Revolutionary syndicalism in Germany (III)

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In the two previous articles[1] we showed that from the 1890s a proletarian opposition developed within the German unions. At the beginning it was against reducing the workers’ struggle to purely economic questions as the general confederations of the unions were doing. It then went on to oppose illusions in parliament and the SPD’s increasing confidence in the state. But it was only from 1908, following the break with the SPD, that the Free Union of German Unions, the FVDG, developed clearly towards revolutionary syndicalism. The outbreak of the 1st World War in 1914 presented the revolutionary syndicalists in Germany with the acid test: support the nationalist politics of the dominant class or else defend proletarian internationalism. Together with the internationalist minorities around Liebnecht and Luxemburg, the revolutionary syndicalists of the FVDG in Germany formed a current – too often forgotten unfortunately – which held fast against the war hysteria.

The test of the hour: the “union sacrée” or internationalism

Hand in hand with Social Democracy, which publicly voted for war credits on 4th August 1914, the leadership of the big social democratic unions also bowed down before the war plans of the dominant class. At the conference of the directive committees of the social democratic unions on 2nd August 1914, where it was decided to suspend all strikes and all struggles for demands so as not to compromise the war mobilisation, Rudolf Wissell gave voice to the chauvinist convulsions which had pervaded the social democratic unions: “If Germany is defeated in the present struggle, which none of us wants, then all union struggles after the end of the war will be destined to failure and futility. If Germany triumphs a positive conjuncture will be inaugurated and the means of the organisation will not have to weigh so heavily in the balance.[2]The appalling logic of the unions lay in making a direct connection between the lot of the working class and the outcome of the war; if “their country” and their dominant class profited from the war, then this would also benefit the workers, because they could depend on domestic policy to make concessions to the working class. Consequently, every effort had to be made to ensure Germany military victory.

The inability of the social democratic unions to take up an internationalist position against the war is not surprising. Once the defence of working class interests is entrapped in the national framework, once bourgeois parliamentarism is embraced as a panacea rather than the international conflict between the working class and capitalism being the political orientation, this must inevitably lead into the capitalist camp.

In fact the dominant class in Germany was only able to go to war thanks to the public conversion of the SPD and its unions! The social democratic unions did not just passively follow. No, they developed a real war policy, a chauvinist propaganda and were a crucial factor in ensuring intensive war production. “Socialist reformism” was turned into “social imperialism” as Trotsky put it in 1914.

Of those workers who tried to swim against the tide immediately after the declaration of war in Germany, a number of them were influenced by revolutionary syndicalism. The strike on the steam-ship “Vaterland”[3] just before the beginning of the war, in May-June 1914, is an example of the confrontation between the combative fractions of the working class and the main social democratic union, which defended the “Union Sacrée”. The largest ship in the world at the time was the proud emblem of German imperialism. Part of the crew, of whom many were workers of the revolutionary industrial union federation, went on strike during its maiden voyage from Hamburg to New York. The Social Democratic Federation of the German Transport Workers’ Union was bitterly opposed to this strike: “Consequently, all those who took part in the assemblies of the revolutionary syndicalists have committed a crime against the sailors. […] We reject wild cat strikes on principle. […] And with the gravity of the present situation, which requires the mobilisation of the whole work force, the revolutionary unionists are trying to divide the workers and, in doing so claim to follow the slogan of Marx that the emancipation of the workers can only be the task of the workers themselves.[4]The calls for unity in the workers’ movement on the part of the social democratic unions were no more than empty phrases aimed at ensuring their control over working class movements and pushing them into “a union to support the war” in August 1914.

It would be quite unfair to reproach the revolutionary syndicalists in Germany for having abandoned the class struggle in the weeks preceding the declaration of war. On the contrary, for a short time they acted as a rallying point for the combative workers: “Workers went there and heard the term revolutionary syndicalism for the first time and here they expected to realise their desire for revolution.[5] However, all the organisations of the working class, including the revolutionary syndicalist current, had another task to accomplish. As well as continuing the class struggle, it was indispensable to expose the imperialist nature of the war that was taking place.

What was the attitude of the revolutionary syndicalist FVDG to the war? On 1st August 1914, in their main publication, Die Einigkeit; they adopted a clear position against the coming war, not as naïve pacifists but as workers seeking solidarity from those in other countries: “Who wants war? Not the working people, but a military camarilla of good-for-nothings in every European state which is greedy for martial victory. We workers don’t want war! We loath it, it destroys culture, it rapes humanity and greatly increases the number crippled by the current economic war. We workers want peace! We don’t make distinctions between Austrians, Serbs, Russians, Italians, French etc. Brothers in toil, that’s our name! We hold out our hands to the workers of all countries in order to prevent a terrible crime which will give rise to torrents of tears from the eyes of mothers and children. Barbarians and those who are against all civilisation may well see war as a sublime and holy thing – men who are sensitive at heart, socialists, guided by a conception of the world formed by justice, humanity and love of man, detest war! Therefore, workers and comrades everywhere, raise your voices in protest against this crime against humanity that is being planned! It will rob the poor of what they have as well as costing them their life-blood, but it will bring profit to the rich, glory and honour to the defenders of militarism. Down with the war!

On 6th August 1914 German troops attacked Belgium. Franz Jung, a sympathiser of the revolutionary syndicalist FVDG, latter a member of the KAPD, paints a vivid picture of his experience at the time in a Berlin that was drunk with war hysteria: “At least a crowd descended on the few dozen demonstrating for peace, whom I had joined. As far as I can recall, this demonstration had been organised by the revolutionary syndicalists around Kater and Rocker. A banner mounted on two poles was displayed, a red flag was raised and the demonstration ‘Down with the war!’ started off. We didn’t get very far.”[6]

Let’s hear the words of another revolutionary of the period, the internationalist anarchist, Emma Goldman: “In Germany Gustav Landauer, Erich Mühsam, Fritz Oerter, Fritz Kater and many other comrades stayed in contact. We were obviously no more than a handful in comparison with the thousands intoxicated by the war. Even so we managed to distribute a manifesto of our International Bureau throughout the world and we denounced the war for what it really was with all our might.[7] Oerter and Kater were the most important experienced members of the FVDG. The FVDG maintained its position against the war throughout the conflict. This was undoubtedly the greatest strength of the FVDG – but strangely enough, it is the chapter in its history which is the least documented.

As soon as the war started, the FVDG was banned. Many of its members – in 1914 it still had about 6,000 – were placed in detention or forcibly sent to the front. In the Review Der Pionier, another of its publications, the FVDG wrote in the editorial of 5th August 1914, “The International Proletariat and the coming world war” that “everyone knows that the war between Serbia and Austria is just a visible expression of chronic war fever…” The FVDG described how the governments of Serbia, Austria and Germany had managed to win over the working class to its “war hysteria” and it denounced the SPD and its lie about a so-called “defensive war”: “Germany will never be the aggressor, this is the idea that these government gentlemen are already putting into our heads, and this is why the German Social Democrats, as their press and their spokesmen have already shown to be their perspective, will find themselves to a man squarely in the ranks of the German army.” Issue n° 32 of Die Einigkeit, 8th August 1914, was the last to be distributed to militants.

Internationalist anti-militarism

In the introduction to this series of articles on revolutionary syndicalism, we distinguished between anti-militarism and internationalism. “Internationalism is based on the understanding that, although capitalism is a world system, it remains nonetheless incapable of going beyond the national framework and an increasingly frenzied competition between nations. As such, it engenders a movement that aims at the international overthrow of capitalist society by a working class that is also united internationally. […] Anti-militarism, by contrast, is not necessarily internationalist, since it tends to take as its main enemy not capitalism as such, but only an aspect of capitalism.[8] In which camp was the FVDG ?

In the FVDG’s press in this period, there is little elaborated or developed political analysis on the causes of the war or the relations between the various imperialist powers. This gap is a consequence of the syndicalist vision of the FVDG. It saw itself, particularly at this time, as an organisation for struggle at an economic level, although in fact it was more like a co-ordination of groups defending syndicalist ideas than a union as such. The bitter confrontations with the SPD that ended in 1908 with its exclusion, had produced within the ranks of the FVDG a decided aversion to “politics” and, consequently, the loss of what had been learnt from past struggles against the ideology expounded by the big social democratic unions, that there is a separation between the economic and the political. Although the FVDG’s understanding of the dynamic of imperialism was not really as clear as it needed to be, the organisation was nevertheless obliged by the war to adopt a decidedly political position.

The history of revolutionary syndicalism in Germany shows, through the example of the FVDG, that theoretical analyses of imperialism alone are not enough to adopt a genuinely internationalist position. A healthy proletarian instinct, a profound feeling of solidarity with the international working class are just as essential – and it was just this that formed the backbone of the FVDG in 1914.

On the whole the FVDG described itself as “anti-militarist”; we hardly find the term internationalism. But to do full justice to the revolutionary syndicalists of the FVDG, it is absolutely necessary to take account of the real nature of its oppositional work against the war. The FVDG’s point of view on the war was not at all bound by national frontiers, nor was it imbued with the illusions spread about by pacifism on the possibility of a peaceful capitalism. Unlike the majority of pacifists who, immediately after the declaration of war, found themselves in the ranks of those defending the nation against foreign militarism – the one that was supposed to be the more barbaric – on 8th August 1914 the FVDG clearly warned the working class against any co-operation with the national bourgeoisie: “So the workers must not put their faith credulously in humanity as it is at the moment, that of the capitalists and the bosses. The present war hysteria must not cloud awareness of the class antagonisms existing between Capital and Labour.[9]

For the comrades of the FVDG it was not a matter of opposing just one aspect of capitalism, militarism, but of integrating the struggle against the war into the general struggle of the working class to go beyond capitalism internationally, as Karl Liebnecht had put it in his 1906 pamphlet Militarism and Anti-militarism. In his article of 1915, Anti-militarism!, he rightly criticised the heroic and apparently radical expressions of anti-militarism, such as desertion, which leave the army even more in the hands of the militarists by eliminating the best anti-militarists. For this reason “any method that functions in an exclusively individual way or is realised individually is to be rejected on principle”. Within the international revolutionary syndicalist movement, there were very different views on the anti-militarist struggle. Domela Nieuwenhuis, historically a representative of the idea of the general strike, described the means to achieve it as a curious mixture of reforms and individual objection in the 1901 pamphlet Militarism. This was not at all the case for the FVDG, which shared Liebnecht’s conviction that only the class struggle of all the workers collectively – and not individual action – could stop the war.

The production of the FVDG’s press was the responsibility of the secretariat (Geschäftskommission) in Berlin, that was composed of 5 comrades around Fritz Kater and it expressed strongly the individual political positions of these comrades because of the weak organisational cohesion of the FVDG. Even so, the internationalism of the FVDG was not restricted to a minority of the organisation, as was the case with the revolutionary syndicalist CGT in France. It did not experience splits within its ranks on the question of the war. It was rather repression against the organisation and the fact that its members were forcibly sent to the front which meant that only a minority was able to sustain a permanent activity. Revolutionary syndicalist groups remained active mainly in Berlin and in about 18 other places. After Die Einigkeit was banned in August 1914, contact was maintained by means of the Mitteilungsblatt and then, once this too was banned in June 1915, through the publication Rundschreiben, which was also made illegal in May 1917. The heavy repression against the internationalist revolutionary syndicalists in Germany meant that from the beginning of the war their publications were more in the nature of internal bulletins than public reviews: “The directive committees, or those entrusted with the task, must immediately produce only the number of issues needed for their existing members and must distribute the bulletin only to them.[10]

The comrades of the FVDG also had the courage to oppose the mobilisation for participation in the war carried out by the majority of the revolutionary syndicalist CGT in France: “All this excitement to war on the part of international socialists, unionists and anti-militarists doesn’t serve one jot to shake us from our principles[11] they wrote, referring to the capitulation of the majority of the CGT. The question of war had become the touch stone in the international revolutionary syndicalist movement. To confront their big sister, the revolutionary syndicalist CGT, they had to have a very solid loyalty to the working class because the CGT and its theories had been an important reference point over the years in the FVDG’s evolution towards revolutionary syndicalism. During the war the comrades of the FVDG supported the internationalist minority, around Pierre Monatte, who left the CGT.

Why did the FVDG remain internationalist?

All the unions in Germany succumbed to nationalist war fever in 1914. Why was the FVDG an exception? We cannot give a reply to this question by simply attributing it to their “luck” in having – as they did – a secretariat (Geschäftskommission) that was firm and internationalist. Likewise, we cannot explain the capitulation of the social democratic unions on the question of war by their misfortune in having treacherous leaders.

The FVDG did not remain solidly internationalist simply because of its clear evolution towards revolutionary syndicalism from 1908 onwards. The example of the French CGT shows that revolutionary syndicalism of the period was not in itself a guarantee of internationalism. On the whole we can say that a declaration of faith in marxism, anarchism or revolutionary syndicalism does not in itself guarantee internationalism in deed.

The FVDG refused the patriotic lie of the dominant class, including social democracy, of a purely “defensive war” (a trap into which Kropotkin tragically fell). It denounced in its press the logic according to which each nation presented itself as the one “under attack”; Germany from shady Russian Tsarism, France from Prussian militarism, etc.[12] This clarity could only develop on the basis of understanding that it was now impossible to distinguish, within capitalism, more modern nations from more backward ones and that capitalism as a whole had became destructive for humanity. In the period of the first world war the internationalist position was characterised above all by the political denunciation of the “defensive war”. It is no accident that, in Autumn 1914, Trotsky dedicated an entire pamphlet to this question.[13]

The FVDG also reasoned in accordance with human principles: “Socialism places human principles above national principles.” “It is difficult to find oneself on the side of a humanity that is drowning in affliction, but if we want to be socialists, that is our place.”[14] The question of solidarity and the human relation to other workers throughout the world is a basis of internationalism. The internationalism of the FVDG, expressed in 1914 in a proletarian way against the war, was a sign of the strength of the revolutionary syndicalist movement in Germany in relation to the decisive question of war.

The principal roots of the FVDG’s internationalism are to be found above all in its long history of opposition to the reformism that pervaded the SPD and the social democratic unions. Its aversion to the SPD’s universal panacea of parliamentarism played an essential role because it prevented it from becoming ideologically integrated into the capitalist state, unlike the social democratic unions.

In the years leading up to the outbreak of the world war, contrasts between three tendencies within the FVDG appeared: one expressed its identity as a union, another the resistance to “politics” (of the SPD) and a third the reality of the FVDG as a collection of propaganda groups (a reality which, as we have already explained, blocked its capacity to produce clear analyses of imperialism). This confrontation produced only weaknesses. Confronted with the openly chauvinist policies of the SPD and the other unions, the old reflex to resist the depoliticisation of the workers’ struggles, quite strong until the debate on the mass strike in 1904, was revived.

Although, as we wrote in our previous article, the resistance of the FVDG to reformism bore with it strange weaknesses, such as an aversion towards “politics”, what was determinant in 1914 was its attitude to the war. The internationalist contribution of the FVDG was at that time much more important, for the working class, than its weaknesses.

Its healthy reaction against turning all its attention to Germany, in spite of the difficult conditions, was decisive in its capacity to maintain a firm internationalist position. The FVDG sought contact not only with Monatte’s internationalist minority in the CGT, but also with other revolutionary syndicalists in Denmark, Sweden, Spain, Holland (National Arbeids Secretariaat) and Italy (Unione Sindacale Italiana) who were trying to oppose the war.

Insufficient contact with the other internationalists in Germany

How strongly could the international voice of the FVDG make itself heard within the working class during the war? It fought energetically against the perfidious organs that had joined the “Union Sacrée”. As its internal publication Rundschreiben attests, it accepted the consequences of its position by refusing to participate in the war committees:[15]Certainly not! Such a function is not for our members or functionaries […] no-one can ask that of them.”[16] But in the years 1914-1917, it addressed itself almost exclusively to its own members. On the basis of a realistic assessment of their impotence at the time and the impossibility of being a real obstacle to the war, but above all, justifiably afraid that the organisation would be destroyed, Fritz Kater, in the name of the secretariat (Geschäftskommission) addressed the comrades of the FVDG on 15th August 1914 in the Mitteilungsblatt: “Our views of militarism and the war, as we have defended them and spread them for decades and which we will guarantee until the end of our lives, are not admissible in a period of feverish enthusiasm for the war. We are condemned to silence. It was to be expected and so we are by no means surprised that we have been outlawed. We must resign ourselves to remaining silent, as must all other union comrades.

Kater expresses on the one hand the hope of maintaining an activity as it was before the war (which was however impossible because of the repression!) and on the other hand the minimal aim to save the organisation: “The secretariat (Geschäftskommission) is of the opinion that it would not be acting in accordance with its duty if it stopped all its other activities now that the publications have been banned. This must not be the case. […] It will maintain the links between the different organisations and will do all that is necessary to prevent their decomposition.

The FVDG in fact survived the war but not because it had a particularly effective survival strategy or because it made insistent appeals not to leave the organisation. It was obviously its internationalism that served as an anchor for its members throughout the war.

When, in September 1915 the international declaration against the war – the Zimmerwald Manifesto – received considerable echo, the FVDG welcomed it and expressed solidarity. It did so above all because it was close to the internationalist minority of the CGT that was present at Zimmerwald. But the FVDG was suspicious of many of the groups at the Zimmerwald conference on the grounds that they were still too much tied to the parliamentary tradition. In truth, the suspicion was not unjustified; six of those present, including Lenin, said: “The manifesto accepted by the conference does not completely satisfy us. […] The manifesto does not contain any clear idea on how to combat the war.[17] Unlike Lenin, the FVDG was not sufficiently clear either on how to oppose the war. Its suspicions were rather the expression of a lack of openness towards other internationalists, as shown by their relationship to those in Germany.

Why was there not even any co-operation in Germany between the international opposition of Spartakusbund and the revolutionary syndicalists of the FVDG? For a long time there had been a wide gap between them that could not be closed. About ten years earlier in the debate on the mass strike, Karl Liebnecht had attributed to the FVDG as a whole the individualist weaknesses of one of its temporary spokesmen, Rafael Friedeberg. As far as we know, the revolutionaries around Rosa Luxembourg and Karl Liebnecht did not seek contact with the FVDG either during the early years of the war, certainly because they underestimated the internationalist capability of the revolutionary syndicalists.

The FVDG’s attitude to Liebnecht, the figure who symbolised the movement against the war in Germany, was anything but constant, which prevented it from coming closer politically. On the one hand, it never forgave Liebnecht for approving the war credits in August 1914, a vote that he made without conviction and exclusively on the basis of a wrong conception of fraction discipline, which he himself subsequently criticised. Even so, in its press the FVDG always defended him when he was the victim of repression. The FVDG did not believe that the revolutionary opposition within the SPD was capable of freeing itself from parliamentarism, a step that it had itself managed only by splitting from the SPD in 1908. There was deep distrust. It was only at the end of 1918, when the revolutionary movement had spread throughout the whole of Germany that the FVDG called upon its members to join the Spartakusbund temporarily, as a second affiliation.

In retrospect neither the FVDG nor the Spartakists tried to establish contact with one another on the basis of their internationalist position during the war. In fact the bourgeoisie recognised the fact that the FVDG and the Spartakists shared an internationalist position rather better than did the two organisations themselves: the SPD-controlled press often tried to denigrate the Spartakists as being close to the “Kater tendency”.[18]

If there is a lesson for today and for the future to be learnt from the history of the FVDG during the first world war, it is this: it is essential to make contact with other internationalists, even if there are differences on other political questions. This has nothing to do with the “united front” (which is based on a weakness at the level of principles and is even prepared to co-operate with organisations in the bourgeois camp) as it appeared in the history of the workers’ movement in the 1920s-30s. On the contrary, it is the recognition that internationalism is the most important proletarian position and that it is held in common.

 Mario 5/8/2011.


[1]. See “The birth of revolutionary syndicalism in the German workers’ movement” in International Review n° 137 and “The Free Association of German Trade Unions: on the road to revolutionary syndicalism” in International Review n° 141

[2]. H.J.Bieber: Gewerkschaften in Krieg und Revolution, 1918, vol.1, p.88 (our translation).

[3]. “Fatherland” in German.

[4]. See Folkert Mohrhof, Der syndikalistische Streik auf dem Ozean-Dampfer „Vaterland“ 1914, 2008 (our translation).

[5]. Die Einigheit, main publication of the FVDG, 27th June 1914, article by Karl Roche, “Ein Gewerkschaftsfuhrer als Gehilfe des Staatsanwalts“, (our translation).

[6]. Franz Jung, Der Weg nach unten, Nautilus, p.89 (our translation).

[7]. Emma Goldman, Living my Life, p. 656 (our translation). In February 1915, Emma Goldman and other internationalist anarchists, such as Berkman and Malatesta, made a public statement against the approval of the war on the part of the main representative of anarchism, Kropotkin, and others. In the Mitteilungsblatt of 20th February 1915, the FVDG welcomed this defence of internationalism against Kropotkin on the part of the revolutionary anarchists.

[8]. “What is revolutionary syndicalism?” International Review 118,

[9]. Die Einigkeit, no 32, 8 August 1914.

[10]. Mitteilungsblatt, 15 August 1914.

[11]. Mitteilungsblatt, 10 October 1914. Quoted by Wayne Thorpe in Keeping the faith: The German Syndicalists in the First World War. This work, together with the original documents of the FVDG, is the only (and very precious) source on German revolutionary syndicalism during the First World War.

[12]. See, among others, Mitteilungsblatt, November 1914 and Rundschreiben, August 1916.

[13]. The War and the International.

[14]. Mitteilungsblatt, 21st November 1914.

[15]. These war committees (Kriegsausschusse) were founded after February 1915, initially in the Berlin metal industry, between representatives of the bosses’ association and the big unions. The aim was to halt the growing tendency for workers to change workplace in search of a higher salary as the social bloodletting through the massacres had produced a dearth in the workforce. This “uncontrolled” movement was, according to the government and the unions, damaging to war production. The creation of these committees was based on a previous attempt made in August 1914 by the social democratic leader Theodor Leipart, aimed at setting up Kriegsarbeitgemeinschaften (war collectives with the employers) which, under the hypocritical pretence of acting in the interests of the working class to “combat unemployment” and regulate the work process, were in fact simply intended to make war production more efficient.

[16]. Quotes by W. Thorpe, Keeping the faith: The German Syndicalists in the First World War.

[17]. Declaration of Lenin, Zinoviev, Radek, Nerman, Hoglund, Berzin at the Zimmerwald conference, quoted by J. Humbert-Droz The Origins of the Communist International p.144.

[18]. Vorwarts, 9th January 1917.

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Development of proletarian consciousness and organisation: 


History of the workers' movement