Speech against a Unitary Economic-political Organization for the Workers’ Movement*

Rosa Luxemburg on 31 December 1918 in the morning

Comrades! Not only do I [not] regret that a so-called debate on the trade unions has developed out of today’s debate, I actively welcome this. It was evident that in the moment in which we approached the task of addressing our economic tasks, we would immediately trip over the great wall that the trade unions have erected before us. The question of the struggle for liberation is identical with the question of combating the trade unions. There is ten times more justification for doing this in Germany than in other countries. Because Germany is the only country that has seen no wage movements in four years of world war, and this, on trade union orders. Even if the unions hadn’t done anything else, for that alone they deserve to perish tenfold. During the course of the war and the revolution, up to the present day, the official unions have shown themselves to be a bourgeois state organization, and an organization of the capitalist ruling class. This is why it’s obvious that the struggle concerning socialization in Germany has to prioritize considerations about the liquidation of these obstacles, which stand against the trade unions of socialization. Which methods should be used to push through this liquidation? Which positive structure should replace the trade unions?

            I must position myself decidedly against the proposal of the comrade, who, in a Bremen motion1, proposes a so-called unitary organization. There is one thing you haven’t noticed. We are working on developing the structure of the Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils, into them becoming bearers of a range of political and economic needs, and also into the working class’s means of power. This is the perspective that must be prioritized, as a binding point regarding the organs for economic struggle.

            The headnotes2 elucidate a leading thought: the Workers’ Councils are called upon to lead and to oversee economic battles, from the standpoint of their companies. Works councils,3 voted by company representatives, in cooperation with Workers’ Councils, which also emerged from the companies, laboring together in the leadership of the Reichswirtschaftsräte.4 You will have noted that the headnotes are aimed at nothing other than the complete hollowing out of all functions of the unions. (Applause.) We expropriate those functions from the unions, which the workers trusted into their hands, and which they misappropriated. We replace the unions with a new system based on completely different foundations. The comrades who propagate a unitary organization appear to be caught in thoughts …

            Those were the means and paths that could have been seized before the revolution. Today, we have to concentrate on the system of workers’ councils; the organizations should not be locked together using a combination of the old form, union and party, but should rather be put on a whole new footing. Works councils, workers’ councils, and others rising up, a whole new structure, which has nothing in common with the old, handed down tradition.

            It’s not on, to accept, on the hoof, a motion of this sort from Bremen and Berlin.5 And, in my eyes, the slogan of withdrawing from the unions comes with a small snag attached. What's going to happen about the colossal financial means, currently in the hands of these union gentlemen? That is merely a small, practical question. I would not like us to forget all the aspects, in the process of liquidizing the unions. And I do not want a separation, in which perhaps one part of the means of power remains in those union hands.

            I conclude with this motion: I would like to request to forward the motions that have been brought here to the same Economic Commission, who worked on these headnotes. This commission has been voted in by those Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils, which stand on the same ground as the Spartacus League, and the commission works through consulting members of the Spartacus Central Committee. It does not feel that it has a mandate to formulate final decisions, but has worked on these headnotes instead, to present them to comrades throughout the country. The various memberships should engage with this literature, so that everything can be placed on the widest possible democratic foundation, and so that every individual participates. Then we can be sure that what we have achieved is a ripe fruit of the struggle. I ask you to consider your proposals simply as proposals, to forward them to the Economic Commission, and to present them in accordance with the guidelines of the various memberships.


1    This refers to a motion from Felix Schmidt (Hannover) and other comrades, intended to make it obligatory for KPD members to resign from the trade unions, in order to build up the KPD as a single, political-economic organization. The motion was withdrawn. [TRANSLATOR'S INTERPOLATION: we should footnote why L. refers to this motion as a “Bremen motion” (original: “Bremer Antrag.”) I assume this is a reference to the “Bremer Linksradikalen,” also known as the “Bremer Linken,” formed in 1905 as a radical, local SPD group in Bremen.]

2    Luxemburg is referring to the “Transitional Economic Demands for Industry and Trade Workers,” parts of which was printed in the newspaper Freiheit (Berlin), 83, December 18, 1918, and in the Deutsche Allgemeine Zeitung (Berlin), 664, on December 31, 1918, and distributed at the party conference.

3    [TRANSLATOR'S INTERPOLATION: at this point in her speech, Luxemburg differentiates between the recently established Workers' Councils – in German “Arbeiterräte,” with strong similarities to the Russian soviets – and Works Councils, in German “Betriebsräte,” a more traditional and conservative form of workers' participation, still found in many companies in Europe and North America today. She uses “Betriebsräte” at this point in her speech.]

4    [TRANSLATOR'S INTERPOLATION: the literal translation of this term would be “Imperial Economic Councils.” As it is a very specific economic decision making body, I propose not translating it. This term appears to have been used by a number of politicians and economists at the end of 1918 in Germany, because exactly the same term is used, in the singular, in Article 165 of the Weimar Constitution, concluded on July 31, 1919. Demands for this type of council, viewed by some political actors as a form of economic parliament, continued after the KPD's Inaugural Party Conference. Demands for an economic parliament with legislative powers were raised from different sides of the political spectrum. At the Second Congress of the Councils of Workers, Peasants and Soldiers, from April 8-14, 1919, delegates voted for a motion brought by Max Cohen-Reuß of the SPD Majority, intended to create “Chambers of Work” – or “Arbeitskammer,” as they were called in German – as a counterpart to the Chambers of Commerce (Handelskammer), which had existed on the territory of what is now in Germany, since the early 1800s.

5    Luxemburg is referring to a motion from Felix Schmidt (Hannover) and comrades (see GW Vol. 4, p.486, footnote 1), and a motion from Ernst Rieger (Berlin). They demanded that belonging to the trade union congresses should be rejected as being incompatible with the KPD's aims and tasks; and also demanded the creation of workers' organizations, limited geographically to local areas, to take over production after a victorious revolution. These organizations were the so-called “unitary organizations” (German: “Einheitsorganisationen.”)

Quotes taken from:  Rosa Luxemburg: Gesammelte Werke, Bd. 4., August 1914 bis Januar 1919, Berlin, S. 483-485.

* This is a draft version translated by Henry Holland. The final translation will appear in the publication of the fifth volume of The Complete Works of Rosa Luxemburg, edited by Peter Hudis and forthcoming in 2020 from Verso Books with the support of the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung.