The labour movement of Wilhelmine Germany was somewhat paradoxical. On the one hand there existed the SPD, the largest socialist party in the world with over one million members and a vote which exceeded four million by 1912. This did not, though, result in the radical revolution (at least before 1918) that many Marxists had hoped for, and subsequent analysis has stressed the level of moderation which permeated German labour. The trade unions have often been regarded as a considerable force for moderation, perhaps holding back the radical energies of both the socialist party and the mass of the workers themselves, but it would be unfair to simply consign the unions to the role of class traitors. Questions can be asked about the feasibility of the revolutionary radicalism espoused by those on the left of the labour movement: whether revolution was practicable, or whether it was desired by the rank-and-file workers. In short, the matter comes down to whether the unions were a barrier to the advance of socialist labour, or whether their brand of reformism was the only practical way of advancing the cause of the proletariat.

`For the most part, union leaders rejected the encroachment of politics into union affairs, preferring to leave this side of the class struggle to the SPD. This is not to say that the unionists were unpolitical, since the majority were party members and committed to what they saw as being the ideals of the party. It was simply that unionism was seen as representing a different sphere of the battle to change society. At the congress of the Generalkommission der Freien Gewerkschaften Deutschlands (General Commission of the Free Trade Unions) in 1892, “the majority of the unions were prepared to leave the representation of political interests to the party whose objective it was to create a socialist society, while they fought for an improvement in the living conditions of the workers on the basis of the existing situation.” This distinction was not always regarded favourably by the SPD.

Particularly as the unions expanded in the last years of the nineteenth century, shaking off the image of being just an auxiliary to the labour movement, radicals came to see the unions as having the potential to achieve a successful socialist revolution through the organisation of a general strike. The Generalkommission objected to the use of mass strikes for political aims for two principle reasons: firstly that mass strikes required the involvement of non-organised labour which would be hard to mobilise and hard to control, meaning that any such strike ran a high risk of defeat; secondly, there was the aversion to political involvement which characterised many union leaderships. While this second attitude might be seen as a prejudice against the radicalisation of the unions, the more practical objection is more understandable. The unions were not prepared to sacrifice the grudging acceptance of their existence which the state and employers were forming in the pursuit of a general strike, of which their previous experiences of large-scale actions told them would probably not succeed. The unions felt they could achieve more by reforming the system from the inside.

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`It can be argued, however, that the successes of the unions in bringing about reform which in the short term brings benefits to the workers, in the long run erodes their radical zeal. “If the trade union movement succeeds, if it brings the worker what he hopes for…this would show him that he can hope to build a better life on the basis of the present order, and the necessity for a social revolution would seem less real, the present state would be protected.” According to some, the only way the trade unions could help German labour was to be unsuccessful, to arouse hopes and expectations among the workers which would then be frustrated, causing hostility to the established order. By limiting itself to aims which it had some chance of achieving, the trade union movement was not only turning its back on radicalism, but also it was helping to integrate the workers into the Wilhelmine social order.

`This view can only be sustained if one accepts that the state and employers were giving ground fast enough to the workers to keep them satisfied, and this is not the case. The unions’ reformism did awaken hopes among the workers, and these hopes were given a further boost by the gradual introduction of favourable measures by the governing classes, but such hopes were far from satisfied. The reforms gained by the unions gave rise not to satisfaction but to rising expectations, which in turn, perhaps, was one of the causes of growing disillusionment with the ‘conservatism’ of union leaderships in the years before the war among some workers. Certainly there is some truth in the assertion that the SPD’s revolutionary resolve was in part, “the unnecessary consequence of antisocialist intransigence, an effect of the dominant culture’s resistance to the rise of labour.” The reforms which the unions won did not produce a working class which was satisfied with its lot, but rather raised hopes which were unlikely to be realised in the Second Reich.

`The trades unions have been seen as not only moderate in the political sphere, but also as lacking a radical edge in the area which they claimed as their own: industrial relations. One of the main forms of ‘moderation’ was the centralising tendencies of the main unions which sought to impose more uniform practices upon the local union branches to enable fuller control from the leadership. The aim was to limit the radical ‘excesses’ of the localists who were given to more ‘spontaneous’ action, and who, as a result of the small size of independent local unions, often had to enlist the support of unorganised labour. The advantages of the locally-based system were that strikes and other forms of action could be initiated over matters of importance to the workers directly affected which a nationally-focused union might overlook, that the workers could give free expression to their radical feelings, and that for a long time employers refused to negotiate with centralised unions, preferring to speak to the strikers themselves.

`There were, however, a number of practical considerations which meant that centralised unions had more chance of gaining ground for the cause of labour. Despite their general rejection of the general strike principle, the unions were not opposed to pursuing a nationally oriented campaign. Centralisation was a considerable strength for this campaign, allowing the tactical use of industrial action in a more co-ordinated way to achieve national goals.

`The hostility of both employers and the state towards the labour movement also meant that the strength of local unions was often insufficient to achieve their aims, particularly as the employers began to organise themselves more effectively. While occasionally locally-organised workers did achieve a high degree of solidarity in the face of employers’ countermeasures (as when in 1905 150 Berlin metalworkers were not forced to reach a compromise settlement when their strike resulted in the lockout of 30,000 workers), this was not generally the case. In the 1897 Berlin moulders strike, the lockout imposed on all metalworking plants with moulding shops was financially too damaging for the rest of the metalworkers who voted that the moulders should bring an immediate settlement to the dispute.

`What centralisation brought was the strength both in numbers and money to maintain more effective industrial actions in the face of retaliation by the employers. With the pooling of resources and the solidarity given by a high membership, the issues to act over could be carefully selected and followed through with a higher chance of success. The concentration on certain aspects of industrial conflict and the imposition of strike rules undoubtedly took the radical edge away from many activists, but whether this was a bad thing is a matter of opinion: should priority be given to instilling a radical fervour which may or may not eventually lead to a successful socialist revolution; or should the ‘safe’ option of pressing for more obviously attainable objectives through more moderate means be taken?

`It should not be forgotten that even the centralised trades unions were democratic institutions, and as such the grass roots influenced the leadership as much as the reverse. It has been argued that the leaders, especially of the larger unions, were insulated from their rank-and-file as a result of their administrative jobs and their high salaries, and as a result were out of touch with workers’ attitudes. There may be some truth in this, but leaders had at one time been ordinary workers and so could not be described as strangers to factory floor sentiment. It seems to be a strange proposition to suggest that the moderation of the leadership cut very violently against the grain of mass opinion within the unions.

`On occasion, the unions were forced to adopt moderate policies in order to attract the necessary support to have the strength to take on the employers. The mining communities of the Ruhr were composed largely of migrant workers who were divided by nationality, language and religion, despite the unifying factor of their common trade. In order to gain some degree of solidarity among this heterogeneous community the unions had to distance themselves from divisive issues like political ideology, and focus on certain limited goals upon which the majority could agree. Even with this cautious approach, support was hard to sustain and in times of peace with few single enemies to unite against the labour movement in the Ruhr tended to fragment.

`What this seems to suggest is that the unions found it hard to gain acceptance as being the true representatives of the workers, and that even if the leadership’s attitude was a fair approximation of the attitude of union members, it was not necessarily that of the working class as a whole. In 1914, no more than 25% of German workers belonged to any economic or political associations, and the ‘labour aristocracy’ which formed a large proportion of unionists tended to scorn the activities (or lack of activity in many cases) of the ‘lower’ working class. The lack of a wider membership of the unions does not necessarily imply a general satisfaction with or integration into the existing social system. The unorganised workers, while not pursuing the more thorough protest activities of the unionists, nevertheless carried out a form of individual radicalism in the form of absenteeism, job-changing, go-slows, and alcoholism. Such individualist action was less likely to bring the kind of results possible under organised unionism, but it does point to an underlying current of economic dissatisfaction which perhaps clashed with union leaders’ moderate ideology.

`There is a difference, though, between dissatisfaction with one’s working life and outright political militancy. The socialist clubs set up for the workers, in particular those affiliated to the SPD, attracted a wide following in Germany, but this was not necessarily the result of any great popular Marxist conviction. People joined because of the social aspect, because they were lonely, because they wanted a hobby, or because of some financial benefit they might receive. Marxism often meant little to the rank-and-file of the labour movement other than the knowledge that they belonged to a Marxist organisation. In Hamburg, only around 3% of organised workers used party or union libraries, and those that did were unlikely to read political works, but rather vocational textbooks or escapist fiction. Also, one should be careful of reading too much into the voting patterns which raised the SPD to the level of being the largest European socialist party. After all, it is one thing to vote for what was really the only workers’ party on the ballot paper; it is quite another to follow the party leader to the barricades should he demand it. Nor is it necessarily significant that the period following the First World War saw such an explosion of radical politics. A large amount of the dissatisfaction expressed was not socialism as such, but rather the desire to overthrow the political system which had presided over growing economic chaos and humiliating military defeat. The sentiment expressed in the post-war revolution no doubt had echoes in the pre-war attitude of German workers, but the militancy of the revolution was in large part the result of grievances developed after 1914.

`There can be little doubt that the trades unions of Imperial Germany were at least some influence for moderation. They turned their back on much political involvement, and certainly on radical proposals such as a revolutionary general strike, but there are reasons why this was so. Unionists were in general supportive of the socialist SPD, but for practical reasons they preferred not to risk the hard-won position of their unions by dragging them into the dirty business of politics. They saw reformism as being the surest way to ensure a better life for the workers rather than the revolutionary route which had little guarantee of success (particularly when set against the strongest military in the world, under the control of a reactionary state enjoying the support of all levels of the bourgeoisie, as well as much of the peasantry). Similarly, the spirit of industrial and economic radicalism which some individuals maintained was sacrificed to the goal of gaining ground through strong organisation and more moderate means. It should not be forgotten that the unions could only justifiably be called a force for moderation had they been unrepresentative of the ordinary workers whose interests they claimed to fight for, and it is not clear that they were completely out of touch: they were, after all, democratic institutions.

`The unions were certainly not as radical as they might have been, and could perhaps be accused in some areas of moderating the militant spirit of German workers, but through strong organisation and careful reformism, they were perhaps more successful in bringing about a moderation of state and employers’ intransigence than those who were more openly radical. The unions moderated the spirit of the labour movement, but improved its achievements.


`G. Eley, ‘Labour History, Social History, Alltagsgeschichte: Experience, Culture. and the Politics of the Everyday – a New Direction for German Social History?’, Journal of Modern History 61 (June 1989)

`R. J. Evans (ed.), Society and Politics in Wilhelmine Germany, (London 1978)

`D. Geary, European Labour Protest, (New York 1981)

`D. Geary (ed.), Labour and Socialist Movements in Europe Before 1914, (Oxford 1992)

`G. G. Iggers (ed.), The Social History of Politics, (Leamington Spa 1985)

`W. J. Mommsen & H.-G. Husung (eds.), The Development of Trade Unionism in Great Britain and Germany 1880-1914, (London 1985)

`J. A. Moses, Trade Unionism in Germany from Bismarck to Hitler (vol.1), (London 1982)


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