Payn, “United Working Class Action and the Workers’ Council Movement in Germany, 1920-1923” (2014)

United Working Class Action and the Workers’ Council Movement in Germany, 1920-1923

Jonathan Payn

First published in issue 88 of Workers World News

Part 4 in a series of articles on the concept and history of united fronts.

A “revolutionary alternative from below” that was not quite to be but holds pertinent lessons for movements today.

In 1919, the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) organised the suppression of workers that, together with soldiers, had overthrown the German imperial government in the 1918-1919 German Revolution and brought an end to the First World War. The SPD restored capitalist and state power but, despite being brutally repressed by the SPD, the German working class continued to struggle against the government until 1923.

Right-wing forces also wanted to oust the SPD-led government, recapture direct state control and reverse the results of the Revolution.

United action against the Kapp Putsch

In March, 1920, right-wing military forces occupied Germany’s capital, Berlin, under the leadership of Wolfgang Kapp and the SPD-led government fled. All left parties, excluding the KPD (German Communist Party), called for a general strike to counter the coup and defend democracy. Soon, the strike had spread across the country.

Workers spontaneously organised an insurrectionary offensive, forming armed defence and strike committees to unite workers from different political tendencies and co-ordinate their actions.

This regrouping of the workers’ movement in the form of workers’ councils and action committees – which had been widespread during the 1918-1919 Revolution – united workers across political parties. The newly-formed “red army” was organised around three main geographical centres under the influence of the USPD (Independent Socialists); KPD and Left USPD; and revolutionary syndicalists and KPD left-wing respectively.

Facing nation-wide armed resistance and an insurrectionary general strike Kapp’s forces gave up and fled Berlin, but the insurrection continued in pursuit of a new government. The three “workers” parties (SPD-USPD-KPD) did not support the workers’ struggle for a new government and opposed workers’ attempts to arm themselves and act independently.

Following the flight of Kapp’s forces the central government returned to Berlin, called off the strike and attempted to form a “workers” government comprising the SPD, KPD and USPD. The KPD was divided over whether such a government could play a progressive role. The left-wing majority – which in April 1920 left to form the anti-parliamentary KAPD (Communist Workers’ Party) – distrusted this government and said it would be similar to the SPD coalition government established after the 1918 uprising, which had brutally repressed workers and helped restore capitalist rule in the form of social democracy. They opposed a return to parliamentary activity because they believed that the workers’ council movement had superseded parliamentary activity and that the call to return to parliament was a betrayal of the revolution. They said there was already a revolutionary situation in Germany at the end of 1918 and almost all left politics in 1919 took place in the workers’ councils, not in parliament, and it was in fact the workers’ faith in bourgeois democratic institutions – promoted by the “workers” parties in order to get themselves into power – that had led to the demobilisation of revolutionary workers.

However, there was a minority that – wanting to replicate the role of the Bolsheviks in the Russian Revolution – felt it was similar to the Bolshevik call, in 1917, for the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries to break with the bourgeoisie and form a united front government. The USPD, however, rejected the proposal and so it was never tested.

As with the November 1918 revolution the working class had conquered power again in 1920 without being conscious of it and, “had gone in its actions far beyond its explicit demands – and far beyond the consciousness it had of its own activity and desires. Now it had to decide whether to consolidate its new found power (i.e., create a genuine council system) or revert back to the realisation of its initial demands (i.e., peace, food, and parliamentary democracy)”.

The mass of workers having effectively taken power through their councils failed to consolidate the gains made and effectively divested their power to party “representatives”. Those revolutionaries that wanted to go further were shot down by the same army which had supported the rightist coup and to which the government, as it inevitably does, now turned for support.

The right, having reappeared on the political scene with the coup, shifted the political centre of gravity rightward and the SPD relinquished power in the June 1920 elections and in August the centrist parliament passed a “disarmament” law.

The last flicker of hope, 1923

In the years following the abortive Kapp putsch there were numerous mass demonstrations and strikes around Germany, however parties like the KPD and SPD were able to capture the direction of these movements and lead them away from a revolutionary direction. The KPD consistently pushed workers’ struggles away from insurrection and towards parliamentary activity under the instruction of Moscow; which didn’t want to upset imperialist powers, such as England and France, and risk destabilising the Bolshevik regime until they had consolidated power.

The German working class last engaged in mass struggle on a national level in August, 1923, where workers spontaneously arose in response to increasing inflation and deteriorating living conditions. Workers’ councils and armed defence committees were again established. The KPD’s defensive implementation of a united front policy won them the support of a large number of SPD members, but its attempt to form an alliance with the right-wing around a national programme left it disoriented. Rather than providing revolutionary direction the KDP, interested only in bringing social democratic workers under its party leadership, consistently betrayed the revolutionary working class by reinforcing illusions in parliamentary activity and diverting workers away from insurrectionary struggle at times when the working class itself had effectively taken power and established democratic forms of working class self-administration.

Due to its isolation and divisions within the working class the 1923 uprising was soon defeated and the workers’ movement was weakened beyond recovery.

A revolutionary alternative from below

In opposition to the move to institutionalise – and thus control – the workers’ council movement by drawing it into parliamentary activity there existed an alternative revolutionary position represented, particularly, by the council communist KAPD and the revolutionary syndicalists. These currents struggled against the ideas of party-rule and state control by attempting to put into practice concepts of the workers’ council movement in pursuit of direct workers’ self-determination. They acted as an extra-parliamentary opposition to the reformist and statist left parties and “educated people to act on their own political initiative, independently of any representatives”.

Although the objective conditions existed for revolution the subjective conditions were not fully developed; the masses did not look forward to building a new socialist society but – influenced by the “workers” parties – back to the restoration of pre-war liberal capitalism and the completion of the reforms started before the war.

Thus, the clear revolutionary path desired by the so-called ultra-left (council communists, anarchists and revolutionary syndicalists) was not possible in light of the prevailing attitude of the mass of workers, who were still under the illusion – promoted by the “workers” parties – that their power lay in having “their” representatives in bourgeois democratic institutions and consistently divested the power they had effectively taken with the establishment of workers’ councils to party representatives.