The Future of the German Labor Movement

By Paul Mattick

Revolt Library Anarchism The Future of the German Labor Movement

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(1904 - 1981)

Paul Mattick Sr. (March 13, 1904 – February 7, 1981) was a Marxist political writer and social revolutionary, whose thought can be placed within the council communist and left communist traditions. Throughout his life, Mattick continually criticized Bolshevism, Vladimir Lenin and Leninist organizational methods, describing their political legacy as "serving as a mere ideology to justify the rise of modified capitalist (state-capitalist) systems, which were [...] controlled by way of an authoritarian state". (From:

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The Future of the German Labor Movement

Published: in International Council Correspondence Vol. 1, no.1, October 1934, pp 11-14.
Source: Antonie Pannekoek Archives
Transcribed: by Graham Dyer

Any speculation regarding the possibilities of the German labor movement must take into account, not merely the aims of the various organizations, but the structural transformations in modern society during the last decade. This change in the economic setup, together with its political consequences, is likewise the indispensable key to the complete understanding of fascism.

In the present crisis, the monopolist form of economy develops within itself stagnating tendencies directed economically against the laissez-faire principle and politically against "formal democracy". The process of capital concentration, which continues during the crisis, acts as a spur to all social groups, though it is only the working class which can be moved into a genuine opposition to the existing order. The economic dependence of the middle class allows it no policy of its own; it develops only a backward ideology, since any social advance brings with it the downfall of this class as a special group.

The fact that the middle class has become the chief support of the fascist movement is only a sign of its own historical insignificance. The policies of the existing economic system cannot be subordinated to the fascist ideology, and the louder that ideology cries, the more surely it also destroys itself. Being incapable of bringing about a revolutionary change in the economic system, fascism is compelled to follow laws which simply force the impoverishment of the middle class as well. The fascist movement must of necessity, in the course of developments, shrink to a fascist state apparatus which has openly to defend the interests of the economically strongest groups against society as a whole. Practically, fascism can only be appraised as the expression of the political necessities of the monopolistic groups during the crisis. It is nothing other than the compulsion to permanent terrorism against the working class; and this compulsion results from the fact that the further endangering of industrial profits by social unrest can no longer be tolerated, since the already insufficient profit brings into question more and more the continued existence of the economic system. Fascism, furthermore, has to wage the class struggle against the class struggle which it denies, so as to prepare the "nation" for the imperialistic clashes to be expected.

As a result of the conflicts of interests within society - conflicts deniable only in words, not in reality - fascism may change its leaders and symbols or may even under certain circumstances, as a result of new social upheavals, give place to a neo-democratic regime. But practically, this transformation would be nothing more than an exchange of leaders and symbols, since even the restored "democracy" would be compelled to adopt the fascist policies. Even a democratically "minded" state apparatus would have to protect the existing society with the necessary means, which today are means of terrorism. Without overlooking the differences between fascism and democracy, it may still be said that both these social forms, within the framework of the present system, have only the same possibilities of action, since politics is always dictated by the economic necessities.

From this standpoint, any struggle for democracy is only a pseudo struggle. And for this reason, such a struggle is quite out of the question for the workers, and can only be conducted by those groups which are willing to play capitalistic politics, that is, merely want to govern. This fight will not even be decided by the "fighters", but by the processes within the economic system. Only the false assumption that the present economy is still capable of further progressive development can feed the illusion of a new democratic era.

In Germany also, the real class struggle will not turn on the question of democracy, and all attempts to erect a new labor movement on this basis are doomed in advance. The efforts of the socialist movement to get a new lease of life through the radicalizing of its phraseology fall down on the objective impossibility of turning history backward. The demand for the rehabilitation of democracy is no less laughable than the faith of the fascist in the restoration of the "good old times".

The attempts of the various communist groups to build up illegal movements in the old party style show that they thoroughly share the illusions of the socialist movement. Nothing has changed as regards the idea held by these groups as to the role of the party. What was once legal shall now continue to function illegally in the same form. They completely fail to see that the old party movement was just an expression of formal democracy, and could exist nowhere else. The party is bound up with democracy; the one is not possible without the other. Anyone who fancies that strong party organizations capable of playing a decisive role in history can be built up anew, such a person must necessarily, however much he may protest, believe in the possibility of a new democratic era, and, like the fascists and socialists, is merely intoxicating himself with traditions.

Nothing is more naive than the various assertions of the different political groups in Germany to the effect that they have so and so many thousands of illegal members in their ranks. These computations can only be made and peddled about in foreign countries. They are incapable of proof, and spring only from the competitive needs of the various parties in the countries which have not yet gone fascist. Those computations are dubious for the very reason that there is absolutely no way of making them; no controlled, illegal labor movement embraced on party principles exists in Germany.

It is true that the Communist Party succeeded, during the first few months of the dictatorship, in leading portions of its non-renegade membership to engage in pygmy demonstrations, in collecting dues from the membership, in prompting them to the distribution of leaflets, etc. But this activity was possible only because the fascist terror was still lacking in system, and we find that the communist activity let up in the same measure in which the fascist "Tcheka" spread its nets. This "revolutionary" spirit of the C.P. - spirit which was asleep at the proper moment, because it did not want that moment to come – collapsed from its own senselessness. Thousands of fanaticized party hangers-on drifted into the concentration camps for distributing leaflets containing nothing more than the phrase, "Hands off the Soviet Union". The fluctuation in membership was peculiar to the C.P. The S.P. was composed of old fellows, incapable of changing, while the C.P. was largely composed of younger elements which instead of convictions had only uniforms to change. These deserters made it all the easier for fascism to wipe out the illegal activity of the C.P. in the shortest conceivable time. The gladiator politics of the C.P. was not even the courage of despair, but served merely to justify the communist "thesis constructors", who of course had asserted that the rule of Hitler could only be of brief duration. The real relations of power contradicted this criminal policy designed to conceal embarrassing facts, and under the ax of the fascist executioners, the deepest-dyed party fanaticism went to pieces.

Though political groups were reorganized underground, the fascist police also adjusted itself to underground pursuit. Day after day occurred, and still occurs, the arrest of officials, the suppression of meeting places, the seizure of contact men. What is built up today is tomorrow already destroyed. Slowly but with deadly certainty, the very beginnings of the illegal movement are blotted out. It was these circumstances which first clearly revealed how deep the national socialist ideology is still rooted even in the workers. They put themselves willingly at the service of the authorities for the purpose of exterminating "Marxism". A state of general distrust spread over the movement. One who still sat in the "party" councils today might stand revealed as a Nazi tomorrow. The ideological sway of the Nazis over the great masses brought into the labor movement a state of oppressing resignation and a feeling for the necessity of long-term change of policy. Anything that escaped the hands of the Nazis fell foul of this resignation. What remains is a very small circle of hounded revolutionists who, in view of the true situation, rightly continue for the present to keep their own company. The Party, to them, apart from a few exceptions, means nothing any more. The "groups of five" include workers from the most disparate camps of the old labor movement. The groups themselves serve for the present merely to assure the mutual understanding of those engaged in the movement; they refrain from all outside activity.

Having shattered the old labor movement, Fascism neither can nor will permit the building up of another. What is more, with the further deepening of the crisis, the terrorism must still continue to grow sharper. The necessity of atomizing the masses politically or of bringing them under the direct control of the fascist state apparatus does not, however, do away with the economic necessity of bringing them together in great numbers in the enterprises, industries, employment bureaus, labor service camps, etc. The impossibility of forming strong organizations does not abolish the class struggle itself; in the new situation, it will simply assume new forms. The absence of dominant permanent organizations will and can only lead to the extension of the workers-council movement. The social development has reached a point which makes the council movement the natural and only possible one. What hitherto has been propaganda arises now from the relations themselves. Since the class struggle, viewed as the essential form of historical movement, is not susceptible of being forbidden, the struggle of the workers for their existence must take the spontaneous character under the fascist dictatorship and will be one with the organization. The councils exist only so long as they are in action; they are in action as soon as they exist. In order to be permanent, they have first to win. They are at the same time the realization of the united front since they are not bound together on the basis of ideologies, but are the expression of the material life needs of the combatants without regard to their ideology. They make a reality of what could hitherto be valid only in words; namely, that the Revolution is not a party matter, but the affair of the class.

To avoid going off into empty speculation regarding the coming German labor movement, it must be realized that the period of disintegration of existing society constitutes a new historical epoch which follows its own laws and not those of the past. The old party movement which regarded itself as the decisive factor of the revolution was in reality only a child of aspiring capitalism; a child which the cannibalistic mother devours in the crisis. The setting in of this new epoch is necessarily bound up with the end of democracy and hence with the end of the previous labor movement. The past, to be sure, still weighs upon the present and leads to the building of neo-socialist, neo-communist and other such "neo" organizations, but all traditions must yield in the face of the changed circumstances. The world crisis is still in its first stage, the process of disintegration has only begun. The farther this process advances, the more must the terrorism against the workers be sharpened. But this terrorism serves for their political education. In the course of development, fascism will be compelled to destroy its own organizations; nature sets a limit even to the greatest joy in thralldom. Famishing fascists cease to be fascists. Resignation kills individuals, but not classes. Every attempt of the workers to ward off their impoverishment will be combated in the manner in which rebellions are put down. Thus even the most backward workers will be compelled, in order to save themselves, to act as if they were conscious revolutionists. Every assembly of workers becomes a reservoir of revolutionary energies. The weakness of the illegal organizations will not permit of any great degree of control over the masses. In committees of action and workers councils they will create their own form of organization and their own leadership. And it is only in these first beginnings and their quantitative growth that the revolutionary movement can be discerned.

The tempo of this development is determined by that of the period of disintegration. Unless there occurs a sudden and rapid deepening of the crisis or unless a new war fundamentally changes the whole world picture, nothing much of a surprising nature in reference to the labor movement will happen in Germany in the near future. Of a restoration of the labor movement upon the basis of the old, nothing of the sort need be looked for. So that, so far as concerns the party movement, one will have to deny its very existence. It is impossible to conceive of any way in which it could set itself up as a quite special group, since the movement is identical with the working class itself. And nevertheless, still more surprisingly than did the fascists, that movement will one day snatch the power into its hands.

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