Rudolf Rocker – The Beginnings of German Syndicalism
Title: The Beginnings of German Syndicalism
Notes: Published in Melnikow, Magdalena & Duerr, Hans Peter, Aus den Memoiren eines deutschen Anarchisten (From the Memoirs of a German Anarchist), Frankfurt-am-Main (Suhrkamp) 1974. pp.287–90. (“From the memoirs of a German anarchist” is an abridged version of Rocker’s complete three-part autobiography, translated into Spanish and published by Abad de Santillan in Argentina; the above extracts from Revolucion y Regresion (1952). The original German-language typescript can now be found at the International Institute for Social History, Amsterdam.) Re-published in KSL: Bulletin of the Kate Sharpley Library No. 53, February 2008.
Source: Retrieved on 23rd May 2022 from www.katesharpleylibrary.net
(Translator’s note:- Expelled from Britain at the beginning of 1918, Rudolf Rocker resided at first in the Netherlands at the home of veteran libertarian socialist Ferdinand Domela Nieuwenhuis; he returned to Germany in November at the personal invite of Fritz Kater, Secretary of the syndicalist Free Association of German Trade Unions (Freie Vereinigung deutscher Gewerkschaften – FVdG). The following passage give’s Rocker’s account of the process whereby the FVdG, hitherto an alliance of anarchist and disillusioned Social Democratic workers, became the FAUD, with a firm commitment to anarcho-syndicalism. JG)
Soon after my arrival in Berlin I had various discussions with the business committee of the syndicalists, aimed at reaching agreement with its members on a clear position for the movement. I had received the first issue of Der Syndikalist while still in Amsterdam; on their own, those guidelines published in the paper were still quite unclear, something which was easy to understand in view of the sudden political turnaround after the war and the indescribable complexity of the whole situation. In particular, the demand that comrades across the land support the left wing of the socialist movement, the Independents and Spartakists, and the papers’ espousal of “proletarian dictatorship”, were not to my liking. I had already conferred with Domela-Nieuwenhuis on the matter, who fully shared my point of view.
Although I did not deny that qualified co-operation with other tendencies on particular points was useful and appeared wholly appropriate to the situation in Germany, it was clear to me, however, that for the movement to preserve its independence on questions of principle and tactics, it needed to undergo an internal process of clarification. Right from the beginning, Germany’s socialist workers’ movement had been markedly authoritarian and the strongly centralised character of its organisation promoted within its ranks that iron discipline known only in Germany and which was the main factor paralyzing any further intellectual development of the movement. Its theoretical bases were tailored to the dogmatic reasoning of Marxism, admittedly loosened later, here and there, with the appearance of the so-called revisionists”, but nonetheless acknowledged by the great majority of party members at all party congresses up to the outbreak of the First World War. The later splits during and after the war did nothing to change this situation. There were no theoretical differences between right-wing socialists (Rechtssozialisten), Independents and Communists. They all acknowledged the teachings of Marxism, were strict centralists, authoritarian to the core, and where libertarian ideas were concerned hadn’t the faintest clue. Their differences were of a purely tactical nature and revolved mainly around whether one should revert back to pre-war methods following the collapse of the monarchical regime, or whether one by a continuation of the revolution should create a new set of circumstances in Germany. Thus I explained my views to the comrades and explained to them that it was now above all important to develop a broader base for libertarian socialism in Germany and to create a movement which rejected all tutelage from political parties. I especially recommended that they maintain the closest contact with the syndicalist and libertarian movement abroad, something which was urgently needed in view of the revolutionary situation in Europe brought about by the war.
Our discussions were very comradely and fruitful and at their end I was entrusted by the business committee with the working out of a declaration of principles to be presented for debate to the 12th Congress, announced for 27th December. Copies of this declaration were sent in advance to all local branches to enable delegates to formulate their suggestions to submit in writing to the Congress.
The Free Association of German Trade Unions had been founded by the former state-qualified architect, Gustav Kessler, and other comrades in 1897 and before the outbreak of the war counted some 8,000 members. This Alliance originally bore purely Social Democratic ideas, but it differed from the large centralised trade unions in the federalist character of its organisation. This “federalism”, however, was in no way the product of a social and political realisation, as with Piscane in Italy, Proudhon in France, and Pi y Margall, and later adopted by the anarchist movements of those countries; it arose much more out of the attempt to circumvent the regulations of the then Prussian Law of Association, which admittedly permitted the discussion of political matters in the assemblies of purely local unions, but denied the same right to members of the centralised trade unions. The so-called Lokalisten, for whom it was above all a matter of educating their members in the spirit of Social Democracy, did not wish to forfeit this right and wishing better to pursue their propaganda work, organised in accordance with the law.