In 1929 and 1930, the General German Trade Union Federation (ADGB), which was dominated by social democratic functionaries, fell into a crisis. Although the affiliated unions had temporarily stopped the seemingly inexorable decline in membership after the peak in 1920 (7.9 million) on the eve of the Great Depression, it now became clear that the strategy summarized with the slogan of “economic democracy” 9 million members, by far the largest German workers ‘organization, had reached a dead end: While the employers’ associations were increasingly confrontational, the ADGB unions continued to rely on cooperation and, in cases of conflict, on the system of forced state arbitration. This approach had already embarrassed itself in the fall of 1928 in the so-called Ruhreisenstreit and made in 1930 with the disembarkation of the SPD from the Reich government as well as the first arbitration awards (as in the Berlin metal workers’ strike in October 1930) and emergency ordinances, with which collective agreements were suspended and wages were reduced, finally bankrupt.
Nonetheless, the ADGB leadership stuck to its course, which – under completely changed conditions – resulted in a new edition of the policy of the “Arbeitsgemeinschaft” from 1918 and a step back from the entrepreneurial offensive and the beginning authoritarian state restructuring. In the process, however, it had to struggle with a growing opposition in the individual trade union associations, which the chairman of the shoemaker’s union, Josef Simon, complained about in the Federal Committee of the ADGB in 1931: “One of our largest companies threatened us with a ban on contributions; they say what need we unions if the government, tolerated by the unions, sets wages. “
That was the situation in which the KPD began in the fall of 1930 to list the Revolutionary Trade Union Opposition (RGO), which until then had been an organized faction within the “free” trade unions and, as such, since 1929, with its own (“red”) lists had stood in works council elections (in 1929 there were around 150, in 1930 almost 600, in 1931 a little more than 1,000), to be converted into a communist directional union – which also included the formation of branch unions (“unitary associations”). The 340 participants of the second Reich Congress of the RGO, which took place on November 15 and 16, 1930 in Berlin, set the course for this.
The Fifth Congress of the Red Trade Union International (RGI) had given this orientation in August 1930: The communist parties in certain countries “where there is an organizationally solid, large revolutionary trade union opposition” should no longer urge their members and supporters to join the reformist trade union federations , but rather start building independent communist (“revolutionary” or “red”) trade unions.
In Germany, however, this line was by no means implemented with ultimate consistency. Even in Moscow, Fritz Heckert, the KPD representative at the RGI, and Franz Dahlem, who headed the RGO delegation, approved it rather cautiously. The RGO Congress in November 1930 passed resolutions that, on closer inspection, were contradictory. On the one hand, the RGO constituted itself as an independent organization that established the “red associations” – the first was the Union of Metal Workers Berlin (EVMB), followed by the Union of Miners of Germany (EVBD) and the Union of Agricultural and Forestry Workers . On the other hand, members of ADGB trade unions should continue to be won over for the RGO in order to then make opposition politics in these organizations in the interests of the RGO. The need to work in the “free” trade unions was expressly pointed out. The RGO wanted to be a parliamentary group and a special organization at the same time. Strictly speaking, this did not correspond to the decisions of the RGI, and shows the reservations about this line in the KPD leadership. In the spring of 1930, they had already led to the removal of the then RGO Reichsleiter Paul Merker after he had started to attack even the simple members of the free trade unions and the SPD as “social-fascist”.
At the first Reich Conference of the RGO at the end of 1929, around 800 of the approximately 1,100 participants had belonged to an ADGB trade union; the others were excluded and unorganized. For the communist trade union opposition, it was said at the 12th party congress of the KPD in Berlin in June 1929, “not candidates for invalidity or old-age pensions after 20 years of membership who vote for the social-imperialists in every meeting”, but rather “class fighters”. . In addition to the unorganized, the party aimed at the internal trade union opposition, which was mainly supported by younger workers, against which many ADGB associations were already at this point with a rigorous policy of exclusion. A special feature of the RGO policy was also the approach to combine the industrial struggles with the mobilization of the unemployed.
Many non-party members
Marxist historians – not only in the GDR – have predominantly criticized this “ultra-left turn” in the KPD’s trade union policy and called it a “sectarian” mistake. Indeed, weighty objections can be raised. Reference was made, for example, to the highly problematic organizational segregation and further isolation of the communist workers from the mass of the unionized workforce against the background of the increasingly pressing problem of defending against the fascist danger were laid off by the companies). The flawed political analysis on which the new line was based was also criticized: the KPD had interpreted the strike struggles on the eve and at the beginning of the global economic crisis “as the first signs of broad left-wing development and radicalization” of the working class and thus “interpreted the economic and social defensive character of these struggles «(Jürgen Harrer / Witich Roßmann) misunderstood.
None of this is wrong, but it is also an argument that judges against the background of the catastrophe of 1933 and also tends to overestimate the scope for action and the scope of the decisions of the KPD leadership. More recent research literature – the study by Stefan Heinz on the EVMB should be emphasized – seems to suggest that the RGO policy was not primarily a “party event”, but a reflex on the authentic radicalization of unionized and unorganized workers, who could no longer do anything with the ADGB unions, but wanted to continue fighting in the company – and more aggressively. Heinz, for example, expressly rejects the old denunciation that “Moscow’s mercenaries” were at work here and emphasizes the EVMB’s “relative autonomy” vis-à-vis the party. It has long been known that three quarters of the RGO members – around 300,000 in 1932 with high fluctuation – were non-party.
In 1929/30 the KPD was faced with the question of how to deal with this tendency. There were basically only two options here. As it had done since 1925, the party was able to call on these workers pushing “to the left” to continue working in the ADGB trade unions and thus to chain them to an organization which – its demise in 1933 finally proved this – to any ingratiation and surrender was ready. Or, despite all the risks, it decided to create a core union organization that was accessible and capable of acting for the party. It is not convincing to simply reject the decision in favor of the latter as “wrong”.
The reference to the fact that the RGO was not a success story as an organization and that the red associations remained “splinter organizations” does not lead us very far. They only had a little over two years to develop – in an economic crisis with extreme mass unemployment in which the ADGB unions lost well over a million members. The RGO achieved local successes, for example in some large metal and transport companies as well as in the Ruhr mining industry, where the “red” lists won a considerable number of works council mandates in 1931. Nevertheless, the overall balance of these last works council elections before the establishment of the fascist dictatorship – they were stopped by an emergency ordinance in 1932 – remained meager: slightly more than 4,500 RGO mandates were compared to 115,000 mandates from the ADGB unions (including quite a few works councils with KPD party membership ).
In 1935 the KPD leadership ended the experiment with the communist unions. At this point in time, there were still some RGO structures in Germany that participated in the anti-fascist resistance out of illegality.