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International Socialism, February/March 1970


Sozialistische Arbeitergruppe

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From Survey, International Socialism (1st series), No.42, February-March 1970, pp.8-11.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The following is a shortened and edited version of a discussion document published by the Sozialistische Arbeitergruppe (Socialist Workers’ Group) in Frankfurt-am-Main. It is a critique of certain tendencies in the now fragmenting SDS, and at the same time offers an analysis of revolutionary perspectives for the period following the strike wave of last autumn.

It is not an accident that at present among the still predominantly student revolutionary left in West Germany, Lenin’s work What is to be done? dating from 1901-1902 is enjoying a revival, but not his essay on Left-wing Communism from 1921.

West Germany in 1969 is not Russia at the turn of the century. But it is this simple fact which is wilfully ignored by many ‘revolutionaries’. They misuse What is to be done? as the justification of an ‘ultra-left’ policy of the sort which Lenin fought against bitterly and consistently. The revolutionary groups took from What is to be done? such concepts as ‘trade union consciousness’ and ‘economism’, and, in the first phase of a strategy oriented to industry, they rejected all forms of economic activity. The workers’ struggles for wages were dismissed as revisionist, reformist, social-democratic, etc. Only direct confrontation with the instruments of capitalist domination – in the factory, in the university, on the streets, or in apprentices’ hostels – were admitted as part of the revolutionary strategy. According to this strategy, actions in the factory only became meaningful if they were directed against the structures of authority and control within the hierarchy of the factory. District base groups in Frankfurt in the spring of 1969 decided, for exactly the same reasons, not to attempt any agitation in the factories; clearly they were not yet strong enough to lead a direct ‘political’ attack on the capitalist factory, so they decided first to turn to the consumption and leisure sectors, and the conflicts arising there.

What was the reaction of those who for years had written off the economic struggle of the workers when, in September 1969, a wave of strikes for wages spread through the Saar, Ruhr and other industrial centres of West Germany.

It must be made clear from the start, that they could not react on a practical level, since it was not possible overnight to overcome the hitherto existing isolation of the student revolutionary left from the core of the working class (that is, the workers and employees of 20 years’ standing in the big factories). The comparatively great importance of the Communist Party cadres in the development of at least some of the strikes vividly illuminates the chief weakness of the revolutionary left – the lack of roots in the working class. The SDS groups stood at the gates of the factories, the CP could act on the factory floor.

Fundamentally, in its interpretation of the September strikes, the Left sticks to its false and sectarian evaluation of trade union, i.e. economic, struggles. The demand of workers for higher wages, their struggle for economic improvements, is immediately dismissed as ‘social democratic’ and ‘traditional’. Confronted with the trade union struggle, these ‘revolutionaries’, as it were by a trick, manage to avoid a thorough self-criticism. While previously economic struggles were generally interpreted as ‘immanent to the system’, able to be integrated, in face of the strike wave they made a 180-degree turn: now a particular manifestation of the economic struggle was interpreted as being latently revolutionary. For example, the Heidelberg SDS write:

‘The social-democratic (i.e. “economic”) consciousness of the workers has taken on a practical form in opposition to capital, to the unions and to the SPD, because the latter have become increasingly entangled in their own contradictions. By taking on this practical form it has ceased to be social democratic.’

The contradiction erected here between a radical form of struggle (spontaneous resolute strikes) and economic consciousness exists only in the heads of the comrades of the Heidelberg SDS. The demand for higher wages is in no way ‘social-democratic’, but an economic or (what comes down to the same thing) a trade union demand. As such it is neither revolutionary nor reformist in the sense of a reformist political strategy. The economic struggle of the workers is the most elementary form of class struggle. Revolutionary struggle in no way means abandoning the daily struggle against the direct effects of capitalism, but on the contrary it means a systematic linking and merging of the economic struggle with the revolutionary political struggle for the overthrow of capitalist rule.

Most analyses of the September strikes, inasmuch as they represent more than a mere description of events, tend in the same direction – that is, to an overestimation of the revolutionary potential of the strikes. This is particularly clear in the evaluation of the Klockner strike. It is interpreted as the prototype of a revolutionary strike; for example, Lefevre writes:

‘We can see clearly how the radical forms of struggle and the clear consciousness of the non-trade union character (!) of the strike coincides with a great capacity for self-organisation on the part of the workers.’

According to this definition the strike of the Hessen rubber workers in 1967 was ‘traditional’, ‘reformist’, ‘social-democratic’, etc, because it was organised and supported by the union, but the Klöckner strike was ‘anti-capitalist’, ‘non-trade union’, ‘potentially revolutionary’ ... because the workers in spontaneous struggle came to a sense of contradiction between their interests and those of the union bureaucracies, and because they organised the strike themselves without the support of the union machinery. According to this definition, too, the strike of the Saar miners was ‘revolutionary’, because they turned against the union bureaucrats, and organised the strike themselves; here too ‘social democratic consciousness’ broke out into ‘practical spontaneity’. There was only one flaw on this strike; the strikers were so carried away they applauded the Christian Democratic local representative Röder, who had expressed ‘solidarity’ with their demands.

Taking the example of Lefevre’s article (quoted above) we shall now show some of the particular consequences that such a position leads to. This article will therefore be criticised as an example, because in it the false interpretations that have also appeared in other analyses are here theoretically formulated and developed consistently into an organisational strategy. Moreover the article had a very wide circulation in a variety of national and local SDS publications.

Lefevre sees latent revolutionary tendencies in all strikes that are organised by the workers themselves outside of the trade unions. Thus he sees it as a contradiction that the workers at Hoesch on the one hand demanded an hourly bonus independently of the negotiations on the scale of wages, but on the other hand supported the strategy on wage rates of the IG Metall (metal workers’ union). According to him the demand for wage increases above the standard rate is to be considered ‘revolutionary’, because allegedly the strikers were ‘intentionally going beyond the unions’ line of conciliation’; but the support of a wage claim to raise the standard rate is seen as a regression in the ‘traditional framework, integrated into the system’. But why should the Hoesch workers, having been successful in their demand for 30 Pfennig over the standard rate, not support a demand for the raising of the standard rate by about 14 per cent? Money is money, after all. In a number of steel works the workers abandoned their claims for increases above the standard rate after the IG Metall had made its claim for a 14 per cent increase of the standard rate. To accuse these workers of following the ‘trade union line’ is absurd.

On the contrary. The union apparatus followed the line of the strikers (even though it was with the intention of bringing the strike movement under control). The tactical mistake of the strikers in this concrete example lay elsewhere; instead of breaking off the strike movement as soon as the demand for 14 per cent by the IG Metall leadership was announced on Saturday, September 6, the strike should have been continued until the negotiations for this 14 per cent were successfully carried through. The whole strike movement in the steel sector could thus have given itself a more general aim going beyond the limits of the particular factories; they could have prevented the IG Metall leadership having things their own way and aimed for a central demonstration of the Ruhr area on the day of the negotiations. The encouragement of solidarity which would have been produced by such an extension of strikes in particular factories for wages above the standard rates into a general strike movement for an increase in the standard rates is of course hard to estimate. In any case this was the only possible alternative strategy which would have opened the possibility of a quantitative and qualitative generalisation of the strike.

Lefevre erects a false antithesis between union bureaucracy and strikers. The conflict didn’t arise because the strikers advanced from a purely trade union consciousness to forms of revolutionary consciousness; on the contrary, just because they had developed a trade union consciousness of solidarity and because the unions had carried out their ‘trade union’ tasks only in a very partial and incomplete fashion did the conflict between workers and union bureaucrats arise.

The assistance that a revolutionary organisation can offer to workers in struggle consists in its ability to develop the class consciousness of the workers by helping them in their struggles for day-to-day demands. In this it cannot confine itself to presenting the workers with the magic words ‘self-organisation’. (Lefevre himself confirms that in the present circumstances the Berlin comrades cannot be of use to the struggling workers in an unofficial strike at Siemens or AEG-Telefunken, because the solidarity of the comrades is primarily expressed in the form of abstract exhortations to self-organisation.)

Lefevre cannot understand that in a round of negotiations where the workers intervene on their own initiative, in some circumstances a much higher level of consciousness of the corruptness of the union bureaucracy (though not anti-trade union consciousness) may arise, than in a strike for wages in a particular factory, which takes place alongside a round of negotiations. Thus the workers at Hoesch during their dispute with the management of their firm did not in any way feel themselves weighed down by the IG Metall bureaucracy. All they felt was how the IG Metall gave way to their pressure. On the other hand, the Dortmund miners, who, after the conclusion of a bad wage agreement turned to their unions and tried by means of strike action to force a reopening of the negotiations, brought out – intentionally or unintentionally – a sharp confrontation between the strikers and the union bureaucracy.

The abstract call for self-organisation does not contribute to the solution of the difficulties which face wage-earners today. The question that has to be answered concretely is: how, and for what purpose, are workers to organise themselves. The formation of a strike committee for the struggle against the employers and against reactionary factory committees may be an important first step in self-organisation. But strike committees are transitory forms of organisation. Today the real power for the defence of workers’ interests in the factories lies in the factory committees, employees’ committees and shop stewards’ organisations.

A real durable defence of workers’ interests in the factory will only become possible when the employees or the organised workers win control of these institutions. Self-organisation means the creation of organs of struggle which can be controlled by the workers themselves. To win control of the factory committees and the shop stewards’ organisations, to ensure in advance that the newly elected factory committee remains responsible to the workers after the election; such transitional demands already lead to an essentially higher form of self-organisation than a transitory strike committee or informal base groups. At a particular stage of the struggle it may be the job of revolutionary socialists to campaign for such a strategy in the factory. But just because revolutionary socialists know more than the workers they are advising, just because they know, for example, that the arms economy is not crisis free, but produces new forms of political and economic crises, which means there is no perspective for defensive struggles on the factory level, they have to propagate more far-reaching forms of organisation. Already in the present situation of the mining industry it would not be sufficient for the miners to develop a strategy of control of the committees by the workers. More than any other section of the working class they know from the coal crises that the miners of a particular pit can be powerless, however militant their pit committee may be. We have already seen that the miners of six pits were powerless, even though the strike of the Dortmund miners was led and co-ordinated by a central body. The miners came away empty-handed.

As far as the Dortmund miners’ strike is concerned, we may comment: their weakness did not lie in the fact that their demand for 1,000 Deutschmark minimum wage was directed at the leadership of the IG Bergbau (miners’ union) (rather than directly at the Ruhr Coal Co), but in the fact that they were not strong enough to spread the strike to other pits, and thus increase the pressure on the union leadership to such an extent that they would have been compelled to re-open negotiations. (A demand for wage increases above the standard rate would have been condemned to failure from the start.)

In the present situation, burning of union membership cards is the most inappropriate tactic. The workers are not ‘indoctrinated’ with trade union consciousness, as Lefevre believes; this consciousness corresponds to a long historical experience of the working class, that a trade union organisation is necessary to carry on the day-to-day struggle against the employers. Just because Lefevre sees the spontaneous strike for wages, in which a confrontation with the union bureaucracy arises, in which, to use Lefevre’s terminology, the workers abandon the ‘trade union line which props up the system’, as being potentially revolutionary, just because he has an excessively limited conception of the ‘only valid means of struggle’, just for these reasons he is unable to contribute anything ‘useful and valuable for the praxis of the workers’. And just because he arrives at a definition of the revolutionary workers’ struggle as being anti-trade union, the organisation tasks of the revolutionary left appear to him in such a limited form.

The emergence of conflicts between the union machine and striking workers, the increasing importance of strikes on the level of the particular factory in recent years, are certainly significant. An analysis of them gives us information about the tendencies in the development of the West German working class movement, as they have already manifested themselves over the last few years. An analysis of the strikes also permits a first attempt to define what concrete forms the self-organisation of workers may take in the present stage of economic struggles. But a Berlin comrade above all ought to know that such an analysis cannot be the basis for a thorough reorganisation of the revolutionary left. He ought to know that in Berlin every conflict between workers and capitalists, every conflict between union bureaucrats and union members, is overshadowed by the ‘Berlin problem’. Any serious Berlin crisis could destroy the fruits of 10 years’ of industrial militancy, unless socialist cadres have a clear answer to the questions: what is the social nature of the German Democratic Republic, what are the class interests of the Berlin workers in face of the East and West German regimes.

Lefevre confuses the economic struggle of the workers with revolutionary class struggle, and thus also confuses the organisational tasks of the striking workers with those of the revolutionary left.

It is our task to embark now on the building of a revolutionary workers’ party, which must be based on a programme which covers the essential political features of capitalism. In face of the centralised and disciplined power of the capitalists it must be an equally centralised and disciplined combat organisation of the proletariat. This organisation can therefore only be a democratic centralist revolutionary workers’ party.

Such a revolutionary programme cannot be ‘drawn up’ today in all its elements. Nor can a vanguard be called into being by an ‘act of founding’. There are dozens of organisations which endow themselves with the title of vanguard. But this is only one of the dangers that can be observed at present within the revolutionary left. The organisational path indicated by Lefevre is. just as false. We cannot conceive of the reorganisation of the revolutionary left as a process of centralisation of the base groups. The very idea of base groups demands that to some extent the question of longer-term strategy should remain open. Of course the improvised nature of the base groups allows a temporary unity of action between various revolutionary groups and individuals. But this lack of a perspective leads, in changed political circumstances, to their disintegration or paralysis – that is, when fundamental questions have to be answered which hitherto have been, consciously or unconsciously, neglected or excluded in the group’s discussion. Embryos of a revolutionary party – which must now be created – do not arise out of a movement in which the ‘natural tendency to split’ has been just as ‘naturally’ overcome. On the contrary, organisations can only be created by a conscious act. Some elements of the revolutionary left are now beginning to develop a process of comprehensive political agreement, though to start with this is limited to a local level.

A fundamental reorganisation of the revolutionary left must be based on agreement on such points as the character of Western neo-capitalism, the nature of the states of the Eastern block, the nature of the colonial revolution since the Second World War, the relation of workers and students, the organisational question, both in the immediate future and in the long term, etc. The new revolutionary party will not develop in a straight line from the present groups. There will be unifications and also splits.

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