 30,000. The average for the year 1920 shows 376,400 members. In comparison with per-war time this is an increase of about 346,000 members. Even more astonishing is the development of the organization of rural workers. This organization which before the war had some tens of thousands of members, which number melted away to a great extent during the war, has risen to 695,695 members during 1920. The yearly report of the free labor unions for 1920 which was published in the Korrespondenzblatt of the General German Labor-Union Federation (ADGB.) No. 42 of October 22, 1921, shows similar tendencies in all the organizations belonging to the ADgB. The membership of all free labor unions was at the end of each year the following.




 of whom 

  666,392 are women




 of whom 

1,733,705 are women




 of whom 

1,697,939 are women.

The stormy forward development in the number of members did not continue, however, during the whole of 1920. It goes without saying that the unprecedented development of the year 1919 and the first half of the year 1920 could not advance much further, as the recruiting sphere naturally was reduced in size. It would be a false conclusion, however, to blame upon this circumstance the stagnation which in the case of particular Federations amounted to a retreat (total loss in the second half-year of 1920 was 119,196 members). There are still millions of unorganized workers in Germany. If the labor unions have no more power of attraction over these gigantic masses, it is because the revolutionary movement of the German proletariat is gradually sinking in the stagnant swamp of labor unions. Before we determine how far this development can be blamed on the labor-union bureaucracy we should like to give some more facts from the above-mentioned report.

The participation of women in the labor unions has increased greatly, in comparison with pre-war times and indeed it rose from 8.8% in 1913 to 21.7% in 1920. An inconsiderable decrease in comparison with 1918 may be attributed to the decrease in women-labor.

The statements on the conditions of the treasuries show a correspondingly overwhelming increase. The 52 free labor unions had an income of 717,100,000 marks for 1920 as against the yearly expenditure of 543,800,000 marks. The recruiting of members works under the difficulty of an initiation fee but in comparison with many American labor unions this is so low that it can hardly pay for the writing material and book-keeping. Of the expenditures 108,500,000 marks were spent in strikes, wage movements and lock-outs. The circumstance that almost as much is expended for relief, namely a round sum of 105 million marks, shows what an important role relief plays in the German labor unions. The following kinds of relief are taken into consideration in the free labor unions although it should be kept in mind that the same categories are not fixed in all labor unions: aid for travel, moving, unemployment, sickness, old age, burial expenses, aid in emergencies, disciplinary insurance, other measures of relief and protection of rights.

All federations issue their own organs. Seventeen have, besides that, other organs (such as periodicals for the youth and trade periodicals) – 29 in all. The organ of the printers appears three times a week, 32 are published once a week, 14 every 14 days, 5 appear as monthly publications, of which one appears three times, and three appear twice and once a month. The total circulation amounted to 8,404.960 at the end of the year. Even though the labor-union journals are in part very tedious and as a consequence are not read by all members, nevertheless the number of readers forms an overwhelming apparatus for influence, which almost without exception is exercised in a reformist, counter-revolutionary direction. Under these circumstance the Communist influence in the labor unions ought to be esteemed very highly inasmuch as in the case of the Metal Workers’ Federation there was a Communist vote of 30 to 35% at the last elections.

In comparison with the free unions the other organizations possess less significance. The Christian labor unions comprise the next group. In 1920, 25 organizations with 10,966 branches belonged to the Christian labour unions, with a membership of 1,105,894 during the year.

Those making the weakest contribution of all to the strengthening of German labor unions are the Hirsch-Duncker labor associations which are based on the theory of harmony between capital and labor. They comprise 17 organizations with 225,998 members. The increase is comparison with the previous year is 36,167.

In addition to these organizations, there are also the Syndicalist labor unions. Although they had engaged in intense propaganda for many years even before the war, they have remained without significance in the German labor movement. There are no estimates at hand on their strength in numbers. It is a very generous estimate to set their membership at from 30,000 to 50,000.

The “Revolutionary Factory Organizations” which collaborate with the K.A.P.D., are entirely of no significance as they hardly possess an actual membership of 10,000. One should not confuse with these the former free Gelsenkirchen Labor Union which recently united with the Hand and Brain Workers’ Federation, whose 6,000 members are mainly employed by the Berlin Municipal Council, and with the Free Rural workers’ Federation, to form the “Union of German Hand and Brain Workers”. This organization whose influence is strongest in the Rheinish-Westphalian coal district, possesses 150,000 members and is the only German labor union officially adhering to the Red Trade-Union International. The “U.G.H. and B.W.” possesses great possibilities for development under certain circumstances.

The free labor unions are the deciding factor in the German labor movement. In comparison with the Hirsch-Duncker and Christian trade unions 85.8 out of every 100 organized workers belong to these unions. Whoever wants to know what is to be done now and in the future must fix his attention on the free unions. What have the free labor unions done to turn to account the proletariat’s might during the capitalist crisis?

In the introduction to the yearly report we read:

“The expectation bound up with the termination of the war that there would be an immediate revival of economic life, even though preceded by a painful transitional period, has until now proved false It appears that capitalism can no longer find way out of the labyrinth.

It must be hard to write this conclusion for the pen which for years did not tire of telling the workers that there is no other immediate way than the re-floating of the capitalist system. Unfortunately, however, their practise is in no way influenced by this better judgment. Now as much as ever, the labor unions pursue the phantom of so-called general interests, now as much as ever they are the reliable support of the tottering capitalist government, now as ever before, they dare to exercise the might of the workers without any regard for labor interests. The same periodical which arrived at the conclusion that “Capital can no longer find the way out of the labyrinth,” is not ashamed to write the following concerning Soviet Russia.

“The absurdity, the conceit of leading nations towards their own ideas does not apply only to the ‘big Entente politicians’ of the West. It can with equal justification be applied to the usurpation of the East, which by means of the brutality of might has arrogated (!) to itself control over the Russian people, and brutally suppresses every attempt at freedom. This rule by force cripples and kills the vitality of this great land so rich in natural wealth, which even under the rule of the Czar was a source of supply of provisions and raw materials for other nations. Had the Russian people been able to set up and preserve a democracy, it would have had a remarkable and promising development under the leadership of its intelligent circles, and this would have been of great benefit for the German people. Instead of that there is a continual disturbance of political life originating from Eastern Europe, etc.”

These phrases are not surprising in a periodical which already for years has been violently anti-Bolshevik. This same Korrespondenzblatt on June 25, 1921, praised the German labor unions as the “Only strong dams which Germany has been able until now to set in the way of the Bolshevik flood.”

The German labor-union bureaucracy, which is guilty in making the fight for liberation so immeasurably painful for the Russian proletariat, must in order to allay its own guilty conscience slander the heroic Russian proletariat. Everyone who has even a weak conception of the nature of capitalist society and of the enormous difficulties of living conditions in Soviet Russia must realize how erroneous are the accusations of the Korrespondenzblatt.

The Korrespondenzblatt praises the behaviour of the labor unions during the Kapp rebellion as a success:

“For the first time the labor unions arose in the field of political struggle to use their overwhelming economic power for the rescue of Democracy.”

The periodical is right, this stand of the labor unions led to a “complete victory”. But it is now a question for whom this victory was gained. The Ebert Republic was saved through the action of the labor unions and together with the Ebert Republic also the open and secret traitors, who already trembled before the threatening raised fist of the proletariat. The Korrespondenzblatt presumes to place the responsibility for the non-fulfillment of the real guaranties, demanded by the workers and at that time conceded to the labor unions on paper, upon the “dark elements sustained by Moscow”. As a matter of fact the impressive firmness which made its appearance in those March days of 1920 was frivolously frustrated by the labor-union bureaucracy in the interest of the bourgeois republic. Only after the trade-union leaders had broken the back of the general strike, before it had achieved even the slightest tangible success, did a violent opposition assert itself, after the counter-revolution had already played and won. The Korrespondenzblatt again points out today the potent economic forces of the proletariat serving to revive humanity, and remarks that these forces can come into play in proportion as “ labor in other countries”.

Last updated on 5 May 2021