What does “Workers’ Movement” mean?

Submitted by Juan Conatz on December 23, 2010

The first thing that one learns in studying the history of the Workers’ Movement, in Germany and elsewhere, is that the workers were organized primarily into the so-called ‘Workers Parties.’ In Germany these took the form of the SPD [moderate Social Democrats] and the KPD [German Communist Party]. Upon further examination a number of other parties fall into view, for example Rosa Luxemburg’s “Independent Social-Democratic Party” (USPD), or the CP’s other incarnations, the KAPD and the Socialist Workers’ Party. And naturally the definition of the term “Workers’ Movement” places these political parties firmly in the foreground. The same is true of Germany’s General Association of Unions (ADGB).

Closer observation, however, reveals that these institutions have less to do with a movement in the truest sense of the word than with the regulation and disciplining of the Workers’ Movement to the benefit of private or state investors of capital. If we are to speak of a true movement of workers we can only speak of the grassroots initiatives of the proletariat, which tried to advance the class struggle. In some cases these efforts included Social-Democratic or Communist workers. Worth noting, however, is how quickly such activities elicited objections from their leaders in the parties and trade unions. In contrast to these institutions, we view the idea of a “workers’ movement” as something which develops in an organic fashion, not in response to orders from union or party leadership but rather as a product of the activities of organized wage workers fully conscious of their own responsibilities and avoiding centralized organizations. Considerable energy and strength is absorbed in the activities surrounding sectarian conflicts, “great leaders” and the production of specialized Marxist literature from Bernstein to Lenin. And all this just to come to the realization that the Workers’ Movement, as defined by these groups, is paralyzed. For those who would like to shorten the route to this revelation without missing any of the essential lessons, one need only look back at times when there actually were organized working-class movements that transcended Marxist dogma and electoral deceptions. Germany, during the interwar period, yields an example of a Workers’ Movement with independent, free-standing forms of organization, primarily among the Unionist/Council Communists and the (Anarcho-)Syndicalists. Here we will focus on the Anarcho-Syndicalists, which in Germany formed not only a remarkable “movement of ideas,” but also a recognized proletarian mass-movement, one that has been largely forgotten.

Those who attempt to find references or information relevant to this subject among less mainstream sources, from Wolfgang Abendroth or Karl-Heinz Roth, for example, will be disappointed. And yet, alongside standard works on the subject, authored by Hans Manfred Bock, Angela Vogel or Hartmut Rübner, to name a few, there appear a number of regional studies…concerning Anarcho-Syndicalism.