The Revolution Breaks Out
In November 1918, the German front collapsed. The whole war machine broke up. At KIEL, the officers of the fleet decided upon a last stand 'to save their honour.' They found, however, that the sailors refused to obey. This was not, in fact, their first mutiny; previous attempts to protest against the war had been put down with bullets and promises. But this time, they scored an immediate success. The Red Flag went up, first on one warship, then on another.
The sailors elected delegates who, ship by ship formed a Council. From now on the sailors determined to make the movement spread. They had declined to die fighting the enemy; neither did they wish to die fighting the so called loyal troops who would be called in on the side of repression. They formed the backbone of the movement for Soldiers, Sailors and Workers Councils. And meanwhile they were going ashore and marching on the great port of Hamburg; from there, the message poured out all over Germany. Delegates left by train, and otherwise, for all parts of the country.
The first blow of freedom had been struck! Events now moved rapidly. Hamburg welcomed the sailors with enthusiasm. Soldiers and workers joined in the movement; they too elected councils. While this kind of organisation was unknown in practice, within four days a vast network of workers and soldiers councils covered Germany. Perhaps some talk had been heard of Russian soviets (1917-18) but in view of the censorship, very little. At all events, no party or organisation had proposed this form of struggle. It was an entirely spontaneous movement.
Forerunners of the Councils
It is true that during the war similar organisations had in fact made their appearance in the factories. They were formed in the course of strikes, by elected representatives, the equivalent of our shop stewards. Given minor offices in the union machinery, in the tradition of German trade unionism, they were the link between the local and central headquarters, to transmit the demands of the workers to HQ. These demands, and the number of grievances, were naturally very high during the War. In the main they concerned intensified work and price increases. But the German unions (like those of other countries) had formed a united front with the Government (the Burgfrieden). They guaranteed social peace in exchange for slight advantages for the workers and in particular participation of the union leaders on various official organisations. Thus the stewards in presenting grievances found themselves hammering at a brick wall. The 'hotheads' and 'trouble makers' were, sooner or later, shanghaied into the Forces, in special units. It became difficult to take up the struggle within the unions.
As a result, the stewards gradually lost contact with union headquarters. Union affairs ceased to interest them, but the workers demands remained what they were. Then, in 1917, a flood of unofficial strikes suddenly swept out over the country. No stable organisation led it. It was entirely spontaneous. It proceeded naturally from the work done by the stewards and the unsatisfied demands of the workers.
The New Movement
This new labour movement had come into existence without the aid of any party, and without any leadership. Any ideological considerations of any nature had to give way before the demands of the moment. In 1918, this sporadic movement, consisting of trends cut off from one another, became united by reason of its identical form of struggle. They came to form a new means of administration.
On the one hand were the 'normal' forms - police, food control, organisation of labour; on the other hand, in all important industrial centres were the workers councils. In Berlin, Hamburg, Bremen, the Ruhr, Central Germany, Saxony; the workers councils had to be recognised and reckoned with. But they had up to that time few concrete results. Why ?
An easy victory !
This arose from the very ease with which the workers councils were formed. The state apparatus was breaking down, but not as a result of a persistent s truggle by the workers. It was breaking down in the stress of war, and the workers councils met in a vacuum. Their movement was growing without resistance, without the need to fight. All that the population of Germany was speaking of was - Peace and an end to the War. This was of course an essential difference with the Russian position in 1917. In Russia the first revolutionary wave (the February revolution) overthrew the Tsarist regime; but the War went on. The workers movement had to become bolder and more decided; it had to tighten the pressure on the State. But in Germany, the first aspiration of the population, Peace, gave way to the Republic. But what did the Republic mean ?
The Weimar Republic
Before the War, working class practice and most working class theory was that approved of and carried out by the Social Democratic Party and the Trade Unions, adopted and agreed to by the majority of organised workers. To this Socialist Democracy, the bourgeois democratic State was to be the lever for Socialism. They felt it would suffice to have a majority in Parliament, and with Socialist ministers it would be Socialism.
There was also, it is true, a revolutionary current, of which Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg were the best known representatives. Never the less, this current never developed a conception clearly opposed to State Socialism. It formed only an opposition within the Social Democratic Party, and was not distinguishable from it by the majority of workers.
But new conceptions came about with the great mass movements of 1918-21. They were not the creation of the so-called 'vanguard' but were created by the masses themselves. The independent activity of the workers and soldiers adopted the organisational form of councils as a matter of expediency; these were the new forms of class organisation. But because there is a direct connection between the forms taken by the class struggle and the conceptions of the future society, it goes without saying that, here and there, the old ideas of nationalisation etc. began to totter.
The workers were now leading their own struggles, outside the apparatus of the Party and Trade Union; and the workers began to think that they could exert a direct influence on social life, by means of their own councils. There would be a 'Dictatorship of the Proletariat', they said but it would be a dictatorship not exercised by a Party, but would be an expression of the unity, complete and lasting, of the whole working population. Of course, such a society would not be democratic in the bourgeois sense of the term, since that part of the population not participating in the new organisation of social life would have no voice either in discussion or in decision.
We were saying that the old conceptions began to totter. But it quickly became evident that the Parliamentary and Trade Union traditions were too rooted in the masses to be quickly wiped out. The bourgeoisie, the Social Democratic Party and the Trade Unions called upon these traditions in order to break down the new conceptions. In particular, the Social Democratic Party congratulated itself in speeches about this new means the masses had of asserting their part in social life. The Party even went as far as demanding that this new form of direct power be approved and codified in law.
But despite this ostensible sympathy, the old working class movement in the main reproached the councils for not respecting 'democracy', although excusing them because of their 'lack of experience'. The 'lack of democracy' consisted of not yielding a large enough place to the politicians, and in competing with them. In demanding what they called 'working class democracy' the old party and unions demanded that all currents of the working class movement be represented in the councils, in proportion to their respective importance.
Few workers were capable of refuting this argument which corresponded with their own ingrained beliefs. Despite what they had achieved, they still believed in traditional forms of organisation.Thus they allowed the representatives of the Social Democratic movement, the Unions, the Left Social Democrats, the consumers Co-operatives etc., all to be represented on the councils as well as the factory delegates. The councils on such a basis could no longer be directly representative of the workers on the shop floor. They became mere units of the old workers movement, and thus came to work for the restoration of capitalism by means of the building of 'democratic State capitalism' through the Social Democratic Party.
It was the ruin of the workers efforts. The council delegates no longer received their mandates from the shop floor but from the different organisations. The workers were called on to respect and assure the rule of 'Order', proclaiming that 'in disorder there is no Socialism'. Under those conditions, the councils rapidly lost all value in the eyes of the workers. The bourgeois institutions regained their functions without caring about the opinions of the councils; this was precisely the goal of the old workers movement.
The old workers movement could be proud of its victory. The law passed by the Reichstag fixed in detail the rights and duties of the councils. Their future task was to see that social legislation was respected. In other words, they were to become cogs in the State machine. Instead of demolishing the State, they were to help in making it run smoothly. Old established traditions had proved stronger than spontaneity.
But despite this 'abortion of the revolution', it cannot be said that the victory of the conservative elements had been simple or easy. The new climate of feeling was still strong enough for hundreds of thousands of workers to struggle obstinately in order that their councils should keep the character of new class units. There was to be five years of ceaseless conflict (sometimes armed fights) and the massacre of 35 000 revolutionary workers, before the movement of the councils was finally beaten by the united front of the bourgeoisie, the old workers movement, and the 'White Guards' formed by the Prussian land owners and the reactionary students.
Four political currents can be roughly distinguished among the workers.
The Social Democrats - They wanted the gradual nationalisation of the large industries by parliamentary methods. They also wanted to reserve for the unions the right to mediate between the workers and state ownership.
The Communists - Inspired more or less by the Russian example, they advocated direct expropriation of the capitalists by the masses. They maintained the revolutionary workers should 'capture' the Trade Unions and 'make them revolutionary'.
The Anarcho Syndicalists - They opposed the taking of power, and of any kind of State, according to them, Trade Unions were an integral part of the form of the future; it was necessary to struggle for a growth of the unions in such a way that they would be able to take over the whole of social life.
One of their best known theoreticians wrote in 1920 that the unions should not be considered as a transitory product of capitalism, but rather as seeds of the future socialist organisation of society. It seemed at first, in 1919, that the hour of this movement had come. These unions grew after the crumbling of the Kaiserreich. In 1920, the Anarchist unions had about 200 000 members.
The Factory Organisations - However, this same year, 1920, the effective forces of the revolutionary unions were reduced. A large part of their membership now made its way towards quite a different form of organisation, better adapted to the prevailing conditions, namely the revolutionary factory organisation. In this, each factory had or should have had, its own organisation acting independently of the others, and which did not depend upon the others. Each factory was to be an 'independent republic'.
These factory organisations were a creation of the German masses, spontaneously; but it should be pointed out that they appeared in the framework of a revolution which, though not yet defeated was stagnant. It was quickly evident that the workers could not, in the immediate period, conquer and organise economic and political power through the medium of the councils. It was necessary first of all to carry on a merciless struggle against the forces which opposed the councils. The revolutionary workers began therefore to muster their own forces in all the factories, in order to keep a direct grasp on social life. Through their propaganda they strove to re-awaken the workers consciousness, calling upon them to leave the unions AND join the revolutionary factory organisation. The workers as a whole would then be able to lead their own struggles themselves and conquer economic and social power over all society.
On the face of things, the working class thus took a great step backwards on the organisation plane. While previously the power of the workers was concentrated in some powerful centralised organisations, it was now separated into some hundreds of little groups, uniting some hundreds of thousands of workers, depending on the importance of the factory. In reality, this showed itself to be the only form of organisation that allowed the outline of workers power; and therefore, despite its relative smallness, it alarmed the bourgeoisie and the Social Democrats.
The Development of the Factory Organisations
The isolation into small groups factory by factory was not premeditated, nor a matter of principle. It was due to the fact that these organisations appeared, separately and spontaneously, in the course of unofficial strikes (for example among the Ruhr miners in 1919). Many tried to unite these organisations and present a united front of factory organisations; the initiative for this coming from Hamburg and Bremen. In April 1920 there was the first conference for unification of the factory councils. Delegates came from every industrial region of Germany. The police broke up the Congress; but too late. The general unified organisation had already been founded; and it had formulated its principles of action. This was given the name of the GENERAL WORKERS UNION OF GERMANY (Allgemeine Arbeiter Union Deutschlands - AAUD).
The AAUD was based on the struggle against the trade unions and the legalised workers councils, and rejected parliamentarism. Each organisation affiliated to the Union had a right to a maximum independence and freedom of choice as to tactics.
Almost immediately the AAUD began to grow. At that time the trade unions had more members than they ever had, or were ever likely to see in the foreseeable future. The socialist unions in 1920 grouped almost eight million paid up members in 52 unions; the Christian unions had more than a million members; the company (or 'yellow') unions, had about 300 000. Then there were the anarcho syndicalists unions (Freie Arbeiter Union Deutschlands - FAUD) and also some breakaway unions which, a little while later, affiliated to the Moscow controlled Red International of Trade Unions - RILU.
At first, the AAUD numbered 80 000 (April 1920); by the end of 1920, this was 300 000. It is true that many of its constituent members were at the same time adherents either of the FAUD or RILU.
There were, however, political differences in the AAUD and in December, a number of associations left it to form a new association, the AAUD-E (Einheitsorganisation - or united organisation). Even after this break, the AAUD reckoned on more than 200 000 members (4th Congress, June 1921); but this was by then a paper organisation. The defeat of the Central German rising in 1921 led to the dismantling and destruction of the AAUD. It could no longer resist police persecution.
The German Communist Party (KPD)
Before examining the splits in the factory organisation movement, it is necessary to refer to the role of the KPD. During the War (1914 - 18) the Social Democratic Party had placed itself alongside the ruling classes, to ensure 'social peace', with the exception of a militant fringe including some party officials of whom the best known were Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. These agitated against the War and violently criticised the Party. They were not alone. In addition to their group, the 'Spartacus League' (Spartakusbund), there were groups like the 'Internationalists' of Dresden and Frankfurt; the Left Radicals (die Linksradikalen) of Hamburg and the 'Workers Party of Bremen. After November 1918 and the fall of the Empire, these groups which came from the Social Democratic 'Left' were for a 'struggle in the streets' that would forge a new political organisation and to some extent would follow the lines of the Russian Revolution. They held a congress of unification in Berlin (30 December 1918) and formed the Communist Party of Germany. (A translation of the proceedings of this Congress - into French - with other interesting information, will be found in 'Spartacus et la Commune de Berlin' Prudhommeaux, Cahiers Spartacus, Oct - Nov 1949)
Within the Party there were many revolutionary workers who demanded 'All Power to the Workers Councils!'. But there were many who, from the first, regarded themselves as the cadres of the Left; they felt they were the leaders by right of seniority, notions which they had brought with them from the old Party. The workers who came into the KPD in growing numbers, did not always stand up to their leaders; partly from respect for 'discipline', partly by their own yielding to outdated conceptions of leadership. The idea of 'factory organisations' was a vastly different conception. But of course it was open to misrepresentation. It could mean, and the leadership of the KPD most certainly took it to mean, a mere form of organisation, nothing more, subject to directives imposed on it from outside. It could also mean, and this was what the militants had been taking it to mean, a vastly different matter - a means of control from the bottom up. In its new sense, the notion of factory organisations implied an overthrow of ideas previously held with regard to :-
(a) the unity of the working class
(b) the tactics of the struggle
(c) the relationship between masses and their leadership
(d) the dictatorship of the proletariat
(e) the relationship between state and society
(f) communism as an economic and political system
These new problems had to be faced; they had to be answered, or the whole new idea of revolution would disappear. But the Party cadres were unwilling to face these ideas. All they thought of doing was to rebuild the new (Communist) Party on the model of the old (Social Democratic) Party. They tried to avoid what was bad in the old Party and to paint it in red instead of pink and white. There was no place for the new ideas. And then, these new ideas were not presented in a coherent whole, coming from a single brain, or as if fallen from Heaven. They were the new ideas of the generation, and many of the young militants of the KPD supported them; but side by side with support for the new ideas was respect for the old ideological foundation. a Parliamentarism
The KPD was divided on all the problems raised by the new notion of 'factory organisation' from its very inception. When the Social Democratic President, Ebert, announced elections for a Constituent Assembly, the Party had to decide whether to take part in the elections or to denounce them. It was debated hotly at the Congress. The majority of the workers wanted to refuse to take part in the elections at all. But the Party leadership, including Liebknecht and Luxemburg, declared for an electoral campaign. The leadership was beaten on votes, and the majority of the Party declared itself Anti Parliamentarian. It stated that in its view, the Constituent Assembly was only there to consolidate the power of the bourgeoisie by giving it a 'legalistic' foundation. On the contrary, not only were the proletarian elements of the KPD opposed to participating in such an Assembly; they wished to 'activate' the workers councils already existing and to create others, through which they would give meaning to the difference between parliamentary democracy and working class democracy, as advocated in the slogan 'All Powerto the Workers Councils' (Alle Macht an die Arbeiter R_ten !).
The leadership of the KPD saw in this anti-parliamentarism, not a revival of revolutionary thought, but a 'regression' to Trade Unionist and even Anarchist ideas, which in their mind belonged to the beginnings of industrial capitalism. But in truth the anti-parliamentarism of the new current had not much in common with 'revolutionary syndicalism' and 'anarchism'. It even represented its negation. While the anti-parliamentarism of the libertarians centred on the rejection of political power, and in particular, rejected the dictatorship of the proletariat, the new current considered anti-parliamentarism a necessary condition for the taking of political power. It was 'Marxist Anti-Parliamentarism'.
The Trade Unions
On the question of trade union activities, the leadership of the KPD differed from that of the factory organisations. This was only to be expected. It aroused fierce discussion after the Congress (by which time both Liebknecht and Luxemburg had disappeared from the scene having been murdered by the Reaction). Those who supported the councils said, 'Leave the Trade Unions! Join the factory organisations !' But the Communist leaders said, 'Stay in the Unions !' The KPD did not think it could capture the Union HQ, but it did think it could capture the leadership of the local branches. It might then, reasoned the KPD, be possible to unite these locals in a new 'revolutionary' trade union movement.
But once again the leadership of the KPD was defeated. Most of its sections refused to carry out these instructions. The leadership was firm, however, even at the expense of expelling the majority of its members. It was of course supported by the Russian Party, and its chief Lenin, who at this time published his disastrous pamphlet on 'Left Wing Communism, An Infantile Disorder'
At the Heidelberg Conference in October 1919, the leadership succeeded in 'democratically' expelling more than half the Party . . . . . . . Henceforth the KPD was able go ahead with its conduct of parliamentary and trade union policies - with pitiful results. The expelled members united with a party of left socialists and quadrupled their members, but for three years only. They formed a new party the Communist Workers Party of Germany, (KAPD - Kommunistische Arbeiter Partei Deutschlands). The KPD had lost its most militant elements and had henceforth no alternative but to surrender itself unconditionally to the Moscow line in the newly set up Third International. (The Comintern's agent in Germany at this time was Radek).
The Communist Workers Party (KAPD)
The KAPD entered immediately into a direct relationship with the AAUD. At this time, the KAPD was a force that counted. Its criticisms of trade union and parliamentary action and its practice of direct and violent action, and its struggle against capitalist exploitation, made it a positive influence, first of all on the factory floor; also through its press and publications that were the best that Marxist literature had to offer in this time of decadence of the Marxist movement. Even so, the KAPD retained some encumbrances in the form of the old Marxist traditions.