ISJ Index | Main Newspaper Index

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

International Socialism, Autumn 1971


Volkhard Moseler & James Wickham

Special Feature: EUROPE 3

Class Struggle

2. Germany


From International Socialism, No.49, Autumn 1971, pp.22-23.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


FOR long West Germany has been one of the show-pieces of Western Capitalism. A high and steady growth rate, an integrated and depoliticised working class, no strikes. The perfect one-dimensional society. Yet this total social peace was based on the combination of the cold war and steadily rising real wages. Both preconditions no longer exist.

Contrary to myth, the German working class movement was not decapitated by the Nazis. In the first post-war years the Communists remained a mass movement, winning several seats in the first state parliaments. Yet the party was bound to Moscow and supported the imperialistic antics of its masters – the plundering of East Germany, the driving out of millions from their homes in the East, all culminating in the suppression of the 1953 Berlin Rising. It was therefore unable to offer any credible alternative to capitalism and fell victim to the general political onslaught as the West German ruling class re-established itself with the help of the Allies. Parallel with the pushing back of working-class power in the factories the Communists were witch-hunted from union positions. By the time the party was formally banned in 1956 it was a spent force.

The precondition for this defeat was that the working class should be convinced that the real enemy was in the East. Given the clear evidence of lower living standards and above all, of massive repression, the West German working class learnt to be thankful for small mercies and to keep its mouth shut. The rise in living standards and the transition to full-employment in the mid-’fifties cemented an already existing frontier-town system.

Yet West German capitalism slowly began to outgrow its national boundaries and to look for new outlets for investment and goods. Hence the ‘Ostpolitik’ of increasing trade and political relationships with Eastern Europe, exemplified in the as yet unratified peace treaties with Russia and Poland. Despite changing strategies, the aim remains the same: the winning back of the Eastern markets lost to German capitalism since 1945. However, this precludes the playing of the cold war card. An important basis of ruling class ideological hegemony is being destroyed by the ruling class itself.

The first serious pause in the upswing of German capitalism occurred in the crisis of 1966-7. In many industries short-time working was introduced and there were many dismissals. It was to help overcome any political results of this that the SPD entered the government to form the Grand Coalition with the ruling Christian Democrats in 1966.

The integration of all official opposition, plus the collapse of the cold war ideology, ensured the unparalleled size of the West German student movement, which reached its peak in 1968. Obviously it did not lead directly to the present slow rebirth of working-class militancy, but it has made the tasks easier: opposition was again seen as possible; Marxist ideas, if often in a rather odd form, were again available; and through contact with the movement many younger workers got their first political experience.

As industry recovered from the crisis profits rose rapidly in a massive boom, while wages remained at the level negotiated in the crisis. The result was a wave of unofficial strikes in September 1969. Over 140,000 workers, above all in the metal industry, struck and won massive wage increases. Almost as quickly, contracts in other industries were renegotiated, in case these workers too got the same idea.

The effect of the strikes was enormous, although at no stage did they become overtly political. The possibility of independent working class action was shown in practice and the taboo on striking was broken. The combination of depression and a recovery of real wages only because they had been fought for showed that the system did not automatically and for ever produce a rise in living standards every year. Since then the government has no longer been able to assume working class compliance and the trade unions have had to find better ways of controlling their members than ignoring them.

The Recent Strikes

In the 1969 election the SPD won an increased vote campaigning on the slogan of ‘peace abroad, reforms at home’, and with the small liberal party (FDP) built the ruling coalition. The peace is simply a continuation of the Ostpolitik in suitable language, while the reforms were nothing very dramatic (an improved pension scheme, some tax changes, a new factory law, etc.). But they do conflict with the main aim of the government, clearly expressed recently by the economics minister, Schiller – to keep Germany at the bottom of the international inflationary spiral. It is on the success of this that the government’s chance of avoiding a depression and of gaining re-election in 1973 depends. Although moderate by British standards, inflation is continuing (in the last year consumer prices have risen by 4.9 per cent) and affecting export prices, now standing at 122 in comparison to import prices of 110.4 (1962 = 100).

Thus in wage policy the government attempts to maintain a limit of 7-8 per cent, in comparison with last year’s rises of 12 per cent. For most workers this will mean little, if any, increase in real wages. Roughly until the revaluation of the Mark in May the government put direct and public pressure on the unions to keep their wage demands to its guide lines. The union bureaucrats, however, fearing that this would lead to a rapid politicisation of the membership against them as tools of the government, rejected this strategy, and are now trying to do the job themselves while the government keeps as much as possible in the background, announcing no guide lines and apparently playing the role of neutral mediator between the two sides of industry.

The union membership must be controlled for the common strategy of unions and government to succeed. But for the unions to control their members they must appear to be representing them. This was well shown in the recent chemical strike, where the union (IG-Chemie) officially was demanding 11 per cent. In fact it seems clear that the bureaucracy had agreed beforehand to settle for 7 per cent. They therefore evolved the so-called pin-prick tactic. It was left to individual factories to decide when and how to strike, and whatever they decided to do was supported by the union. However, the union also made very sure, firstly, that contact between the factories was kept at an absolute minimum, and that secondly, no vote took place. A vote to strike would have also meant a vote on the results of the strike, and maybe therefore a rejection of the agreement. As a result the strike was splintered, made totally ineffective, and duly settled for 7 per cent.

Whereas the chemical workers had had absolutely no previous strike experience, the metal workers, whose wage round is due in the autumn, are the most militant section of the German working class. The union, IG-Metall, has over 2 million members and the negotiations cover 4.2 million workers. The result will therefore set an example either way for the other wage negotiations taking place later this year. The government and the employers are busy propaganda making to the effect that the country stands on the immediate edge of a recession which is only avoidable with extreme moderation in wage demands. In fact since the beginning of the year the economic position of German capitalism has brightened: exports are rising, orders, though less than last year, are greater than in the boom year of 1965, and short time working has stabilised instead of increasing as prophesied. The dismissals that have taken pla.ce are due to a current rationalisation wave rather than any dramatic falling-off in demand. Above all the current investment plans of the employers negate the idea of a coming slump.

The strategy of IG-Metall will probably be to launch individual local strikes with as much ‘democracy’ as possible. The negotiations take place after the bi-annual union conference starting on September 27, which ensures that there is no national platform for attacks on the leadership, which has already announced that negotiations this year will be as decentralised as possible. A settlement of 7 per cent will probably result and lead to unofficial strikes in the more militant factories, but the union would clearly prefer that to having to launch a widespread official strike which could much more easily get out of control.

Yet this whole strategy is playing with fire. Allowing initiative to the local level means the Vertrauensleute (roughly shop stewards) have much more power, while the bureaucracy has to control much more tightly to ensure this rank and file power remains limited and localised. There are already signs that this is becoming more difficult to achieve.

The whole weakness of the German working class has been the lack of any rank and file organisation which could represent the workers at factory level. The factory councils are elected for the whole factory (i.e. no shop has its own member which it can control), are hedged with legal restrictions, and therefore very successfully incorporate the whole idea of ‘social partnership’ between workers and employers.

The other factory institution is the vertrauensleute – built up originally by the unions to ensure that the membership remembered that the union actually existed. Now these vertrauensleute are becoming more independent, representing the workers inside the factory and organising strikes to carry through their demands.

They are beginning to act as the focus for opposition to the policy of the union bureaucracy. Last year in the metal industry the demand for 15 per cent came from diem, and this year the vertrauensleute of at least one Ruhr steel works (Hoesch) have demanded a 15 per cent claim, the abolition of the lower wage groups and ‘an offensive wage strategy’. At least in the Ruhr area, though by no means everywhere else, the vertrauensleute are no longer directly controllable by the union bureaucracy.


The autumn, therefore, will see an intensification of the wage struggle. It is clear that the era of working class passivity is over. Any working class political movement, however, will need to fight against the stranglehold of the union bureaucracies, and for the strengthening of the rank and file organisation inside the unions. It will also need to have a clear position on both the role of the SPD and on the nature of the ‘socialist’ countries to the East. None of the existing national organisations are able to offer this – they remain dominated by Stalinism of both the left and right wing variety.

The DKP (communist party) claims, exaggeratedly, 40,000 members and is devoted both to Russia and to proving what good trade unionists Communists are by refusing any real criticism of the union bureaucracy. However, it is growing, recruiting largely students attracted by its working class image, but its credibility as the only organisation offering any national link-up of working class militants will undoubtedly lead to an increased working class membership in the near future. The splintered student movement, busy turning to the class with every possible romantic illusion, remains dominated by Maoism. The various Maoist parties have recruited individual workers without being able to offer any concrete strategy and usually on an anti-trade union position. Yet these groups are not ideologically fixed and are already shaken by the changing relationship between America and China.

However, the effective non-Stalinist forces remain restricted to local groups. The current position offers great possibilities for the revolutionary movement to really anchor itself in the working class. Whether it will be able to do this remains an open question.

Volkhard Moseler
James Wickham
(August 6, 1971)

Top of page

ISJ Index | Main Newspaper Index

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

Last updated on 19.2.2008