The revolutionary syndicalist movement in the German revolution, 1918-19

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The previous article1 provided an overview of the efforts of the revolutionary syndicalist current in Germany to defend an internationalist position against the war of 1914-18. The Free Union of German Trade Unions (Freie Vereinigung Deutscher Gewerkschaften - FVDG) had survived the war with only a few hundred members in hiding who, under conditions of brutal repression, were, like other revolutionaries, most of the time condemned to silence. But late in 1918 events came to a head in Germany. When the struggles broke out in November 1918, the spark from the Russian revolution of October 1917 ignited the mass action of the proletariat in Germany.

The reorganisation of the FVDG in 1918

During the first week of November 1918, the revolt of the sailors of the Kiel fleet brought German militarism to its knees. On November 11th Germany signed the armistice. The FVDG wrote: “The imperial government has been overthrown, not by parliamentary or legal means, but through direct action, not by the ballot box, but by force of arms by striking workers and mutinying soldiers. Without waiting on orders of leaders, workers and soldiers councils have been formed spontaneously and have immediately begun to dismiss the old authorities. All power to the workers and soldiers councils! This is now the watchword.”2

With the outbreak of the revolutionary wave, a turbulent era with a rapid influx of militants opened up for the revolutionary syndicalist movement in Germany. Membership increased from about 60,000 at the time of the revolution of November 1918 until mid-1919 to over 111,000 by the end of 1919. The political radicalisation of the working class at the end of the war drove many workers who had left the main social democratic unions because of the open support of the latter for the war policy, into the revolutionary syndicalist movement. The revolutionary syndicalist movement was clearly a place for honest and militant workers to come together.

With the publication of its new newspaper, Der Syndikalist, from December 14th 1918, the FVDG again made its voice heard: “From early August [1914], our press has been banned, our most prominent comrades taken into “custody”, any attempt by anyone, or any local unions to engage in political agitation has been outlawed. Yet the weapons of revolutionary syndicalism are in use today in every corner of the German Empire, and the masses instinctively feel the time has passed for formulating demands and that we now have to start to take action.”3 On December 26th and 27th Fritz Kater organised a conference in Berlin attended by 43 local unions of the FVDG and so it restarted its organised activity following the clandestinity of the war.

It was in the industrial and mining towns of the Ruhr that the FVDG experienced its most significant numerical growth. The influence of revolutionary syndicalists was particularly strong in Mülheim and forced the social democratic unions to withdraw from the workers’ and soldiers’ councils on December 13th 1918; it clearly opposed them as representatives of the workers and took this role into its own hands. Massive strikes of miners from the Hamborn region led by the revolutionary syndicalist movement took place from November 1918 to February 1919.4

Workers’ councils or unions?

Faced with the war of 1914, the revolutionary syndicalist movement in Germany had passed the historic test of defending internationalism against the war, and had not, like the vast majority of unions, rallied behind the war aims of the ruling class. The outbreak of the revolution of 1918 posed a huge new challenge: how is the working class going to organise to overthrow the bourgeoisie and make the revolution?

As was the case in Russia in 1905, then in 1917, in Germany in November 1918 the working class created workers’ councils that marked the emergence of a revolutionary situation. The whole period since the establishment of the “Localists” in 1892 and the formal foundation of the FVDG in 1901 had not given rise to any revolutionary upheaval. Unlike Russia, where, in 1905, the first workers’ councils appeared, reflection on the councils remained very abstract in Germany until 1918. During the brief but exciting “Winter of the Councils” from 1918 to 1919 in Germany, the FVDG still clearly saw its form of organisation as a union and it was as a union that it reappeared on the scene. The FVDG responded to the unique situation of the emergence of workers’ councils with great enthusiasm. The core of the revolutionary majority of the FVDG supported workers’ councils, so that Der Syndikalist n°2 of December 21st 1918 clearly proclaimed: “All power to the revolutionary workers and soldiers’ councils.”

However, theoretical consciousness often follows proletarian intuition. Despite the emergence of workers’ councils, and as if nothing new had happened, Der Syndikalist n°4 wrote that the FVDG was the only workers’ organisation “whose representatives and organs don’t need changing”, an expression that sums up the arrogance of the Reorganisation Conference of the FVDG in December 1918 and which became the motto of the revolutionary syndicalist current in Germany. But for the workers’ movement an era of great upheaval had opened up, where precisely a great deal had to change, particularly as regards the forms of organisation!

To explain the shameful policies of support for the war and opposition to the workers’ councils of the main unions, the FVDG tended to settle for a half-truth, and to ignore the other half. Only “social democratic education” was challenged. The question of the fundamental differences between the union form and that of the workers’ councils was completely neglected.

Undoubtedly the FVDG, and the organisation that came after, the FAUD, were revolutionary organisations. But they did not see that their organisation came from the same seeds as the workers’ councils: spontaneity, the desire to extend the movement and the revolutionary spirit – all characteristics that went well beyond union practices.

In the FVDG’s publications in 1919, it is almost impossible to find an attempt to address the fundamental contradiction between union practices and those of the workers’ councils, instruments of the revolution. Quite the contrary, it saw the “revolutionary unions” as the basis for the councils’ movement. “The revolutionary unions must expropriate the expropriators.... The workers’ councils and factory councils should direct production along socialist lines. The power to the workers’ councils; the means of production and goods produced to satisfy social needs. Such is the goal of proletarian revolution: the revolutionary syndicalist movement is the means to achieve it.” But did the revolutionary councils’ movement in Germany actually arise from the union movement? “It was the workers inside the ‘factory committees’ who had acted just like they had in the factory committees of the large enterprises in Petrograd in 1905, without knowing about this activity. In July 1916, the political struggle could not be conducted with support of the political parties and unions. The leaders of these organisations were the opponents of such a struggle; after the struggle, they also helped to deliver the leaders of this political strike to the scourge of repression of the military authorities. These ‘factory committees’, the term is not quite accurate, can be considered the precursors of the revolutionary workers’ councils in Germany today. ...These struggles were not supported and led by the existing parties and unions. This was the beginnings of a third type of organisation, the workers’ councils.5 This was how Richard Müller, member of Revolutionäre Obleute (Revolutionary “men of confidence”) described the “way it was achieved”.

The unionists of the FVDG were not the only ones not to question the union form of organisation. At that time, it was extremely difficult for the working class to draw out fully and clearly what was implied by the emergence of the “period of wars and revolutions”. The illusions in the union form of organisation, the bankruptcy of the latter faced with the revolution, had still to be subjected, inevitably, painfully and concretely, to practical experience. Richard Müller quoted above, wrote just a few weeks later when the workers’ councils were losing their power: “But if we recognise the necessity of the daily struggle for demands - and nobody can deny it - then we must also recognise the need to preserve the organisations that have the function of conducting this struggle, and these are the unions. (...) If we recognise the need for existing unions... then we must examine further ahead whether unions can find a place inside the council system. During the period when the council system was being established, it was necessary to unconditionally answer this question in the affirmative.6

The social democratic unions had lost credit in the eyes of the broad masses of workers and doubts grew increasingly about whether these organisations could still represent the interests of the working class. In the logic of the FVDG, the dilemma of capitulation and the historic bankruptcy of the old form of union organisation was resolved by the prospect of “revolutionary syndicalism”.

At the beginning of the era of the decadence of capitalism, the impossibility of the struggle for reforms put forward the following alternative for the permanent mass organisations of the working class: either they were integrated by state capitalism into the state (as had usually been the case with the social democratic organisations – but also for some revolutionary syndicalist unions like the CGT in France); or it destroyed them (which was ultimately the fate of the revolutionary syndicalist FAUD). This raises the question of whether the proletarian revolution requires other forms of organisation. With the experience we have today, we know that it is not possible to put new content into old forms, such as the trade unions. The revolution is not only about content but also about form. This is the view stated quite correctly by the theoretician of the FAUD, Rudolf Rocker, in December 1919 in his critique of false visions of the “revolutionary state”: “We can’t agree with the expression the revolutionary state. The state is always reactionary and to not understand that is to not understand the depth of the revolutionary principle. Every tool is shaped in accordance with its proposed use; and this is also the case for institutions. The pincers of the farrier are not suitable for pulling teeth and the grippers used by the dentist cannot shape a horseshoe…”7 This, unfortunately, is exactly what the revolutionary syndicalist movement has failed to apply consistently to the question of the form of organisation.

Against the trap of “works councils”

So as to politically emasculate the spirit of the system of workers’ councils, the Social Democrats and their unions in the service of the bourgeoisie began to skilfully undermine from within the principles of self-organisation of the working class in the councils. This was only possible because the workers’ councils emerged from the struggles of November 1918, and these struggles had lost their strength and vitality with the first ebb of the revolution. The first Congress of the Councils from 16th to 20th December 1918, under the subtle influence of the SPD and the continued weight of illusions of the working class in democracy, had abandoned its power and proposed the election of a National Assembly, completely disarming itself.

In the spring of 1919, after the wave of strikes in the Ruhr, the SPD government took the initiative of proposing the establishment of “works councils” in the factories – representatives of the de facto workforce actually fulfilling the same function of negotiation and collaboration with the capital as the traditional unions. Under the auspices of the Social Democratic Party and trade union officials, Gustav Bauer and Alexander Schlicke, the works councils were permanently enshrined in the bourgeois Constitution of the German State in February 1920.

It was necessary to develop the illusion inside the working class that the fighting spirit expressed inside the workers’ councils would find its incarnation in this new form of direct representation of workers’ interests. “The works councils are designed to address all issues related to work and pay. It is their responsibility to ensure the continuation and increase of production in the company and seek to eliminate any obstacles that may arise... District committees in collaboration with the management regulate and supervise the standard of the work in the district, as well as the distribution of raw materials.8 After the bloody repression of the working class, democratic integration into the state would definitely seal the work of the counter-revolution. Having even more authority in the workplace than the unions, and working hand in hand with the companies, the establishment of these councils led to a total collaboration with capital.

In the spring of 1919 the press of the FVDG took a clear and courageous position against this strategy of works councils: “Capital and the state only recognise the workers’ committees that are now called works councils. The works council does not only claim to represent the interests of workers, but also those of the company. And since these companies are owned by private capital or by the state, the workers’ interests must be subordinated to the interests of their exploiters. It follows that the works council defends the exploitation of workers and encourages them to continue working as docile wage slaves. [...] The methods of struggle of the revolutionary syndicalists are incompatible with the functions of the works council.”9

This attitude was widely shared among the revolutionary syndicalists because, on the one hand the works councils seemed so obviously a tool of social democracy and, on the other hand, the combativity of the revolutionary syndicalist movement in Germany had not yet been broken. The illusion of having “obtained something” and “of having taken a concrete step” had very little effect in 1919 in the most determined fractions of the proletariat – the working class had not yet been defeated.10

Later, after the evident decline of the revolutionary movement from 1921, it was not surprising that heated debates broke out within the revolutionary syndicalist FAUD lasting a year about participation in elections to the works councils. A minority developed the orientation that it would be necessary, through the legalised works councils, to establish “a link with the labouring masses to launch massive struggles when the situation was ripe.”11 The FVDG as an organisation refused to engage in “the sterile works councils dedicated to neutralising the revolutionary view of the councils”, according to the comments of the militant August Beil. That at least was the position prevailing until November 1922, when, as a result of impotence produced by the defeat of the revolution, the 14th Congress of the FAUD modified its stand, granting the right to its members to participate in the elections to works councils.

The dynamic of the revolution brings together the revolutionary syndicalists and the Spartacus League

Just as in Russia in October 1917, the uprising of the working class in Germany had immediately aroused a sense of solidarity within the working class. For the revolutionary syndicalist movement in Germany, solidarity with the struggle of the working class in Russia had, until the end of 1919, undoubtedly constituted an important reference point shared internationally with other revolutionaries. The Russian revolution, because of revolutionary uprisings in other countries, still provided a perspective in 1918-1919 and had not yet begun to degenerate internally. To defend their class brothers in Russia and in direct opposition to the policy of the SPD and the social democratic unions, in the second issue of its paper Der Syndikalist the FVDG made this denunciation: “ means was too disgusting for them, no weapon too vile to slander the Russian Revolution and to rail against Soviet Russia and its workers and soldiers’ councils”.12 Despite their many reservations with regard to the views of the Bolsheviks – not all of which were unfounded – the revolutionary syndicalists remained in solidarity with the Russian revolution. Even Rudolf Rocker, influential theorist of the FVDG and outspoken critic of the Bolsheviks, appealed, two years after the October revolution, in his famous speech introducing the FAUD Declaration of Principles in December 1919, for a show of solidarity: “We unanimously take sides with Soviet Russia in its heroic defence against the Allied powers and against the counter-revolutionaries, and this, not because we are Bolsheviks, but because we are revolutionaries”.

Although the revolutionary syndicalists in Germany had their traditional reservations towards “marxism” that “wanted to seize political power”, what they believed they had in common with the Spartacus League was that it clearly defended common action with all other revolutionary organisations: “Revolutionary syndicalism therefore considered the division of the workers’ movement unnecessary, it wants its forces concentrated. Right now, we recommend our members to support, on matters economic and political, the general lines of the most left-wing groups of the workers’ movement: the Independents, the Spartacus League. We do caution, however, against any participation in the circus of elections to the National Assembly.13

The revolution of November 1918 was not the work of a specific political organisation such as the Spartacus League and the Revolutionnäre Obleute (revolutionary syndicalist delegates), even though they did adopt the clearest position and were the most eager for action during the November days. It was an uprising of the whole working class when for a short period the potential unity of this class was demonstrated. One expression of this trend towards unity has been the widespread phenomenon of double affiliation to the Spartacus League and FVDG. “In Wuppertal, the militants of the FVDG were active for the first time within the Communist Party. A list established in April 1919 by the police of Wuppertal communists contains the names of all the future key members of the FAUD.14 In Mülheim, from December 1st 1918 there appeared the paper “Die Freiheit, the organ defending the interests of all working people, the Newspaper of the workers and soldiers’ councils”, published jointly by revolutionary syndicalists and members of the Spartacus League.

In early 1919, inside the revolutionary syndicalist movement there was a clear aspiration to unite with other organisations of the working class. “They are still not united, they are still divided, they still do not think and behave in an honest manner like true socialists and they are not always individually and inextricably connected through the marvellous chain of proletarian solidarity. They are still divided between right-wing socialists, left socialists, Spartacists, and others. The working class must finally end the gross absurdity of political particularism.15 This attitude of great openness reflected the great political heterogeneity, even confusion, within the FVDG which had experienced rapid growth. Its internal cohesion relied less on programmatic clarification or demarcation vis-à-vis other proletarian organisations than on the link of workers’ solidarity, as shown in its undiscriminating characterisation of all “socialists”.

The attitude of solidarity with the Spartacus League was developed in the ranks of the revolutionary syndicalists following the repression against Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg during the war and continued until the autumn of 1919. But on the other hand, it failed to establish any common history with the Spartacus League. Until the time of the Zimmerwald Conference in 1915, it was much more a case of mutual distrust between the two. The main cause of their reconciliation was the political clarification that matured within the entire working class and its revolutionary organisations during the November revolution: the rejection of bourgeois democracy and parliamentarism. The revolutionary syndicalist movement in Germany, which had long rejected the parliamentary system, saw this position as part of its own heritage. The Spartacus League, which had a clear position against any illusions of democracy, regarded the FVDG, which followed the same path, as the organisation closest to it in Germany.

However, from the outset, Rudolf Rocker, who was to take charge of the political orientation of the revolutionary syndicalist movement in Germany after December 1919, “did not have great sympathy with appeals to comrades to support the left wing of the socialist movement, the Independents and the Spartacists or intervention of the newspaper supporting the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’...16 In March 1919, on his return from internment in England during the war, Rocker, anarcho-syndicalist revolutionary, strongly influenced by the ideas of Kropotkin, joined the FVDG.

Despite the differences of opinion on the Spartacus League, between Rocker and the tendency gathered around Fritz Kater, Carl Windhoff and Karl Roche, which was the most influential in the FVDG in the first months of the revolution of 1918-19, it would be wrong at this time to speak of the struggles of tendencies inside the FVDG, such as would occur later in 1920 as a symptom of the defeat of the German revolution. There was no significant tendency at the time among the revolutionary syndicalists wanting a priori to set itself apart from the KPD. Instead, the search for unity of action with the Spartacists was the product of the momentum towards the unity of workers’ struggles and the “pressure from below” on these two currents in the weeks and months where the revolution seemed to be within reach. It was the painful defeat of the premature uprising of January 1919 in Berlin, and the subsequent crushing of the strike waves in the Ruhr in April, that were supported by the revolutionary syndicalists, the KPD and the USPD, which, due to the disappointment they aroused, provoked mutual and emotional recriminations that expressed a lack of maturity on both sides.

From the summer of 1919 the “informal alliance” with Spartacus and the Communist Party would hence break apart. The responsibility for this lay less with the FVDG than the aggressive attitude the KPD had begun to adopt towards the revolutionary syndicalists.

The “provisional programme” of the revolutionary syndicalists in spring 1919

In spring 1919, the FVDG published a pamphlet written by Roche, “What do the revolutionary syndicalists want?” This was intended as a programme and orientation text for the organisation up to December 1919. It is difficult to judge the revolutionary syndicalist movement on the basis of a single text, given the coexistence within its ranks of different ideas. However, this programme constitutes a milestone, and, from several points of view, is one of the most finished positions of the revolutionary syndicalist movement in Germany. Despite the painful past experiences of their own history with the social democrats and the permanent demonisation of politics17 that resulted from it, it concludes: “The working class must make itself master of the economy and of politics.18

The strength of the positions spread by the FVDG through this programme within the working class in Germany at this time lies elsewhere: in its attitude towards the state, bourgeois democracy and parliamentarism. It specifically refers to the description Friedrich Engels made of the state as a product of a society divided into classes: “The state is a product of society at a certain stage of its development”; it is “the admission that this society is entangled in an insoluble contradiction with itself, that it is divided into irreconcilable antagonisms” and is not “a force imposed on society from outside” or an instrument of the ruling class created in a purely arbitrary manner by it. The FVDG consistently called for the destruction of the bourgeois state.

With this position, in a period when social democracy was without doubt the most insidious weapon of the counter-revolution, the FVDG put its finger on a key point. Against the farce of the SPD seeking to subdue the workers’ councils by integrating them into the bourgeois parliament, its programme argued: “Social democratic ‘socialism’ definitely needs a state. And a state that would use exactly the same methods against the working class as the capitalist state. ... It will be the result of a proletarian half-revolution and the target of the total proletarian revolution. It is because we recognise the nature of the state and we know the political domination of the propertied classes is rooted in their economic power, that we have to fight not for the conquest of the state, but its elimination.

Karl Roche also tried to formulate in the FVDG programme the basic lessons of November and December 1918, going far beyond the rebellious or individualistic rejection of the state that was wrongly attributed to the revolutionary syndicalists, and clearly unmasked in its essence the system of bourgeois democracy. “Democracy is not equality, but the demagogic use of a comedy of equality. ... The property owners always have, for as long as they confront the workers, the same interests. The workers have no common interest with any of them, and none with the bourgeoisie. Here, democracy is a general absurdity.... Democracy is one of the most dangerous slogans in the mouth of the demagogues who rely on the laziness and ignorance of the workforce. ... Modern democracies in Switzerland, France, America are nothing but a capitalist democratic hypocrisy in the most repulsive form.” Faced with the traps of democracy this precise formulation is more relevant than ever.

We can make numerous criticisms of the FVDG’s spring 1919 programme, notably a certain number of classic revolutionary syndicalist ideas that we do not share such as “complete self-determination” and “federalism”. But on the crucial points of that time, such as the rejection of parliamentarism, the program written by Roche, remained adamant. “For parliamentarism as much as social democracy: if the working class wants to fight for socialism, it must reject the bourgeoisie as a class. It should neither grant it the right to power, nor vote with it or deal with it. Workers’ councils are the parliaments of the working class. [...] It is not bourgeois parliaments, but the dictatorship of the proletariat which implements socialism.” At this time, the Communist Party was going back on its original clear positions against parliamentarism and work within the social democratic unions, and began to regress dramatically from the positions of its founding congress.

A few months later, in December 1919, the Declaration of Principles of the FAUD focused on different points. Karl Roche who, in the early days after the war had influenced the FVDG in a decisive way on the programmatic level, rejoined the AAU in December 1919.

The break with the Communist Party

During the revolution of November 1918, many common points brought together the revolutionaries of the revolutionary syndicalist FVDG with those of the Spartacus League: the reference to the uprising of the working class in Russia in 1917; the taking of all power by the workers’ councils; the rejection of democracy and of parliamentarism, as well as a clear rejection of social democracy and its unions. So how can we explain why during the summer of 1919 relations began to harden between the two currents that had previously shared so many things?

There are various factors which cause a revolution to fail: the weakness of the working class and the weight of its illusions or the isolation of the revolution. In Germany in 1918-19, it was above all its experience that allowed the German bourgeoisie, through social democracy, to sabotage the movement from within, to foment democratic illusions, to push the working class into the trap of isolated and premature uprisings in January 1919 and to deprive it, through murder, of its clearest revolutionaries and of thousands of militant workers.

The polemics between the KPD and the revolutionary syndicalists following the crushing of the strike in the Ruhr in April 1919 show on both sides the same attempt to find the reasons for the failure of the revolution in other revolutionaries. Roche had already been swept up in this trend in April at the conclusion of the FVDG programme, saying “(...) do not let the Spartacists divide the working class”, in a confused way putting them in the same bag as the “right-wing socialists.” From the summer of 1919 it became fashionable in the FVDG to talk about the “three social democratic parties”, that is to say, the SPD, USPD and KPD – a polemical attack which in the atmosphere of frustration at the failures of the class struggle no longer made any distinction between counter-revolutionary organisations and proletarian organisations.

In August the Communist Party (KPD) published a pamphlet on the revolutionary syndicalists with an equally unfortunate line of argument. It now considered the presence of revolutionary syndicalists in its ranks as a threat to the revolution: “The inveterate revolutionary syndicalists must finally realise that they do not have a common interest with us. We must no longer allow our party to provide a playground for people who spread all kinds of ideas foreign to the party.19

The Communist Party’s critique of the revolutionary syndicalists focused on three points: the question of the state and economic organisation after the revolution, tactics and organisational forms – in fact the classic debates with the revolutionary syndicalist current Although the Communist Party was right to conclude that: “In the revolution, the importance of unions to the class struggle more and more recedes. Workers’ councils and political parties become the exclusive protagonists and leaders of the struggle”, the polemic against the revolutionary syndicalists revealed above all the weaknesses of the Communist Party under Levi’s leadership: a fixation on the conquest of the state. “We believe that we will necessarily use the state after the revolution. Revolution in the first place means precisely to take power within the state”; the mistaken belief that coercion within the proletariat could be a means for conducting the revolution: “Let us say with the Bible and the Russians: those who do not work do not eat. Those who do not work receive only what those active can spare”; flirting with the resumption of parliamentary activity: “Our attitude towards parliamentarism shows that for us the question is posed differently to the tactics of the revolutionary syndicalists. [...] And as the entire life of the people is something living, changing, a process that is constantly taking new forms, all of our strategy must also constantly adapt to new conditions”; and finally the tendency to consider continual political debate, especially on basic issues, as something that is not positive: “We must take action against people who make it difficult for us to plan the life of the party. The party is a community of united struggle and not a discussion club. We cannot continually have discussions on organisational forms and other things.

The Communist Party thus tried to rid itself of the revolutionary syndicalists who were also members of the Communist Party. In June 1919, in its appeal To revolutionary syndicalists of the Communist Party!, it certainly presented these as “filled with honest revolutionary aspirations.” But the KPD nevertheless defined their combativity as a tendential risk of putschism and posed the following ultimatum to them: either to organise themselves in a strictly centralised party, or “The Communist Party of Germany cannot tolerate in its ranks members who, in their propaganda by speech, writing and action, violate these principles. It will be forced to exclude them.” Given the onset of confusions and the dilution of the positions of the Founding Congress of the Communist Party, this sectarian ultimatum against the revolutionary syndicalists was rather an expression of helplessness faced with the reflux of the revolutionary wave in Germany. It deprived the Communist Party of living contact with the most combative parts of the proletariat. The exchange of blows between the KPD and the revolutionary syndicalists during the summer of 1919 shows equally that the atmosphere of defeat accompanied by growing tendencies towards activism formed a combination unfavourable to political clarification.

A brief journey together with the Unions

During the summer of 1919, the atmosphere in Germany was characterised in part by a major disappointment after consecutive defeats and, secondly, by a radicalisation of certain parts of the working class. There were mass defections in the social democratic unions, and a massive influx into the FVDG, which doubled the number of its members.

In addition to the revolutionary syndicalists, a second current began to develop against the traditional trade unions, also strengthened by a large influx. In the Ruhr region the Allgemeine Arbeiter Union-Essen (AAU-E: General Union of Workers - Essen) and the Allgemeine Bergarbeiter Union (General Union of Miners) appeared under the influence of fractions of the radical left in the Communist Party of Hamburg, and supported by the active propaganda of groups close to the American International Workers of the World (IWW) around Karl Dannenberg in Brunswick. Unlike the FVDG revolutionary syndicalists, the Unions wanted to abandon the principle of trade union organisation by branches of industry to regroup the working class by entire enterprises in “combat organisations.” From their point of view, it was now the enterprises that were exercising their strength and possessed power in society and it was here, therefore, that the working class drew its strength – where it organised itself in accordance with this reality. Thus, the Unions sought a greater unity and considered the trade unions as a historically obsolete form of organisation of the working class. We can say that the Unions were in some way a response of the working class to the question it was posed concerning new forms of organisation, the very question that the revolutionary syndicalist current in Germany had sought to avoid until now.20

We cannot in this article develop our analysis on the nature of the Unions, which are neither workers’ councils, trade unions or political parties. That would require the writing of a text specifically on the subject.

It is often difficult in this period to distinguish precisely the Unionist and the revolutionary syndicalist currents. Within both currents there was scant support for “political parties”, even if the Unions were eventually more sympathetic to the Communist Party. Both tendencies were direct expressions of the most militant fractions of the working class in Germany, were opposed to social democracy and advocated, at least until the end of 1919, in favour of workers’ councils.

In an initial period up until the winter of 1919-1920, the Unionist current in the Ruhr region became a part of the revolutionary syndicalist movement, which was the stronger, at the so-called “fusion” Conference of September 15th -16th 1919 in Düsseldorf. The Unionists had taken part in the founding of the Freie Arbeiter Union (FAU) of North Rhine-Westphalia. This Conference was the first step towards the creation of the FAUD, which was to take place three months later. The FAU-North Rhine-Westphalia expressed a compromise between revolutionary syndicalism and Unionism in its positions. The guidelines adopted said that “... the economic and political struggle must be conducted consistently and steadfastly by the workers....” and that “as an economic organisation, the Freie Arbeiter Union cannot tolerate any party politics in its meetings, but leaves it to the discretion of each member to support left-wing parties and to participate in any activity that it considers necessary.21 The Allgemeine Arbeiter Union-Essen and the Allgemeine Bergarbeiter Union would largely withdraw from the Alliance with the revolutionary syndicalists before the foundation of the FAUD in December.

The foundation of the FAUD and its Declaration of Principles

The rapid numerical growth of the FVDG during the summer and autumn of 1919, the spread of the revolutionary syndicalist movement in Thuringia, Saxony, Silesia, in southern Germany, in the coastal regions of the North and Baltic Seas, required there to be a national structure to the movement. The 12th Congress of the FVDG of December 27th to 30th in Berlin, turned into the founding congress of the FAUD, with 109 delegates present.

The Congress is often described as the “turning point” from German revolutionary syndicalism to anarcho-syndicalism or as the beginning of the era of Rudolf Rocker – a label used above all by the staunch opponents of revolutionary syndicalism believing it a “negative move”. Most of the time, they claimed that the FAUD at its foundation stood for a defence of federalism, a farewell to politics, a rejection of the dictatorship of the proletariat and a return to pacifism. However, this analysis does not do justice to the FAUD of December 1919. “Germany is the Eldorado of political slogans. Words are uttered and people are intoxicated by the rhythmic chanting, but they don’t really understand what’s being said”, says Rocker (who we quote from below) in his speech on the Statement of Principles regarding allegations against the revolutionary syndicalists.

There is no doubt that the views of Rocker, an anarchist who remained an internationalist during the war and the editor of the new Declaration of Principles, acquired a significant influence in the FAUD, which was enhanced by his physical presence within the organisation. But the foundation of the FAUD reflected first and foremost the popularity of revolutionary syndicalist ideas within the working class in Germany and showed a clear demarcation between the Communist Party and the budding Unionism. Since the end of the war the positions of the FVDG had been very influential inside the working class: the expression of solidarity with the Russian revolution, the explicit rejection of bourgeois democracy and any form of parliamentary activity, the challenging of all “arbitrarily drawn political and national borders”, were reaffirmed in the Declaration of Principles of December 1919. The FAUD clearly defended revolutionary positions.

In comparison with the programme of the FVDG in the spring of 1919, the Congress had considerably reduced its enthusiasm for the perspective of workers’ councils. The signs that the workers’ councils in Russia were losing influence demonstrated to the Congress the scale of the inherent risk that “political parties” posed, and were proof that the Union form of organisation was the more resistant and better able to defend the idea of the councils.22 The disarming of the workers’ councils in Russia at that time was indeed a reality that the Bolsheviks had tragically contributed towards. But what the FAUD was not able to understand was the affect of the international isolation of the Russian revolution and that it would inevitably suffocate the life out of the working class.

They fight against us, the revolutionary syndicalists, mainly because we openly advocate federalism. Federalists, we are told, divide up the workers’ struggles”, said Rocker. The aversion of the FAUD to centralism and its commitment to federalism were not based on a vision of the fragmentation of the struggle of the classes. The reality of life for the revolutionary syndicalist movement after the war provided sufficient proof of its commitment to the unity and coordination of the struggle. The excessive rejection of centralisation was rooted in the trauma of the capitulation by social democracy: “The central committees dictated from on high, the masses obeyed. Then came the war; the party and the unions were given a fait accompli: we must support the war to save the country. However, the defence of the country became a socialist duty, and the same masses who, the previous week protested against the war, were now for the war, but on the orders of their central committees. This shows the moral consequences of the system of centralisation. Centralisation is the eradication of the consciousness from the human brain, and nothing else. It is the death of a sense of independence. For many militants of the FAUD centralism was in principle just a method inherited from the bourgeoisie in “...organising society from top to bottom so that it serves the ruling class’s interests.” We agree absolutely with the FAUD of 1919 that it’s the political life and the initiative of the working class “from below” that is the well-spring of the proletarian revolution. The struggle of the working class must be based on solidarity, and in this sense, it always generates a spontaneous dynamic unifying the movement, which leads to centralisation through elected and revocable delegates. In “the Eldorado of political slogans”, the majority of the revolutionary syndicalists of the FAUD was led in December 1919 to adopt the slogan of federalism, a standpoint that was not really associated with the FAUD at its foundation.

Did the founding congress of the FAUD actually reject the idea of “the dictatorship of the proletariat”? “If by the term the dictatorship of the proletariat is meant a party taking control of the State machine, if this only means the establishment of a new state, then the revolutionary syndicalists are sworn enemies of such a dictatorship. If, on the other hand, it means that the proletariat compels the propertied classes to renounce their privileges, if it is not a dictatorship top to bottom, but that the revolutionary impact is from the bottom up, then the revolutionary syndicalists are the supporters and representatives of the dictatorship of the proletariat.23 Absolutely right! The crucial reflection on the dictatorship of the proletariat, which at that time was associated with the dramatic situation in Russia, was a legitimate question regarding the risk of internal degeneration of the Russian Revolution. It was not possible to make a balance sheet of the Russian revolution in December 1919. Rocker’s assertions were more a barometer of the already visible contradictions, and the beginning of a debate that would last for years in the workers’ movement on the reasons for the failure of the revolutionary wave after the war. These doubts didn’t emerge by chance in an organisation like FAUD, but reflected the highs and lows in the life of the “rank and file” working class.

Even the traditional cataloguing of the Founding Congress of the FAUD as a “move towards pacifism” which undoubtedly sabotaged the determination of the working class, does not correspond to the reality. Like the discussion of the dictatorship of the proletariat, the debates on violence in the struggle between the classes were rather the sign of a real problem facing the working class internationally. How would it be possible to maintain the momentum of the stalled revolutionary wave and break the isolation of the working class in Russia? In Russia, as in Germany, it was inevitable that the working class would use arms to defend itself against the attacks of the ruling class. But the extension of the revolution by military means, even “revolutionary war”, was impossible, if not absurd. In Germany especially, the bourgeoisie constantly attempted to underhandedly provoke the proletariat militarily. “The essence of the revolution does not lie in the use of violence, but in the transformation of the economic and political institutions. Violence in itself is absolutely not revolutionary, but, on the contrary, is reactionary to the highest degree.... Revolutions are the result of a great spiritual transformation in the opinions of men. They cannot be achieved arbitrarily by force of arms... But I also recognise violence as a means of defence, when the conditions themselves leave us no other choice”, argued Rocker against Krohn, a supporter of the Communist Party. The tragic events of Kronstadt in 1921 confirmed that this critical standpoint towards the false hope that the resort to arms could save the revolution had nothing to do with pacifism. The FAUD in the aftermath of its Founding Congress, didn’t adopt a pacifist position. A large part of the Red Army of the Ruhr that responded to the Kapp Putsch in the spring of 1920 was composed of revolutionary syndicalists.

In this article, over and above our criticisms, we have also intentionally highlighted the strengths of the positions of revolutionary syndicalists in Germany during 1918-19. The next part of this article will deal with the period from the late 1920s up to the rise of Hitler in 1933 and the destruction of FAUD.

Mario 16/6/12

1. International Review n°147 “The revolutionary syndicalist FVDG during the First World War”

2. Der Syndikalist n1, “Was wollen die Syndikalisten? Der Syndikalismus lebt!” 14th December 1918.

3. Ibid.

4. See Ulrich Klan & Dieter Nelles, Es lebt noch eine Flamme, Ed. Trotzdem Verlag.

5. Richard Müller, 1918: Räte in Deutschland, p.3.

6. Richard Müller, Hie Gewerkschaft, hie Betriebsorganisation!, 1919.

7. The FAUD’s Declaration of Principles in a spoken presentation by R. Rocker.

8. Protokoll der Ersten Generalversammlung des Deutschen Eisenbahnerverbandes in Jena, Mai 25-31 1919, p.244.

9. Der Syndikalist n°36, “Betriebsräte und Syndikalismus”, 1919.

10. At a broader level, in addition to the illusion of the works councils as “negotiating partners” with Capital, there existed another, emanating from Essen in the Ruhr – but also present in the ranks of the revolutionary syndicalists – in the possibility of immediate “socialisation”, that is to say, the nationalisation of mines and businesses. This weakness, present throughout the working class in Germany, was above all an expression of impatience. On December 4th 1918 the Ebert government created a national socialisation commission comprising representatives of Capital and renowned social democrats such as Kautsky and Hilferding. The declared aim of the nationalisations was to maintain production.

11. See the debates of the 15th Congress of the FAUD in 1925.

12. Der Syndikalist n°2, “Verschandelung der Revolution”, 21st December 1918.

13. Der Syndikalist n°1, “Was wollen die Syndikalisten? Der Syndikalismus lebt!”, 14th December 1918.

14. Ulrich Klan & Dieter Nelles, Es lebt noch eine Flamme, Ed. Trotzdem Verlag, p.70.

15. Karl Roche in Der Syndikalist n°13, “Syndikalismus und Revolution”, 29th March 1919.

16. Rudolf Rocker, Aus den Memoiren eines deutschen Anarchisten, Ed. Suhrkamp, p.287

17. Roche wrote: “Party politics is the bourgeois method of monopolising the product of labour extorted from the workers. (…) Political parties and bourgeois parliaments are complementary, they both obstruct the proletarian class struggle and cause confusion”, as if to say the possibility of revolutionary parties of the working class did not exist. What about its collaborator in the struggle, the Spartacus League, which was a political party?

18. Was wollen die Syndikalisten? Programm, Ziele und Wege der ‘Freien Vereinigung deutscher Gewerkschaften’, March 1919.

19. Syndikalismus und Kommunismus, F. Brandt, KPD-Spartakusbund, August 1919.

20. In reality, many sections of the FAU in Germany, as they exist today, for decades have played more the role of a political group than a union, by expressing themselves on numerous political questions and not limiting themselves in any way to the “economic struggle” – this, whether we agree with them or not, we find positive.

21. Der Syndicalist, n°42, 1919.

22. Despite his distrust of the existing political parties, Rocker clearly stated that: “...the struggle is not just economic, but must also be political. We are saying the same thing. We are only opposed to parliamentary activity , but not at all the political struggle in general. [...] Even the general strike is a political tool, just like the anti-militarist propaganda of the revolutionary syndicalists, etc.” The theorised rejection of the political struggle wasn’t predominant in the FAUD at this time, although its form of organisation was clearly designed for the economic struggle.

23. Rocker, Der Syndicalist, n°2, 1920.



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History of the workers' movement