A participant's account of their involvement in the November 1918 rebellion in Hamburg, and the movement of workers' councils that developed from it.
libcom note: unfortunately the author of this text later reversed his politics and became a fascist - he was one of the originators of the National Bolshevik tendency, and was expelled from the KAPD in 1920. So we reproduce this text for reference.
This small volume owes its existence to the editorial committee of the Archive of Social Sciences and Social Legislation, who invited me to explain the role and importance of the council system. I have restricted myself to a historically faithful account, based on the proceedings and policies of the Hamburg Council and, given its general interest, I publish this work without any substantial modifications in order to make it accessible to a wider public.
What follows includes that part of the events in question in which I was personally involved. The events of the days between November 6 and 11 are therefore not treated here. The uprising of the Kiel sailors only acquired importance as a result of the rebellion in Hamburg on the 6th, which was itself made possible by the fact that a massive peaceful demonstration, organized by the USPD on the Heiligengeist fields, was joined by the insurrection of revolutionary troops under a radical leftist leadership. The fact that the military power completely collapsed within the region of the Ninth Army Corps, which was the only military formation which could have opposed the revolt, was the signal for revolution throughout the empire. Since I lack their source documentation, these events, which occurred under the leadership of the radical left, can only be explained in their full significance by the participants themselves. My comrade Wolffheim, who played an outstanding role in the revolutionary uprising as well as in its preparation, will also have his say on the matter.
H. Laufenberg, Hamburg-Altrahlstedt, July 26, 1919.
The Hamburg Revolution
The council movement, which in Germany as elsewhere originated in the revolution, has not yet been appreciated in all of its details, nor has its development reached a conclusion, by any means. The council movement is at the very heart of the struggles between parties, and is simultaneously the goal and the means in these struggles. Faced with the current impossibility of subjecting this vast historical process to critical judgment, only one way now lies open for scientific and political orientation: the description of the historical events, in particularly important locations, and the exposition of the principle positions which distinguished the permutations of political practice. Given the importance of the urban region of the lower Elbe for all of Germany, the delineation of the experiences and peculiarities of the council systems in Hamburg, Altona and their environs will permit us to draw a series of conclusions concerning the general course of events and the basic outlines of the German council system.
A few days after the victory of the sailors’ revolt in Kiel, the revolutionary movement arose in Hamburg, giving the signal for revolution in the rest of Germany. The struggle in Hamburg itself was brief. While the military was withdrawing in a none-too-glorious manner, a provisional council of workers and soldiers was formed, which distributed a manifesto to the population on November 7. The manifesto began with the declaration that the council had taken “the greater part of political power” into its hands, and warned that the highest degree of unity would be required to fulfill the great tasks of the future. A series of political measures was then decreed, such as the release of all political prisoners, freedom of the press and of speech, and the abolition of the censorship of the mail. The essential part of the manifesto was the elimination of the old military discipline and of the power of the military command structure, which passed into the hands of the Soldiers’ Council. Decent treatment of the troops by their superiors, and their personal freedom while off-duty, were to be considered by everyone in the military as the standing order of the Soldiers’ Councils. In addition, private property was protected and the security of the food supply was guaranteed.
At the beginning of the revolution, a popular assembly gathered on the Heiligengeist fields decided to confiscate the old newspaper of the Hamburg workers, the Hamburger Echo, and, under the new name of the Rote Fahne, to put it at the service of the revolution. But this decision was soon annulled. After a few days, the old newspaper once again appeared, alongside the Rote Fahne, just as the seizure of political power had not been completed, which eventually by one means or another fell back into the hands of the old authorities. Thanks to the revolution, the Workers and Soldiers Council had become the real government in Hamburg, but the old Senate continued to function after its own fashion right alongside the Council.
An agreement was reached between the various socialist parties, which called for the formation of a General Workers Council with approximately 500 members representing the factories, and, as an executive committee for this General Council, a new Workers Council to replace the provisional one, which would consist of three delegates each from the old party, the trade unions, the USPD and the Party of the Radical Left, respectively, as well as 18 representatives from the factories. This executive committee’s presidium, referred to as the Workers Council, would be formed by one representative from each party mentioned above and the trade unions, and three representatives from the factories. The election of the president of this body was carried out like a political election. A representative of the radical left group, which would later become the communist group, was elected President of the Workers Council; this, as well as the general political composition of the Executive Committee, was a reflection of the role played by the communist and independent fractions in the events of November 6.
The Executive Committee of the Soldiers Councils, the Commission of Fifteen, which later became the Commission of Thirty, formed a consultative body together with the Workers Council, with the proviso that only the soldiers would be involved in resolving purely military issues. This Commission soon created a Commission of Seven as a High Command. The personnel of the Soldiers Council had already changed in the first few days. Its composition presented a wide range of political views. Bourgeois-democratic ideas prevailed among the majority, and some of its members were sympathetic to socialism, but ignorant of socialist ideology; only a few were convinced socialists; the only issue that concerned all the soldiers was their next military assignment. If the Workers Council, with its diversity of parties, had a common basis in the working class, such a common foundation did not exist among the representatives of the Soldiers Council. This meant that, the more clearly the class position of the Workers Council’s policy was manifested, and the more that different opinions became evident, the more the majority of the Soldiers Councils, for the moment, fell under the influence of the Workers Council and its communist-independent leadership; this became obvious as soon as the Council proceeded to clearly and firmly set out its position in respect to the old political powers.
Hamburg is a city-state. Political power was exercised by its Senate. Alongside this Senate, and delimited in its activity by the particular rights and prerogatives of the Senate, the Bürgerschaft (City Council) existed as a legislative assembly. If the Workers and Soldiers Council wanted to pass binding resolutions, it had to replace the Senate and firmly impose its legislative power and function on the Bürgerschaft. Both tasks were accomplished by means of a manifesto issued on November 12. Based on the fact that the revolution had, by establishing a new division of powers, created the basis for a new constitution, and therefore a new legal situation, it began with the statement that the Workers and Soldiers Council had assumed the exercise of political power in the state of Hamburg, and that the Senate and the Bürgerschaft had ceased to exist; the state of Hamburg would in the future form part of the German Peoples’ Republic. Legislative bodies which would be created in the near future would decide upon the arrangement of the new relations. Peace and order were guaranteed, the functionaries would remain at their posts and would continue to be paid, and the assurance was again made that private property would be protected.
The debates which took place in the Council prior to the publication of the manifesto were heated and somewhat turbulent, since all the representatives of the old party defended a position which was profoundly opposed to the new principles set out in the manifesto. Against the idea of working class rule, upon which the manifesto was based, they supported the demand for popular sovereignty, and proposed a motion to that effect, tailored for the Bürgerschaft by the social democratic faction. The motion called for the immediate recognition of universal suffrage, with an equal, direct and secret vote for the elections to the Bürgerschaft and the other municipal governments of the Land, on the basis of a proportional system of representation, for all the adult citizens of both sexes; that all special elections for privileged status should be abolished, such as those which had hitherto been held for the nobility and landowners; that the Senate should be elected by the Bürgerschaft for a limited term, and that its membership should no longer be restricted to certain professions; and that the city administration should be democratized. Immediately after the introduction of the new electoral law, elections for the Bürgerschaft should take place, in order to deliberate on the new constitution and the new organization of the city administration. The Workers and Soldiers Council deliberately and as a matter of principle went beyond the motion of the social democratic fraction, in order to express, in the most unequivocal manner, the fact that a power shift had taken place. The manifesto declared: the Senate and the Bürgerschaft no longer exist, the Land of Hamburg will in the future form part of the German Peoples’ Republic; but the leadership of the Council was aware of the fact that, as they acknowledged during the debate, the communal functions previously exercised by the Senate and the Bürgerschaft as community institutions still had to be carried out, and that, furthermore, the last word on the future of each Land would depend upon the course of events in the Empire as a whole, and that in the meantime a declaration concerning the nature of the Hamburg Land was necessary. The Council took action on these two matters shortly afterwards, as the indisputable voice of the complete sovereignty which had passed into the hands of the institutions of the working class; by precisely assigning particular tasks, clearly defined and fundamentally distinct from their former prerogatives, to the old powers, the new regime showed that it was master of the situation and the old powers. Even during the late hours of the night, the proclamation was delivered to the newspapers, and was also publicized by means of wall posters.
The first task was to secure the Senate. Since it constituted the apex of the administrative apparatus, whose uninterrupted functioning was of great interest to the Workers and Soldiers Council, above all so as to prevent any problems with the circulation of money, and thus with the payment of family subsidies and the wages of workers and government employees. The Council pursued the goal of not destroying this apparatus, but of transforming the bureaucracy into a popular institution, and securing political control in all of its decisive aspects. The transition to the new situation was achieved without any friction. In memorable negotiations, the Senate submitted without resistance to the existing situation and also declared its willingness to cooperate on the basis of the new state of affairs. The Council issued a decree assuring the continuity of all administrative authorities and commissions, to which the public was to bring its appeals as in the past. A declaration of the manifesto of November 12 stated that Hamburg would still exist as a Land and as a bearer of financial rights and obligations, until such a time as there should be a decision on the scale of the Empire concerning the German constitution. For relations between Hamburg and the other German states, with the sole responsibility of contracting its obligations and issuing provisional currency, the Finance Department would continue to exist in conformity with the laws. Four representatives of the Workers and Soldiers Council were incorporated into the Senate, and one into the Finance Department, the Council reserving to itself the unconditional right to veto any Senate decision. This made the position of the Council perfectly clear to the Senate, which in essence preserved only the role of a municipal council.
In parallel with the negotiations with the Senate, negotiations took place with representatives of the bourgeois industrialists and the retailers, wholesalers and industrial chambers of commerce, as well as the banks, which led to the formation of an economic council. These representatives of the bourgeoisie also resigned themselves to the fait accompli of the shift in political power. Renouncing their demand that the Bürgerschaft should be re-established with its old prerogatives, they proposed the establishment of a system of local representation. A debate was held in the Council on the question of whether the municipal parliament should be composed of representatives of the Workers and Soldiers Council, of the councils of white collar employees, civil servants, teachers and other professionals, or whether the old Bürgerschaft should be provisionally reinstated as a representative municipal body. While the representatives of the old party without exception wanted to maintain the old institution of the Bürgerschaft and to have it meet as a constituent assembly in the near future, the representatives of the independent fraction agreed that the old Bürgerschaft should be convened, but were opposed to holding elections in the near future, since no one could foresee what the next few weeks would bring. The representatives of the left radicals, however, proposed that the Bürgerschaft should be treated in exactly the same way as the Senate. Since it was at that time impossible to completely eliminate the Bürgerschaft and to replace it with the General Workers Council due to the danger of international repercussions, the Council, by virtue of its revolutionary powers, had to provisionally convoke the old Bürgerschaft, within the framework of and in accordance with the tasks of municipal representation. The proclamation was issued from the very beginning that the universal, equal, direct and secret right to vote was established for all representative bodies in the state territory of Hamburg. In any event, the Council had to hold elections as soon as possible. At this juncture it had the power to determine the character of the municipal parliament, and to assign it a set of clearly-defined rights and duties, and to prevent political power from falling into the hands of the Senate and the Bürgerschaft. The Workers and Soldiers Council assented to this proposal, also agreeing, however, with the representatives of the independent fraction in regard to holding elections for a constituent municipal assembly. While not setting a date for these elections, the Council did agree that they should be prepared for as soon as possible. In the exercise of its political power, the Council also reserved the right of unconditional veto power over the decisions of the Bürgerschaft.
To assure its effectiveness, the Council had to create its own logistical apparatus. Needless to say, from the very first moments of its existence, it had at its disposal a well-organized office, and also created a press department in order to present its policies outside of Hamburg, which at first caused some problems, since this department, although in the hands of the Workers and Soldiers Council, was staffed by men of a bourgeois-democratic cast of mind, and expressed political views which by no means accorded with those of the Council. It took several weeks to remedy this situation, when the Council closed this office and formed another with a totally different staff. At its first session, the Council had already created three committees: for social policy, medicine and transportation. To these, others were soon added: committees on external relations and the press, food supply, justice and prisons, security and police, public health, construction and housing, education, trade, shipping and industry, finance, military affairs and indemnifications.
The most important departments were those which dealt with justice, education, trade and industry, social policies and security. The justice committee had the job of solving problems which resulted from the Council’s edicts, or their interpretation. It also had to elaborate new norms for the penal system and the regulation of administrative justice and, in general, was responsible for changing the practice of penal law and eliminating reactionary laws. The security committee was in charge of adapting the police apparatus to the new situation, as well as creating the basis for the total liquidation of the old army apparatus and the introduction of a peoples’ militia, composed essentially of members of the three socialist organizations. The education committee’s mission was to transform the entire school system, from elementary to secondary levels, with the goal of establishing a unified school system. The committee on trade, shipping and industry was in charge of reincorporating Hamburg’s economic life into German production, and above all of refitting the metallurgical industry, especially the shipyards, for the repair and production of materiel for the railroads. The department of social policy had an almost decisive importance for the Council. It had to introduce the council system into the factories, so as to prepare for their socialization. In addition, this committee also functioned as a high court in case of conflicts between workers and owners. It did not replace the industrial tribunals, but in all important cases which would establish a precedent for the industry or economic life in general, after having heard the petitions of the two parties, it issued a binding decision; in this way all relations in the factories were definitively in the hands of this institution of the revolutionary Council. The results obtained by this committee fell short of what was desired, since in no field did it attain its initial objectives; the fault lay as much in its own deficiencies as in the resistance of the old authorities and the business class. This was also true of the committee on trade, shipping and industry and its attempt to reorganize the economy of the Hamburg area and to reintegrate it into German production. As difficult as this task was, it could have been carried out with even a minimum of collaboration on the part of the Prussian authorities.
Among the first measures of the Council, the implementation of the fundamental economic requirements of its labor policy stands out. At its second session it decreed the eight hour day, with the provision that, should the owners close their businesses in protest against this decree, the factories and workshops would be reopened by force. According to its manifesto, the whole sum of wages previously paid was to still be paid on a weekly basis, including payment for days not worked. From then on, the eight hour day or, where this was not practicable, as in the cases of food supply and transport, the working week of 48 hours, was set as the maximum. The wages to be paid were to be at least the same amount as had been paid for the previous regular day’s work. Consequently, hourly wages and piecework rates had to be raised until they reached the old daily wage, with the obligation to completely eliminate piecework as soon as possible. Overtime, where necessary, had to be paid with an extra premium, as stipulated for each case. These rules had to be rigorously obeyed and enacted without delay. Any infractions were to be severely punished, with the provision that the offending business could be expropriated by the Workers and Soldiers Council. The terms of this manifesto were not uniformly implemented, since the regulation of piecework was in the hands of the trade unions, and the resolution of complaints was under the control of the department of social policy, with the bulk of responsibility for such matters, which was at first the within the jurisdiction of that department, being later transferred to the trade unions. Nonetheless, the rules providing that the wages for the reduced work week had to be “at least” equal to the previous weekly wage, and that piecework had to be eliminated “completely and as quickly as possible” naturally stimulated more demands along the same lines. Nor was the situation to change much when, some time later, certain aspects of the manifesto were more clearly formulated, in order to regulate the situation in those enterprises where the reduction of the working week could not be immediately and completely enacted. The workers’ attitude would continue to be largely determined by the initial proclamations.
Already, among its first acts, the Council addressed the problem of unemployment, since the number of unemployed soon surpassed 70,000, while those who could only find part-time work numbered over 100,000. The Senate and the Bürgerschaft had previously, prior to the revolution, decided to create a labor office, responsible for job placement, assisting demobilized soldiers, and organizing unemployment benefits; the latter consisted of 6 marks for a married couple without children, 1 ½ marks for each child up to a maximum of three, and 4 marks for single persons, which would cost the Land of Hamburg three million marks each month. Since this labor office had not yet been established, and the Council faced many problems on all fronts, the resolution of the matter had to be postponed until mid-December. This delay led to vast demonstrations of the unemployed, but the Council eventually managed to achieve a satisfactory settlement of the problem. It proposed to the unemployed that a permanent commission be established, elected by the unemployed with the widest possible representation of professions and industries, which would be in permanent contact with the Council, with representatives in the labor office and its various delegations, to maintain oversight of its operations. While military field kitchens supplied food at very low prices to the unemployed, and jobless people became involved in running these services, the Council ordered an increase in unemployment benefits: one mark extra for single persons and two more for couples. An attempt on the part of the Senate and the labor office to reduce these increases was vetoed by the Council. Only later was it decided that the total subsidy for each family could not surpass 7 ½ marks per week.
The Council’s activity, especially in the economic domain, encouraged the creation of new councils. The latter were formed among every category of civil servants, teachers, police, firemen, railroad workers, etc., as well as councils of white collar employees of every kind. The demand, often expressed by such councils, to be directly represented on the Workers and Soldiers Council, was not granted, since the number of members of the Executive Committee and the respective proportions of representatives of the parties and the factories had already been fixed, but direct and permanent liaisons were nonetheless established between the different councils and the corresponding committees of the Workers and Soldiers Council, in most cases with the department of social policy.
As soon as its working departments had been created, the Council began to organize the political control of the administrative apparatus. This control was exercised by means of the activity of those institutions (the committees) mentioned above, as well as by means of commissars who were dispatched to the most important departments. However, as was the case with the activity of the Council itself, there was a lack of trained personnel, as well as resistance from the higher functionaries, which had been a problem since the first day of the new regime and which had only grown stronger since then. Political control of the administrative apparatus could only be achieved by integrating it into the social democracy and thus reducing it, once it is free of any bureaucratic constraints and formalities, to its basic tasks, in other words, leaving it in the hands of the population itself and basing the municipal organization on the council system. But these difficulties did not prevent the Council from purging the administration of its most pernicious elements by means of a simple decree, as in the case of the high-level Prussian functionaries in the suburbs of Hamburg who were expelled from their posts, although against the protests of the governments of Schleswig and Berlin. The same thing happened to a district president, whose work was controlled and then partially taken over by a delegate of the Council. But problems arose even with the Council’s supporters. The workers and soldiers councils in the towns in the Hamburg region had eliminated their municipal councils and, in one town, had introduced the six-hour working day, and in another had revised the pay rates of all the government employees and white collar workers and deposed the landlords’ representative. These events, which took place with the consent of the councils in these two towns, provided a reason to clearly delineate the responsibilities of the Workers Council, which was responsible not only for Hamburg, but also for Altona, Ottensen, Wandsbeck, and the whole area around the four cities in the neighboring territories.
According to the resulting decree, all the councils of the Land of Hamburg were subordinated to the Hamburg Council as the bearer of political power in that state, and the local councils were to be only institutions for the control of their local administrations. They were forbidden to become involved in administrative activities at the level of the Land. In the region which was part of Prussia, the Council’s domain included the organizations and military units which sent representatives to the Council. In these cases, however, the Council could only operate as a control office for the local administrations, in accordance with the rules established by the Prussian government, and, in principle—the actual practice often varied—was not authorized to become involved in state administrative activities. The local councils in these outlying areas were recognized by the Hamburg Council; the latter provided them with protection and assistance and, in matters which affected all of them as a result of the economic interdependence of the region, they took joint action. Where no workers and soldiers council existed, the Hamburg Council was authorized to exercise the right to control the local administration through elected councilors.
Organizational measures and managerial tasks, of course, embraced the most diverse matters. The provisional Workers and Soldiers Council had formed a food supply committee, and its permission was required for the export of foodstuffs. Until then, such regulation had been in the hands of the War Supply Office and, in order to improve the system of food supply, it was demanded that this Office’s administrative district be extended from Hamburg to the surrounding urban and rural areas. The new Council also appointed a committee of five members to supervise the entire food supply system. This committee decided to assume the functions of the Office of War Supply and the Altona municipal council, in regard to their responsibilities for food supplies, a decision which, given the complexity of the apparatus of the Hamburg Office of War Supply, could not have been implemented without serious prejudice to the continuity of the food supply, and was also in contradiction of the ruling that the Hamburg state authorities were to remain in office for the time being. The Council therefore cancelled this decision. It later stipulated essential changes in food distribution, in the reduction of prices for rationed goods, and in those prices which could not be set without its consultation and consent. In the interest of the population, and to its benefit, the Council repeatedly intervened, both in regard to prices as well as the quantities of distributed goods.
The fact that the farmers did not deliver the prescribed quantities of food led to serious problems. Already in its first session the Council had discussed how to establish good communications between the city and the countryside, as well as a system of organized collaboration. It called for, among other things, the formation of peasants’ councils, and carried out an extensive propaganda campaign on their behalf. These proposals, however, never came to a vote and were never implemented. Nor, after petitioning the imperial government and the Armistice Commission, were the Council’s efforts to reopen the offshore fisheries successful.
An economic council was formed under the auspices of the Council and representatives of industry, the banks and import-export firms, whose mission was to stimulate the resumption of trade, especially foreign trade. This collaborative effort did not, however, prove to be fruitful, since the divergence of opinions concerning the resumption of production and distribution was quite profound, and immediately became apparent. While its collaborators considered capitalist practices as natural, the Council was aiming for socialization. Consequently, only a few sessions of this economic council were held, with no practical results. The Workers and Soldiers Council naturally did not agree with the economic council’s demand that wages be reduced, although the trade union representatives readily showed some good will in that respect, which entailed no minor problems from the workers point of view. Since all socialist production is production in the interests of the consumer, the Council proposed that consumer prices be reduced, and that the first steps should be taken towards the reorganization of the distribution process. It proposed that the materiel stockpiled in the shipyards for the construction of submarines be used instead for the construction of rolling stock for the railroads. Recognizing that production is the basis of social life, it sought to fundamentally transform the role of the working class in production, putting the factories under its control, both socially and technically. The possibility of socializing the bakeries was debated. Since the twelve largest bakeries were capable of producing enough bread for the whole urban area, the elimination of the small and medium-size enterprises and their transformation into mere distribution centers would have implied important savings in industrial resources and raw materials, which would then have become available for other uses. The socialization of the fishing industry was also discussed with representatives of the fishermen, as its transfer to the control of the Hamburg Land was a relatively simple matter; such measures, so important for feeding the entire population, would have rendered socialization in other fields unavoidable. The Council also insisted that it not be excluded from the negotiations between the economic council and the imperial government concerning the supply of raw materials, guided by the idea that whoever directed the reorganization of economic life would also tighten their grip on political power. In the end, these projects soon became a dead letter because the Berlin government, handcuffed by its compromise and coalition with the big bourgeoisie, was neither willing nor able to undertake socialization. Disagreements within the Council itself were also becoming more acute, as well.
For these reasons, the Council sought to create fixed rules for the consolidation of the council system, while simultaneously maintaining the economic council in a certain relation of dependence. Towards this end it presented a series of regulations. These decreed that the economic council was an institution created as a consequence of the revolution, and that it had to present its proposals to the economic and industrial committee of the Workers and Soldiers Council, which would examine and approve them, prior to taking the necessary steps for their implementation. It mandated a workers council for each enterprise with more than twenty workers; enterprises with fewer than twenty workers were to join others of the same kind in order to elect factory councils; casual laborers were to unite according to their job categories in order to elect workers councils. All workers over the age of sixteen, according to this proposal, were granted the right to vote, and all those over the age of 20 would be eligible for office. The workers council was responsible for the orderly operation of the enterprise, as well as the control of its administration in its social, technical and commercial aspects, and the regulation, together with its owners, and in collaboration with the organizations of workers and white collar employees, of working conditions and wages. Where agreement on such issues could not be achieved, an appeal would have to be brought before the committee on social policy of the Workers and Soldiers Council, which would issue its ruling, with assistance from experts from both parties to the dispute. In general, the factory councils were to exercise the functions which had been delegated to them by the General Workers Council, without being prevented from doing so by either the factory owners or the old authorities. The General Workers Council set the rules for and established the framework of its field of action and the extent of its prerogatives, a resolution which would have enabled it, and, according to the intention of the authors of its proposals, had to enable it, to assume at any moment and to their full extent, all the political functions of the executive. The deliberations on this matter continued, and finally, when the Council’s power dissolved, and it no longer had the power to implement its proposals, they were liquidated on their own.
The workers in the urban area also naturally took advantage of the revolution to improve their standard of living, and to attempt to restore its pre-war level. Assisted in their efforts by the manifesto on the eight hour day and the rapid phase-out of piecework, the shipyard workers, for whom the latter stipulation was of the greatest concern, managed to practically eliminate piecework, despite the attempts of the owners to reintroduce it. In order to compel the payment of wages for the days when workers had attended the mass demonstrations, the Council closed one factory, arrested its owner, and confiscated his bank account. The Council repeatedly intervened on behalf of the seamen, in order to secure higher wages than had been granted to them by the sailors union and the ship-owners’ association. In the plumbers strike the Council exerted pressure on the employers and imposed the recognition of the demands of the workers. In short, it supported wage demands with all of its political and moral prestige. In negotiations with the shipyard owners, the Council’s department of social policy reminded the owners that they had previously used political power to their own economic advantage, and tersely declared that the working class would henceforth do the same; it applied its own legal principles without any concern over the prospect that the big capitalists, who had never concerned themselves with the workers’ sense of justice, might consider this to be an injustice. These acts profoundly changed the relation of forces between the workers and the owners. The department of social policy went far beyond the means which had until then been decisive in relations with the owners, whether it was the strike or negotiations between one organization and another, replacing them with completely new methods, trials before the Council, organ of political power of the whole working class, organized or not. Without being in a position to exercise a dictatorship in the strict sense of the word, wielding merely a subsidiary power in the apparatus of the bourgeois state, the Council largely eliminated, in the decisive political arenas, the old organs of negotiation and struggle, and transformed them into organs of the Council’s policy. In a later stage, during the city transport workers strike which lasted more than a week, it clearly proved to the whole world the importance of an energetic display of political power for the satisfaction of the demands of the working class; the Council was not, however, capable of rapidly ending this public calamity, nor could it meet all the workers’ demands, or protect the public from a steep fare increase.
One of the Council’s most important tasks was the regulation of public security. It turned to the troops in the barracks and formed police patrols with some of them, while those not suited for such duties were transferred to honor guards, work details or other already-existing detachments. Besides their food and military pay they received a premium of three marks per day, as had those soldiers who were already assigned to police duties. Their maximum number was set at 2,400. At first the situation gave cause for concern: the police commissioners retained their seats on the Bürgerschaft, frustrated with waiting for their new orders and the satisfaction of their complaints. Order was reestablished by means of prompt dismissals. Enlistments for the Freikorps were also banned by the Council, which also ordered the dissolution of the youth militias.
In its socialization policy, the Council was aware of the need to restructure Hamburg’s position within the empire by considerably expanding its territory. Completely surrounded by Prussian territory, the city not only lacked the space to extend its industry and undertake a generous plan of construction, it did not even have enough territory to expand its port facilities, since the administrative rights to control the banks of the river were indispensable for this purpose and the city only had the responsibility to regulate the Elbe itself. The administrative division of the region between Hamburg, Altona and Wandsbeck resulted in short-sighted and parochial policies in all important projects, such as urban railways, construction, canals and lighting, and made the old system’s unprofitable nature evident, as well as the vast obstacles standing in the way of the extension of “municipal socialism”. The dominant opinion on the Council was, therefore, that Hamburg’s territory had to be enlarged. For the realization of this project, it was of the utmost importance that Germany should become a unified republic rather than continuing to be a federation of states. When Hamburg’s representatives at the Berlin conference of German states, which took place at the end of November, frankly expressed their “annexationist designs”, they triggered a great uproar, and the Prussian minister Hirsch was especially vehement in protesting this presumption of dismembering Prussian territories. The delegates nonetheless remained convinced that Hamburg would soon and without great difficulties, and with the assistance of the imperial institutions, achieve the indispensable expansion of its territory, a hope which would not be fulfilled.
At the beginning of December, the Hamburg Council convoked an assembly of delegates from all the region’s workers and soldiers councils in order to consider the proposal to create a unitary economic region on the lower Elbe, with its center in Hamburg, which would be called Greater Hamburg. The fears that Hamburg would endanger the unity of the empire were energetically denied; a forced annexation was out of the question. If, on occasion, in sessions of the Hamburg Council, the desire to extend the Council’s political power to Altona and Wandsbeck and to control these cities through commissars had been expressed, these opinions garnered no support. As for the borders of this future economic region, no proposals or decisions were made at this conference. It appeared, however, that a large majority of the delegates were in favor of incorporating a substantial strip of the Elbe valley, between Hamburg and the mouth of the river, into the territory of Hamburg. The conference declared its support for the creation of a Greater Hamburg administrative district, and delegated to the Hamburg Council the task of taking the necessary steps for its establishment, in cooperation with the local authorities and the neighboring workers and soldiers councils. In any event, the Hamburg Council did have the merit of taking the first steps to bring the matter to fruition and preparing negotiations with the imperial government. The subsequent eclipse of its power left the continuation of these negotiations in the hands of the Senate.
The Council was more successful in the field of education. It brought proposals before a series of professors, in order to settle the question of the university and to make the University of Hamburg a reality. But the project never advanced beyond the first stages of planning. The Council did, however, aggressively implement the law on secondary education, with essential improvements, which had been in abeyance for five years, and whose previous implementation had been postponed by the war and the lack of teachers. The education committee held discussions with the teachers council about reorganizing the entire Hamburg school system in order to create a unified school district. It eliminated religious instruction from all public schools and institutions and, as of January 1, 1919, nullified all the laws and decrees of the Senate concerning the parochial levy, which thus passed into the jurisdiction of the religious communities themselves. It also made it much easier to renounce religion, decreeing that it was sufficient for the individual to declare that he or she was fourteen years old and to make a written or oral declaration before the civil registry.
The Council also promptly addressed the issue of housing and construction. It recommended that the State buy all available building construction materials, and proposed special measures to prevent real estate speculation.
The Council’s sovereign exercise of its rights was indisputable. The Council, rather than the Senate, reduced a murderer’s sentence to life in prison. Upon their return from the front, it was the Council, as representative of the state, which welcomed the troops, while the Senate, as representative of the city, addressed them afterwards. It decreed that, at official events, the flags of Hamburg and the revolution should be displayed, rather than the old imperial banners. It repeatedly exercised its right to veto resolutions of the Senate and the Bürgerschaft. As the representative of the state it dispatched its representatives to the Conference of German States convened by the imperial government in late November. In the deliberations concerning this delegation’s mandate, the divisions within the Council could already be seen, which would later undermine its political power.
Since it was foreseen that the Conference of German States would also discuss the question of a constituent assembly, a debate took place in the Council concerning the position its representatives would defend in relation to this question. The right wing socialists rejected a council regime and demanded a prompt convocation of a constituent assembly. The USPD delegates supported this position in principle but wanted to delay the convocation of the constituent assembly for as long as possible, in order to allow the returning soldiers to participate, to prepare women for the electoral process, and to first secure the achievements of the revolution by initiating socialization. A USPD speaker said that the days of the soviet government were numbered, and that it would not be favorable for the compromise reached in the interest of the revolution by the three factions, if one of them were to declare itself against the constituent assembly. The representative of the communist wing of the movement, however, emphasized that political power had fallen into the hands of the working class, although the latter was not presently capable of exercising its dictatorship: this was prevented by the fact that the revolution had been for the most part the achievement of the army, and even then with the decisive support of bourgeois elements. If the revolution was to continue in a smooth and orderly manner, and, at the same time, the political power of the working class was to be secured, if a sharpening of class contradictions and even a civil war were to be prevented, then only one road remained. There was danger from both the right and the left. From the left, because, as attempts were being made to prevent the installation of a soviet system and to reinstate the capitalist order, the influence of syndicalist and anarchist elements would grow, and with it the danger of armed insurrections. From the right, because the restoration of capitalism would be accompanied by the rearming of the bourgeoisie. To prevent these two possibilities, and the consequent civil war, from taking place, the total political power of the working class must be maintained in order to assure socialization; the bourgeoisie, however, had to be offered the chance to influence the course, the form and the manner of socialization, in accordance with its numerical importance in society. The convocation of a constituent assembly meant the demise of the workers’ power: the political power of the bourgeoisie would not be questioned, if the workers did not enter the electoral struggle as a united class. Whoever wanted to preserve the political power of the working class could not therefore support the convocation of a constituent assembly, which the bourgeoisie was loudly demanding. However, alongside the organ of the rule of the working class, the Central Council, a parliament could be created, elected by a general vote, which, under the control of the workers government, and with clearly-defined responsibilities, would provide a certain margin of maneuver for the bourgeoisie, so they could defend their interests during the course of socialization. This argument, which was also schematically outlined during the Conference of German States, since it was not possible to present it in all of its details, had practically no support on the Council. On the contrary, the positions of the various party factions were directly opposed to one another on a question which was not merely a simple matter of the division between the working class and the bourgeoisie, but revolved around the question of power as it affected the working class itself: the power structures of the old organizations transformed the struggle for the leadership of the class into a struggle over the position and identity of the personnel of its leadership.
The course of events in the Empire thus had to have negative consequences for the political position of the Hamburg Council. On the question of the legal foundations of the State, upon which the reorganization of the Empire had to be based, there were serious differences of opinion between the two leftist factions. Each had essentially distinct assessments of the national assembly. The attempt of the communist council delegates to get the Council, and particularly its left wing, to accept a common line did not prosper. For this reason, on the important question of Hamburg’s external policies, many said: concerning the domestic policy of the Empire, the influence which the left factions exercised over the Soldiers Council in other matters failed from the first moment, and the bourgeois component of the Soldiers Council was able to prevail, which led to a situation where the Hamburg Council’s external policies were harmed by what appeared to be its strong points in Hamburg itself. On the other hand, the exclusive political rule of the working class was more accentuated in Hamburg than anywhere else, and much more so than in the imperial government, which from the very beginning had insisted upon a coalition with the bourgeoisie. If the Empire would not follow Hamburg, if the revolution were to recede rather than advance, the foundations of the Hamburg Council’s policies would dissolve. And this is precisely what happened. In a short time, and especially after the First Congress of the Councils, a fierce struggle erupted among the Council’s factions for its leadership and power base. As in the empire, so too in Hamburg, the leaders of the socialist right wing led a turn towards the past.
While it was the Council’s policy to try to exercise an increasingly more strict control over the bourgeois administration, organically integrating itself into its highest offices, the old party, in contradiction to this policy, appointed four senators in Altona. In the trade unions, a vigorous attack was launched regarding the composition of the Council; its dissolution and immediate elections were energetically demanded, which would have endangered everything which had been achieved, with the obvious intention of negating the Council’s policy and carrying out a total about-face, an attack which curiously took place at the same time as the first session of the Bürgerschaft. Already, at this first session, the president was going to present a motion, supported by all the factions, to grant Hamburg an electoral law, as the Hamburg Council had decreed, but assigning the drafting of this electoral law to the Senate and the Bürgerschaft. This maneuver was an attempt to restore their former legislative powers to these institutions, and thus their former political powers as well. The Senate’s representative admitted during the deliberations on this matter that it was basically an attempt to force a confrontation on the question of power, and that he considered this initiative to be premature. But the old party continued to pursue the matter, only introducing a small amendment to the motion which would eliminate the Bürgerschaft as a political factor, yet fully reinstating the Senate in its old status. The struggle quickly ended in an unequivocal defeat of the Bürgerschaft, and the Council’s sovereignty was clearly emphasized when, at the first session, the Council president laconically declared in the name of the Council that as a consequence of the revolution political power had passed into the hands of the Workers and Soldiers Council and that the Senate and the Bürgerschaft had been eliminated as political entities, which would only continue to exist as communal and administrative institutions, and that the Council had also, of course, made it known that the jurisdictional arrangements thus established would be acknowledged by the Bürgerschaft just as the Senate had previously done.
Meanwhile, fundamental transformations had also taken place in the Soldiers Council. In order to establish parity with the Workers Council it had, without consulting anyone, increased its membership from 15 to 30, and the representatives of the old party and the trade unions were well-prepared to easily take advantage of this change and the consequent increase of the bourgeois element, in order to set down roots in the Soldiers Council and to convert it into their own secure fortress. How much the situation had changed could clearly be seen when the Soldiers Council addressed the issue of the popular militia. The committee responsible for implementing this measure set forth rules which dictated that the militia would be composed of dedicated militants from the three socialist groups: regardless of individual political convictions, it must not be the instrument of any one socialist faction or its policies. As an organization independent of the security service, which it had to assist in certain circumstances, its members would keep weapons in their homes, and would in principle be economically dependent upon only their day jobs. The militia depended upon the central government, although the day-to-day command functions necessary to fulfill the militia’s specific task remained in the hands of the territorial government: this task was to safeguard the revolution. The motion was defeated due to the resistance of the representatives of the old party and the leaders of the Soldiers Council, and these two groups managed to table the discussion and leave its future in the hands of the Soldiers Council. This signified the elimination of the popular militia as far as Hamburg was concerned, which was clearly stated in a protest of the communist wing of the Council and the representatives of the Independent Social Democratic Party.
This was the situation when the First Congress of Workers and Soldiers Councils convened in Berlin. The attempt to keep the Hamburg delegation united as the sole representative body of the Council failed; some of the representatives of the Soldiers Council along with the representatives of the old party separated from the rest of the delegates. Since there was no communist fraction at the Congress, and the Council’s radical wing did not want to join either of the other two socialist groups, and faced with the obligation of belonging to a fraction, which was a condition indirectly imposed by the rules of the Congress, it formed an independent fraction of United Revolutionary Workers and Soldiers, which had the promising number of 24 members. The motion presented to the Congress by the communist wing, which was consonant with the policy of the Hamburg Council, stated: “The revolutionary proletariat, together with the revolutionary army, have overthrown the old powers. With the victorious conclusion of the uprising, supreme power has fallen into the hands of the workers and soldiers councils. As representative of the workers and soldiers councils throughout all of Germany, the Congress takes possession of political power and the responsibility for exercising that power. As bearer of the sovereignty of the empire it has the right to control, to nominate or to depose any member of the executive. The Congress demands the immediate departure from the government of its bourgeois members. It shall elect a commission which will present proposals concerning the situation of the former members of the government.” As a result of this motion’s status under the Congress’s rules of order, it was debated only on the last day of the Congress, by which time the Congress had already voted in favor of the well-known and quite different motion presented by Lüdemann, thus rendering the revolutionaries’ motion null and void.
Faced with the divergent tendencies which wracked the Council, the Council’s leadership called for the unity of the whole working class, in order to secure and to extend the revolution and its conquests. This goal was not hindered by an attempted coup against the Council which involved various former members of the Council and its press office, together with bourgeois editors, financial circles and politicians. Several editors of the Echo were also in on the plot, as they had to confess in writing while under interrogation. The plotters wanted to arrest fourteen members of the Council to hold as hostages, in order to execute them in case of a revolutionary counter-action, as they said in a leaflet. On the basis of a proposal which had previously been prepared by the Council, in assemblies convoked for this purpose, it was ruled and decided that, in order to prevent the recovery of the forces of reaction, the security forces must be composed exclusively of dedicated revolutionaries, and that all the stores of arms and ammunition should be under the exclusive control of faithful troops, and also that the Committee of Seven of the Supreme Soldiers Council, which was in command of the troops, should be composed solely of determined revolutionaries. Officers’ military insignia and uniforms were also prohibited, all officers were required to disarm, and the soldiers councils were made responsible for the loyalty of the various military units. Officers were allowed to be members of the councils if they were elected by a majority of their detachments and were known to be convinced supporters of the revolution, demands which, in a more detailed and somewhat modified form, were approved by the First Council Congress, where they became famous under the name of the Hamburg Seven Points. In order to help bring about the political unity of the workers and to provide more publicity for the Council’s policies, it was demanded, recalling the revolution’s first measures, that the Hamburger Echo should be placed at the disposal of the Council. When the Hamburg troops extended the ruling against officers’ insignia to all military insignia, opposition arose, particularly from the lower non-commissioned ranks.
The watchword of unity heightened the workers’ consciousness of belonging to one class, and its most profound significance was that under no circumstances whatsoever, and under no political pretext, should the members of the working class ever take up arms against one another. It also helped members of the old party and independent social democrats to move towards the left, and, furthermore, if this watchword of unity did not prevail, the structure of the Independent Social Democratic Party (USPD) would have been compromised, since this party contained two distinct factions. In general, however, the negotiations concerning a unitary organization, then taking place in Hamburg, could only construct the basic framework for the future, while the general direction of events could clearly be seen in the fact that the basis which had been established for a fusion of the organizations was undoubtedly favorable for the communists: the revolution had created new conditions which made the unification of the revolutionary working masses possible. In the future, the politics, tactics and organization of the working class had to be oriented within the framework of the revolution. The Würzburg program had lost all meaning after the revolution. The Erfurt program must henceforth be the point of departure, with its principles of socialization of the means of production and the class struggle, taking into account, of course, that in regard to many other issues this program was not in the forefront of the movement. Since the old organizational apparatus corresponded to neither the level of social development, nor to the political and tactical needs of the working class, a new program and a new organization became necessary, which would be more suited to the conditions of the revolution, and which could guarantee that in the future the will of the organized militants would not only be expressed by the leadership, but would really determine the movement’s policies and tactics.
But it was precisely the considerable success of this call for unity which exacerbated the differences of opinion among the Council’s leaders and, after the First Congress of Councils, the attacks commenced against the power of command exercised by the soldiers councils, the representatives of the Berlin government and the trade unions no longer concealed their aversion for the workers councils, and doubts arose concerning their sincerity in proposing to undertake socialization. When the situation in Berlin subsequently rapidly deteriorated, revolutionary delegates from the factories of Hamburg issued a call for a solidarity strike, which led to a demonstration against the leaders of the socialist right and the trade unions. These delegates demanded socialization, especially of the large factories, the guarantee of an eight hour working day, and decent wages, as well as the total elimination of piecework and price gouging. A delegation sent to the Council brought news that strikers had occupied the trade union offices in order to shut them down. It demanded that the Council ratify and implement these measures. In order to guarantee the safety of buildings and property, the president of the Council declared, in the presence of a small proportion of the Council’s membership—as many as were necessary for a quorum since, faced with the urgency of the situation, not all of them could be gathered together in such a short time—that the strikers’ delegation’s desires were to be provisionally satisfied, and ordered that the necessary measures be taken. The trade union offices were therefore closed, and the Council guaranteed their security. But this measure led to the most violent confrontations within the Council. The right wing passionately rejected it, and the Soldiers Council’s Committee of Seven decided to evacuate the trade union offices with three companies of infantry, but, after considering the possible grave consequences of such an employment of armed force, did not dare to carry out its own decree.
Despite the tumultuous proceedings, the debate in the Council crystallized around the question of the relations between the council system and the trade unions. The right wing socialists, who insisted upon the preservation of the old organizational jurisdictions and relations, were told that the revolution was not over, and that its basic effectiveness resided in the consolidation of the council system. Since it was primarily an organization of the factories, which places the latter under the control of the workers, the council system was also a new way to conceive of the construction of the economy and society, and was at the same time the culmination of the organization of the working class, embracing both its political and its economic aspects; it expressed the unity of the class and was, furthermore, incompatible with separate political and economic organizations, which the working class had created within the framework of capitalist society for its fight against that society. In principle and in practice, the council system therefore superseded the political and trade union apparatuses of the pre-revolutionary era. The demonstration which was taking place at that time, whose purpose was to bring awareness of the council system’s new tasks to the masses, was, despite the circumstances which accompanied it, the beginning of a new era in the struggle in Hamburg as well. The Council finally passed a resolution which, in consideration of the ambivalence of the government’s policies, demanded the resignation of the Ebert-Scheidemann-Noske government, called for the consolidation of the council system in the factories, and defined the Council as the decision-making power in all industrial affairs. In order to make this last point of the resolution an effective reality, a revolutionary tribunal had to be created. The Council, the resolution also proclaimed, was the supreme and highest power of the Hamburg workers, to which the trade union organizations had to be subordinated. The detailed exposition of these principles was to be elaborated by a committee whose composition would be determined at a later time.
Since on that same evening excesses had been committed at the Hamburger Echo, with much destruction on the ground floor, the Council president, taking action to pacify the crowd, decreed that the building should be closed, provisionally prohibiting the publication of the newspaper to prevent new incidents, and above all because numerous provocateurs had infiltrated the crowd. This measure was also applied, for reasons of fairness, to the second socialist newspaper published in the city, that of the independent social democrats, and this edict was later ratified by the Council. A committee was formed to deliberate upon the question of what concrete conditions would have to be met for the Echo to be reopened. It ruled that the measure which had been proposed after the coup attempt, and which had been approved by acclamation in popular assemblies, must be implemented immediately, and that the newspaper, by means of an equal allotment of editorial positions, must be transformed into an organ of the Council. The committee understood, of course, that it would naturally have to simultaneously suspend the publication of the newspaper of the Independent Social Democratic Party, thus assuring unity on the terrain of the press, and in the future, the unity of the political organization as well. However, before the Council could implement these measures, it was prevented from doing so by the arrest of the Council’s president, who was seized in the meeting hall, with threats and by force, by security troops; at the same time, the Soldiers Council occupied the Echo with a strong contingent of soldiers, to protect it against the Council’s ruling.
As a result of these events, the old party organized a large demonstration which took place on January 11, 1919. The implementation of a Council edict had been prevented by the intervention of armed force in the interest of one party. But the president had to be released a few hours later, by order of the Council. Only one road remained if the dictatorship of the Soldiers Council over the Workers Council was not to be openly proclaimed, thereby setting a precedent for the future: the Workers Council had to be deposed, and its membership re-elected upon a foundation which would guarantee a better composition, as understood by the right wing socialists. Consequently, they wanted to compel the Workers Council to resign. As representatives of a crowd which filled the entire plaza assembled before the Bürgerschaft building—large businesses had closed and sometimes even compelled their employees to participate in the demonstration—a delegation appeared in the Council’s meeting chamber, and posed the question of whether the Workers Council was ready to resign. The delegation was informed that, in principle, the Council was ready to resign at any moment, but that its resignation was itself exclusively the decision of the General Workers Council, and that it would not take place without the latter’s intervention; there remained the possibility of resorting, with the assent of the Soldiers Council, to the use of force against the whole Workers Council, as had occurred a few days earlier in the case of the Council’s president. Even when the dismissal of the Workers Council was proposed to the crowd waiting outside, and the crowd supported the proposal, the radical majority of the Workers Council was no more compliant. After another round of heated debate, the delegation contented itself with a declaration in which it recognized the need for the council system and its consolidation—its attack had been basically directed against this position—while the Council agreed to bring a proposal before the General Workers Council concerning the re-election of the executive committee on the basis of a system of proportional representation by party instead of the system of representation by factory regardless of party affiliation. As had been foreseen, the General Workers Council refused to consider the proposal. The proportional system was eventually imposed in Hamburg by the German Central Council immediately prior to the elections for the Second Council Congress, by which time the political power of the working class had long since expired.
A phase of dictatorship by the Soldiers Council began. Not only did it spread the idea among the security troops and soldiers that the left wing and the Workers Councils were planning a putsch, but a long and bizarre series of arrests of alleged Spartacists took place, among people who, while not always totally inoffensive, had nothing at all to do with the Spartacus League. The Committee of Seven even ordered the arrest of the leader of the delegation of the shipyard workers which had demanded the closure of the trade union offices, charging him with the completely baseless accusation that he, a Russian, had called for armed resistance and the occupation of the trade union offices, and that his identification papers were forged. Upon the request of the Foreign Minister, and against the will of the judge presiding over the case in Hamburg, who had expressly refused to authorize his arrest, the accountant of the Russian Consulate was arrested and brought to Berlin. Various people working in the municipal administration were arrested, accused of having provided the spokesmen of the delegation from the shipyard with his supposedly false identification papers, in the form of a travel pass with a false name. Since they did not want to assume any more responsibility for this arbitrary regime, which had not consulted the Council’s justice committee about any of these matters, the justice committee’s president, along with the president of the Council, resigned, and issued a public declaration. Afterwards, events took their inevitable course, which can be summarized as follows: the opposition in the Council, when the elections for Council president were held, submitted blank ballots. A representative of the right wing socialists was elected. The growing strength of reaction in Germany, assisted by the newly-formed white guards, and the government policy of progressively eliminating the power of the councils and revoking their rulings and decrees, rendered the continuation of the Council’s policies, as they had been originally conceived, impossible.
The new leadership began to systematically curtail the Council’s political power. It proposed immediate elections for the Bürgerschaft. The communist group, of course, had not only never opposed the election of a communal representative body, but had recommended it from the early days of the Council. But the old party had a much more ambitious goal, that is, to reinstate the Bürgerschaft in its old position and with its old rights. The Council, which due to personnel changes in the Soldiers Council, was increasingly dominated by right wing socialists, decided, after extensive negotiations, that it would elect a new municipal parliament, which would have the old name of the Bürgerschaft, and that all those who had voted for the national assembly would have the right to vote in this election, if the date set for the elections in Hamburg came within six months. Another ruling followed this one which went much further, according to which the Bürgerschaft would be a legislative body, with political power. According to the decisive first article of the ruling decreed by the Council on the elections for the Bürgerschaft, its tasks, besides the management of day-to-day affairs, consisted in debating and approving a new constitution, and formulating and passing the laws required to complement the new constitution. A motion to the effect that the ruling must be in accord with the manifesto of November 12, 1918, in other words, that the Council had veto power over any decisions concerning the constitution, which was a prerequisite of political power prior to the accession to power of the Council, was rejected. An attempt to at least assure a reorganization of the Senate, adapting it to the new times, also failed, and its opponents explained that it was not the Council’s job to decree such decisive rulings and that the new Bürgerschaft should regulate such matters. These decisions basically corresponded to the stance of the imperial government, which no longer recognized the Council as the bearer of political power in Hamburg. When a delegation from Hamburg had to be selected for the new Chamber of States, the national government turned to the Senate, despite the Council’s protests, in this case curiously joined by the representatives of the old party, which were of no avail; this is how the government’s policy, which, under pressure from a succession of revolutionary strikes, was forced to allow the continued existence of workers councils in the factories, managed to eliminate the councils wherever they had political power, as it had already eliminated the soldiers councils’ power of command.
The factional disputes in Hamburg also facilitated the advance of the reactionary forces. The new leadership allowed the enlistment of volunteer units without any restrictions. Council decisions encountered the open resistance of the authorities—not least of all from the police and the various branches of the soldiers councils—or were sometimes contested by the sudden rebellion of the employers. This situation had the greatest impact on the rulings of the department of social policy. In part, the employers no longer paid it any heed, and in other cases its legal jurisdiction was denied, with the support of decrees by the imperial government, since it was once again possible, by citing these decrees, to carry out the most reactionary judicial initiatives, even against the trade unions. The textile workers union, for example, had decided to shut down a firm, and the department of social policy had ruled in the union’s favor. The firm presented a demand to withdraw this ruling, and also demanded a declaration that the reasons for the closing of its plant proffered by the union were not true: a counterrevolutionary act which was no longer content with attacking the Council, but openly took on the trade unions. Considering the great importance of the case, the Council pondered the option of intervening outside of its jurisdiction and prohibiting the court from ruling on the appeal. A motion to do so was approved, and it was also decided that a delegation should be sent to Berlin. The Council’s initiative came to nothing, because the end of the Council was imminent.
Particularly during the Council’s last days one could note that various attempts to create a special tribunal with jurisdiction over all questions involving the revolution and the power of the Council, which could not be judged by reference to the existing laws, had not borne fruit, thus rendering the Council’s rulings unenforceable. Whenever business owners appealed the rulings of the department of social policy before the courts, the latter ruled that the department’s decrees were not legal. And everything remained as before. Although a proposal to create a special tribunal was submitted to the justice committee for debate and elaboration, no definitive decision was reached, and when a tribunal was nevertheless created, its president, a high court judge, resigned because the tribunal was not compatible with judicial procedure.
When Liebknecht was buried in Berlin, the Council only sent a delegation. A public declaration was no longer possible. Meanwhile, the well-known battle of Bremen was taking place. The imperial government took advantage of the collapse of Bremen’s government to subject this port city to its power, and to impose a government of right wing socialists more to its taste. It thus intervened in the military region of the Ninth Army Corps, without prior notice, which gave rise to serious discontent: the Soldiers Council of the Ninth Army Corps responded by mobilizing its forces, that is, with a declaration of war. This was a very precipitous step, taken without consulting the Workers Council, one which would have the most disastrous consequences if it did not have any real power behind it, and even more so, if it did not have any capability for carrying out military actions; this turned out to be the case, since the Hamburg Soldiers Council refused to obey the orders of the Ninth Army Corps Soldiers Council High Command, at first clandestinely and then openly. The disaster which was imminent in these circumstances could only be prevented by the unanimous intervention of the workers of the four cities, assuring that the necessary measures should be taken. The Hamburg General Workers Council therefore passed a resolution demanding that the workers be armed within 48 hours. Compliance with this order could be expected of the military command, despite such short notice, since it had been delegated the responsibility for studying the question of forming militias many weeks before. The Workers Council also demanded that access roads be secured, that food supplies in the port be requisitioned, and that Bremen be supported with all military means possible. The attack on Bremen was not just the logical continuation of the Berlin military high command’s attempt to repeal the fundamental achievement of the revolution, the exercise of the power of military command by the soldiers councils, and the elimination of the Hamburg Seven Points, which had already suffered a serious defeat in the struggles in Berlin, and which, with the defeat of Bremen, would be definitively annihilated: the total elimination of the revolutionary remnants of the old army was also immanent, as well as the fall of the new military apparatus which was in the process of formation into the hands of the old general staff.
The outcome of the political and military success of this action would be of more benefit to the military than to the imperial government. The same was true, or even more so, of its possible further consequences. The government would never feel safe as long as it was not master of its coasts. But if it were to establish itself here, the military gang will have gained a base where, one day—perhaps while fighting against the imperial government itself—it might join forces with the English troops of the Entente. The intention of the Council’s left wing was to keep the government and its military away from the coast, and it was possible to achieve this goal. Given the forces of the formations of armed workers in Bremen, which were well-entrenched, several thousand men were enough to momentarily prevent the Gerstenberg division from entering Bremen. There were more than enough arms and munitions in Hamburg. The breathing space so gained could have been used to fully arm all the workers of the coastal regions of the North Sea. A battle for the port of Hamburg, with its stockpiles of food and materiel, would never be tolerated by the government. And at least during these moments of shared danger, the call to unity had an effect. Not even the right wing socialist leadership could yield under these circumstances; it was obliged to participate in public demonstrations against Noske, and had resigned itself to the possibility of armed defense. The communist wing, meanwhile, considered linking up with the industrialized regions of the Elbe to join with the revolutionary workers of Saxony and central Germany in one uninterrupted chain. It wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to intervene in the course of events in the rest of Germany, and to give a decisive boost to the revolution. Were this plan to succeed, the government and the national assembly would be lost, since a few weeks later the strikes broke out in central Germany.
This policy ultimately failed as a result of the serious disagreements among the Council’s factions, even though unity among the workers themselves took a great step forward, and the general swing towards the left obliged the right wing socialist leaders to clearly distance themselves from the government’s militarist policy. The disagreements among the factions led to the resistance of the Hamburg Soldiers Council and its leadership to the orders of the Ninth Army Corps High Command. A vivid display of personal grudges! Amidst these events the Hamburg Seven Points met their definitive demise, buried by precisely those who had previously used them as a springboard for their first promotions, and who had shortly thereafter distinguished themselves, following the general trend, as government favorites.
These events decided the Council’s fate. Its activity from this point on would be nothing but agonizing and disgraceful death throes, from which the communist representatives kept their distance. The immediate consequence of this death spasm, for the workers, was the total paralysis of the department of social policy. Even in the Council, its activity was violently criticized because—although this had been true since its inception—its rulings clashed with the judicial norms of imperial law; since the revolution had only replaced the prior sovereignty with the Council, it was said, the Council’s jurisdiction must be limited by the laws of the Empire; this constituted an attempt to base the revolution upon bourgeois law, which was possible because all the courts had recognized the imperial government. It finally occurred to the department’s supporters to subject all the department’s rulings to the Council’s enabling clause. But the justice department, which had been assigned the task of examining the case, proposed submitting an appeal to the courts to test the validity of the department’s rulings. An old experience was once again verified: when you have political power, legal formulations are an easy matter. When power is lost, legal formulations cannot overcome and eliminate the resistance of reality.
Up to this time an arbitration committee had yet to be created. The demobilization commissioner declared that until such a committee was nominated, he would name one in its place. There were thus two departments of social policy, with overlapping functions, one based on a decree of the imperial government, the other on the shattered political power of the Council. The end had come for the department of social policy, and the decision to bring the matter before the General Workers Council amounted to no more than a ploy to gain time, faced with the necessity of recognizing the full significance of the situation, which would have been more dignified.
Since the Council had withdrawn from the political arena, there were some debates on this problem, but no definitive position was adopted. When the new Bürgerschaft met for the first time, with a majority of right wing socialists, the Council president, also a right wing socialist, surrendered the Council’s political power to the new parliamentary body. In accordance with the policy of the imperial government, the new Workers Council, which was meeting at the same time, would no longer exercise political functions, but only economic ones.
An apolitical council system—an impossible demand, a political fantasy! The government, with the help of loyal military units, defeated the revolutionary remnants of the old army. But it has not yet been able to stop the workers’ revolutionary strikes, nor will it be able to do so, so it seems. Chained to the bourgeoisie, and to the compromise it concluded with the bourgeoisie, which entailed both the rejection of any socialization as well as the elimination of the councils, it will have to reject any concession which could endanger this coalition, and with it the continued existence of the government itself. Even more important is the fact that it has retreated on both these points before the pressure of the strikes. It promised that the councils would be institutionalized in the constitution, that socialization would be carried out, and that the legal foundations for socialization would be created. However, the different parties to the labor process recognized by the government contradict the fundamental idea of the council system. The so-called Socialization Law is a stillborn law, which does not go beyond the juridical principles of the legal state, and the taxation of the coal trade is the opposite of a socialization measure. While these concessions and the way they were made could only strengthen the contradictory intermediate position of the government, without satisfying the working class in any way, the pacification ploy of making the councils participate in socialization contains an even greater contradiction.
Only those who hold political power can carry out socialization. Socialization is only possible by confronting and fundamentally transforming the old bureaucracy, by radically confronting capitalism, as an economic principle and as a social class, by totally replacing the existing social powers, by completely reorganizing the laws of property, production and distribution. And in this vast process of the transformation of all of society, the councils are the revolutionary and transformative instruments of the working class. Who would believe that, having found a solution for these problems, relegating the councils to the economic sphere is the most urgent political task of the present and the greatest social problem of our culture in the future?
The councils in large industrial factories embrace, as a matter of principle, control over the enterprises in the technical and commercial aspects as well. In the smaller and more decentralized industries, their tasks are even more daunting. Here they will lay the foundations for concentrating production into larger units. Savings, in the widest social meaning, are now a vital necessity for all of society. A private capitalist economy saves in each particular capitalist enterprise, while a socialized economy saves on the level of the economy as a whole. Even if it closes small and medium-sized enterprises and therefore destroys private capital, an economy undergoing socialization will intervene in this manner if required by the general interest, or if this can be done without serious consequences. In this transformation towards higher forms of production, in the employment of labor power and physical plant which will have thus been freed, the factory councils will be as indispensable as the councils of the towns, the cities and industries, since such a reorientation of industry would be impossible without a corresponding reorganization of its administration.
As a new social principle of organization and administration, the council system opposes to municipal politics, which is the basis of the private economy, and therefore of capitalist society, the idea of the union of all those who work in production on the basis of the nature and location of their production. Just as the era of tribal organization had its own forms of group socialization, and the era of the private organization of the economy manifests forms of interconnection between essentially different groups, so too does socialized society create its own particular new forms of union and integration. The blood ties of tribal organization as a constructive principle of human economy and society were succeeded by the no less simple idea of one’s residence, of municipal politics within a country or a territory. This principle, which has dominated civilization for thousands of years, is now replaced by the principle of labor. To the idea of municipal politics, and its highest manifestation in democracy and parliament, is contrasted, without being totally disconnected from those two concepts, the organizational and administrative idea of the councils, which is radically opposed to the former notion. This does not imply that a social organization which has taken thousands of years to develop and has attained its latest bourgeois-capitalist form during the last several centuries can be rapidly and totally established upon entirely new bases. The two social principles, perhaps for a very long time, will be obliged to accept practical compromises and to coexist. What must be decided upon now is not the absolute elimination and destruction of the old principle, but the question of which of the two principles should dominate society, which one of them must prevail over the other. Until now, the ties of nationality have been based upon coercion from above. The new system will organize the nations from below. And it is precisely due to this fact that the new system will obtain the security which will allow it to prevail over the old, which no foreign forces will be able to prevent or oppress, and which will bring in its wake, in all regions and throughout the world, with the guarantee of domestic invincibility, the possibility of the unlimited expansion of the world socialist order.
First published in Die Hamburger Revolution, Hamburg, n.d. This translation published in an online collection of texts as appendices to The Communist Left in Germany, taken from the Collective Action Notes website.