Essay: On unionism and its revolutionary overcoming

A contribution to a debate between council communists
(Roi Ferreiro, August 17, 2020)

The following essay is a discussion contribution on the (trade- or industrial) union question from the perspective of overcoming the latter’s inherent limitations, which has been proposed in a recently emerging, council communist discussion forum.

Departing from the radicalizing tendencies that openly combated the official trades’ unions during the revolutionary upsurge in Germany 1917-1923, the essay  takes care to reestablish the vision of Marx and Engels on the possibilities and limits of ‘unionism’, both in their own time and in general. It subsequently attempts a terminological clarification, relating the ‘union’ or ‘syndicalist’ types of organizations and struggles to their historical period and respective aims and origins. Based on these preliminary considerations, the essay engages in an  investigation of the limitations and pitfalls in the conceptions, slogans and practices embodied by the K.A.P.D. and the Arbeiter-Unionen, as the most advanced expressions of a workers’ struggle for class autonomy at the time. Limitations and pitfalls that can also be found in more recent manifestations of proletarian struggles since the 1960s, albeit in a profoundly altered political-historical context, engaging very different force relations. A series of reflections is advanced that amount, a.o. to situating the workers’ struggles of the past decades as marked by a decline of ‘unionist’ illusions, and to re-calibrating the question of self-organizing in workers’ struggle. It appears that the old theses defended by the GIC in the 1930s are considered as still of use.


What do we understand by “union” and “unionism”? Differences in terminology of idiomatic and historical origin. The positions of council communism against unionism and in favor of unitary organization in the production units. The importance of clarifying the very notion of “unionism” in order to think about the problem of the new revolutionary forms of organization and for the council communist tactics regarding unions and unionist activities. The terms “union”, “unionist” (referring to characteristic practices) and “unionism” are used in a universal sense.

The Author’s Introduction

The primary purpose of this text is to clarify differences in terminology and to specify the very notion of unionism. Since there are etymological differences, later variants of them and differences in ordinary usage according to language, a thorough theoretical and political discussion on this subject, among individuals with different native languages, needs to form that common basis of understanding.

Only once this common basis is achieved I will proceed to a very brief historical contextualization, as well as to a synthetic exposition of a theoretical-political argument. The reason for doing so is that my intention is to open a debate on overcoming unionism, among those who currently adhere to or sympathize with council communism and are willing to engage in serious discussions. The condition of possibility of this debate has been provided by the recent creation of the multilingual discussion group on Facebook “Council Communism and Class Autonomy”. (1)

Considered as material for debate, I believe that the limitations of this text are to some extent its virtue, which makes it a good starting point for a more in-depth discussion of the subject. They will allow the subsequent discussion to be based more on the contributions of the participants, instead of concentrating on what has already been written in this text, which can be considered as one contribution among others.

1. The position on unions in the context of the German revolution

Following the results of the November 1918 revolution, the slogan Heraus aus den Gewerkschaften! (“Leave the unions!”) spread among the German workers, echoed by the then newly formed KPD, the anarcho-syndicalists and the independent socialists. The slogan, thus formulated, is strongly rooted in the majority of the KPD, and as Paul Frölich (who would not later join the KAPD) would say:

The more we enter into great struggles, the more this call: «Let’s get out of the unions!» can become a slogan for the masses.” (2)

In 1919 radicalized workers attacked the offices of these unions in various cities, taking their funds and distributing them among the unemployed and imprisoned militants. New “unions” began to be organized, promoted by revolutionary syndicalists and communists. This was happening even before the KPD abandoned the tactic of forming cells in the dominant unions. Thus, it is not surprising that in the 1920 KAPD program we read the following:

Alongside bourgeois parliamentarism, the trade unions [Gewerkschaften] form the main bulwark against the further development of the proletarian revolution in Germany. (…) Their socially traitorous effectiveness found its logical continuation with the outbreak of the November Revolution in Germany, where they documented their counter-revolutionary attitude by concluding an economically peaceful working community (Arbeitsgemeinschaft) with the collapsing German entrepreneurship. They have maintained their counter-revolutionary attitude up to today, throughout the whole period of the German revolution. It is the trade union bureaucracy [Gewerkschaftsbürokratie] which have most vigorously opposed the idea of the councils, which was taking more and more profound root in the German working class, and was able to successfully paralyze the political tendencies that resulted from the economic mass actions with the aim of the proletariat seizing political power. The counterrevolutionary character of the trade union organizations [gewerkschaftlichen Organisationen] is so evident that many employers in Germany make the employment of workers dependent on membership of a trade union association. This reveals to the whole world that the trade union bureaucracy takes an active part in the artificial maintenance of the cracking capitalist system. The trade unions [Gewerkschaften] are thus one of the main pillars of the capitalist class state alongside the bourgeois foundations. The history of trade unions over the past year and a half has sufficiently proven that this counter-revolutionary structure cannot be transformed from within in a revolutionary sense. Revolutionizing the trade unions is not a question of persons. The counter-revolutionary character of these organizations lies in their peculiar structure and their system itself. From this knowledge the logical conclusion emerges that only the destruction of the trade unions [Zertrümmerung der Gewerkschaften] themselves can pave the way for the progress of the social revolution in Germany. Other than these fossil organizations are necessary for socialist construction.” (3)

A qualitative tactical shift is evident here, from the slogan “Leave the unions!” (which, however, will continue to be used) to a much more radical slogan: “destruction of unions”.

What we can read in the short program of the AAUD of the same year is also relevant:

7. The AAU turns against unionism [Syndikalismus] insofar as it is opposed to the idea of councils.

8. In particular, however, the AAU turns extremely sharply against the trade unions [Gewerkschaften] as the main bulwark against the further development of the proletarian revolution in Germany, as the main bulwark against the unification of the proletariat as a class.”

10. The task of the AAU is the revolution in the factory [Betriebe, work center]. It is concerned with the political and economic instruction of the workers.

11. In the phase of the seizure of political power, the factory organization [BO, Betriebsorganisation] itself becomes a component of the proletarian dictatorship, exercised in the workplace [Betriebe] through the factory councils [Betriebsräte] rising upon the factory organization. The factory organization advocates that political power is always exercised only by the Executive of the councils.” (4)

In terms of terminology, in light of the texts reproduced above, when the German council communists in 1920 called for the “destruction of the trade unions”, they were using a very specific term to refer to the latter, Gewerkschaft. Although, as we also saw, in the AAUD program the use of the term Syndikalismus indicates a broader and more radical critical position (even if from the historical context and the brevity of the wording of that point, we can infer that they were thinking mainly about the so-called “revolutionary syndicalism”).

Henceforth, the anti-union position of the council communists will be reflected in their general policy of defending the “class front” as opposed to the “professional front”. But, although the general meaning of this anti-union position is quite clear, when it comes to specifically determining its application, the tactic, the aforementioned specificity of the word most used initially is cause for doubt. Note that when the AAUD was formed in 1920, a policy of collaboration was also developed with the anarcho-syndicalist FAUD, who shared in its name the term Arbeiterunion (literally “workers’ union”). In other words, the call for the “destruction of the unions” did not include the FAUD, at least not directly. As we shall see this has to be interpreted as a political differentiation according to the role that each organization played in the struggle. While the FAUD in the 1920s, or the American IWW in the 1930s, played a progressive role in the development of the working class as an autonomous and revolutionary subject, the tactic of the council communists was one of critical collaboration rather than open confrontation.

2. The unions and their possibilities according to Marx and Engels

Regarding terminology, in Spanish and French we refer to “syndicate” and “syndicalism” as the whole spectrum of organizations and practices that share the same basic functionality in capitalism. As Marx understood it:

Trades’ unions. Their past, present and future

(a) Their past.

Capital is concentrated social force, while the workman has only to dispose of his working force. The contract between capital and labour can therefore never be struck on equitable terms (…). The only social power of the workmen is their number. The force of numbers, however is broken by disunion. The disunion of the workmen is created and perpetuated by their unavoidable competition among themselves.

Trades’ Unions originally sprang up from the spontaneous attempts of workmen at removing or at least checking that competition, in order to conquer such terms of contract as might raise them at least above the condition of mere slaves. The immediate object of Trades’ Unions was therefore confined (…) in one word, to questions of wages and time of labour. This activity of the Trades’ Unions is not only legitimate, it is necessary. It cannot be dispensed with so long as the present system of production lasts. On the contrary, it must be generalised (…). On the other hand, unconsciously to themselves, the Trades’ Unions were forming centres of organisation of the working class, as the mediaeval municipalities and communes did for the middle class. If the Trades’ Unions are required for the guerilla fights between capital and labour, they are still more important as organised agencies for superseding the very system of wages labour and capital rule.

(b) Their present.

Too exclusively bent upon the local and immediate struggles with capital, the Trades’ Unions have not yet fully understood their power of acting against the system of wages slavery itself. They therefore kept too much aloof from general social and political movements. (…)


(c) Their future.

Apart from their original purposes, they must now learn to act deliberately as organising centres of the working class in the broad interest of its complete emancipation. They must aid every social and political movement tending in that direction. Considering themselves and acting as the champions and representatives of the whole working class (…). (5)

* * *

…The very development of modern industry must progressively turn the scale in favour of the capitalist against the working man, and that consequently the general tendency of capitalistic production is not to raise, but to sink the average standard of wages, or to push the value of labour more or less to its minimum limit. Such being the tendency of things in this system, is this saying that the working class ought to renounce their resistance against the encroachments of capital, and abandon their attempts at making the best of the occasional chances for their temporary improvement? If they did, they would be degraded to one level mass of broken wretches past salvation. I think I have shown that their struggles for the standard of wages are incidents inseparable from the whole wages system, that in 99 cases out of 100 their efforts at raising wages are only efforts at maintaining the given value of labour, and that the necessity of debating their price with the capitalist is inherent to their condition of having to sell themselves as commodities. By cowardly giving way in their everyday conflict with capital, they would certainly disqualify themselves for the initiating of any larger movement.

At the same time, and quite apart from the general servitude involved in the wages system, the working class ought not to exaggerate to themselves the ultimate working of these everyday struggles. They ought not to forget that they are fighting with effects, but not with the causes of those effects; that they are retarding the downward movement, but not changing its direction; that they are applying palliatives, not curing the malady. They ought, therefore, not to be exclusively absorbed in these unavoidable guerrilla fights incessantly springing up from the never ceasing encroachments of capital or changes of the market. They ought to understand that, with all the miseries it imposes upon them, the present system simultaneously engenders the material conditions and the social forms necessary for an economical reconstruction of society.”

Trades Unions work well as centers of resistance against the encroachments of capital. They fail partially from an injudicious use of their power. They fail generally from limiting themselves to a guerrilla war against the effects of the existing system, instead of simultaneously trying to change it, instead of using their organized forces as a lever for the final emancipation of the working class that is to say the ultimate abolition of the wages system.” (Marx, ‘Value, Price and Profit’, 1865) (6)

It should be noted that Marx’s optimism about the strategic usefulness of trade unions did not blind him to their original limitations. His general viewpoint is an example of appreciation of the elasticity of the forms of organization that the proletariat adopts, which means that they are not necessarily limited to their initial purposes, although, on the other hand, they are not the appropriate forms for final emancipation either. Rather, they are a means of developing the class movement until it is capable of equipping itself with new forms of revolutionary organization. For this reason, unions and their activity must continue to be the object of criticism and historical transformation:

The English labor movement has been turning for a number of years in a narrow circle with no way out of strikes for wages and shortening of the working day, and certainly not as a professional expedient and a means of propaganda and organization, but as an ultimate goal. The trade unions until now exclude by principle and statutory all political action and with it the participation in all activity of the working class as a class. The workers are politically divided into conservatives and liberal-radicals (…). Here, therefore, one can speak of a workers’ movement only as soon as one talks about how the strikes are going, which, victorious or not, do not advance the movement a single step. Such strikes (…) by means of which the working class does not advance to rise to battles of world historical importance, (…) can only do harm… ” (F. Engels to E. Bernstein, June 17, 1879) (7)

Alongside the associations in the individual industrial branches or above them, a general association must be erected, a political organization of the working class as a whole” (F. Engels, ‘A worker’s party’, Werke, Berlin, 1972.) (8)

And already at the end of the 19th Century the creation of new, more inclusive unions was necessary for the progress of the working class:

Now they join (…) the majority of unskilled workers from one branch after another, while those that existed until now are hardly developing rapidly. (…) The old [unions], those that encompass «skilled» workers, are exclusive, they exclude all unskilled workers and thus create themselves a non-union competition; they are rich, but the richer they are, the more they end up being nothing more than simple sickness and death funds; they are conservative and get rid of socialism while they can. The new «unskilled» admit all fellow workers (…) and although, man by man, they are not socialists, they absolutely want only socialists and no one else as leaders.” (Engels, article in Arbeiter-Zeitung, Vienna, 1890) (9)

3. Language differences in terminology and their intersection with the changes produced by the development of capitalism

Now that we have clarified what is meant by “union” in historical-materialist thought, let us return to the questions of terminology.

The specific German term for trade unions is Gewerkschaft, which literally means “collective with the same job”. It is very similar to the English “trade union”, literally “union of the guild or trade”. As we have seen, when the council communists called for the “destruction of the trade unions”, they were referring to the type of organization called “Gewerkschaft” and they did so considering that they were in an open revolutionary period and therefore these unions could not play any progressive role, that is, one in favor of the proletarian revolution. That is why they adopted the “destruction of the trade unions” as their immediate slogan and objective.

Interestingly, in Dutch, which is very similar to German, the terminology is very different and they use vakbond, literally “league of the guild or professional association”, although (as in English) they have admitted a derivation of the Greco-Latin term with syndicaat.

The term “syndicate” has a Greco-Latin etymology and has spread internationally since its use in France (“syndicalisme”). From the point of view of the meaning of the term, it is the most comprehensive and most relevant, taking into account the kind of basic social practices that are necessarily shared by all trade unions since their birth: the struggle around wages, working hours and other working conditions. But it has no etymological relationship with the German “Gewerkschaft” or the English “trade union”. It comes from the Greek sýndikos, which has been translated into Latin as syndĭcus (in Spanish “síndico”) and refers in a general way to a person in charge of defending “justice”: “síndico” is a compound of the prefix syn (with) and the noun dikè (justice). From this would come “syndicate” (from the medieval Latin “syndicatus”: board or meeting of trustees) or the Spanish “sindicatura” (job or office of the trustee). Later on, the term would evolve to refer to the legal representatives in charge of legal tasks related to economic matters, in charge of watching over the rights of parties and negotiating agreements for their represented.

The French Syndicalisme would spread between the late 19th and early 20th Centuries and would end up being adopted in English (“Syndicalism”) and German (“Syndikalismus”). But with this use an element of confusion was introduced in the English and German linguistic sphere. For the extension of the noun “Syndicalisme” from French was closely connected with the adjective “révolutionnaire”. The English and German adoption implied the extension of a custom, that of using their translation of the term “Syndicalisme” as a synonym for “Syndicalisme révolutionnaire” for reasons of linguistic economy (which could not happen in the Latin languages).

That “Syndicalisme” presented itself as associated with the revolutionary struggle of the proletariat and referred to the model of the French CGT, whose principles were approved at the 1906 Congress of Amiens and prefigured anarcho-syndicalism. This syndicalism considered that the unions had a double role: to be organs of the struggle within capitalism to improve the labor situation and to be organs of the revolutionary struggle to overthrow capitalism and, subsequently, to reorganize society through the workers’ management of production. Consequently, this unionism introduces more aggressive methods of struggle that demand greater commitment and effort on the part of the workers, as well as developing a class program for the long term. In this sense, it effectively breaks with what would be the “Gewerkschaft” or “trade unions” (or also “labor union” in the USA).

In the same period, the “industrial unionism” of the north-American IWW and of “anarcho-syndicalism” itself (explicitly and closely linked to the anarchist vision of the proletarian struggle and the future social revolution) appear, which are variants of the French model. Here the emergence of the concept of “industrial union” in English is relevant in order to differentiate it from the concept of “trade union”. The unitary organization of the workers in the same plant or industrial complex and their federation into industrial branches meant an increase in the strength of the organized workers’ movement, which was necessary in a capitalism that was no longer the same as it was a century ago.

The development of the concentration and centralization of industrial capital required a transformation in the union form of organization so that it could fulfill its immediate general objectives. However, this transformation was not intrinsically linked to an inevitable sharpening of class antagonisms in capitalism. The coincidence with a general sharpening of the internal contradictions of capitalism, which would lead to World War I and continue with World War II, gave nevertheless that revolutionary profile to the emerging industrial unionism. When that variable changed, at least in the most developed capitalist countries, and class antagonism diminished in the aftermath of World War II, industrial unionism lost its revolutionary edge at the same time that organization by industry and not by trade became the general form of unionism in the 20th Century. But this was by no means discernible in the 1920s, when in Germany, inspired by the example of the IWW, the Betriebsorganisationen and their unification in the Arbeiter-Union emerged. The AAUD was part of this general trend towards modernization and radicalization of unionism, but the extreme conditions in Germany led to a qualitative leap that substantially resignified the forms of industrial unionism.

Continued on page 2 (link below)


2 Kommunistische Räte-Korrespondenz, No. 11, July 1919, according to H.M. Bock, “Syndikalismus und Linkskommunismus von 1918 bis 1923”, p.131.

4 Programm der AAU, angenommen auf der Reichkonferenz in Leipzig (12.-14. Dezember 1920), published in Die Allgemeine Arbeiter-Union (revolutionäre Betriebsorganisationen) / [Karl Schröder und Friedrich Wendel]. – [Berlin] : Herausgegeben vom Wirtschaftsbezirk Groß-Berlin, 1921, p. 47/48. A pdf facsimile print is available at

5 AIT, Instructions for the Delegates of the Provisional General Council, written in English by Marx at the end of August 1866.

8 Friedrich Engels, A Working Men’s Party. Written: mid-July 1881; in The Labour Standard, No. 12, July 23, 1881.

9 Friedrich Engels, May 4 in London, in “Arbeiter-Zeitung” Nr.21, 23. Mai 1890.