A. Lozovsky
Marx and the Trade Unions

Chapter III
The Struggle against Lassalleanism and all other forms of German Opportunism

Marx attentively observed the development of the labour movement in Germany. The revolution of 1848 was the highest peak in the activity of the labour movement in Germany during that period. After 1848 the wave began to subside, the labour movement was split, considerable sections of the revolutionary elements had to emigrate to France, England and America. In Germany itself all sorts of fraternal organisations, mutual aid societies and other trade unions in embryo began to spring up.

Marx and Engels maintained close contact both with the revolutionary working-class emigrants and with the revolutionary elements within the country. After 1848 a period of political and ideological reaction set in in Germany and a number of Marx’s companions-in-arms left the revolutionary movement. Marx at that time energetically worked on putting the finishing touches to his philosophic world-outlook, on working out his economic system, simultaneously carrying on vast literary-political activities. Towards the end of the ’fifties the repressions grew less severe. The labour movement in Germany revived. Lassalle organised the General Workmen’s Union (1863), and sharply raised the question of the political tasks and rights of the working class. Lassalle, who came forward at the moment when this animation began, responded to the change in the mood of the working masses and this is why the General Workmen’s Union came to be very popular. Marx and Engels valued Lassalle: “Lassalle, in spite of all his ‘buts,’ is firm and energetic,” Marx wrote to Engels on March 10, 1853. (1) “Lassalle is the only one who still dares to correspond with London, and we must see that he does not tire of it,” Marx wrote to Engels on July 18, 1853. (2) In his letter to Schweitzer, dated October 13, 1868, Marx writes: “After fifteen years of slumber, Lassalle has roused again the labour movement in Germany. This will remain his undying merit.” (3)

However, from the very outset Marx and Engels saw a number of serious defects in his theory and practice. The differences grew as Lassalle kept on revealing his incorrect line. Lassalle looked with distrust upon the workers’ struggle for the right of association and did not see any good in strikes.

“Association rights cannot be of any use to the worker. They cannot bring about a serious improvement in the workers’ conditions.”

Such are the arguments of Lassalle. Lassalle spoke about the “sad experiences” acquired by the British strikers. He considered the struggle for higher wages to be hopeless, for the working class cannot change the iron law of wages, which, according to him, was the corner-stone of all economic perception. As a panacea for all troubles Lassalle put up two demands: general suffrage and State subsidies to producers’ associations. He therefore rejected the economic struggle of the working class and denied the usefulness of the trade unions.

This whole conception of Lassalle’s was alien to Marx.

“Lassalle was against the movement to organise unions,” Marx writes to Engels in his letter of February 13, 1865. “Liebknecht organised unions amongst the Berlin printers against the wishes of Lassalle.”

Such a view of Lassalle on the trade unions and on industrial association could not but call forth severe criticism from Marx and Engels, who saw immediately that the General Workmen’s Union was a peculiar petty-bourgeois party of a profoundly sectarian character.

The strife between Marx and Lassalle began in connection with the so-called iron law of wages. This iron law of wages as a matter of fact was merely a repetition of the Proudhonist theories and the Malthusian law of population. What is the essence of this theory? That no matter what the worker does, no matter how hard he fights, he will not be able to improve his condition. This theory of the rejection and futility of organised economic struggles could not meet with sympathy on the part of Marx. Marx sharply criticised the iron law of wages by proving that wages consist of two parts. They include a physical and a social minimum; the latter changes with the socio-historical conditions. Lassalle not only insisted upon his iron law of wages, but turned more and more towards government subsidies.

I have repeatedly emphasised that I want individual, voluntary associations, but these, in order to come into existence, must receive the necessary capital by a grant of State credits. (4)

In order to emancipate your class, in order to emancipate not only a few individual workers, but labour itself, millions and millions of thalers are required, and these can be granted only by the State and by legislation. (5)

This is how simply Lassalle solved the labour problem. At first we must fight for general suffrage; “the government will give many millions of thalers.” Could Marx fail to come out against this harmful and utterly petty-bourgeois utopia?

On April 9, 1863, Marx wrote to Engels:

Itzig … [Lassalle.—A. L.] the day before yesterday sent me his open letter to the Central Workers’ Committee for the Leipzig Workers’ (read old type workers’) Congress. He conducts himself quite like the future dictator of the workers, pretentiously casting about phrases he has borrowed from us. The dispute between wages and capital he settles ‘playfully, easily’ (verbatim). Namely, the workers must agitate for general suffrage and then send to the Chamber of Deputies people of his type, “armed with the bare weapon of science.” Then they will organise workers’ factories, the capital for which the State will advance, and these institutions will by and by embrace the entire country. At all events this is surprisingly new. (6)

This is how Marx came out against Lassalle; first of all, because Lassalle adhered to a wrong programme; secondly, because Lassalle adhered to wrong tactics; and thirdly, because he had a wrongly built organisation.

Schweitzer, who after the death of Lassalle became President of the General Workers’ Union of Germany, began to sponsor the right of association and even greet the struggle for wages. However, although Schweitzer turned away from his teacher, yet he comes to the following conclusions in a whole series of his articles:

1. A strike out of necessity is a failure from the economic viewpoint.

2. Nevertheless the strike is an excellent means of causing the labour movement to erupt and of raising it to the altitude at which the working class is sufficiently mature for its proper class perception.

3. Where the labour movement can come out openly for its ultimate aim, strikes, as a rule, should not be sanctioned, because the working class needs its full strength to attain its final aim—change of the social bases—whereas strikes divert the strength of many from the one common aim, without achieving the supposed gain—a rise in wages. (7)

We see that the world-outlook of Schweitzer is not so straightforward as that of Lassalle. New notes can be heard in his arguments—he is both for and against. In 1868 Schweitzer took the initiative in convening a national workers’ congress in Germany “for the purpose of pushing the movement ahead by means of a stoppage of work.” This congress aimed at consolidating the already existing trade unions and at organising new ones; the newly organised trade unions struck against the organisational and general principles of Lassalleanism.

Marx closely and attentively followed the evolution of the General Workers’ Union of Germany, for he knew that confusion reigned among the adherents of Lassalle, especially with regard to the question of the right of association. In his letter dated February 18, 1865, Marx wrote to Engels as follows:

Associations, with the trade unions arising from them, are not only extremely important as means for organising the working class for the struggle against the bourgeoisie—the importance of this means is seen in the fact that even the workers of the United States, in spite of the existence there of suffrage and of a republic, cannot get along without them—but we see that in Prussia and in Germany the right of association is besides a breach in the domination of the police and bureaucracy; it tears asunder the ‘Farmhands’ Law and the economy of the nobility in the village; in brief, it is a measure for granting subjects their majority, which measure the progressive party, any bourgeois party in the opposition in Prussia, if it is not insane, could sooner grant a hundred times than the Prussian government, especially the government of a Bismarck. (8)

In the same letter Marx dwells on the famous Lassallean idea of government subsidies. Here is what Marx writes about this “Royal Prussian Government Subsidising of Co-operative Societies....”

Beyond a doubt the disappointment in Lassalle’s hapless illusion concerning socialist intervention on the part of a Prussian government will come. The logic of things will have its say. But the honour of the workers’ party demands that it reject these optical illusions even before their flimsy texture is rent by experience. The working class is revolutionary or it is nothing. (9)

This fine letter to Engels sheds light upon the hostility felt by Marx for Lassalle’s principles. The working class is revolutionary or nothing. This is what defines the line of action of Karl Marx.

Marx considered the General Workers’ Union to be a sectarian organisation and repeatedly returned to this question. This viewpoint about the sectarian nature of the General Workers’ Union Marx constantly expressed in his letter to Schweitzer. He gives a classic definition of just what sectarianism is. Here is what Marx writes in his letter to Schweitzer of October 13, 1868:

Just because he is the founder of a sect he [Lassalle] denied all natural connection with the former labour movement in Germany. He made the same mistake as Proudhon, of seeking the genuine basis for his agitation not among the real elements of the class movement, but of wanting to prescribe to the latter its course according to a certain doctrinaire recipe.

You yourself have experienced the contrast between a sectarian movement and a class movement. The sect views its raison d’être [reason for its existence] and its point d’honneur [point of honour], not in what it has in common with the class movement, but in a special shibboleth that distinguishes it from this movement. But when you proposed to convene a congress in Hamburg for founding trade unions, you were able to defeat sectarian resistance only by the threat to resign from the honourable post of president. Furthermore, you were compelled to assume a dual personality, to declare that at one time you had acted as head of a sect, while at another as an organ of the class movement.

The dissolution of the General Workers’ Union of Germany gave you the impetus to make a considerable step forward and declare, prove, if you like, that now a new period of development had arrived, and that the sectarian movement was now ripe enough to merge in the class movement, and put an end to all ‘isms’.... As far as the true content of the sect was concerned, it (the sect) would introduce it (the content) into the general movement as an element of enrichment like all former workers’ sects. Instead of this, you in fact demanded that the class movement subordinate itself to a special sectarian movement. Your non-friends have drawn the conclusions from this that you desire at all cost to preserve “your own labour movement.” (10)

When just before the Hamburg Congress Schweitzer sent to Marx the draft statutes of his new General Workers’ Union, Marx utilised this occasion to severely criticise the draft. Marx considered a political trade union federation unreal, and bureaucratic centralisation extremely dangerous, especially for Germany.

In his letter to Schweitzer dated September 13, 1868, Marx wrote:

As for the draft of the constitution, I consider it a failure on questions of principle, and I believe I have as much experience in trade unionism as any contemporary. Without going into details at this point, I will merely say that the organisation, while ever so suitable for secret societies and sectarian movements, contradicts the nature of trade unionism. If it [the organisation.—Ed.] were possible—I declare tout bonnement (quite frankly) that it is impossible—it would not be desirable, least of all in Germany. Here, where the workers are under the thumb of bureaucracy from childhood on and believe in authority, in the constituted authorities, it is a foremost task to teach them how to walk by themselves.

Your plan is also impractical in other respects. In your union you have three independent powers of different origin: (1) The committee elected by the trades; (2) the president, a wholly superfluous personage elected by general vote; (3) the congress, elected by the locals. Thus there are clashes everywhere and this is supposed to promote rapid action. Lassalle made a serious mistake when he borrowed the élu du suffrage universal (person elected by universal suffrage) from the French Constitution of 1852. And in a trade union movement at that. The latter hinges largely on money questions and you will soon discover that here all dictatorship ceases. (11)

This letter calls attention not only to the businesslike destructive criticism of Lassalle-Schweitzer super-centralism, but also to the formulation as a principle of the question of the necessity of teaching the German workers to “walk by themselves.” This problem was frequently dealt with in the letters of Marx and Engels. They knew what bureaucratic drill-sergeant methods were, and feared that if the Party and trade union organisations were built in a bureaucratic manner, it could bring endless harm to the working class of Germany. On this question, just as on all others, Marx proved to be prophetically right. The bureaucratic centralism of German Social-Democracy, which re-echoed the “national” traditions of the Prussian barrack square, has been a damper on the labour movement of Germany to this very day.

Marx and Engels time and again came out against the dictatorial methods of Schweitzer, the successor of Lassalle. They proved that his line could not but cause his organisation to fall apart and that it was necessary to choose between a mass trade union organisation and a narrow, sectarian, semi-political, semi-trade union organisation.

After the Hamburg Congress on September 26, 1868, Marx wrote to Engels:

One of the ridiculous operations of Schweitzer—he was doubtless compelled to act so by the prejudices of his army and as president of the General Workers’ Union of Germany—is that he was compelled to swear constantly in verbis magistri (in the language of a master) and at every concession to the demands of the real labour movement, to argue apprehensively that it (this movement) does not contradict the dogmas of the sole redeeming Lassallean confession of faith. The Hamburg Congress quite correctly felt instinctively that the General Workers’ Union of Germany, as a specific organisation of the Lassallean sect, would be jeopardised by the real labour movement through trade unions, etc. (12)

The sectarian character of the Lassalle organisation was incompatible with the growth of the movement. Marx emphasised time and again that it was impossible to jam the broad masses into a sectarian organisation.

Marx expressed his opinion on this subject in his letter to Bolte, dated November 23, 1871:

…The Lassalle organisation is merely a sectarian organisation, and as such is hostile to the organisation of the real labour movement, inspired by the International. (13)

The question of the attitude towards the Lassalle theories was again raised by Marx and Engels in connection with the unity congress between the Lassalleans and Eisenachers, held in 1875 in Gotha.

Marx analysed the draft programme with merciless severity, and here he for the first time came out in the Press stating his attitude towards the Lassallean principles. Concerning the proposed “iron law,” Marx wrote that, as is well known, in this law only the word iron belonged to Lassalle, which he borrowed from Goethe; that “Lassalle did not know (emphasis by Marx) what wages were and that, following the bourgeois economists, he mistook appearance for reality”; that “Lassalle imagines that it is just as easy to build a new society with State loans as it is to build a new railroad.” (14)

In his letter to Bebel, dated March 18-28, 1875, Engels writes the following about the Gotha programme:

…Nothing is said about the organisation of the working class as a class, by means of trade unions. This is a very important point, because these, as a matter of fact, are the real class organisations of the proletariat, in which the latter wages its day-to-day struggle against Capital; in which it schools itself, and which even to-day, under the most ruthless reaction (as now in Paris), simply can no longer be knocked to pieces. Considering the importance which these organisations attain also in Germany, it would in our opinion be absolutely necessary to make mention of them in the programme and if possible to reserve a place for them in the organisation of the party. (15)

Liebknecht and Bebel were extremely dissatisfied with the sharp criticism made by Marx and Engels concerning the Gotha programme. Bebel, in his memoirs, after quoting this letter of Engels, adds melancholically:

It was no easy job to come to an agreement with the two old fellows in London. What we considered prudent calculation and skilful tactics they considered weakness and irresponsible complaisance. (16)

This remark is, indeed, very characteristic of Bebel. In German Social-Democracy, from the first days it was founded, the habit gained foothold of explaining their retreat from Marxist principles by referring to “tactics,” as if tactics were a thing separate and apart from principles.

Marx and Engels were against amalgamating the adherents of Lassalle with the Eisenachers, inasmuch as the platform for this unification was not only ambiguous, but also incorrect. Marx expressed this in his letter to Bracke dated May 5, 1875:

Every step of actual movement is more important than a dozen programmes. If it was thus not possible—and contemporary circumstances do not permit this—to go beyond the Eisenach programme, then there should have been concluded an agreement for action against the common enemy. But if a programme of principles is drawn up (instead of postponing this until it has been prepared for by prolonged joint activity), a landmark is erected before the whole world by which it can measure the extent of the party movement. (17)

Thus we see where Marx stood when the trade union movement of Germany was still in its infancy. He followed up every step of the labour movement, coming out openly and in letters on the political and tactical lines, incidentally correcting mistakes, emphasising the weak and strong sides of the movement.

In the labour movement of Germany at that time we had not only the Lassalle-Schweitzer efforts to destroy the trade unions by attempts to turn them into a party, but the reverse tendencies were also observed, i.e., a recognition of the trade union as the only form of the labour movement. Here it was Johann Philipp Becker, leader of the German Section of the International Workingmen’s Association, who erred.

During the period when a political party of the proletariat began to be formed in Germany, the most difficult and complicated problem was that of the mutual relations between the different workers’ educational societies of all shades, the trade unions and the party. We saw above how Lassalle and Schweitzer solved this problem and how Marx and Engels objected to such a type of organisation. Johann Philipp Becker, in connection with the formation of a political labour party (Eisenachers), in 1869 submitted a draft proposal in which he stated that the trade unions were the only true form of the labour movement. Becker formulated his proposal as follows:

In view of the fact that the trade unions alone afford the correct form of workers’ unions and of future society in general, and in view of the fact that the technical knowledge predominating in their ranks facilitates the creation of a firm base for exact social science:

…that in proportion as the organisation of the trade union is being completed, the condition for the further existence of the mixed unions (as, for example, the General Workers’ Union of Germany and the Workers’ Educational Society) ceases to operate, having performed their mission as initiators. (18)

Only as a result of the failure to understand clearly what a party is and how it must be built was it possible to raise the question in such a light. Bebel was very much excited about this proposal and inquired from Marx how he regarded the draft. Marx replied that he had had nothing to do with this draft.

Engels at once sharply reacted to this, expressing not only his own but also Marx’s viewpoint on the subject:

Old man Becker has evidently gone out of his mind altogether. How can he decree that the trade unions are to be the genuine workers’ associations and the basis of all organisation, that the other societies are to exist alongside only temporarily, etc. All of this, mind you, in a country where proper trade unions do not even exist yet. And what a confused ‘organisation.’ On the one hand each trade becomes centralised in a national supreme body, and on the other hand, the different trades of each locality become centralised in turn in a local supreme body. If discord is to reign for ever, this arrangement should be introduced. But au fond (at bottom) he is no better than the old German itinerant journeyman who wants to save his ‘sleeping-quarters’ in every city and mistakes these ‘sleeping-quarters’ for the unity of the workers’ organisation. (19)

Marx could not be lured by mere revolutionary phrases. Just as soon as some of the then modern socialists would begin to make too much noise, he would determinedly come out against them. In this connection the different attitudes of Marx and of Bernstein towards Most are very characteristic. Bernstein accused Most of Leftism, but simultaneously, under cover of this, he tried to spread his Right-wing, petty-bourgeois ideas. To these smuggling attempts of Bernstein Marx instantly reacted. In his letter to Sorge dated September 19, 1879, he wrote:

Our points of dispute with Most are by no means those of the Zürich gentlemen (the trio consisting of Dr. Höchberg, Bernstein, his secretary, and G. H. Schramm). Our reproach to Most is not that his ‘liberty’ is too revolutionary, but that it has no revolutionary content, but only spins revolutionary phrases.

Exactly: the struggle of revolutionary Marxism against “Left” phrases has nothing in common with the struggle of the reformists of all shades and colours against the “Lefts.” In this we see the strict line of principle maintained by Marx and Engels in their struggle for the party tactics.

Marx and Engels waged a merciless struggle against all forms of opportunism, unscrupulousness and “family relationship” in politics. They never could tolerate the glossing over of theoretical or political differences and were always, according to the expression of Gleb Uspensky, “ready to take up the fight.” This trait of theirs was particuarly emphasised by Lenin in 1907, in his preface to the Letters of Marx and Engels to Sorge. In view of the fact that they stood nearest to the labour movement of Germany, their leading rôle in the struggle for theoretical clearness, political consistency and tactical boldness is seen here more distinctly.

Marx and Engels were the first to give the alarm about alien elements penetrating the ranks of German Social-Democracy, and demanded strict control over “this pack of Ph.D’s, students, etc., and professorial socialist rabble,” who already then played a disproportionately big rôle in the ranks of German Social-Democracy. Marx protested against “those fellows, nonentities theoretically, good-for-nothing practically, who want to pull the teeth of the socialism which they have brewed for themselves according to university recipes, particularly the teeth of the Social-Democratic Party; they want to enlighten the workers, or, as they say, provide them with ‘elements of education’ through their muddled half-baked knowledge. They are poor, counter-revolutionary windbags. Well.” (20)

Gan we say that this characterisation of “scientific” socialists has now gone out of date? No, such counter-revolutionary wind-bags are to-day hiding behind the socialist and even Marxist banner; thousands upon thousands of them are in the ranks of the Second International.

Marx and Engels fought against all forms of sectarianism and opportunism and especially against the establishment of incorrect relationships between the Party and the trade unions. The letters of Marx and Engels to Liebknecht, Bebel, Kautsky, etc., are a fine example of party-political vigilance and consistency of principle. Every time that the Party or trade union organisation made some mistake, Marx and Engels sounded the alarm, emphasising that such mistakes threatened to distort the general line. This is why it is of tremendous importance to study the principles governing the line of Marx and Engels on all problems in controversy with the Lassalle and Eisenach organisations and the leaders of the German-Democratic Party.



1. Marx and Engels, Collected Works, German ed., part III, Vol. I, pp. 456-57.

2. Ibid., p. 491.

3. Marx and Engels, Selected Letters, published by Marx-Engels-Lenin Institute.

4. Lassalle, speech made on April 16, 1863.

5. F. Lassalle, Vol. IV, Appeal of the General Workers’ Union of Germany to the Workers of Berlin, p. 51.

6. Marx and Engels, Collected Works (German ed.), Part III, Vol. 3, p. 136.

7. J. B. von Schweitzer: Die Gewerkschaftsfrage (The Trade Union Question) (German ed.) Weltgeist Bucher, Berlin, pp. 38-39.

8. Marx and Engels, Collected Works, (German ed.) Part III, Vol. 3, p. 240.

9. Ibid., p. 240.

10. Marx and Engels, Letters. Edited by Adoratsky, published 1932. (Russian edition.)

11. Letter of Marx to Schweitzer, dated Sept. 13, 1868. (August Bebel: From My Life, published 1914, pp. 215-16.)

12. Marx and Engels, Collected Works (German ed.), Part II, Vol. 4, p. 102.

13. Marx and Engels, Selected Letters (Russian ed.), p. 259. Edited by Adoratsky, Moscow, 1928.

14. Marx-Engels, Critiques, pp. 33-35. Berlin, 1918.

15. Engels to Bebel, Selected Letters (German ed.), p. 275, Berlin, 1918.

16. August Bebel, From My Life, Vol. 2, p. 338, Stuttgart, 1914.

17. Marx, Letter to W. Bracke (May 5, 1875) accompanying Critique of the Gotha Programme, p. 62. (Martin Lawrence, London; International Publishers, New York.)

18. Vorbote, Geneva 1869, p. 103.

19. Marx and Engels, Collected Works (German ed.), Part III, Vol. 4, p. 214.

20. Letter of Marx to Sorge, Sept. 19, 1879.


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