Within the German social democracy, the British unions were commonly referred to as bourgeois unions. It was felt that the German unions, founded by the socialist movement and officially part of the revolutionary camp, would play a different role. But as German industry developed rapidly, particularly in the latter half of the 1890s, and the membership and treasuries of the unions grew apace, they quickly began to evince the same reactionary tendencies that characterized their British counterparts.
Eduard Bernstein, who lived for some two decades in exile in England, based his revisionist theories to a large extent on the “success” of the British unions. He claimed that the English unions demonstrated the capacity of trade union reformism, combined with parliamentary activity, to progressively overcome the exploitative tendencies of capitalism, leading eventually to a peaceful transition to socialism.
While the leadership of the Social Democracy, including initially the trade union leaders, officially opposed Bernstein’s attack on Marxist orthodoxy, his opportunist program articulated the social interests and political inclination of the German unions. The latter soon became the most important base for the opportunist tendency within the Social Democracy. In the first decade of the 20 th century, the party leadership increasingly adapted itself to the right-wing politics of the unions, and this process was very much at the heart of the political degeneration that led to the collapse of the German Social Democracy in 1914.
Rosa Luxemburg was in the forefront of the political and theoretical struggle of the Marxist wing of the party against the national opportunist tendency, directing much of her fire against its exponents in the trade union apparatus. Her brilliant polemic against Bernstein, Reform or Revolution, was in large measure a refutation of the attempt to endow trade unionism with a revolutionary dynamic. While acknowledging their necessity, she called the efforts of the unions a “labor of Sisyphus,” explaining that their successes were, in the end, determined by the economic and trade conjuncture, and that gains won in one period would be lost in another. Moreover, she declared, the more the economy developed on an international scale, the less viable the national orientation of the unions.
As the membership of the unions grew, alongside the growth of German national industry, the union leadership began to agitate for autonomy, arguing that their role as organizers of the day-to-day struggle required that they be independent of the decisions of the party. Luxemburg led the fight against this conception.
In the first decade of the 20 th century, this conflict became more intense, particularly in the aftermath of the Russian revolution of 1905. Luxemburg embraced the revolution and insisted that it signified the emergence of proletarian revolution not only in Russia, but on a European-wide scale. The unions, on the contrary, reacted with horror to the events in Russia, recognizing in them a direct threat to their perspective of peaceful and gradual growth within the framework of German capitalism.
When Luxemburg declared that the mass political strikes that had rocked the Tsarist autocracy represented the form of working class revolutionary struggle, and insisted that the Social Democracy had to prepare consciously for the outbreak of mass strikes in Germany, the unions responded with frenzied denunciations. At one trade union congress they passed a resolution banning any discussion of the mass strike tactic.
In The Mass Strike, the Political Party and the Trade Unions, written in 1906, Luxemburg deepened her critique of the unions, warning of their opportunist trajectory, their tendency to exclude the most oppressed sections of the working class, and the growth of bureaucratism within them. Insisting on the hegemony of the revolutionary party over the trade unions, she directly linked the demand of the unions for autonomy with the opportunist tendency spearheaded by Bernstein.
“The trade unions represent only the group interests and only one stage of development of the labor movement,” she wrote. “Social democracy represents the working class and the cause of its liberation as a whole. The relation of the trade unions to social democracy is therefore a part of the whole, and when, amongst the trade-union leaders, the theory of ‘equal authority’ of trade unions and social democracy finds so much favor, it rests upon a fundamental misconception of the essence of trade unionism itself and of its role in the general struggle for freedom of the working class...
“The theory of the ‘equal authority’ of trade unions and social democracy is likewise not a mere theoretical misunderstanding, not a mere case of confusion, but an expression of the well-known tendency of that opportunist wing of social democracy which reduces the political struggle of the working class to the parliamentary contest, and desires to change social democracy from a revolutionary proletarian party into a petty-bourgeois reform one. If social democracy should accept the theory of the ‘equal authority’ of the trade unions, it would thereby accept, indirectly and tacitly, that transformation which has long been striven for by the representatives of the opportunist tendency.” 
In ringing passages that provide a concise and passionate summation of the political responsibility of Marxists to combat trade union fetishism, Luxemburg penned a brilliant refutation not only of Bernstein, but of his present-day political offspring as well. As the following paragraphs show, the opportunists of Luxemburg’s day employed the same demagogic arguments against the Marxists of that era as do the Spartacists against the International Committee today. What is the greatest crime of the IC, according to the Spartacist League? By rejecting the claim that the existing trade unions can be revived and turned into militant, indeed revolutionary, organizations of the working class, the IC is supposedly spreading defeatism among the workers.
Here is how Luxemburg addressed such charges: “And finally, from the concealment of the objective limits drawn by the bourgeois social order to the trade union struggle, there arises a hostility to every theoretical criticism which refers to these limits in connection with the ultimate aims of the labor movement. Fulsome flattery and boundless optimism are considered to be the duty of every ‘friend of the trade-union movement.’ But as the social democratic standpoint consists precisely in fighting against uncritical trade-union optimism, as in fighting against uncritical parliamentary optimism, a front is at last made against the social democratic theory; men grope for a ‘new trade-union theory,’ that is, a theory which would open an illimitable vista of economic progress to the trade-union struggle within the capitalist system, in opposition to the social democratic doctrine.” 
Luxemburg proceeded to show how the ostensible optimism of the opportunists masked a profound skepticism toward the revolutionary capacities of the working class and a hostility to the fundamental political task of Marxists, i.e., that of equipping workers with the theoretical means to critically evaluate their own experiences and thereby gain scientific insight into the social relations of capitalism, and the necessity for its revolutionary overthrow.
In a passage that stands as a devastating indictment of Spartacist’s contempt for any serious theoretical and historical assessment of trade unionism (or any other basic issue, whether it be the nature of world economy, Stalinism, or the national question), and their attempt, instead, to block workers from drawing any fundamental lessons from their own experiences, Luxemburg wrote:
“In contradistinction to social democracy, which bases its influence on the unity of the masses amidst the contradictions of the existing order and in the complicated character of its development, and on the critical attitude of the masses to all factors and stages of their own class struggle, the influence and power of the trade unions are founded upon the upside down theory of the incapacity of the masses for criticism and decision. ‘The faith of the people must be maintained’—that is the fundamental principle, acting upon which many trade-union officials stamp as attempts on the life of this movement all criticisms of the objective inadequacy of trade unionism.” (Emphasis added). 
That Lenin was in fundamental agreement with Luxemburg on the question of the unions is evident from his struggle at the turn of the century against Russian economism, which he characterized as a variety of Bernsteinian revisionism. What Is To Be Done was an extended polemic against the attempt to degrade Marxism to the level of trade unionism, which, as is well known, Lenin called “the bourgeois consciousness of the working class.”
It is worth noting that the Russian unions played no appreciable role in the October Revolution. Indeed, the large rail workers union, which was dominated by the Mensheviks, worked actively against the socialist overthrow.
Trotsky, in The War and the International, written in 1915, made a major contribution to the Marxist analysis of the unions, stressing their historical subordination to the national economy and the national state. He wrote: “The great centralized trade unions of Germany developed in direct dependence upon the development of national industry, adapting themselves to its successes in the home and the foreign markets, and controlling the prices of raw materials and manufactured products...
“For all the undisputed superiority of the German organization, the tactics of the unions were very much the same in Berlin and London. Their chief achievement was the system of tariff treaties.” 
As this brief historical review shows, the unions evolved in an opportunist direction, regardless of whether they were established independently of the Marxist party, or as the offspring of the party. Moreover, as the “new unionism” in England revealed, even where they embraced the more oppressed layers of the working class, they rapidly adopted a standpoint of hostility to the class struggle and the socialist revolution.
History has moreover shown that the trade unions are most successful precisely when the national market is most secure and the national bourgeoisie enjoys an exceptionally favorable position on the world market. These are periods when, in general, the class struggle is at a low ebb and the political consciousness and initiative of the working class are in decline. Such was the case of England at the height of its industrial monopoly in the 19th century, Germany in the period of its explosive industrial growth at the turn of the century, and the US in the period of its economic hegemony after World War II.
Indeed, the more the class struggle has moved in the direction of a revolutionary confrontation with the bourgeoisie, the more the workers have come into conflict with the unions. Thus in Germany, in the period leading up to the outbreak of the world war, workers began to move independently of the unions, throwing up new forms of struggle such as workers’ councils. And when proletarian revolution erupted in Germany at the end of the war, the unions played a crucial role in the Social Democracy’s counterrevolutionary suppression of the mass movement. It is no accident that Friedrich Ebert, a top Social Democratic union leader and first president of the Weimar Republic, oversaw the assassination of Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht in January of 1919.