A Book Review by Ph. Bourrinet
The history of the council movement seemed a long outdated history after a myriad of studies in the 1960s and 1970s in both parts of Germany, often under very clear ideological banners: democracy versus dictatorship. After a long historiographical slumber on revolutionary events in Germany; after the so-called “collapse of communism”, important studies on the council movement emerged in 2013 with a volume devoted to the Hamburg Workers’ and Soldiers’ Council. (1) Axel Weipert’s study, published in Berlin in 2015, is a very notable contribution to the new historiography after the downfall of the (Berlin) wall, this time devoted to the “second revolution”, the second phase of the council movement after the January 1919 workers’ defeat in Berlin. (2)
Despite its crucial importance for revolutionary history, the council movement in Germany, active between 1918 and 1920, has been largely obscured by bourgeois historiography, be it of a “liberal democratic” or of a “left” (social-democratic and stalino-communist) tendency.
The workers’ and soldiers’ councils, born from the military defeat in November 1918 and quickly taken over by the SPD, had a double objective: a political upheaval, seemingly to prolong the “bourgeois democratic revolution” of 1848, with the aim of “modernizing” the structures of the German imperialist state, and a radical social upheaval, in the wake of the Russian Revolution: the international socialist revolution marked by the seizure of power by the workers in arms, organized in councils.
This point appears episodically in Axel Weipert’s thesis, which rarely goes beyond the German or even the Berlin framework.
For right-wing historians, the councils evoked the specter of “communist revolution” equated with state “communism” (in other words, state capitalism), of which the DDR (GDR) was one of the finest examples.
For many left-wing historians, the councils were meant to be transitory. They could not remain alive by continuing to express the revolutionary will of the workers, but had to submit to party politics, that of the “workers’ parties”, from the Social Democrats (SPD and USPD) to the Communist Party, as part of a broad political and syndical united front. The power of the workers’ councils was to emerge not from below but from above, the “workers’ parties and syndicates” being attached to the “socialist” democracy of Weimar.
The necessity of a united front of “workers’ parties” was the leitmotiv of the Trotskyists (cf. Pierre Broué, La Révolution allemande, 1971 and even Chris Harman, The Lost Revolution 1917-1923, 1982). Both made 1923, and not the years 1919-1920, a unique opportunity to seize power from above in the name of the “united front” of “workers’ parties and syndicates”.
Weipert, both in his analysis and in his bibliography, avoids mentioning the Trotskyist theses, in which the workers’ councils are no longer the workers’ self-organization itself but a kind of “formless workers’ parliament” constituted and controlled by the “workers’ parties”, even if it is the party of the fusiliers, that of Noske-Ebert-Scheidemann.
While pointing out their militant intervention here and there, Weipert certainly does not share the radical analysis of the council communists (i.c. of Pannekoek, the AAU and the KAPD). His book defends the idea that the workers’ revolution rests at the base on the organization of the workers’ councils and the factory councils (“Betriebsräte”) attached to them. Only they could save the revolution in Germany, which had been savagely hit by social-democratic repression. The latter had been integrated into the German capitalist state and led a relentless counter-revolution based on the mercenaries of the free corps (‘Freikorps’) commanded by Reichswehr officers.
This book, whose main points are summarized below, shows that the power of the workers’ councils was not a simple parenthesis, because officially in December 1918, a large majority of the workers – under the steamroller of military violence and the politics of the SPD – handed over all power to the Constituent Assembly, thus putting an end to a brief state of dual power.
The council movement was officially buried by the SPD, which instigated the assassination of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. Despite the crushing of the January 1919 insurrection, the council movement revived with the massive strikes of March 1919 in Berlin (at least one million strikers). These strikes, like the insurrections that took place until 1920-1921 (in the Ruhr area and in central Germany in particular) were all carried by a robust council movement that had not yet laid down its arms and refused to capitulate to the bourgeois order.
Let us summarize the important points of this large work of about 480 pages, including appendices.
Weipert emphasizes in great detail the role of the councils in the strike movement of March 1919. He sees the poor coordination of the movement, its divisions, as the main reason for its defeat: the USPD and KPD had their own strike leadership. The independent USPD, which had a large majority in the councils, continued to act together with the SPD in the General Assembly (“Vollversammlung”) of the workers’ and soldiers’ councils in Greater Berlin. However, even before the general strike began in Berlin, the strike movement had been broken in other parts of the Reich.
Characteristically, SPD leaflets denounced the strike as “Bolshevik” and therefore criminal, while social democracy would be working for a genuine, peaceful and orderly “socialization” without bloodshed:
“Workers, don’t be fooled! The paid agents of the Bolshevik-Spartacist racket are at work again to shut down the factories (…) Where they are at work, violence and crime mark their path. Through coups and wildcat strikes, every orderly, productive activity for the reconstruction of our economy is being systematically paralyzed. Remember Russia, where the Bolshevik rule has already caused hundreds of thousands of deaths (…) But socialization must come about and it will come about. (…) Workers, do not let yourselves be fooled by demagogic tricks. The socialist (sic; Ph.B.) government marches (sic; Ph.B.) in spite of everything.” (Weipert, p. 126)
No bloodshed? The March strikes in Berlin were ferociously repressed by the Freikorps (more than 2,000 workers died, including children), the press of the USPD (‘Die Freiheit’) and that of the KPD (‘Die Rote Fahne’) being banned by force of arms. If there were armed reactions of the workers against the military state of siege, they were in the minority and totally disorganized. The so-called “republican” soldiers (the Republikanische Soldatenwehr formed by the SPD) and the remnants of the Volksmarinedivision (“People’s Navy Division”) (3) were surrounded and ruthlessly disarmed by Baron Von Lüttwitz’s 31,000-strong, well-trained and heavily armed army corps, ready to do anything. Noske brutally organized the massacre: “Anyone who fights the government troops with arms in his hands will be immediately put to death”. His call to murder was heard even in the prisons: imprisoned militants like Leo Jogiches, a Spartakist leader and former companion of Rosa Luxemburg, or Heinrich Dorrenbach (one of the military commanders of the Volksmarinedivision, were “shot at attempting to escape”.
One of the great merits of Weipert’s study is that it recalls the forgotten massacres committed by the soldiery at the command of the SPD. Such as the one that took place in front of the Reichstag (January 13, 1920), when the law on works councils (“Betriebsrätegesetz”) was put on the agenda, the sole purpose of which was to break the workers’ demands. The security police (“Sicherheitspolizei”) formed by the government (composed of former members of the Freikorps commanded by army officers) shot at the huge crowd of demonstrators (over 100,000), mainly adherents to KPD and USPD, who refused the adoption of the Works’ Council Act and thus the abolition of the power of the councils in all enterprises. The toll was 42 dead and at least 100 wounded, with the security police using weapons of war: grenades and machine guns.
The terror of the Freikorps was thus legalized (and trivialized) by the SPD, before it became systematic during the Kapp putsch (March 1920) and the crushing of the Red Army in the Ruhr (April 1920).
Weipert does not see the massacre in front of the Reichstag as an unfortunate coincidence, in which the “red” extremists played the role of provocateurs, as liberals and social democrats claim in order to better sanctify state repression:
“January 13 is in many respects a lesson about the political conditions in Germany in those days. It showed particularly clearly how fundamentally different the understanding of politics was in the council movement on the one hand and in the established institutions on the other. (…) While the parliamentarians deliberated in the Reichstag building, the demonstrators stood outside, without any direct say, but threatened and finally shot at by the armed organs of the state. It was believed that the people’s representatives had to be protected from the people. And this was done with a clear intent… The focus was not on the will of the people and their freedom of opinion, but solely on the freedom of opinion of the parliamentarians.” (Weipert, p. 185/6)
‘Die Rote Fahne’ of January 14, 1920 summed up the situation in no uncertain terms: it was not a “popular” protest against the works’ council law, but a merciless struggle between “the bourgeois parliament” and “the broad masses of workers and employees”.
Weipert also breaks new ground when he traces the brief history of the revolutionary Central Enterprise Council, through which rank-and-file activists continued to give the councils a structure. After the failure of the strike in March 1919, the Executive Committee of the Councils (“Vollzugsrat”) was finally banned in November. The central factory council was founded in Halle on July 27 and 28, 1919, at an inter-regional conference. It was dominant in Berlin, the Ruhr and the Halle-Merseburg area. Its real weight made it possible to found a council school (“Räte-schule”), in which future intellectual leaders of the KAPD – such as Albert Fister (1889-?) and, above all, Alexander Schwab (1887-1943) – played an important role.
The factory councils did not develop much locally, but they briefly revived during the massive reaction of the workers against the Kapp putsch. At the congress of the factory councils in Berlin (October 5-7, 1920), only 26,000 members had joined the Central Organ.
After that, however, the enterprise council movement played a minor role, and for good reason: the factory councils were absorbed into the official trade unions (the “Freie Gewerkschaften”). The supporters of a “pure council movement”, such as Richard Müller, were integrated into the trade union movement created by the KPD.
The revolutionary factory council movement, which had become groupuscular, was carried by the council communists organized in the KAPD and the Unionen (AAU and AAUD-E). Weipert barely mentions them, but through his immense research in the archives of the former GDR, names of important militants emerge: Kurt Nettball (1903-1978), Paul Schiller, Leo Fichtmann (1873-1942), as well as Anna Classe-Lange (1882-1969), who was to be a KAPD delegate to the 3rd Comintern Congress in Moscow. (4) Weipert is silent about their trajectory from the KAPD to the KPD and finally to the SED after 1945.
Weipert also does pioneering work when he examines in detail the pupils’ and apprentices’ councils and especially the unemployed’s councils, which emerged in 1919. In the years 1919-1920 the idea of councils was not only anchored in the large factories of Berlin, but in a large part of society, in particular among the school youth, the apprentices.
In the summer of 1919, a large-scale pupils strike took place in Berlin, driven by the activity of the pupils’ councils (“Schülerräte”). These were not socially homogeneous. As Weipert points out in his preface, the councils were not naturally “revolutionary”. In the bourgeois districts of Berlin, the pupils’ councils mobilized to have Robert, the son of the murdered communist leader Karl Liebknecht, expelled from his high school in his graduation year. The offspring of the bourgeoisie did not want to contaminate themselves with the son of a “red” leader. However, among the pupils’ councils the reactionary councils were a very strong minority, as the hatred of militarism predominated among the school-going youth.
The majority of the pupils’ councils that led the school strike in 1919 were workers’ apprentices. They were subjected to a real dictatorship by the school administration and many teachers. They were subjected to corporal punishment and the threat of detention, and the students were militarized in youth squads formed for military preparation for the great slaughter.
Among the apprentice workers, social democratic youth organizations predominated: the Sozialdemokratische Jugendverband Groß-Berlin (1,800 members in the summer of 1919) (5) and especially the Freie Sozialistische Jugend (FSJ) (6,000 members in the autumn of 1919, whose organ was ‘Die Junge Garde’), which moved towards the KPD, then the KAPD in April 1920.
In June 1919, the FSJ was the driving force behind the formation of the pupils’ councils, under the impulse of Paul Schiller (1887-1984) (future leader of the KAPD). The organization consisted of more than 10,000 apprentices and young workers who had radicalized against the school dictatorship and bullying and for the removal of imperial symbols from schools. They received no support from either the SPD or the USPD. Soldiers of the Guards Cavalry Division closed off the streets leading to the pupils’ assemblies with machine-gun posts… By contrast – according to the testimony of a former KAPD member, Kurt Nettball – the workers of Berlin ostensibly showed their solidarity with the young apprentices.
The formation of these school councils, which relied on a network of “men of confidence”, like in the factories, was not an isolated case in Berlin: the same process can be found in Munich during the council republic. (6)
Unemployment became a dominant factor in German political life from December 1918 onward with the demobilization of the army and the putting on hold of the war economy. Eight million soldiers and 2.5 million armaments workers were out of work, as were the refugees from the areas attached to France and Poland. In 1919-1920, Berlin was home to a quarter of all unemployed Germans receiving benefits.
Diseases such as tuberculosis and rickets soon appeared among the proletarian children, while hunger regularly drove their families to loot food stores.
The unemployed underwent a real process of politicization – when they did not succumb to the vain expectation of alms from a “socialist” state that did not hesitate to repress them without mercy. In the summer of 1919, 200,000 unemployed and low-income people took part in the rent strike. Organized in councils of the unemployed, they occupied the enterprises, demanding work and bread. But these attempts to take over the organization of production failed.
In addition to the unemployed’s councils, action committees led by KAPD militants such as Leo Fichtmann (1873-1942) appeared from September 1920 onward and carried out a vigorous propaganda of action. Denounced as provocateurs by the official unions but also by KPD leaders, such as Heinrich Brandler, the radical militants of the action committees demanded the destruction of the unions and the elimination of the ‘Bonzocracy’ (“Bonzentum”).
These more politicized unemployed radicals eventually found themselves isolated from the workers who had kept their jobs. Buoyed by the hope that workers’ councils would soon take power to provide bread and work for all, the radical unemployed, whether organized or not, asserted themselves as passionate activists of the council movement.
As in other countries at war, women became more important, but as substitutes for men who were sent to the front to have themselves killed. Their presence in the construction of machines in Berlin became indispensable: their number rose from 29,000 before 1914, to 100,000. Wage discrimination became just as striking: their wages ranged from 45 to 60 percent of the average male wage. After November 9, with the return of the men from the front, they were the first to be dismissed, especially married women and foreigners in Berlin.
In the elections there was never any gender proportionality. In the practice of the councils, women played almost no role. In the second council congress (April 1919), there were no women visible among the elected representatives! The minutes of the congresses testify that not a single woman took the floor! When one of them was employed to write the verbatim, she earned 30 percent less than her male colleague. At meetings of the revolutionary action committees in March 1920, no woman’s name appeared. Even in the councils of the unemployed, they played a very subordinate role. Nevertheless, they actively participated in the strike of March 1919, even in its street battles, as well as in the demonstration in front of the Reichstag on January 13, 1920. The council movement, even among the most radicals, did not put an end to the weighty mentality of male domination.
Weipert has to admit that women played “almost no role” in the practice of the councils (p. 336).
Weipert would like to profile the council movement of the “second revolution” as an alternative “to the bureaucratized, sometimes even rather authoritarian (sic) structures of the organized labor movement” (p. 13). In a very “centrist” way, he embroiders the mantle of a third way between parliamentary democracy marked by social democracy (of the right as well as the left) and the dictatorship of the councils of the “communist” type.
Nevertheless, the author tends to idealize “the second revolution of the councils” as a resurgence of the original council movement without trying to clearly mark the phases of its decline.
The great richness of the work cannot hide certain weaknesses:
There is little data on the protest currents that were formed at the base of the movement, in the large enterprises. Although Weipert discusses the influences of the left-wing parties and the trade unions on the movement on more than 100 pages, the author concentrates, as in the old historiography, on the congresses and the leading bodies of the council movement.
There is no systematic comparison with other regional council movements (Hamburg, Munich, Ruhr, southwest and central Germany, Upper Silesia). The capital of the Reich may have been decisive for the political radicalization of the workers in Germany after 1919, as the conflicts were exacerbated there in a special way. But Berlin was not Germany. The scattering of regional reactions was one of the causes of failure.
The armed insurrection of the councils in the Ruhr area would have deserved a more extensive analysis, given its size (50,000 armed workers) and its military organization itself. Its isolation from Berlin, Hamburg and central Germany explains its failure in the face of the counter-offensive of the social-democratic state, supported by the Freikorps.
Nevertheless, Weipert has accomplished an immense, meticulous, thorough and, for a layman, very readable work on a whole forgotten part of the history of the revolution in Germany, deliberately concealed by “liberal”, social-democrat and Stalinist historiography.
Weipert hardly poses a revolutionary alternative in present-day capitalist Germany. The council movement of the future appears as a combination of anti-authoritarian reformism and grassroots democratism. In an interview with the influential Berlin daily newspaper Die Tageszeitung (‘TAZ’, 60,000 copies, politically close to the Greens, feminists and left-wing intellectuals), he declared:
“It is precisely in the combination of grassroots democratic and socialist approaches that I see an important alternative to an overcautious reformism (?) and the rightly failed model of authoritarian socialism (??) of the GDR.” (7)
Despite its limitations, which are essentially political, Weipert’s book deserves to be known by a non-Germanic readership (English, French, Spanish, etc.). It is an immense work of investigation, closely examining all the historical sources available in the major archive centers that were previously inaccessible (in particular the SAPMO Fund in Berlin-Lichterfelde), (8) highlighting the essential actors of the council movement (Ernst Däumig, and especially Richard Müller), (9) not forgetting to mention here and there the undeniable revolutionary activity of the KAPD, and showing obvious sympathy for all the forgotten people of the council revolution.
Any contribution to a good French translation of the “Second Revolution” is welcome. It will be done in the wake of the one undertaken in English by the “Historical Materialism’ editions, which have opened an online subscription. (10)
This would be an important milestone in the reappropriation of the revolutionary council movement in Germany, so little known and often totally distorted by different ideologies whose aim is the preservation of the existing social order.
The current dramatic events (war in Ukraine, growing military tensions in the Indo-Pacific area and around Taiwan), whose logic is the outbreak of a third world war, must not bury the revolutionary perspective, opened by the current crisis of the world capitalist system (including “communist” China…).
A succession of massive explosions of the proletariat – more than a century after Russia in 1917, Germany in 1918, Hungary in 1919 – could reverse a tragic course towards globalized war. This will become inevitable if the international proletariat fails to organize itself in a revolutionary way by raising its own workers’ councils with a clear vision of their political goals: the abolition of capitalism and the emergence of a communist society without exploitation.
Axel Weipert, Die zweite Revolution. Rätebewegung in Berlin 1919/1920. Paperback, 476 pages; 13 images; 17 x 24 cm. 1st Edition: June 5, 2015. ISBN 978-3-95410-062-0. Price per copy €32,– BeBra Wissenschaft Verlag, Berlin (Germany). For postal orders and bookshops: follow the link.
1 In German language, notably: Volker Stalmann, Marc Hanisch & Ulrike Wulf−Rheidt: Der Hamburger Arbeiter−, und Soldatenrat, 1918/19. Eingel. v. Volker Stalmann. Unter Mitwirkung von Jutta Stehling. (Quellen zur Geschichte der Rätebewegung in Deutschland 1918/19, Bd. 4.), Droste, Düsseldorf, 2013, 1.101 pages, € 160,-.
3 Klaus Gietinger: Blaue Jungs mit roten Fahnen – Die Volksmarinedivision 1918/19, Unrast Verlag, Münster 2019.
4 For a political biography of the principal members of the KAPD, see Ph. Bourrinet: Lexikon des deutschen Rätekommunismus 1920-1960, Éditions “moto proprio”, Paris, July 1, 2017.(€30,-, German language).
5 English: “Social Democratic Youth Association of Greater Berlin”.
6 On the council movement in Bavaria, see Simon Schaupp: Der kurze Frühling der Räterepublik. Ein Tagebuch der bayerischen Revolution. Unrast Verlag, Münster 2017. (“The brief Spring of the Council Republic. A diary of the Bavarian Revolution”)
7 From an interview with Axel Weipert in TAZ, September 17, 2015: „Diese Räte waren von breiter Unterstützung getragen“ (“These councils were carried by a large support”) Source: TAZ Archive, in German.
8 SAPMO = Stiftung Archiv der Parteien und Massenorganisationen der DDR (SAPMO), Berlin. (“Archive of the Party and Mass Organizations of the GDR – Foundation”)
9 Cf. the account by Richard Müller in three volumes. These have been integrally reprinted in: Richard Müller, Eine Geschichte der Novemberrevolution. 14th edition, Die Buchmacherei, Berlin, 2018.
10 Toledo Translation Fund: The Second Revolution by Axel Weipert. A presentation by the English translation project, the book’s table of contents and a list of reviews and endorsements.