Essay: On unionism and its revolutionary overcoming

4. Betriebsorganisation and Arbeiter-Union

The Betriebsorganisation emerges as an organ of a militant workers’ movement in the midst of an apparent “deadly crisis” of capitalism and an ongoing proletarian revolution. This meant that in their constitution, ordinary unionist objectives were a marginal issue and that union-type practices were surpassed by the dynamics of revolutionary class struggle. However, as would soon be seen, when the revolution ebbed, the problem of fulfilling basic union functions was again on the order of the day and caused divisions.

A Betriebsorganisation was not a company organization, understanding company as a legal-administrative entity. It referred directly to the material utility of the organization per industrial plant or work center, i.e. it was an organization of the workers as a single class force within the work center as a material ‘unit of production’. Because in this way the workers could concentrate their power over production and oppose it to the power of capital – which is no more than the result of bourgeois domination over living labor and the latter means and conditions of activity of the latter. The Betriebsorganisation implied, therefore, by its very existence, a rupture of capitalist domination on its material basis, and its activity was, consequently, “the revolution within the factory” (KAPD, 1920). The territorial union of Betriebsorganisationen created the possibility of turning mass strikes, and mass actions in general, into an effective economic revolution in the whole country. And since in the context of crisis and revolution in Germany the “question of power” was immediately and clearly presented, the ambiguities and inconsistencies regarding this question, on the part of revolutionary syndicalism or of anarcho-syndicalism, no longer had any place. So the Betriebsorganisation was conceived as the basis of the dictatorship of the proletariat, that is, in fact, as organizations of both economic and political struggle (an aspect that would be explicitly emphasized by the split of the AAUD-E) and as an organized sustainer of the factory councils. The organization of the dictatorship of the proletariat was conceived as a system of power (Rätesystem) in which the Betriebsorganisation was a basic part. Hence the qualification of these and other forms of organization of the revolutionary proletariat as Räteorganisation, which is difficult to translate but means that they are functional organizations to the workers councils, “council organizations” in this “organic” sense.

It is also evident that the AAUD expresses a qualitative leap in terms of the forms of struggle because it develops to the maximum the most subversive practices that had already appeared with revolutionary syndicalism and introduces the formation and defense of workers’ councils as its main task. However, what in the ascending phase of a process of social revolution occurs at high speed, from a very powerful and very massive creative impulse, in another dynamic situation can occur more slowly, with less extension and without reaching its finished form. The situation of a rising revolutionary phase was what allowed the Revolutionäre Obleute movement to develop, from a grassroots current for fighting against participation in World War I between 1916 and early 1918, until it matured programmatically and constituted in just a period of two years the radical militant rank-and-file of the Betriebsorganisationen and quickly unified these in the AAUD.

5. From the 1920s to the 1970s. Connections and differences.

In a dynamic situation very different from the revolutionary wave unleashed by World War I and the Russian Revolution of 1917, the wave of autonomous struggles between the late 1960s and mid-1970s showed a tendency to create new forms of organization following a similar generic trajectory, although the latter barely managed to go beyond autonomous currents with little concretion in new delegative bodies, generating a reduced militant rank-and-file and remaining far from fulfilling a function of power. Examples of the latter are the Comitati Unitari di Base in Italy or the Comisiones Obreras in Spain. Due to their different situation in these cases the subversive self-activity of the proletariat in the work centers did not reach the necessary intensity and extension to create a sufficient militant rank-and-file, which would allow a break with the traditional organizations and more specifically with unionism.

However, the similarity between the examples of the 1920s and the examples of the 1970s allows us to identify general features of the new forms of organization, which are not limited to issues such as the importance of direct democracy but also emphasize the importance of creating a new kind of militant rank-and-file and a program clearly oriented towards a break with capitalism. However, as another consequence of the different situation, the currents of the 1970s were not able to do more than outline, at best, an elite communist organization, an organized collective intelligence, as the KAPD had tried to be, nor could they consistently overcome the separation between economic and political struggle. Their general historical horizon was restricted, at most, to revolutionary syndicalism, although the formation of new unions meant, in fact, a regression in the very mass dynamics that had made possible their emergence as autonomous currents with extended combative characteristics and committed militant nuclei of a subversive and rupturist tendency.

6. Some methodological conclusions.

The whole historical review above shows that it is not correct to establish rigid divisions – proper of a fetishist vision of the forms of organization – between the unionist forms of organization and the revolutionary forms that serve the development of proletarian power. Unionist forms can and must vary according to the development of the concentration and centralization of capital on a world scale, because only in this way can they fulfill their immediate function within capitalism – and which, let us remember, is an indispensable function for the workers. For this same reason, the workers do not cease to try to renew and alter the forms of unionist organization and it is necessary to consider each case concretely, according to the content of their practice in the class struggle.

Historical experience shows that the evolution of the forms of unionism is a contradictory process, determined by the changes in the configuration of the capitalist mode of production and by the changes in the political class composition which, in turn, are the result of the great processes of class struggle associated with the outbreaks of the internal contradictions of capitalism, outbreaks in which the tendency to aggravate the depth and duration of economic crises is manifested. At a certain point, the practices of unionism become too ineffective, despite the changes that may have been introduced in the union-type organizations; when the proletariat needs to liberate and organize all its fighting power it needs to go beyond the most radicalized forms of unionism and create new ones. But these new forms are not a creation out of nothing, only by means of all previous experience, for better or for worse, can they appear, and this includes the necessary but transitory function of forms of radicalized unionism, without losing sight of the fact that between these forms and the forms proper to mature class autonomy, there is a qualitative leap, a fundamental rupture with all unionist traditions.

The transformations in the forms of organization depend, in the first place, on the sharpening of class contradictions and the general elevation of mass self-activity, conditions that cannot be created at will. In the second place, they depend on changes in the political class composition and, in particular, on the formation of militant subversive rank-and-file and intelligent communist minorities, which constitute the necessary force to reinforce on a mass scale the new learnings and new practical creations that result from the generalized self-activation of the proletariat in periods of systemic crisis of capital. This combination of autonomous militant rank-and-file and highly capable communist minorities had its most powerful exemplification, until today, in the example of AAUD-KAPD, but it forms a pattern that was repeated again in the 1970s and which is a general organizational necessity from the moment the working class movement takes up assembly organization as a general and basic form of organization. Then, as it happened in Germany in the 1920s, militant organizations became a necessity in order to unite and strengthen the autonomy of the workers’ movement organized in assemblies, on the one hand, and to bring it closer to the theoretical and programmatic formulations of the communists already formed but whose number is always scarce (something that Herman Gorter understood very well in his time, by the way).

Returning to questions of terminology, we can see how the important thing is to understand the changes in the practices of struggle that underlie the nominal changes when the latter are seen in their historical succession. From a strictly formal point of view, from the craft unions of relatively small-scale production with a workforce with artisan features, to the industrial unions of large-scale and highly mechanized production. The development of the globalization of capital creates, in turn, the need for the organization and struggle to have an international extension. Today we are faced with large-scale, globalized production forming large, increasingly flexible and mobile complexes that coordinate production and distribution, with a concentration and centralization of capital that is unparalleled in the 1920s and 1970s. But the labor movement in general, and the forms of unionism in particular, have not yet barely adapted to this new configuration of capitalism; they are still beginning to do so, timidly, abandoning their own obsolete practices prior to the so-called “neoliberal globalization”.

It is easily observable, if one understands well the nature and function of unionism, that this process of adaptation, by itself, does not lead to overcoming the latter. The new examples of self-organization and direct global action, certainly on a more assembly basis, do not constitute an overcoming of unionism, but a reformulation of it, influenced by the social conditions of existence of the proletariat which have been greatly degraded, to the point of creating explosive situations in some countries. But it is in this way, trying to adapt the old forms, introducing new practices and programs into them, that the proletariat always restarts its process of self-constitution in class after defeats and ebbs. The last 40 years of defeats and retreats have served to liquidate the previous dominant unionist and political tradition and clear the way for new forms. A new political class composition could not be formed without liquidating a large part of the power of the old unions and parties over the workers’ movements, a task made enormously difficult by the artificial power provided by their subsumption into the institutional apparatus of capitalism (replacing their power of working class origin with the power granted by capital so that they function in its service as organisms for the stabilization of class conflicts).

7. Political balance sheet.

Firstly, I have not attempted in this essay to claim the AAUD-KAPD model uncritically. I consider that it was an expression of conditions typical of the capitalism of the time and that the theorizations on which it was based were not always sufficient or correct. Thus, for example, the call for the “destruction of the trade unions” was not accompanied by a tactical criterion for adapting to non-revolutionary situations. Nor did the attempt to create a qualitatively different type of party – but maintaining the “party form”, still based on adherence to concrete programs and only secondarily on the critical-creative activity of its members – make it possible to achieve in this respect what had been achieved with the AAUD – although the crisis in the AAUD, with regard to its role in wage struggles in a period of revolutionary ebb, showed that the Betriebsorganisationen were not mature enough either. But all these are the inherent defects of every new creation that has not yet been able to mature and that, in the case of the one we are talking about, did not have the necessary historical conditions that would allow it to mature, but rather a few years after its emergence began its decomposition dragged by the general dynamics of the workers’ movement of the time.

Secondly, I think I have laid a rational basis for understanding why the communist tactic with regard to unionism cannot use the critical arguments coming from radicalized unionism or from the ultra-left groups into which communism has degenerated. Examples of radical unionist arguments are oppositions such as “business unionism” versus “social unionism”, “service unionism” versus “class unionism”, “sellout unionism” versus “combative unionism”, and so on. But beyond these examples we have strategically very harmful confusions within the ultra-left groups that consider themselves communists or revolutionaries. And these are confusions that, in our case, have points of support in the “councilist” and “autonomist” literature. I will mention several examples. The organization of strikes through democratic assemblies and ad hoc elected committees is an elastic form, which does not have to indicate revolutionary practices of any kind, nor a process of raising the political class composition. The idealization of more aggressive methods of struggle, such as sabotage or the occupation of factories, is also a source of confusion. In all these cases we find errors originating in the fetishism of organizational forms, which obscures the nature of real practices of struggle in terms of their relationship with capital. The aggressiveness and violence of workers’ practices has never meant, in itself, a greater programmatic antagonism with capitalism; they are only symptoms of a sharpening, sometimes very rapid, of class contradictions, and neither their extension in large strikes or protests is an indication of programmatic evolution. The ultra-left ideology is plagued by these mystifications and clings to them. The practical separation of ultra-left groups from the dynamics of the real masses allows them to recreate their false representations of reality or to blindly engage in useless violent actions. In short, separation does not demand political effectiveness in solving current problems of the proletariat and allows these groups to close their eyes to their own parasitic nature.

Finally, behind all these errors of appreciation and ideological distortions is a mistaken conception of the very nature of capital: what characterizes unionist practices is that they function as an instrument of capital’s self-regulation when we consider it as a process of self-valorization of value, of expanded reproduction of existing capital. This becomes very evident if we consider the expanded reproduction of the global capital of a country or a continental geopolitical area; but it may be very little evident, or even seem refuted, if we consider the concrete relations in very localized conflicts. That is why, regardless of the intentions and subjective beliefs of the participants, the self-organized struggles through assemblies, or the actions of self-proclaimed organized revolutionary syndicalism, not only do not necessarily develop non-union activity but can even develop much more inconsistent and ineffective union activity than relatively “moderate” unions could. For this reason the spontaneist exaltation of assemblyism or of the most aggressive practices does nothing to help the proletariat mature as an autonomous subject.

The problem of unionism in the communist program must be adequately formulated. The radical class objective with respect to unionism is not well defined with the slogan: “destruction of the unions and construction of new forms of organization”. It must be defined as overcoming unionism: overcoming it as a set of historical practices and the corresponding mentality. To this end, it should be borne in mind that, in historical materialism, an overcoming (Aufhebung) implies preserving what is still valid from previous forms and is a process that originates from the previous movement – but from its internal dynamism, from its creative self-activity; not from the structures it has established and its ordinary activity. Nor can an overcoming take place without transitional processes in which the previous is dissolved and the premises of the future are formed. Attempts to develop new forms of unionism play this dissolving role transitionally, while forms such as the “factory nuclei” proposed by the GIC play a constructive role that prepares the conditions for autonomous unitary organizations in the work centers:

The work center organization (Betriebsorganisation) as an expression of the unity of the working class will, therefore, disappear again and again before the revolution, and reappear anew in order to be the permanent form of organization of the workers only at the decisive turning point in the power relations.” (GIC, Theses on revolutionary factory nuclei, 1931) (10)

Roi Ferreiro, August 17, 2020.

(This is the essay’s second, revised and expanded version)

Translation and revision: R. Ferreiro, August 23, 2020 / August 28, 2020.

Proofreading: H.C., August 27, 2020.

Last textual changes: August 31, 2020.

Source references: R.F and F.C.

The quotes from Engels have been translated from: Oscar Cornblit, Engels, Marx y los sindicatos, 1993. (pdf)

The author can be contacted directly by e-mail via:



10 See the G.I.C. pamphlet ‘Theses on revolutionary enterprise nuclei, party and dictatorship’ (1932): IV. Enterprise organization and enterprise nucleus, Thesis 5, in: Free Retriever’s Digest’ Vol.4 issue #3, July – September 2020 Vol.4 issue #3, July – September 2020. The terms used there slightly differ from the present text, as the former translates “enterprise” instead of “work center” and, for instance, “enterprise nuclei” instead of “factory nuclei” (Editor’s note).



A first appreciation of the constitution of the discussion group Council Communism and Class Autonomy can be read at the ‘Left wing communism’ blog: A new council communist discussion group at Facebook (July 20, 2020).