Mainstream Weekly

Home > 2020 > Germany in November 1918 - October 1923: Understanding the legacy of (...)

Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 29, New Delhi, July 4, 2020

Germany in November 1918 - October 1923: Understanding the legacy of workers’ council movement | Arun K. Sinha

Saturday 4 July 2020

by Arun K. Sinha

Communism is for us not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality [will] have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things. The conditions of this movement result from the premises now in existence. - Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The German Ideology, 1845

But as I have said, the search for the truth can never stop. It cannot be adjourned, it cannot be postponed. It has to be faced, right there, on the spot. —Harold Pinter, Art, Truth & Politics, Nobel Lecture, 2005

1 Introduction

The period November 2018 - April 2019 falls under the Centenary of the tumultuous events in Germany that often are marked in modern historiography as the German revolution. It is true the events in Germany got eclipsed by the international impact and influence of the other major revolution in Russia that preceded it and whose Centenary just passed by. Honestly speaking, the events in Germany received much lesser attention in later discourses on modern revolutions. The prevalent trend in modern historiography is to treat the German revolution as a failure while the October revolution in Russia is understood as a success. However, it cannot be denied the yardsticks for measure of success or failure were always under the clouds of doubts even when the revolutions were in spate although the majority of the modern historiographers preferred to ignore such doubts in their interpretation of the events in Germany.

Yet, it is a fact the revolution happened in Germany, — it happened in one of the most industrialized society of modern Europe that was reeling under the devastation that the custodians of the industrialized society inflicted upon the German population during the First World War. [1] The German society reverberated with the vibration of revolution not only during the months of bloodshed during Novemebr 1918 - April 1919, the revolutionary attempts repeatedly bounced back during the infamous Kapp putsch in March 1920 when the ’Red Army’ was raised among the Ruhr coal-mine workers, in the summer of 1921 known in history as the ’March Action’, and finally as the fallout of occupation of Ruhr valley by the French and Belgian military forces from January 1923, that was a great fiasco of planning an insurrection known as the ’German October”. The most prominent characteristics of all these valiant social upsurges was the active participation of the militant sections of the German workers, the standard bearers of huge aspirations and expectation in war-torn Europe for a war-free, exploitation-free modern society. Indeed, it would not be an overstatement to commemorate the gallantry of the militant sections of German working class after a Century to say they were as if offering the tribute of the highest order to the clarion call of Rosa Luxemburg whom Clara Zetkin named “the living flame of the revolution.” [2]

While we commemorate the gallantry and sacrifices of the revolutionary workers in Germany, we cannot shy away from offering a through critique of the events. After a Century of the events we cannot cut out our duty only at paying homage to the martyrs. This is all the more relevant as the events during the German revolution are remembered when there is huge confusion regarding socialism as an agenda before the society and the international working class struggles are at a low ebb. Rather the discussions that are still going on are on digesting the experience of the twentieth century -“socialism” that are all but dismantled.

In this essay, our enquiry is into the socio-economic perspective of the issues repeatedly raised by the German working class to challenge their masters, in industry and in the society and yet repeatedly they had to accept defeat amidst tremendous bloodshed and immense hardship. It is well known the leaders of Russian revolution and the workers there had a huge expectation from the German revolution. While presenting the political report in March 1918, during the Extraordinary Seventh Congress of the R.C.P.(B.), Lenin mentioned, “At all events, under all conceivable circumstances, if the German revolution does not come, we are doomed.” [3] Not only as the future prospect of strengthening the bond between the Soviet-regimes of international working class such as in Russia and Germany, Lenin had huge expectation from the specific model of capitalist development of Germany. He expected the industrially less-developed Russia after revolution had to learn immensely from the state-capitalist organisation of industrial production in Germany and from the organised nature of German working class. He wrote in 1921 while introducing the New Economic Policy (NEP) in Soviet Russia, “Our task is to study the state capitalism of the Germans, to spare no effort in copying it and not to shrink from adopting dictatorial methods to hasten the copying of Western culture by barbarian Russia....” [4] However, as we proceed into our enquiry we find the major challenge that the militant section of the German working class has thrown in their rebellion was against this very model of capitalism, the ’organised capitalism’ model of development in Germany. The most conspicuous phenomenon of the German revolution was the constitution of Rate-system, the council system of the workers and the soldiers that challenged the constitution of Weimar Republic after the fall of Kaiserreich in November 1918. Kaiser Wilhelm II, the custodian of Hohenzollern dynasty that ruled Prussia for almost 500 years fled Germany on the night of 10 November 1918 to Netherlands even without a single shot being fired. There was evolution of dual-power throughout Germany where the militant section of the workers have thrown a stiff challenge by standing for, to preserve the state-power of the councils, the Raterepublik (republic of workers’ councils) amidst the armed provocation of Freikorps, the political parties of the ‘majority’ of the working class, the bourgeoisie, the press, the judiciary, the trade union leaders among themselves,— in a sense against the whole status quo of the strife-torn German society after the defeat in the War. [5]

2 The German workers and their Raterepublik

In the conventional interpretation of history it is held the rebellion of the militant section of the workers in Germany faced defeat as the rebellion could not draw the majority of the working class, moreover the rebellion did not have a centralized, decisive, competent leadership at its head as was provided by the Bolshevik Party in Soviet Russia. While factually such interpretations of history are correct, they do dwell only on the tactical, planning, military execution aspects of the revolution, as if the issues of revolution are restricted only over insurrections, downfall of some “political” State figures, ascent of some “political” parties and personalities to State-power, etc. Like every historic revolution as it happened in Russia, the German revolution and its defeat actually opened up major challenges before the international working class that are still very much open and contentious. The German working class was the most organised contingent among the European working class, in the formation of their “political” party as the Social-Democratic party (SPD), their trade unions, their journals and newspapers and numerous social organisations by whose vast network the working class had its own independent presence in the highly stratified German society besides their daily presence as wage-labour in factory level organisation of production systems and assembly lines. [6] Yet such powerful movement of social-democracy and the trade unions got swamped over the call of burgfrieden, of national unity by Kaiser as Germany declared War transforming the workers overnight into the fodders of cannon fire of War. The support of the SPD deputies in German Reichstag in voting for war-credits on the 4 August 1914 was total although in their internal meeting 14 members opposed the motion. In December 1914, while voting for second war-credit was sought for, only one member among 110 deputies, Karl Leibknecht broke party discipline and voted against the motion for war-credit.

The volte-face of the largest and the most influential party of social - democracy in Europe was startling to the internationalists all over Europe including Russia but everywhere within the Second International they were an insignificant minority. Although initially Rosa Luxemburg, the fiery opposition to the War was deeply disheartened by the capitulation of SPD and its trade unions, she had a sense of degeneration of SPD long before, she referred to the body of German social-democracy as the ’stinking corpse’ [7]

after their support for the war-credit. If we make a detailed enquiry into this degeneration of ideas, practices, organisation of social-democracy and its trade unions we find such forms of organisations actually bound the German working class more and more into the system of exploitation, oppression and authoritarian rule of the military generals during the War period. The revolt of the German workers, soldiers and the naval retinues were not only against the rule of the military generals in the name of Kaiserreich but more so against their own leaders in the SPD and their trade unions who were still actively engaged in the pursuit of the War in the hours of defeat. Only after the abdication of monarchy, Germany formally conceded defeat in the War and the treaty of Versailles was signed on behalf of the Weimar Republic, on behalf of the “majority” political leaders of SPD who held the first cabinet of the Republic with Friedrich Ebert, Chairman of SPD as the first Chancellor. The revolt of the workers who found the existence of the Raterepublik much nearer to their expectation and aspiration actually terrified the German bourgeoisie most as the councils sprang up sweeping over an overwhelming number of occupations of German society. They elected delegates demanding socialization of industries and exerting the Rate to be real authority of state-power. Whereas the revolt of the soldiers lost steam with Kaiser leaving the seat of State-power, the workers’ councils looked for much more, they were deeply inspired by the feat of their class-brethren in neighbouring Russia with whom till recently they were at war, their Soviets and their leadership, the Bolsheviks. [8] These belligerent workers looked for repeating the same events in Germany and that was where the custodians of “organised capitalism”, the German monopoly bourgeoisie establishment perceived the maximum threat. Within a week of change of guard of the German State-power Hugo Stinnes as the representative of the major cartels of industries signed an Arbeitgemeinschaft agreement on the 15 November 1918 with Carl Legien. That was the high time in the career of Carl Legien as a trade unionist when he sat as the representative of the millions of workers opposite to Stinnes to sign the agreement of truce known in the labour-history of Germany as the “Stinnes-Legien Agreement”. [9]

Development of the German working class is inevitably intertwined with the path traced by the development of capitalism of the German variety. Capitalism in Germany was promoted under the protection of the Kaiserreich and the Prussian nobility without altering the landholding relationship with the Junkers, a relationship the monopoly bourgeoisie could swing at their advantage after the defeat of the Kaiserreich in the War. Development of capitalism in Germany that was the second-most industrialized country in modern civilization before the First World War baffles the conventional wisdom of analysis of social, political economy, — that monopoly ownership and supremacy of capital presupposes dwindling of economic and political power of the landed aristocracy, an argument Karl Marx expounded as the reason for supremacy of the bourgeois in all aspects of the nineteenth century European society. Rather, not only in Germany but in most parts of Central Europe the owners of large Latifundia played the role of midwifery to capitalist consolidation in the society. It was a peaceful bargaining of power structures in State-administration, mutually beneficial to each other’s compromised position of political interests that could continue for nearly four decades during the uninterrupted ’iron rule’ under Bismarck. It is during this period, Germany could assert as an independent and united nation-State sans republicanism, the major milestone development of the bourgeoisie in France, England and later in USA where consolidation of the republican State took the route of civil war. [10] Even when the German model of capitalism was at its deepest crisis, during the days of hyperinflation and rationalization, during the “great depression” of international capitalism it could reign its hold on the political economy of Germany even at the face of repeated attempts of the workers to move forward. The ideological and socio-political hold of the German bourgeoisie and capitalism among the “majority” representatives of the working class all along, during the War and even after the defeat of the War amidst the deep crisis, proved to be so strong that the aspirations of workers’ alternative society and workers’ state-power could not win over the majority of the working class.

The analysis of working class organisations developed within the fold of German capitalism lead us to realise the historic significance of the revolutionary efforts of the German workers at its Centenary. The German workers were considered to be the most organised contingent of the European working class who ventured for revolt not only against the State structure but to an extent against the very economic basis that supported the State structure, — however vulnerable the State structure might have been during the unstable and uncertain regime of the Weimar Republic. Their valiant efforts have revealed the huge challenges the workers face in surmounting not only the supremacy of political economy that the monopoly cartels of bourgeois have the reign over, moreover the challenges before the conviction of the workers’ to attain their own society. Although the major trends of historiography of German revolution portray the failure of the insurrection of the Berlin workers due to their impatience with the manipulation, machinations and posing clear armed threat to the existence of the workers’ councils, the historical events are much more rich in content and substantial in material to help us in confronting the challenges before struggle of the modern working class. Generally the German revolution is understood synonymous with the so-called “Spartacus week”, the week of insurrection of the Berlin workers in the first week of January 1919 whereas the fact is the insurrection was called by a ’Revolutionary Committee’ that had representation from several militant workers’ organisations including the Spartakusbund [11] A detailed study of the different ideological and political trends that had major involvement in the workers’ councils of different cities of Germany, particularly in Munich and Berlin, in the months of January-April 1919 shows the contribution of the German anarchists, the Revolutionaere Obleute (revolutionary shop-stewards) during the workers’ direct confrontation with the Freikorps, the roving members of mercenaries who were yet to form a regular military formation after the War. In most of the workers’ councils the members of Spartakusbund were few in number, yet they carried a huge attention and respect both among the revolutionary workers and their immediate enemies because of their consistent and relentless campaign for the dictatorship of proletariat, for workers’ society, for socialism, for a call of civil war during the four years of Germany’s War with her own people. Contrary to the popular myth, the Spartakusbund had little strength of organisation but their campaign for class-war, for workers’ self-initiative in taking state-power had immense influence on the belligerence of revolutionary workers. However, the Spartakusbund were not alone and that is the richness of German revolution that several personalities and trends including Gustav Launder, Erich Muhsam in Munich, Ernst Daumig, Richard Muller in Berlin, Otto Ruhle in Stuttgart, Heinreich Brandler in Chemnitz, etc. including of course Rosa Luxemburg who contributed immensely in bringing before the workers the need for a workers’ society through the state-power of workers’ councils. [12] The most prominent issue before the council movement that the protagonists (among whom the Spartacists were the most vocal and prominent) repeatedly highlighted was the issue of wielding the state-power. At the same time they were acutely conscious of the radical difference between the approach of the new state from a republican State-power based on parliamentary exercise of universal suffrage. It is of course true these new institutions like the Rates formed by the workers and soldiers were not formal in existence (i.e., they were not sanctioned by any constitutional power), had very little clarity on exercise of statecraft and economic policies, were not clear of their mandate to administer the population that elected them. The election process of the delegates to the councils was at best clumsy and opaque and at worst was manipulation by the political parties and groups. Above all, there was clear cleavage of approach between the soldiers and the workers who participated in the fall of Kaiserreich regarding the future course of action in the revolution. In spite of all these limitation the fundamental features of these institutions can be underlined in their flexibility and in the dynamic nature of gaining strength of these assemblies, there were sincere efforts to make freedom of the workers and the soldiers practically relevant through these institutions in the context of dual nature of State-power that existed in Germany.

As historical records testify many of the protagonists were able to elaborate and enumerate how the dictatorship of proletariat necessarily leads to a society where the new state-power practically dissolves within a society of active direct producers. The literature that the protagonists produced shows their visualization about the transition of dictatorship of proletariat to a workers’ society with direct control over factory and industrial production. The literature that the protagonists produced shows their visualization about the transition of the dictatorship of proletariat to a workers’ society with direct control over factory and industrial production. Since they were in the thick of the violent repercussions of germination of the Raterepublik and since they had the living experience of the working of the Soviets in Russia many of them could articulate on the principal charters of dictatorship of proletariat as a state-power to justify and strengthen the idea of workers’ republic in Germany. In this sense, Daumig was illustrious among the councillists in his articulation that need to be remembered and revived to understand the challenges before the modern workers’ revolution. Daumig wrote the essay The Council Idea and Its Realization in 1920 that appeared in an USPD journal from Berlin. There he enumerated the basic tasks of the workers’ councils and their close and homogeneous relationship to a Raterepublik to be constituted serving the interests of the workers’ and by the workers to usher qualitative changes in the relations of production. [13] In the essay, Daumig could differentiate between the efforts in bringing the production process under the control of the proletariat as direct stake-holders and the model of state-capitalism that was being pursued in Russia. This shows a significant dimension of realization present among Daumig and many of the proponents of the council movement (particularly among the KAPD, the Shop-stewards, and some factions of the KPD) about the threats of derailing the collectivization of ownership of the industrial production process that are inherent is such transitory periods of reorganisation of the workers’ society as a society of direct producers.

It is true these illustrious personalities representing often conflicting trends of practice and thought could not come together to provide a unified leadership in the workers’ council movement, but that is part of the past over which we have no control. Their activities in the crucial historical juncture have left for the posterity not only the record of sectarian practices, of holding forth the preciousness of only their own arguments, but as a more lasting contribution their idea of socialism as a collective of workers’ self-initiatives governed by their primary association in their places of production, the factories and industrial establishments, to take direct control over production and thereby assuming control over their society. The period of the revolution in Germany is also known as the period of wilde Sozialismus (wild socialism) [14] , yet when we look back after a Century of the heroic efforts we bow our head before the spontaneous, participatory and direct involvement of the workers and their delegates to find the workers’ councils as their own response, as a challenge before the hierarchy of professional “political” leaders of the SPD and the trade-unions, whose only experience and skill was how to tame the workers’ motivation by manipulation, by being hand and glove with the employers and their “political“ parties.

3 The KPD and the metamorphosis of the idea of communism

This brings us to an urgent issue before the workers’ revolution: the role of the political Party, specifically the communist Party in the workers’ revolution and in class struggle. This question becomes imminent in a discussion on the German revolution as the Spartakusbund evolved into a communist Party, KPD(S) during the high tide of revolution, specifically during 31 Dec -1 January between the years, 1918-1919. The Spartakusbund never had a penetration of organisation among the masses of the belligerent workers nor the Spartacist members intended for a centralized and to that extent bureaucratic organisation apparatus. The principal aspect of their revolt was against such hierarchic form of Party-apparatus in the SPD and even among the USPD that got separated from the “majority” SPD on the issue of support for war-credit in April 1917. The founding Congress of the KPD(S) is momentous in the history of the struggle for socialism as the program drafted by Luxemburg openly declared that the Spartakusbund will not constitute the head of proletarian state-power unless the “unambiguous will of the great majority of the proletarian mass of all of Germany” dictate such eventuality, and “The victory of the Spartacus League comes not at the beginning, but at the end of the Revolution: it is identical with the victory of the great million strong masses of the socialist proletariat.” [15] In that sense, the Spartakusbund consciously rejected the idea of a communist Party organising a revolution, to be the so-called “advanced detachment” of revolution. The dedication of the leadership, the Zentrale to the idea at the founding Congress was so prominent that they submitted to the defeat of the motions the Zentrale proposed before the delegates, regarding participation in the ensuing National Assembly election and participation in the trade unions. The history of development of social-democracy in Europe and Germany shows that right from the writings of Friedrich Engels there was always a bitter conflict between the evolutionary and revolutionary trends within such Party formation, the evolutionary trends who always constituted the “majority” found the solutions towards “socialism” within the evolutionary progress of capitalism itself. [16] Among the revolutionary trends the Bolshevik Party sharply disassociated from the “majority” evolutionary trends in the Second International of Europe and in Russia, particularly on the question of ongoing War and civil war within the boundaries of nation-States, on the question of the nature of the dictatorship of proletariat as the transitional state to socialism. However, their idea about the Party was significantly different from the Spartakusbund. Lenin and Luxemburg inherited their concepts about Party from the traditions of social-democracy in the Second International and from the writings of Engels. Yet, they differed significantly during the course of revolutions in Russia and Germany respectively, particularly in Lenin’s abundant emphasis on the leading, guiding, and organising role of the Bolshevik Party in the Russian revolution.

Soon after the defeat of the insurrections, particularly in Berlin and Munich during January April 1919, the nascent Party in KPD(S) faced severe crisis of existence due to the complete disarray among the members caused by the tremendous loss of leadership in quick succession, by the cruel assassination of Luxemburg, Liebknecht and Leo Jogiches who tirelessly maintained the network among the Spartacists members and their sympathizers. At the same time, the Third International (Comintern) was constituted in Moscow in March 1919 severing all ties with the social-democracy of Europe. The convening of the Comintern by the Bolsheviks in Russia brought initially a bright hope among significant sections revolutionary workers and their representatives in major industrialised nations, all of whom were witnessing huge agitations, strikes, occupations and insurrections among the workers. The Second Congress of the Comintern held in July 1920 in Moscow was a historic Congress that brought nearly all streams of workers’ struggle, the nascent communists, the anarchists, the syndicalists, the breakaway groups from social-democracy with a high hope to turn the workers’ struggles towards an international emancipatory struggle for communism. The Congress witnessed intense debates around the theses of the Bolshevik leadership towards participation in parliamentary election, participation in trade unions, towards drawing the masses of the workers in the fold of leadership of the communist Party. On each of these issues, there were intense and lively debates between the Bolshevik leadership led by Lenin and the so-called Ultra-left communists whom Lenin accused of practising ’infantile disorder’. Above all, the Bolsheviks proposed a ’twenty one conditions’ mandate in the Congress to be adopted by all communist sections of the Comintern in conformity with the vision of a world communist Party, a regimented vanguard detachment of the working class in each nation-State replicating the experience of the leadership of Bolshevik Party in Russian revolution. [17] Right from the Second Congress of Cominten in July - August 1920, the fate of the international working class movements, particularly in Germany under the communist guidance was intricately linked to the development of Cominten into a Soviet Russia-oriented establishment. The clear distinction in the approach towards Party between the Bolsheviks and the Spartacists came into sharp focus during the Second Congress of Comintern. The two Congress of Comintern, Second and Third turned out to be the real watershed moments for the metamorphosis of the idea of communism in the international arena. The Ultra-left communists from Germany, Netherlands and others particularly the delegates from Great Britain posed really sincere, searching challenges before the Bolshevik leadership. Their challenges were specifically directed to why the success of establishing a revolutionary state-power in Russia cannot be replicated in the developed capitalist nations like Germany or in England because of the history of development of working class organisations there. The Russian leadership had a discerning shift in understanding of the basic premises of socialism,dictatorship of proletariat, nature and role of participation of the workers in the communist movement, participation of the communists in established bourgeoisie institutions, etc. within two years of the revolution in Soviet Russia. They had a new-found sense of confidence in providing a degree of stability in Soviet Russia as the civil war was coming to an end, on the other hand they were desperately needing allies among the working class movements of Europe to circumvent their isolation among the comity of industrialized nation-States who were yet to recognise the legitimacy of Soviet Russia.

There was a distinct opposition from the Ultra-left communists in Germany to the Bolshevik expectation of moulding the orientation of the working class struggles in Germany. Their analysis of the situation in Western Europe, the formation of independent organisations of revolutionary workers in factory and shop-level councils like the AAUD posed serious challenges to Party-oriented and guided nature of working class struggles as was directed by Comintern. [18] All genuine challenges from the Ultra-left communists were overshadowed in the Second Congress by the towering personalities of Lenin and Trotsky whose arguments had little coherence and consistencies in terms of the basic and essential premises, but could carry over the overwhelming majority of the delegates in the Congress because of the success story of Bolshevik Party in establishing themselves in the absolute control of affairs of Soviet Russia. From the Second Congress onwards, the deliberation in Comintern had little in relevance and content regarding the aims and premises of socialism as an alternative workers’ societyvis-a-vis the political economy of capitalism, the workers’ self-initiatives in advancing direct control over production and overhauling the existing societal relationships, the overwhelming domination of the bourgeoisie establishments among the workers as a social constituency. The deliberations were relegated to formulate a bunch of strategy and tactics of organising the working class under the banner of a vanguard, regimented detachment under the assumption that there is only one option before the working class, — to act in the revolutionary sense. From the Third Congress of Comintern, it was evident even when such tactic were discussed and decided such as the United-front policy with the workers and parties of European social-democracy, they were not consistent with the strength and influence of the communists over the workers nor with the tradition of working class movements within the national boundaries. [19] The fulcrum of these policies was the necessity and interests of Soviet Russia as an independent State whose governing interests and experiences guided the development of communist movement in the other countries, in Europe and in colonies of Asia and Africa. In any case, the exit of the Ultra-left block from the fold of Comintern not only relieved the German bourgeoisie and their loyal soldiers in the ranks of SPD leadership from the spectre of ’worker councils’, their continuous splits relieved Comintern also from a teething opposition posing disturbing and disloyal questions to the strategy of Comintern. The Bolsheviks knew very well that as revolutionists the left-communists have put before them uncomfortable, embarrassing questions that did not fit well into their practical programs of saving Soviet Russia as a system of administration. It is important to underscore the metamorphosis in the idea that propelled the struggles of working class against private ownership in world-capitalism in the twenties and thirties decades of the last Century. These struggles became the major international phenomenon under the guidance of hegemonic Party hierarchy of the USSR in erstwhile colonies that found independence as nation-States at the end of Second World War.

The KPD lost their independent track of development, their genesis in the crucible of spontaneity, mass-initiatives of the workers during the insurrections in following the guidelines and direct involvement of Comintern leadership in the German affairs. Two important assemblies, the Heidelberg Congress of KPD(S) in October 1919 and the Halle Congress of USPD, a year after in October 1920 proved in later history to be crucial in transmutation of KPD into a regimented, “Bolshevized” Party. In the Heidelberg Congress, Paul Levi the new Chairman of the Zentrale alongwith Brandler and Karl Radek from Comintern were instrumental in manoeuvring most of the Ultra-left communists out of the KPD(S) who soon constituted the KAPD in April 1920 carrying the bulk of the Spartacists with them. In the Halle Congress, Zinoviev could sway the majority of the USPD delegates known as USPD(left) to leave the party and join KPD(S) accepting the “twenty one conditions” of Comintern to form the united VKPD in Berlin, December 1920. However, the two co-Chairmen of VKPD, Levi and Daumig were soon out of the Party alongwith three other members of the Zentrale including Clara Zetkin in protest against direct involvement of the representatives of Comintern in deciding the program of activity of VKPD. [20] Levi, in fact was expelled from VKPD under charges of violation of Party-discipline by direct intervention of Comintern as he published a pamphlet criticising the VKPD leadership in the failed “March Action” of 1921, that was an insurrection attempt of VKPD and KAPD militants without any significant participation of workers. In spite of the fact of raising challenging issues of workers’ self-initiatives in ushering the dictatorship of proletariat the Ultra-left communists could not hold themselves together. Levi, in fact was expelled from VKPD under charges of violation of Party-discipline by direct intervention of Comintern as he published a pamphlet criticising the VKPD leadership in the failed “March Action” of 1921, that was an insurrection attempt of VKPD and KAPD militants without any significant participation of workers. In spite of the fact of raising challenging issues of workers’ self-initiatives in ushering the dictatorship of proletariat the Ultra-left communists could not hold themselves together. A major shortcoming of the Ultra-left block was they represented several competing tendencies among themselves varying from staunch advocacy for the Party exclusively belonging to the industrial workers to autonomous factory-level ’workerism’ of the Syndicalists. Historically, it is wrong to say that all in the so-called Ultra-left block represented anti -Party tendencies, rather most of them staunchly followed the idea of leadership of communist Party just as in KPD. Their new Party, the KAPD was declared in Berlin during 4-5 April 1920 that claimed the allegiance of some 38 000 members of KPD nationwide. In fact, before they were expelled from KAPD, there was a strong votary among them from Hamburg, a tendency of ’National Bolshevism’ who advocated a workers’ state of exclusive German variety. [21] This tendency virulently opposed the Versailles Treaty and their criticism was closely liked to the ’stab in the back’ campaign of the Nazis. The contradictory pulls within Ultra-left communists were as if destined to disintegrate soon as was predicted by Lenin when the overtures of Cominern to streamline the Ultra-left communists along the Bolshevik pattern of practices failed to convince them.

Germany in the period of the Weimar Republic was a land of universal darkness of violence and anarchy in the society. It was a Republic that rarely was the choice of any of the contending social classes, yet the Republic carried on limping for a decade or so as none of the contending social classes were sure enough to usurp the Republic by force. In this milieu of all-around pursuance of violence KPD was no exception. We feel an analysis of the metamorphosis of KPD and the credo of violence it pursued is urgently needed by the Centenary of German revolution to understand the conflicting nature of challenges that the organisation of the modern working class on a revolutionary platform have to confront to earn socialism. The KPD by the mandate during its genesis had to present itself as the Party of ’absolute opposition’ within the parliamentary institutions of Weimar Republic, while it claimed to be the genuine Party of the working class so as to compete with other “political’ parties in winning over the masses of the workers towards its own revolutionary objectives. [22] In the process, the fundamental objectives of existence of the Party got overhauled. The militant workers’ struggle that brought Party in the picture as the leadership of struggle either in Germany, or in Russia got reversed in orientation, the Party was now supposed to launch the struggle and the workers were supposed to follow the Party programme. The meaning of “Bolshevization” therefore, in actual practices created more and more stringent walls between fractions of rival parties in the name of winning over the “majority” of the working class by means of violent confrontation with the State machineries, trade union officials, and with the industrialists, employers, etc. The motto and relevance of KPD’s existence was to demonstrate the earnestness for safeguarding the workers’ interest as a staunchly radical “political” Party. As a natural course of such conscious attempts to develop fractions among the activist workers, the fluidity of exchanges among the members drawing allegiance to different streams of “politics” became the first victim. The most prominent dichotomy behind the “politics” of KPD in the period between 1921-1929 was it never been able to harmonise its struggles and policies along the parliamentary avenues and simultaneously projecting itself to be a Party of ’absolute opposition’, by pursuing violent actions against the Republic. The KPD remained an onlooker, a bystander while the workers of Germany thwarted the Kapp putsch in March 1920 by overwhelming participation in the general strike at the call of Carl Legien (the same Legien who signed the agreement with Stinnes!), they had a lukewarm response towards the proposal of “workers government’ by Legien. [23] On the one hand, the VKPD asked for cooperation from all other working class organisations in the ’Open Letter’ in January 1921 as a United-front policy, while on the other hand the Zentrale went in full swing to support the “March Action” in 1921 that was a miserable failure.

The inherent conflict in the two-pronged “political” strategy of VKPD again became prominent during the widespread protests in German society against the occupation of Ruhr by French and Belgian troops starting with January 1923. At the same time, the inconsistency in formulating policies for international class struggle became glaring in the light of the shifted policies of Comintern as Soviet Russia approached Weimar Republic for trade negotiations. During 1921-23, Soviet Russia was desperate to enter into commercial and trade negotiations with the monopoly capital among the industrialized States executing Anglo-Russia Treaty and most important the Rapallo Treaty with the Reich that included commercial negotiations as ’most favoured nation’ and a strategic military pact. With the Rapallo Treaty, Soviet Russia allowed the Reichswehr (German Army) to develop advanced military technology in Russian territory that was against the provisions of Versailles Treaty. As a bargain the ’Red Army’ officers were trained in military technology that was very much in dearth with Soviet Russia. [24] All these developments under full knowledge of the Bolshevik leadership were seldom discussed among the Comintern and KPD, whose members were getting persecuted daily by the Reich in prisons with hard-labour for participation in the “March Action”. The German economy went into a period hyperinflation with occupation of Ruhr by the French troops when the paper currency Mark lost all its worth against the international currency Dollar making astronomical figures for equivalence. The period of hyperinflation brought untold misery among the German workers and their families and unemployment, food riots were of daily occurrence in all over Germany. However, the industrialists like Stinnes gained in both ways from the French occupation and hyperinflation. On one hand, the government compensated for the loss of profit in non-production due to “passive resistance” and on the other, they started acquisition of industries and properties in terms of US Dollar in their possession taking the advantage of daily devaluation of German Mark. During the Ruhr occupation, the KPD even went to cash on the national outrage against French troops following Radek’s infamous ”Schlageter’s speech’ where Radek eulogized one proto-Nazi militant Leo Schlageter as a ’martyr of German nationalism’ [25] who was murdered by the French troops.

 In the face of national despondency, however the KPD had little explanation and support against the international nature of capitalist crisis that was the root cause behind hyperinflation. While the French troops occupied the Ruhr valley, hordes of French workers and engineers were brought in to break the “passive resistance” of German miners in the coalmines, and German railway workers who were not operating the railways. The Comintern or the French communists had little resistance to offer when the German workers needed it most. The German workers on their own took the initiative in organizing the ’Cuno strike’ in August 1923 against the failure of Chancellor Cuno to check hyperinflation and devaluation of currency that led to the resignation of Wilhelm Cuno as Chancellor on 11 August 1923. The general strike of the workers again brought the self-activation and initiative in the form of factory councils, “the committee of fifteen” who led the strike independent of the trade union leaders. However, such advance of the workers were limited to ensuring stability of the currency and fixing wage of the workers in real terms and had no orientation towards a ’workers government” that the KPD leadership and most important the Comintern leadership misread in the strike. It was not only the questions of organising the workers towards a general strike, towards formation of armed militia out of them that were to be resolved, — the fundamental problem was the program of the ’workers’ government’ itself. [26] The program had no clarity about how a ’workers’ government’ in Germany could resolve its hyperinflation crisis due to reparation without the aid of the workers in the victor nations. It was crystal clear no government of the Entente will come into negotiations with such a ’workers’ government’ to infuse Dollars in the bankrupt economy in Germany without the support and active participation of German monopoly bourgeoisie. This startling phenomenon of the compulsion of international political economy of capitalism on the fate of the workers’ initiative never occurred in the deliberations during the ’Cuno strike’. The originators of the ’workers’ government’ policy saw hyperinflation essentially as Germany’s internal problem as a victim-nation. Therefore, sometime they could find affinity with the Fascists to forge national unity against the French occupation, sometimes they stood as fighters against the same Fascists forces towards ’workers government’ against hyperinflation. They never considered the irreducible problem of international debtor-creditor relationships that was the principal reason behind the reparation issue whose custodians were seating in Paris, London and in Washington.

The Russian leadership in Comintern went on to plan and execute by instructing the KPD to launch an unpardonable misadventure that is known as the “German October” in 1923. They were driven by the events in Saxony and Thuringia during October 1923 when there was a strong possibility of participation of KPD in the SPD-led provincial cabinets. The insurrection was planned as part of military assistance from Soviet Russia and intense propaganda in the Russian society as the impending “German October”, the long waited workers’ revolution in Germany. The planning and instigation for the insurrection were all from Soviet Russia where the Bolshevik leadership understood the ”Proletarian Hundreds” in German industrial sectors as the armed militia and the factory councils during the “Cuno strike” to be the germinating Soviets of workers. [27] If we allow ourselves to cite Pierre Broue who authored the comprehensive account of the days of German revolution, the planning for “German October” perfectly suites his description, “It is moreover obvious that Germany in these years formed an experimental laboratory in Bolshevik eyes, a measuring device which they believed enabled them to test and verify their policy, to refine and adjust it.” [28] It is worthwhile to compare the spontaneous dynamism of the workers in Munich in February -April 1919 when the workers fought a pitched battle with the Freikorps to protect their workers’ councils with the reluctance of the workers in Dresden in October 1923 to even raise a protest demonstration when the cabinet of ministers of Saxony in which the KPD members participated to facilitate the insurrection were ejected from the office by troops of the Reichswehr. [29] The appreciation of the two historical events by the masses of workers and their immediate reactions were distinctly different that put a big question mark on the framework: building workers’ struggles to class-power solely being driven by a “political” Party. We present these developments to demonstrate the fate of the Party-designed workers’ revolution without the presence of spontaneity among the workers, the fate of the intention of exporting the revolution even among the most class-conscious and energetic workers of Europe when the Comintern was yet to take the shape of a later Frankenstein within the international class struggle of workers against capitalism.

Spontaneity and the credo of violence

Spontaneityas a phenomenon is synonymous with revolution essentially as a vast canvass of creativity among the working masses that can not be stereotyped and straight jacketed to fashion certain rule or precedence of history although conscious efforts are presumed to be there for these creative actions to be synchronized, to be synergised, to be harmonious. It was demonstrated repeatedly in Germany after the heady days of insurrection in January - April 1919 whenever the workers came down in huge number in street-demonstrations, in strikes and in confrontation with the State-apparatus, they came out at the call of strike committees, factory councils, trade unions those were far more closer to their existence, the leaders were persons among them and the workers could spontaneously align and carry forward the battle cry as something belonging to them. If one recollects worker activism and their independent initiatives, the unison of purpose were most prominent during the days of Kapp putsch in March 1920 when all the militarists (not only the Generals like Walther Luttwitz, and Erich Ludendorff who masterminded the putsch) in Germany were pushed to the backfoot before the wall of demonstration and general strike in Germany. The division and distinction of purpose and existence of ’political’ parties and trade unions got obliterated before the mass initiative of workers. The workers demonstrated during Kapp putsch they can actually protect the Republic and the civil society from militarism and Ultra-nationalism even when the institution in itself was not the embodiment of workers’ state-power, in fact the Reich-cabinet of the Republic fled to Stuttgart. [30] The Republic was not an institution that the workers could identify themselves as their own given that they already had the experience of workers’ council and were continually fighting for such own institutions of state-power.

One important point we want to highlight before we conclude is the critique of the credo of violence, of civil war that was made synonymous with revolution, with class struggle, with the dictatorship of proletariat throughout the period of revolution in Europe after the First World War. A hundred years back it was the uniform realisation among the revolutionists of all kind that revolution is impossible without civil war and the insurrection of armed workers and decommissioned soldiers is synonymous with revolution. They were tied and bound by the reality of a historical epoch that the establishment, the class-rule of the bourgeoisie made them convinced, violence can only be check-mated with counter-violence and there is no course otherwise left than that. However much Luxemburg stood for the liberty and self-emancipation of the proletariat, for her and for hundreds of the Spartacists the route towards liberation was laden with the stones soaked in blood thrown in abundance, blood of not only her comrades but also of her class-enemies. In her crusade against participation of the workers in the First World War, Luxemburg wrote, “The modern working class must pay dearly for each realization of its historic mission. The road to the Golgotha of its class liberation is strewn with awful sacrifices.” [31] We want to emphasize at the Centenary of German revolution that violence is an inevitable component for a conception of revolution where the question of seizure of state-power remains the most primary agenda for the working class to ascend to the seat of power whereas socialism is essentially the struggle against such quest for power, i.e, socialism is the struggle for the dissolution of state-power among the assemblies of direct producers. For Luxemburg and for the innumerable martyrs of German revolution, dissolution of state-power was impossible without a violent seizure of power as the bourgeois left for them only this course whereas as we have shown in most of the cases where the working class could really put the bourgeoisie in the defensive was when the march of the workers took the shape of a human wall and not the form of an army. A society that intends to create ’the conditions of intellectual freedom not only for ’all’ workers but for ’each individual worker” [32] can never accept violence as a matter of social principle even in the sense of protecting the society from its ’enemies’ as the enemy actually rests over the production relations that turn the relations among the humans into inimical relations. As the conditions of existence of wage slavery are obliterated, the social relations among humans are also not regulated by the existing production relations from which the seat violence as a social phenomenon originates. As socialism transcends from the class-relations of capitalism, essentially the production relations among the humans, it turns away and rejects the ideology of violence otherwise it is impossible to justify an altogether newsociety. We need to reconsider and rethink the basic connotation behind revolution and being revolutionists. We need to move beyond the early twentieth century depiction of being revolutionist as the morally committed, self-sacrificing, zealous evangelist individuals whose life-long mission was to arouse the “masses” of the workers, the downtrodden towards the “holiest” mission of relentless war against capitalism in armed formation. At the Centenary of martyrdom of the heroes of German revolution this noble realisation is the tribute of us towards their sacrifice for the emancipation of the workers not only of Germany but of all workers around the world from wage slavery.

5. Conclusion

We want to say in the end of the essay the revolutionary efforts of workers at the end of the First World War have brought significant lessons before the modern working class that need to be cherished, re-evaluated and revitalized in the light of huge falsification of history of which we are all part of. If we hide our faces from the bright and sharp illumination of truth even after a Century of the revolution we not only perform travesty with the facts of modern history, it signifies our reluctance to stand up before the huge weight of falsification that historiography has bequeathed us for at least the past seven decades of the so-called communist movement. During the best of times (we may figure this period to be the first three decades after the Russian and German revolution) the so-called communist movement in large parts of Europe constituted militant fighting regiments against the private ownership of wealth and correspondingly against the State machinery that supported such stark anomaly in the distribution of wealth. However, this confrontation with the private monopoly ownership of capital did not augur the so-called communist movement to be the harbinger of a new society that hardly bore stamp marks distinctly different from the production relations under capitalism. On the other hand, even at the face of devastation and destruction all around, the workers of Europe and Russia, of the West and the East put up a resistance to this destruction by War, a human engineered catastrophe. Not in one city or in one national capital, but in numerous industrial centres throughout Europe where modern proletariat was concentrated the workers this time provided a new form of assembly of elected delegates within themselves. They were ready to discuss their own form of statecraft that challenged the very existence of capital and capitalist production relations as demonstrated by the very nature of the assembly. The assemblies were spontaneous and direct, no bourgeoisie or military general or civil servant could claim their physical representation there, — by the very form of existence the workers’ and soldiers’ councils in Germany challenged republicanism based on universal suffrage as a “political” idea. By this very act of belligerent independent action the workers in Munich, in Berlin, in Bremen, in Vienna, in Rostov-on-Don, in Moscow, in Petrograd, in Leo, in Turin, in Glasgow brought out the truly international character of their existence in the capitalist society tearing aside the fictitious national borders and girders that chain the universal humanity in the realm of national unfreedom. The militant workers in Germany physically pushed the frontiers of historical epoch of human civilization from the ideas of French bourgeois republicanism of the nineteenth century through several decades to the ideasof proletarian socialism of the twentieth century. This is the historical legacy of the workers’ council movement that we want to cherish and commemorate at its Centenary.

[This essay is a summary of Author’s extended long essay titled “Germany November 1918 — October 1923 and Beyond”.]


[1Reinhard Rurup, “Problems of the German Revolution 1918-19”, Journal of Contemporary History, vol.3, No.4, 1968, p. 109-135.

[2Tony Cliff, quoted in Introduction, Rosa Luxemburg by Paul Frolich, Pluto Press and Bookmarks, July 1994.

[3V I Lenin, Political Report of the Central Committee, Extraordinary Seventh Congress, R.C.P. (B), March 6-8, 1918, available at: HYPERLINK "http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1918/thcong/01.htm" www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1918/thcong/01.htm.

[4V I Lenin, Tax in Kind, Collected Works, Volume 32, p. 329-365, 1965.

[5Gerhard P. Bassler, “The Communist Movement in the German Revolution, 19181919: A Problem of Historical Typology?”, Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 6, No. 3, 1973, p. 233-277.

[6Carlton J. H. Hayes, “The History of German Socialism Reconsidered”, The American Historical Review, Vol. 23, No. 1, 1917, p. 62-101.

[7Paul Frolich, Rosa Luxemburg, Pluto Press and Bookmarks, July 1994.

[8Ralph Haswell Lutz, THE GERMAN REVOLUTION 1918-1919, Stanford University, California, 1922.

[9Frederick Taylor, The Downfall of Money, Bloomsbury Publishing, London, 2013.

[10George Lichtheim, Europe in the Twentieth Century, Praeger Publishers, Inc., USA, 1972.

[11Pierre Broue, THE GERMAN REVOLUTION 1917-1923, Brill, Boston, 2005.

[12Gabriel Kuhn, ALL POWER TO THE COUNCILS! A Documentary History of the German Revolution of 1918-1919, PM Press, USA, The Merlin Press Ltd, EU, 2012.

[13David W. Morgan, “Ernst Daumig and the German Revolution of 1918”, Central European History, Vol. 15, No. 4, 1982, p. 303-331.

[14Martin Comack, WILD SOCIALISM, Workers’ Councils in Revolutionary Berlin, 1918 21, University Press of America, 2012.

[15Rosa Luxemburg, “What Does the Spartacus League Want?” in The Rosa Luxemburg Reader, Ed., Peter Hudis and Kevin Enderson, Monthly Review Press, New York, 2004.

[16Peter Nettl, “The German Social Democratic Party 1890-1914 as a Political Model”, Past & Present, No. 30, 1965, p. 65-95.

[17The Second Congress of the Communist International: Proceedings of Petrograd Session, of July 17th, and of Moscow Sessions, of July 19th - August 7th, 1920, Publishing Office of the Communist International, America, 1921.

[18Philippe Bourrinet, The Dutch and German Communist Left (1900 — 68), Brill, Boston, 2016.

[19Mike Taber Ed., The Communist Movement at a Crossroads: Plenums of the Communist International’s Executive Committee, 1922 — 1923, Brill, Boston, 2018.

[20ibid [11].

[21ibid [18].

[22Ben Fowkes, COMMUNISM IN GERMANY UNDER THE WEIMAR REPUBLIC, THE MACMILLAN PRESS LTD, UK, 1984.

[23Arthur Rosenburg, “The Kapp Putsch and the Working Class”, Revolutionary History, Vol. 5, No. 2, 1994, available at: https://www.marxists.org/history/etol/revhist/backissu.htm 

[24J. David Cameron, “To Transform the Revolution into an Evolution: Underlying Assumptions of German Foreign Policy toward Soviet Russia, 1919-27”, Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 40, No. 1, 2005, p. 7-24.

[25ibid [11].

[26Alfred E. Cornebise, “Cuno, Germany, and the Coming of the Ruhr Occupation: A Study in German-West European Relations”, Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 116, No. 6, 1972, p. 502-531.

[27August Thalheimer, “A Missed Opportunity? The German October Legend and the History of 1923”, Marken Press, 1993, available at: HYPERLINK "https://www.marxists.org/archive /thalheimer/works/missed/index.htm" https://www.marxists.org/archive /thalheimer/works/missed/index.htm.

[28Pierre Broue, “Spartacism, Bolshevism and Ultra-Leftism in Face of the Problems of Proletarian Revolution in Germany (1918 — 1923)”, Revolutionary History, Vol. 9, No. 4, 2008, p. 108 — 118, available at: https://www.marxists.org/archive/broue/1972/xx/ defence.html

[29James N. Retallack, Saxony in German History: Culture, Society, and Politics, 18301933, University of Michigan Press, 2000.

[30ibid [23].

[31Rosa Luxemburg, The Junius Pamphlet:The Crisis in German Social Democracy,ibid[15].

[32Karl Korsch, MARXISM AND PHILOSOPHY, Monthly Review Press, New York, 2008.

Notice: The print edition of Mainstream Weekly is now discontinued & only an online edition is appearing. No subscriptions are being accepted