The Year 1919

Iron & steel strikers - US, 1919
Iron & steel strikers - US, 1919

A short account of the revolutionary events of the year 1919

Submitted by Battlescarred on December 10, 2020

The Year 1919
In this issue of Virus, we highlight important events that happened one hundred years ago. We have articles on little known events like the soviets in Ireland, the Seattle and Winnipeg general strikes, and the unrest in Britain, including the Luton riot, the police strike and mutinies in the armed forces. But 1919 was more than those events. There were uprisings all over the world.

In Mexico, the Revolution that had started in 1910 rumbled on until 1920 but in 1919 one of the most important revolutionaries, Emiliano Zapata, was murdered on April 10th by the forces of President Carranza. The United States took the opportunity of the attack by the revolutionary forces of Pancho Villa on the border town of Ciudad Juarez to send its troops into Mexico, to repulse Villa’s forces.

In Malta, began the Sette Giugno (Seventh of June) uprising. This was triggered by food shortages and a massive rise in the cost of living, including rent rises, brought on by the results of the First World War. Malta had become highly militarised during that war, and the mass of the population had suffered whilst a few made enormous profits out of military spending. In the aftermath of the war, many working in war-related industries like the dockyards lost their jobs. Workers protested, whilst university students held demonstrations over changes to their courses. Rising tensions resulted in riots breaking out on 7th June 1919. British soldiers fired on the crowd, killing three people. The Maltese nationalists seized control of the unrest to demand greater autonomy for Malta and the establishment of a Parliament.

In early 1919 in Hungary, conflict increased between workers and the coalition government. The number of demonstrations increased and there were seizures of land by peasants. Estate workers and servants set up cooperatives and workers councils. Factories were occupied, whilst soldiers’ councils took over control of many arms depots. On February 20th unemployed workers marched to the offices of the Hungarian Social Democratic Party newspaper, Nepszava. The police responded brutally and anarchist self-defence squads retaliated by killing four cops. 68 anarchists and Communists were arrested and beaten. This resulted in a wave of protest which led to the dropping of the most serious charges. The tempo of the unrest increased with a workers’ council being created in the city of Szeged. On 20th March print workers refused to print Nepszava, triggering a general strike that demanded the release of the prisoners. On March 21st 1919, the Hungarian Council Republic was established. The Bolshevik Bela Kun engineered the amalgamation of the Social Democratic Party and the newly emergent Communist Party. Opposition to this move came from the left opposition including many anarchists. Some of the anarchists who had been in the left of the Communist Party left to form the Anarchist Union, allying with anarcho-syndicalists. The Hungarian Council Republic called for the abolition of the police and army, the socialisation of banks and transport, the confiscation of assets, the abolition of bureaucracy and the secularisation of society. The Communist Party attempted to increase its hold over the developing Revolution and re-appointed the old estate managers as commissars for production, sabotaging the revolution in the countryside.

Meanwhile the Romanian army marched against the Revolution, resulting in the mobilisation of workers in the Hungarian cities. This force of 50,000 defeated the Romanians and their allies and sent them reeling back to Romania. In the course of these actions a Republic of Councils was set up in Slovakia. However, the Revolution was now being undermined by the Bolsheviks in the Communist Party on one side and the plots of right-wing socialists on the other. Kun began secret negotiations with the reactionary governments of the Entente, resulting in a peace treaty similar to the one negotiated by the Russian Bolsheviks at Brest-Litovsk and the giving up of the Slovak Councils, leading to the incorporation of south east Slovakia into the state of Czechoslovakia. This led to demoralisation and the defeat of the revolutionaries by the Romanians on July 20th. The inept and bungling Kun was forced to resign. The Council Republic came to an end on August 1st. The Romanians installed the reactionary Admiral Horthy and a White Terror began, with the torture and murder of many revolutionaries whilst Kun and his Bolshevik associates negotiated a safe passage out of Hungary in a sealed train. Anarchists and left communists were deliberately excluded from this, and suffered terribly in the aftermath. The Revolution had been destroyed.

The Revolution that had begun in Germany in 1918 continued into the following year. The revolutionaries grouped around the Spartacists joined with other groups to found the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) on January 1st 1919. Rosa Luxemburg, on the right of the Spartacists wanted the KPD to run in the forthcoming elections but was outvoted by the majority, who wanted to concentrate on agitation in the workplaces and the streets.

A new wave of agitation began on January 4th when the chief constable of Berlin, Emil Eichhorn, a member of the left socialist party, the United Social Democrats (USPD) was sacked by the government led by the Social Democrats (SPD). He had refused to use the police to attack workers’ demonstrations. The USPD, the KPD and the group of Revolutionary Shop Stewards called a demonstration the following day, which to their surprise became a huge show of strength of the working class, as hundreds of thousands turned out, many of them armed. The train stations and the offices of the bourgeois newspapers and the SPD paper were occupied. The so- called Spartacist uprising that followed was initiated by the working class and groups to the left of the KPD and KPD members were a minority.

The KPD leader Karl Liebknecht, together with a newly formed Revolutionary Committee called for the overthrow of the SPD government led by Ebert. Luxemburg and the majority of KPD leaders spoke against an armed uprising.

However, the armed forces failed to support the uprising and remained loyal to the government. The SPD with the aid of the Freikorps, which had been set up by reactionary nationalist officers, and acted as death squads, attacked the uprising and brutally crushed it. Following this, both Liebknecht and Luxemburg were murdered by the Freikorps.

The Berlin uprising was followed by others throughout Germany, The SPD government now decided to move against the Council Republic that had been set up in Bremen. It used the Freikorps to put a bloody end to the Council Republic. 400 were summarily shot, including the leading members of the Council.

This triggered mass strikes in the Ruhr, the Rhineland and Saxony. Street fighting began again in Berlin and this time the SPD again deployed the Freikorps, who murdered more than 1200 people.

The Munich Council Republic, which had been set up in April was the last to fall when the Freikorps and the Prussian army units again acted brutally. The Council Republic was smashed on May 6th with the killing of between 1, 000 to 1,200 anarchists and Communists. The Social Democratic leaders, Ebert, Scheidemann and Noske had joined with the forces of outright reaction to crush the German Revolution, and they now led a new coalition which administered the Weimar Republic.

In Italy, the Biennio Rosso (Red Two Years) began. Facing the same conditions as elsewhere in the world, with rising costs of living, food shortages and low wages, the working class responded by creating factory councils in Milan and Turin, centres of metal production and occupying the factories. On the land, there were many land seizures and peasant strikes. The membership of the anarchist organisations and the anarcho-syndicalist union USI increased massively. A million industrial workers went out on strike in that year. On July 20th-21st, a general strike was called in solidarity with the Russian Revolution.

In the USA, apart from the Seattle General Strike, there was the strike of women telephone operators in April. Concerned by the rising cost of living, they demanded a pay rise which was rejected. 9,000 went on strike. The company hired university students as strike-breakers but they were attacked by supporters of the strike. The company gave in after a few days and the strike was won.

The union confederation, the American Federation of Labour, called strikes in the meat industry, steel and other industries. The bosses replied that strikes were controlled by Communists whose aim was the overthrow of capitalism. They used the patriotic card to undermine the strikes, which were defeated with workers being forced back to conditions similar to those in 1910.

The miners went out on strike on November 1st, to continue the wage agreement that had been signed at the start of the First World War. The new Attorney General, A. Mitchell Palmer, invoked the Lever Act, also introduced during the war, which made it illegal to disrupt the production and transportation of necessities. Nevertheless, 400,000 miners came out on strike. The coal bosses used the same campaign of Reds under the Beds as during the AFL strikes, saying Lenin and Trotsky had ordered miners to strike! The leader of the United Mine Workers union (UMW), John L. Lewis, now called for the strike to end, but was ignored by many miners. The strike went on for 5 weeks, with the miners eventually getting a 14% pay rise, far lower than they had demanded.

On Aril 13th, the socialist Eugene V. Debs was sent to prison for having spoken against the war. This sparked the May Day Riots in Cleveland where a May Day parade in support of Debs was organised. The police and “patriots” attacked the march, and captured German tanks and mounted police were deployed against the demonstrators. Two people were killed, and 130 were sentenced to prison or fined. The Cleveland administration passed laws to restrict demonstrations and banned the display of red flags.

On September 9th police officers in Boston, in a union affiliated to the AFL, went out on strike to gain recognition and for better conditions and higher wages. Again the anti-radical card was used, with strikers being called “agents of Lenin” and “deserters”. The AFL leader Samuel Gompers, called for the cops to return to work. They did so on September 13th. None of them were re-hired. They were replaced by 1,500 new officers, who received higher wages.

Throughout 1919 there were mass trials of members of the revolutionary union, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) on charges of being opposed to the draft, vagrancy, and “criminal syndicalism”. IWW halls were burnt down by “patriots” of the American Legion. The worst incident was the lynching of IWW organiser Wesley Everest on November 11th. Despite the repression, the IWW helped organise strikes of orange pickers in California and silk weavers in Paterson.

The First World War had created a call for jobs in the North, and many black workers took advantage of this to leave the South and go North for factory work. Those left behind took advantage of the more favourable labour situation and made demands. Black orange pickers in Crescent City, Florida, went on strike, demanding 10 cents per box for oranges picked. Other black workers in the potato fields near Palatka also organised. Many growers’ associations were forced to grant wage increases. This brought down police repression and the Ku Klux Klan murdered several black activists.

Attorney General Palmer instigated the first ‘Palmer Raid’ on the second anniversary of the Russian Revolution in November. Aided by the young J. Edgar Hoover, future head of the FBI, 10,000 anarchists, socialists and Communists were arrested in 23 different cities. The Red Scare which had been employed against the Seattle strikers, the miners and the AFL strikers, and the Boston cops, was now used to justify the deportation to Russia of 249 radicals, including the notable anarchists Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman on December 21st. Thus ended this year of unrest in the USA.

This article first appeared in Virus No.1 (2019) magazine of the Anarchist Communist Group