Gilles Dauvé / Denis Authier

Germany in 1914

Chapter 1

Table of Contents:


Capitalism and the Proletariat

In 1914, Germany was well on the way to becoming the world’s leading economic power. It was particularly characterized by its new capitalist development, equipped with the most modern plant and infrastructure. Its labor productivity, achieved by means of the application of the most modern technologies to the production process, was higher than that of the other capitalist countries: the intensity and skill of its labor required less labor time to manufacture the same product.

The ratio of constant to variable capital was higher in Germany than in the other capitalist countries. The commercial prices of German products were lower than the average prices on the world market: Germany extracted and appropriated part of the surplus value produced by other fractions of world capital, or, expressed more precisely, of the world proletariat. This appropriation of surplus value not produced in Germany gave German capitalism a greater capacity for accumulation, modernization and new productivity gains. It also allowed a significant rise in wages benefiting not just a minority, but all the workers in Germany. One can only speak of a “labor aristocracy” in the case of professionals and highly-skilled workers (see below for discussion of this notion). This situation enjoyed by German capitalism formed the basis for the reformist politics of the German proletariat up to 1914, as well as that of the reformist socialist party, and of the German trade unions which were among the largest in the world; the following table provides comparative rates of unionization in the respective labor forces of three large capitalist countries:[1]

  Germany Britain United States
Year % % %
1910 8 14 6
1920 42 43 12
1930 24 22 7

Only the survival of these organizations, which had become autonomous in relation to the proletariat, gave any real force to the persistence of what has been called the “reformist spirit” which still held sway over the majority of the German proletariat after 1918. Between 1871 and 1913, real per capita income doubled in Germany and Great Britain, and tripled in the United States. There seemed to be no net progress, however, during the decade leading up to 1914 in Germany, England or France: instead, economic progress for the German workers was measured by the reduction of working time.[2] Wage differentials between skilled and unskilled workers rose between 1871 and 1913, falling only after 1914. These differentials fell from 31% to 18% in the railroads, and from 25% to 10% in construction (in Berlin, Hamburg and Stettin) between 1914 and 1918. At the same time, real wages decreased by 35% between 1914 and 1918: in 1921, they were still 10% below their 1914 level.[3] It is likely that the pre-1914 division[4] between skilled workers (organized in trade unions) and unskilled workers (usually unorganized) gave way after the war to a division between employed and unemployed workers, even though the possession of a job did not necessarily correspond with reformism, nor did unemployment necessarily correspond with revolutionary inclinations. The “unions” (AAU), born after 1919, consisted of employed workers, as was clearly demonstrated by the fact that they were composed of revolutionary factory organizations.

It was the relatively most modern characteristics of German capitalism which provided the conditions most conducive to the success of the proletarian revolution, and which made Germany the bastion of the world revolution. Not only was its organic composition of capital (proportion of constant to variable capital) higher than that of any other country, but the same was true of the relation between fixed and circulating capital.[5][6] The enormous importance, both in relative and absolute terms, of “dead” labor accumulated by past generations, which confers upon the current generation a greater net labor productivity, is a precondition which enormously facilitates the transition to communism, in which all needs must be satisfied and in which the labor time necessary for the preservation of life must, consequently, be considerably reduced. Communism is not, however, generalized automation, but an equilibrium between the “naturalization of man” and the “humanization of nature”, and it is foreseeable that the inauguration of a human life will not only reduce the need for objects, but will also set human activity free, and leave behind the memory of the parsimony of “so many hours” spent under the wage regime.[7] The coexistence of the reformist practice of the German working class along with certain material preconditions for communism would be manifested in such demands as the six or even the five hour day.

Another consequence of Germany’s high level of productivity was the fact that large factories clearly comprised the most representative sector of German capitalism. Automated machinery does not require professional workers who understand their jobs; the OS (unskilled workers) predominated in this sector: the 20,000 workers of the Leuna chemical works were typical representatives of this phenomenon (see Chapter 15). These OS were located on the fringes of the traditional trade union domain, which exclusively preserved its trade-defined structure from the 19th century. Organization by trade was a principle which ruled both reformist as well as revolutionary trade unionism. The OS were not part of the old trade-oriented world of the skilled workers. The concrete aspect of their labor, which is the concrete realization of the abstract and indifferent character of commodity-producing labor as such (see Capital, Vol. I, Chapter I), stimulates no interest in them at all. Wage labor, in which man exchanges his labor power as if it were something distinct from himself, preserves the individual as a man crushed and dissolved by the means of production in the form of capital. One of the new concrete qualities of labor in the large factories was its collective character: the product was not the result of the efforts of anyone in particular, but of the common efforts of all who work in the factories. Any one person’s labor cannot become pleasant nor can it be considered as a useful personal contribution unless it is experienced as a moment of a whole to which one feels connected. Wage labor, however, wherein man, in order to live, sells his labor power, preserves the individual as such and prevents the formation of a community which can only be the result of a system of communist production. Wage labor does, of course, have a collective dimension, but it pertains to capital: the only really existing community is that of the reproduction of capital.

Prior to the war, this mass of unskilled workers did not form part of the German trade unions, which had between two and three million members. There were two parallel trade union organizations. The socialist Zentrale, by far the larger of the two, brought together various “free trade unions” in a federation known in 1918-1919 as the ADGB (General Federation of German Trade Unions). The other federation, the anarchosyndicalist or revolutionary syndicalist Zentrale, the FVDG (Federation of Free German Trade Unions), became the FAUD at the end of 1919 with the entry of numerous recently-created factory organizations (see Chapter 9). Before 1914, the sector which provided the basis for both Zentrales was composed of workers in the skilled trades: the FVDG was largely based among the construction workers.

The OS, on the other hand, together with the “revolutionary shop stewards” who were still members of the trade unions (see Chapter 4), created the “factory organizations” during the war, and later formed the autonomous “left” radical organizations of the proletariat: the AAUs (General Workers Unions). The trade unions could no longer ignore this majority of the proletariat, even though only the most radical minority of the OS joined the AAU. The skilled workers, previously reticent about admitting unskilled workers into the trade unions, welcomed them after 1919. The trade unions, which in fact adopted an organizational structure based on factory and industry, soon had nine million members. This development was also encouraged by pressure from capitalists who refused to enter into contracts with workers who were not members of the trade unions (see the KAPD Program).

The enormous growth of the trade unions proves that, despite the strength of its radical currents, the German proletariat was still, taken as a whole, reformist. One cannot speak of a labor aristocracy except in the case of a few sectors (generally the skilled, and some others as a result of their particular situations) which defended certain privileges against the other more numerous sectors (today such a division exists on an international scale). But even the most privileged sectors of the proletariat can become seeds of revolution if capital is compelled to submit their privileges to examination; just as, conversely, the other non-privileged sectors are not permanently compelled to be revolutionary, and it cannot be said that when they act in a reformist manner they do so because they are manipulated by corrupt or bribed elements. One cannot be manipulated for decades unless one is effectively manipulable. In his pamphlet on imperialism, Gorter treated all proletarians, without distinction, as “lackeys”. These sectors benefited from the super-profits obtained by capital thanks to its favorable or dominant position in the world market. One cannot speak of a “minority” within the German proletariat except to designate the minority of revolutionaries confronting the workers as a whole.

Understood as a minority which lives at the expense of the workers movement (“bureaucrats” of the party, the trade unions, the cooperatives, etc.), the labor aristocracy is a definite sociological reality. But its activities do not explain everything.[8] Although materially favored, certain sectors can behave in the most radical fashion, since economic determination is not only a question of wages. During the war, a large number of metal workers were supporters of peace. One cannot refer to the “economy”, or the “spirit”, but only to the totality of real relations. As long as the war seemed inevitable, the mobilized worker supported it and actively participated in it, since the solidarity of the trenches was the only tangible reality remaining to him. The worker who was still at his workbench, often due to his skilled status, and, consequently, because he belonged to a privileged category, was subjected to more difficult working conditions and rebelled against the war, which for him was not so much an experienced reality as a threat: he might be mobilized.

The organization of workers into unions (unionen, in German; not to be confused with the “unions” of the English-speaking world, whose counterparts in this text shall be referred to on all occasions as “trade unions”—tr. note) or councils, formed especially during the extensive mass strike movement, corresponds to the transition from the “tool-machine phase” to the “specialized machinery phase”[9]: an epoch during which the trade unions passed from reformism (although not yet integrated into the State), to systematic collaboration, and capital passed from surrounding life, to totally penetrating life. At this juncture the proletariat made the workplace the site of its attempt to achieve unity because the workplace was not yet totally conquered by capital.[10] Many workers still worked on tool-machines. They were trained within the old trade union framework, and demonstrated the results of this training in the factories where they worked, where they preserved a relative autonomy and carried out many tasks. This stage of large-scale mechanized industry progressively yielded—later, with the war and then during the twenties, at an accelerated pace—to the stage of the OS and of the scientific organization of labor. There is no rupture between these two mutually interconnected periods; the struggles which developed immediately after the war, however, comprised the meeting point of the two phases.[11] In the United States and Canada, within a more modern capitalism, the most intense proletarian movement arose among the OS (who were often recent immigrants)[12] who tried to unite in the IWW (see Chapter 9). The councils constituted an attempt on the part of the proletarians to form autonomous groups: they were forced to do so; there was no other way to carry out any kind of struggle, even a simple reformist struggle. In their collaboration with the bourgeoisie, the trade unions went so far as to give their approval to the prohibition of strikes, and even prohibited them themselves; the councils were therefore above all compelled to undertake the tasks which the trade unions no longer fulfilled. Their form (organization by factory, uniting organized and unorganized workers) was better-adapted for an effective reformist struggle against modern capitalism. But the control of the entire productive apparatus by workers councils is in no way revolutionary if the workers limit themselves to administering what has fallen into their hands in the same way as before, or even better, with greater efficiency than before. Capitalist society, although managed by the workers themselves, would still be capitalist.


The German State

Germany underwent an abortive bourgeois and national revolution at the beginning of the sixteenth century. The Peasant War, which was also a semi-communist movement, was at the same time the military organization of the aspirations of a stratum of middle peasants who (like the bourgeoisie) wanted to eliminate feudal obstacles to agricultural production and its commercialization. This bourgeois revolution was aborted, in part due to fear of the intervention of the popular classes, and its failure strengthened the power of the nobility. The patchwork parcelization of Germany would last for another two centuries.[13] The same phenomenon was repeated in 1848. The bourgeoisie, fearing—among other things—the workers uprisings, did not dare to make their revolution. Rather than a result of foreign pressure (particularly that of Russia, which was exaggerated by Marx), this was more due to the weakness of those domestic factors favoring German unification, which condemned Germany to await its national revolution.[14]

The German State was an expanded version of the Prussian bureaucracy which was renovated during the Bismarck era, that is, after the wake-up call delivered to all of Germany in 1848. It was “imperial absolutism”: the state’s ministries, whose officials were nominated by and answerable to the emperor, were staffed by cooptation from above. There was, of course, a parliament, but it was deprived of the essential “executive” power and was consequently impotent. German unification was quite recent. Each Land[15] had its parliament, the Landtag (diet). In the Prussian Land, which alone represented one-half of Germany, elections were held according to “estates” analogous to those of the Middle Ages. The population was divided into, and voted as, members of orders or estates (Stand) (nobles, landowners, peasants, city-dwellers, etc.). Each estate received an equal number of representatives. In the 1908 Prussian elections, the SPD obtained six seats with 600,000 votes, while the Conservatives obtained 212 seats with 4,000,000 votes. In Hamburg, Germany’s second-largest city and Europe’s busiest port, whose population doubled between 1890 and 1910, a similar electoral system prevailed: after 1890, one-third of its Reichstag deputies were socialists, but only twenty out of 160 delegates to Hamburg’s local diet belonged to the SPD.[16] Germany would not know real parliamentarism until the latter had become fully counterrevolutionary: having lost all social significance with bourgeois unification, its sole function then became the counterrevolution.

The recent character of Germany’s national unification would also be demonstrated by the fact that, as a whole, the German labor movement would think and act at the level of the Land, even after 1918. The revolution would take power in various Länder, but never in the whole Reich. “One of the characteristic aspects of the German workers movement has been its fragmentation into various powerful centers, potent and concentrated, but relatively isolated from each other. This situation, so unlike that of France, for example, is the result of the absence of a single political capital...”[17] At its formation the German State was conceded a major role in intervening in favor of the workers (the Bismarckian social laws), but it was kept at a distance from industry, over which it exercised a weaker control than the State did in the other developed countries. In 1914, it badly organized the transition to the war economy, and barely integrated the occupied regions of Belgium and France. German “State capitalism” was economically inefficient during the war years of 1914 to 1918.[18] Trade-union/army collaboration would begin during the war, since these were the two institutions capable of joint action on a national scale to direct available labor power to those sectors where it was most needed. The government of Hamburg therefore passed, during the conflict, from civilian to military hands due to the incompetence of the bourgeoisie: it was in order to mitigate the latter’s failings that the army assumed such an important centralizing role.[19]


The Inconclusive Bourgeois Revolution

The German bourgeoisie had a seminal weak point whose causes were summarized by Marx.[20] The bourgeoisie received the framework for its later development (the Reich) from the hands of the Prussian military-bureaucratic apparatus, upon which it was utterly dependent for its survival. Hence the contradictory coexistence of a capitalism which was highly-developed for its epoch and a bourgeoisie which was economically powerful but acted within the confines of a political form inherited from the end of the Middle Ages: an absolute bureaucratic monarchy, alongside a powerless parliament.

Similarly, the German bourgeoisie would receive democracy not from the hands of its own class but from those of another. It was the proletariat which would carry the democratic revolution of 1918 to victory. Until June 1920, the first governments of the new democratic and parliamentary Germany were dominated by the SPD, the largest workers party in the world, and as such the best-prepared to repress the proletarian revolution. As in Russia, these governments would call themselves the “Council of Peoples Commissars”. The socialist leader Ebert would be the first president of the republic. Until 1933, many provincial governments and diets (in the Länder), particularly in Prussia, would be dominated by the social democrats. The next form of the political rule of German capitalism would, furthermore, be denominated as national-socialist.

The struggle for democracy was one of the principle components of the SPD. The need for a democratic transformation of the German State, and the participation of the proletarians in this struggle (which implies violence) placed the German revolutionary movement after 1918, despite its novel aspects (which comprise the subject matter at the heart of this text) in line with the revolutionary movements of the 20th century. The social revolution was pursued by way of the democratic political revolution.[21]



[1] Bry: Wages in Germany 1871-1945, Princeton University Press, 1960, p. 268.

[2] Ibid., Chapter 6, pp. 266-322.

[3] Ibid., pp. 74-75.

[4] Marks: Journal of Modern History, September 1939, “The Sources of Reformism in the Social-Democratic Party of Germany, 1890-1914”.

[5] Reference is made to Capital, which we cannot summarize here.

[6] Fixed capital: capital which does not circulate in the sense of the “circulation” of capital. A fleet is fixed capital. See Vol. II.

[7] Marx: Fondements de la critique de l’économie politique, Anthropos, 1968, Vol. II, p. 215. Dauvé: Communisme et “question russe”, SET-Tête de Feuilles, 1972, pp. 162-71; and Le mouvement communiste, Champ Libre, 1972. [Note is missing in the text - MIA.]

[8] For a critique of the thesis of the “labor aristocracy”, see T. Cliff: Les racines économiques du réformisme, photocopy, Paris, 1969.

[9] Lefranc: Histoire du travail et des travailleurs, Flammarion, 1957, pp. 474-76.

[10] Invariance, No. 6.

[11] Lutte de classes, September-October 1974, “Les rapports sociaux communistes”.

[12] In his Imperialism... Lenin referred to the considerable number of immigrants employed in all the industrial countries of the epoch. [Note is missing in the text - MIA.]

[13] Engels: La guerre des paysans; N. Cohn: Les fanatiques de l’apocalypse, July 1962 (in English: The Pursuit of the Millenium, revised and expanded edition, Oxford University Press, New York, 1970); see, also, Debord’s critique of the latter in La société du spectacle, Champ Libre, 1971, pp. 93-94 (Thesis 38). In English, The Society of the Spectacle, Zone Books, New York, 1995.

[14] For a critique of Marx’s positions in 1848, see Korsch: Marxisme et contre-révolution, Seuil, 1975.

[15] The Länder are the various states which comprise Germany (Prussia, Bavaria, etc.); the Reich is the German nation organized as one State.

[16] R. Comfort: Revolutionary Hamburg, Stanford University Press, 1966, Chapter II.

[17] PC, No. 58, p. 120.

[18] Sternberg: Le conflit du siècle, Seuil, 1958, p. 186.

[19] Comfort, Chapter III.

[20] Textes 1842-47, Spartacus, 1970.

[21] See Le Roi de Prusse et la réforme sociale, in Textes 1842-47, and Invariance, No. 10. In English, see “Critical Notes on the Article ‘The King of Prussia and Social Reform. By a Prussian’”, in Karl Marx: Early Writings, tr. Rodney Livingstone and Gregor Benton, Penguin Books, New York, 1992.