A contribution at the excellent 2016 Marxism Festival meeting on the German Revolution, referenced by Tony Phillips in his latest article in this journal,1 asked us to identify the real difference between us. Tony, in that same article, by allowing his imagination to run away with him, not only identified the difference very sharply but massively amplified it.
In 1923 not a single revolutionary socialist leader raised the slogan “All Power to the Factory Councils”: not Leon Trotsky or Grigori Zinoviev, the two Bolshevik leaders most committed to a “German October”, not Heinrich Brandler, the German workers’ leader they had persuaded to try and lead it, not even Ruth Fischer, Berlin’s notorious ultra-left leader. Chris Harman and Pierre Broué, the two writers that Tony and I have been over-dependent on in our exchanges, certainly never raised it. Yet Tony Phillips, nearly 100 years after the 1923 events, raises it!2
True, there was plenty of discussion about how the factory council led workers’ movement had the potential to be transformed into soviets. But the factory council movement itself in 1923 was never in a competing relation of dual power with the national government in the way the workers’ councils were in November and December 1918.
In any case, just how the factory council movement would make the transition was far from clear. Brandler told Isaac Deutscher, in the interview that Tony referenced, that the problem was exactly the transition from economic struggle to a struggle for power: “We did not know how to do this and we were unable to find out”.3
It is also essential to distinguish the two quite separate events in 1923 that are deemed to have had revolutionary potential, the “German October”, and the earlier factory council led general strike that toppled the Cuno government. Since the opening of previously sealed archives in the former Soviet Union and East Germany, three very important books from German historians have addressed the subject.4 And Marcel Bois, a socialist historian from Hamburg, Germany, has told me that there is a consensus among these authors that a “German October” simply wasn’t credible, although there is disagreement about earlier revolutionary possibilities.5 However, it is not difficult to see that a strategy for transition to workers’ councils or soviets did exist during the crisis that led to the collapse of the Cuno Government. Developing the demand for a workers’ government, earlier agreed by Lenin and the Comintern, as Tony acknowledges, would have expanded the base of the factory councils by “requisitioning the necessities of life under the control of workers’ organisations—‘control committees’…drawing in housewives’ groups challenging price rises and speculation” and implementing “an immediate minimum wage and, crucially, the lifting of the ban on the ‘proletarian hundreds’, armed detachments involving employed and unemployed workers”.6
Tony argues this was a fast developing revolutionary situation in which the Communist Party (the KPD) was hegemonic in the working class.7 This view throws some light on Brandler’s earlier remark. The KPD were accepted as the leaders of economic struggles, but was a working class majority ready to join them in a direct seizure of power, bypassing parliament? The Bolsheviks secured a majority in the soviets in Russia 1917 before risking this final step. There was simply no equivalent formation in Germany in 1923. This is why the demand for a workers’ government in combination with demands that would have massively expanded the base for rank and file workers’ power was the only realistic alternative.
Alas, the ruling class was able to ignore the demand. It sprinkled a few SPD ministers—reformist socialists—in the new government and conceded some demands over wages. The fragility of KPD hegemony was ruthlessly exposed.
John Rose is currently studying the roots of the failure of communism in the 20th century.
1 Phillips, 2016, p204.
2 Phillips, 2016, p202.
3 Deutscher, 1984, p138-9.
4 See Wenzel, 2003; Jentsch, 2005 and Bayerlein, 2003.
5 Marcel Bois is a contributor to a forthcoming book on the German Communist Party during the Weimar Republic, edited by Norman LaPorte and Ralf Hoffrogge, to be published in English by Lawrence and Wishart in February 2017.
6 Rose, 2016, p196; Harman, 1982, pp238-239.
7 Phillips, 2016, p202.