Revolutionary workers’ movements and parliaments in Germany 1918-23: A reply to Tony Phillips

Issue: 150

John Rose

Tony Phillips provided a rather misleading account of my Marxism 2014 talk on Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils in the German Revolution1 in the last issue of International Socialism.2 Nevertheless Tony does point to an unresolved argument about workers’ councils and factory councils at different stages of the German Revolution, and their relationship to parliament.

In November and December 1918 the workers’ and soldiers’ councils were seen by their leaders as a potential alternative to parliament, proletarian democracy as opposed to bourgeois democracy.3 The victory of parliament in January 1919 entrenched the parliamentary process. All the revolutionary upsurges afterwards had to contend with it.4 Tony, several times, quotes from an excellent book by John Riddell written 30 years ago,5 but ignores John Riddell’s article written for this journal five years ago.6

Riddell’s emphasis in the latter on the 1920 Kapp putsch is very different from Tony’s. While noting that the general strike called by the right wing SPD trade union leaders to defend the republic did indeed lead to the formation of strike committees, militias and armed detachments and even in the Chemnitz industrial region, the re-emergence of workers’ councils, there was never any suggestion that the workers could seize power directly. On the contrary, the strategic and tactical initiative was with Carl Legien, the notorious right wing trade union leader,7 who formulated the demands for a workers’ government in parliament, composed of left wing parties and the trade unions. The German Communist Party (KPD) and the Comintern were forced to relate to this demand which, understandably, provoked a major controversy.8

Harman explains:

Legien may or may not have been sincere in this suggestion…probably he also felt…that the easiest way to stop the continual criticisms from the extreme left was to put them in government… The “workers’ government” offer was both a way out of a difficult situation for Legien and his friends and a possible trap for the left. But it could also be an opening towards something far more radical, despite Legien, since such a government would be responsible to the working class organisation and not to the bourgeois majority in parliament…

As [the KPD newspaper] Rote Fahne said on 26 March: “At the present stage there does not yet exist a solid base for the dictatorship of the proletariat. The proletariat does not dispose of sufficient military force, the Majority Social Democrats still have a big influence over the civil servants, the white collar workers and other sections of workers, the Independents still influence the majority of the urban workers. In order that the great mass of the proletariat can come to accept the Communist doctrine, it is necessary to create a situation of almost complete political freedom and to prevent the bourgeoisie exercising its capitalist dictatorship. The KPD estimates that the setting up of a socialist government, without the least bourgeois element in it, will create extremely favourable conditions for the energetic action of the proletarian masses and allow them to reach the maturity they need to establish their political and social dictatorship”.

The party went on to declare that it would act as “a legal opposition to the government”, provided that government did not “break its guarantees to the working class”.9

The formulation was “very similar to Lenin’s offer in August-September 1917 to support the Menshevik-Social Revolutionary majority in the Russian soviets if they replaced the coalition government with the bourgeois parties with an all socialist government responsible to the soviets”.10

In fact Lenin intervened directly with the KPD to reinforce the “loyal opposition to the government” line, which had split both the KPD and the Comintern. Karl Radek, the Comintern liaison with the KPD, had opposed it because he claimed it “reflected the emergence of a ‘possibilist’ (ie reformist) current in the KPD… Lenin had sufficient authority to end the discussion but the disagreement remained unresolved”.11

Unfortunately the policy was never put to the test.12 Nevertheless the demand for a “workers’ government” was now legitimised and would forcefully resurface in 1923. Later Chris probed the question further in a seminal article, reproduced online for this journal in 2007.13 He analysed contemporary variants of the demands for a workers’ government—especially continuing arguments stimulated after the 1973 coup against the Allende Government in Chile and the rise of “reformed”, “non-Stalinist” Eurocommunist Parties in the 1970s,14 as well as returning to the German Revolution:

The workers cannot change society merely by their parties taking governmental power but leaving the state intact. Secondly we must also recognise that for many workers this delusion represents an increase in class consciousness; they are beginning to think in terms of their class controlling society rather than it being run to openly capitalist criteria.

It is a classic example of contradictory class consciousness. How is it to be resolved?

Our job is to build on the increase in class consciousness but at the same time breaking down the delusions in the role of a left government.

Effectively we have to say to non-revolutionary workers: “You believe that a left government can change society in the interests of the working class; we do not. But we will fight alongside you to put your views to the test. However, we repeat that you should rely on your own struggles, not put your faith in your political leaders.”

The slogan of the left or workers’ government is therefore not seen as a magic panacea, rather it is a tactical slogan that we support but subordinate to our general politics of developing the workers’ struggle.

Our task is to raise slogans that mobilise workers in defence of their interests, to form unity in action with reformist workers and in the struggle to break down the illusions in the “left government”. It is above all in action that consciousness changes.15

Thus the demand for a workers’ government is not dismissed. Rather very strict conditions are proposed for the revolutionary left’s support for it. This becomes absolutely crucial in 1923.

Another major weakness in Tony’s article is his single sentence minimising a uniquely damaging event to the German Revolution: “Even before the [1923] crisis, the KPD had begun to recover from its own disastrous putsch of March 1921, which had severely damaged its credibility”.16 This formulation is inadequate for two reasons. Firstly, the reader must know more about March 1921. Secondly, as we shall see later, the KPD did not recover sufficiently to intervene effectively in 1923.

Harman devoted an entire chapter to March 1921, “The March Madness”.17 This journal has also recently discussed it.18 The reader needed to know what caused the damage to the KPD’s credibility and the role of the Comintern. The twisted political theory known as the “theory of the offensive” which proposed that Communists, “even with only minority support amongst workers, should launch an all out assault on capitalist power”,19 and which had some support from the Comintern and its representative in Germany, Karl Radek.20

In 1923 a revolutionary workers’ movement did indeed develop, led by factory councils. What were the factory councils and what was their ­relationship to the earlier workers’ councils and what we in Britain ­sometimes describe as “works councils” which attempt to integrate workers’ organisations into employers’ structures?21 Pierre Broué has given us a very detailed description which really needs to be read in full. Here I cite some particularly relevant passages. The entrenching of parliament in January 1919 resulted in the Weimar Constitution. Its Article 65 became law in February 1920; it attempted:

to integrate the working class…organisations into appendages of the employers’ authority through the Mitbestimmungsrecht, the right to participation and to consultation. The workers’ organisations had rights in questions of administration and general policy of the firm’s working conditions, hiring and firing, and, in addition, they formed the electoral basis for the “workers’ section” of the membership of the Economic Council of the Reich…the fact that they were elected by all the working people in the firm…meant that revolutionaries could make use of them.22

Confusingly for us, perhaps, these structures were sometimes called factory councils or factory committees. Despite the obvious trap intended by both government and employers, these structures, nevertheless, became a highly contested terrain in the class struggle.23

The German Communists, in line with the strategy of the International and the resolution on factory councils carried during the Second Comintern Congress, placed the struggle for and around factory committees at the centre of the strategic considerations in their factory work. During the Party Congress in November 1920, just before the fusion with the Independents, the delegates had heard and discussed an important report by Brandler24 on the question. He said that the factory councils must be the workers’ instrument to control production, stocktaking, accounting and records, which would help the workers to learn that the rule of the bourgeoisie had to be overthrown.25

Further arguments used by Heinrich Brandler underlined the importance of keeping the factory committees independent of the trade union bureaucrats, as well as seeing their potential for workers to “unite as a class in a framework of councils”.26

In 1923 this perspective would be put to the severest of tests. Unfortunately, Tony Phillips does not properly describe what happened. He implies correctly that the factory council-led workers’ movement mounted a successful challenge to the Wilhelm Cuno government in the summer of that year in the context of a deepening capitalist crisis. But then he goes on to claim that the “factory councils linked up nationally, had the potential to become the basis for a revolutionary workers’ government that could replace the capitalist state”,27 without giving any of the historical details about two separate revolutionary events in 1923 which, tragically, illustrated just how difficult it was to fulfil that potential.

Certainly the rapidly developing factory council movement was very impressive. Led by the KPD, it organised hundreds of thousands of workers across the country independently of the trade union bureaucracy. It successfully called for a general strike to overthrow the Cuno government, demanding a workers’ government with the requisitioning of the necessities of life under the control of workers’ organisations—“control committees”, which gave the factory councils a base in working class communities, drawing in housewives’ groups challenging price rises and speculation, for example.28 The movement demanded an immediate minimum wage and, crucially, the lifting of the ban on the “proletarian hundreds”, armed detachments involving employed and unemployed workers.29

Alas, the outcome was a tremendous disappointment: “German capitalism found reassurance, as so often before, in the attitude of Social Democracy… The SPD decided to vote against Cuno—but offered to join a government run by a party colleague of his, [Gustav] Stresemann, spokesman for a powerful section of German employers”.30

The SPD even managed to persuade Rudolf Hilferding, the famous Marxist economist and a former Independents’ leader, to join the government. The general strike collapsed with a superficial victory—after all, Cuno had gone—and employers met some of the wage demands, but all talk of a workers’ government disintegrated.31

The second event is of a quite different magnitude. It represents the final tragic act and climax of the German Revolution 1918-23. It became irreversibly intertwined with the deepening decay of the Russian Revolution. At its centre was most certainly a German working class with a revolutionary potential. But also at its centre were two propositions that remained untested. First, that factory councils could substitute for workers’ councils or soviets and lead a successful socialist revolution. And, secondly, that a workers’ government, in this case a regional one, would play a decisive strategic role in bringing about such a victory. Also at its centre were the two most principled revolutionary socialist leaders of the moment, Heinrich Brandler, the workers’ leader in Germany, and Leon Trotsky, after Lenin the greatest leader of the Russian Revolution, but at that very moment also literally facing nothing less than a conspiracy to destroy him. Both Brandler and Trotsky were reliant on the KPD—but could it lead a socialist revolution?

It certainly did not initiate this final phase of the revolutionary process. The initiative came from the Soviet government in Moscow and in particular Trotsky and Grigori Zinoviev. The deteriorating situation in Germany was seized upon as proof that a revolutionary situation was fast approaching. Brandler and other leaders were summoned to Moscow to discuss preparations for an armed uprising. Brandler would later write: “I did not view the situation as acutely revolutionary yet…but regarded Trotsky, Zinoviev and the other Russian leaders as more competent”.32 Brandler’s doubts must have been increased by the foul atmosphere in Moscow. It is inconceivable that he didn’t have some sense of just how bitter and explosive was the showdown, in particular, between Zinoviev and Trotsky. After all, the so-called “Troika”, Stalin, Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev, had been formed earlier that year to discredit Trotsky, who had missed the opportunity at the Twelfth Party Congress (April 1923) to carry out Lenin’s wish to fight Stalin’s bureaucratisation of party rule in Soviet Russia.33

The Bolshevik leadership was hardly in a position to impose a timetable for revolution on Germany. Yet this is precisely what it did. Brandler reluctantly accepted, but lacked confidence in his own abilities to implement the plan. He appealed for Trotsky to come secretly to Germany and join the leadership. Not surprisingly, Zinoviev and the Troika rejected this proposal. Instead a Red Army general was sent to Germany to help the KPD prepare for a military uprising. “The result, inevitably, was a conspiratorialism more usually found in terrorist groups than in mass revolutionary parties. Meanwhile, work among the mass of workers tended to be neglected”.34

This was also Brandler’s view. Nevertheless living standards continued to collapse, the extreme right associated with Adolf Hitler was growing in confidence, especially in Bavaria,35 and the government nationally was in danger of losing control. It moved rightwards, disposing of Hilferding, as it came under pressure from the employers to repeal the eight-hour day. A renewed sense of crisis erupted; millions were not just getting poorer but were increasingly unable even to feed themselves and their families. The KPD grew and there was greater willingness, especially on the left wing of the SPD, to cooperate with the KPD.

Attention shifted to Saxony and Thuringia, the most left wing regional states in Germany, with the coal owners demanding “‘pacification’ of the area by the army…the proletarian hundreds and the Control Committees had become more and more powerful, effectively taking over whole areas during strikes and demonstrations”.36

Saxony and Thuringia became the focus for the final showdown between the government and the working class. Local Communist Parties throughout the country began drawing up operational plans “for the seizure of vital supplies, the elimination of the most dangerous local state officials, the taking over of power stations, the railways and telecommunications centres. Above all they had to find supplies of arms for themselves—to local police stations and armouries where weapons could easily be captured”.37 Inevitably the shadow of the doomed 1921 “theory of the offensive” stalked these plans. The ultimate test would be whether they had the support of a majority of the working class. And this in turn would be tested by the planned national congress of factory councils and their associated control committees and armed groups of the proletarian hundreds.

There was an additional strategically central factor which added to the sense of fragility and arguably even questioned the fundamental competence of the strategy itself. Communists would enter the state governments of Saxony and Thuringia with the aim of locating supplies of police arms:

so that they could be easily seized by the workers. This, claimed Zinoviev, should help them to arm “50,000 to 60,000 men”. Brandler objected: “the Saxon government was in no position to arm the workers because, since the Kapp putsch, all weapons had been taken away from Saxony”… He later claimed that he had warned: “The entry of Communists into the government would not breathe new life into the mass actions, but rather weaken them; for now the masses would expect the Communists to do what they could only do themselves”…

[But] after “Zinoviev banged his fist on the table” and “Trotsky spent a whole evening” with Brandler, trying to persuade him, Brandler accepted the decision. He returned from Moscow to Saxony and, as he got off the train, found from the newspapers he was already a government minister!38

The authorities in Berlin took these potential revolutionary developments in Saxony and Thuringia very seriously. General Müller, head of the Reichswehr, army chief of staff, was dispatched to the two states to disarm the proletarian hundreds and take control of the Saxon police. As the authoritative historian of “Soviet Communism”, E H Carr, would later put it: “The Reichswehr had done what Brandler had shrunk from doing. It had fixed the date on which the Communists must either act or confess their incompetence”.39

Matters were further complicated by the government ban on the national congress of factory councils. A substitute conference was hastily assembled in Saxony following a call from the state’s Social Democrat and Communist ministers on the very day—Sunday 21 October—that Müller’s troops entered the state. Nearly 500 delegates attended including 140 from factory councils. Whether it had the legitimacy to call a general strike to oppose Müller’s armed intervention in Saxony and Thuringia, we shall never know. Brandler certainly thought it had and he led the call for the general strike. He also seems to have taken for granted that the Social Democrat contingents of worker delegates who turned up for the conference, thereby lending it legitimacy, would support him: “Instead he was greeted with stunned silence”.40

The failure of the conference to call for a general strike proved to be the final fatal blow to the German Revolution. If October 1917 dates the start of the international socialist revolution in the 20th century, October 1923 is arguably the date that marks the beginning of its collapse.

Herein lies the ambiguity of Trotsky’s Lessons of October. Chris Harman makes very creative use of this text to illustrate its central argument about the decisive role of revolutionary parties in revolutionary situations by comparing the two Octobers, with a damning conclusion about the KPD: “The party leadership had lost its self-confidence. Its neurotic obsession with March 1921 prevented it from responding to the changed mood of the masses in 1923”; it was “riven by internal rows”and became far too dependent on tactical advice from “men in Moscow”.41

Yet the text, as Trotsky himself makes clear, is not the much needed analysis of what went wrong in Germany. Even though, in general terms, he defends the potential revolutionary role of factory councils, Trotsky is more concerned with the failings of the Troika’s conservative leadership in 1917, making comparisons with what he sees as similar failures in Germany 1923. In Trotsky’s words, “It is indispensable for us to have a concrete account, full of factual data, of last year’s developments in Germany. What we need is such an account as would provide a concrete explanation of the causes of this most cruel historic defeat”.42

That’s why Chris’s assertion, echoing Trotsky, that the KPD had brought “the majority of workers and a section of the middle class to the point where they welcomed the prospect of revolutionary deliverance from the social crisis” (but then let them down) is too speculative.43 Maybe he is right. But contrast this view with that of Victor Serge who witnessed the unfolding drama day by day in Germany:

Nothing could be done without the social democratic masses and these were divided into officials with a stake in the foundering social system and canny workers ridden by fear of revolution… Trotsky (explains) the German defeat in terms of the “crisis of revolutionary leadership”, but that crisis is itself an expression of two other crises: that of popular consciousness, and that of an already bureaucratised International.44

Again contrast with the Bolsheviks’ grip on events in October 1917. Their democratic majority in the soviets gave them the confidence of the working class majority. And even then it was the leadership of the soviets, not the Bolshevik leadership alone, that armed the insurrection and secured its ultimate victory.45 There was no equivalent to the Bolshevik majority in the soviets in Germany in October 1923.

We are left with the frustrating position that we have no ­historical evidence or even a convincing theoretical defence that a strategy ­combining factory councils leading revolutionary workers’ movements with demands for workers’ governments—and the experience from the German Revolution is that the two go together—could have been successful.


1 Rose, 2014.

2 Phillips, 2016, pp185-196. Tony claims I “lean heavily on the documents contained in Gabriel Kuhn’s 2012 book All Power to the Councils! which…also relies heavily on materials by ultra-lefts and anarchists” (p194). This is incorrect. Firstly, as I stated in the talk, Chris Harman’s 1982 book The Lost Revolution is my most valuable source which Tony should have acknowledged particularly because he challenges my suggestion that Chris possibly underestimated the scale of defeat in January 1919, when parliament decisively displaced the Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils. Secondly, the only documents I discussed from Kuhn are by Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht, Richard Müller and Ernst Daumig, respectively the leading revolutionary socialist intellectuals and workers’ leaders. See also footnote 43.

3 Rose, 2015.

4 Including electing revolutionary socialist MPs into parliament which Lenin described as “obligatory”—Rose, 2013, p130.

5 Riddell, 1986.

6 Riddell, 2011.

7 Phillips, 2016, p190.

8 Riddell, 2011, p117.

9 Harman, 1982, p175.

10 Harman, 1982, p176.

11 Riddell, 2011, p118. See also Duncan Hallas’s powerful defence of this position—Hallas, 1985, p73.

12 Harman, 1982, p177.

13 Harman and Potter, 2007. See also “Workers’ Government: Three Variants”—Riddell, 2011, pp131-133.

14 Especially relevant to the fate of Syriza in Greece with its roots in the Eurocommunist tradition.

15 Harman and Potter, 2007.

16 Phillips, 2016, p193.

17 Harman, 1982, pp192-220.

18 In relation to the controversial leader of the KPD, Paul Levi—Zehetmair and Rose, 2012, pp143-162; Birchall, 2013, pp199-208; Riddell, 2014, pp201-202.

19 Riddell, 2011, p126.

20 For an excellent summary see the quote from Gareth Jenkins in Zehetmair and Rose, 2012, p146.

21 A response to Tony Phillips, who says that “the factory councils had nothing in common with the bureaucratic works councils of Germany today”—Phillips, 2016, p189.

22 Broué, 2006, p608. See also the original documents relating to this development, translated by Ben Fowkes (Fowkes, 2014, pp65-70).

23 The shop stewards’ movement in the early 1970s in Britain offers a useful analogy.

24 Heinrich Brandler would become the pivotal workers’ leader of the KPD in 1923.

25 Broué, 2006, p609.

26 Broué, 2006, p609.

27 Phillips, 2016, p193.

28 Harman, 1982, pp238-239.

29 Harman, 1982, p268. See also the KPD’s policy document, “The KPD’s Theses on the United Front Tactic and the Workers’ Government, February 1923”, which helped prepare the foundations for this new revolutionary workers’ movement—Fowkes, 2014, pp123-126.

30 Harman, 1982, p270.

31 Harman, 1982, p270.

32 Harman, 1982, p274.

33 “The Anathema” in Deutscher, 2003, pp62-135. “The New Course Controversy” in Cliff, 1991, pp21-40.

34 Harman, 1982, p274, p276.

35 This development cannot be discussed here but a more comprehensive argument about the KPD’s failure in 1923 would have to include very serious accusations about its own contamination by German nationalism and how that may have strengthened the SPD. See Paul Levi’s introduction to the German edition of Trotsky’s Lessons of October, in Fernbach, 2011, p260, also Cliff, 1979, p172, and Harman, 1982, pp252-254.

36 Harman, 1982, p280.

37 Harman, 1982, p282.

38 Harman, 1982, p283. See also Tony Cliff’s criticism both of this decision and Trotsky’s part in it—Cliff, 1991, p72.

39 Cited in Harman, 1982, p286.

40 Harman, 1982, p289.

41 Harman, 1982, p302.

42 Trotsky, 1924.

43 Harman, 1982, p301. Of course, this doesn’t detract from Chris’s achievement in writing an outstanding book which has stood the test of time. Ben Fowkes, referenced several times in this article, wrote that Chris’s book is “the best short account of the critical years of German revolutionary activity between 1918 and 1923. What is particularly impressive is his constant endeavour to set the development of political events against their socio-economic background. The narrative sweeps forward majestically from catastrophe to catastrophe (1914; 1919; 1920; 1921; 1923), and though he always keeps hold of his broad underlying thesis this does not prevent him from introducing illuminating details which are illustrated by the effective use of quotations from most of the English, French and German sources available in 1982 when the book was written. His conclusions as to the reasons for the ultimate failure of the German Revolution have not, I think, been undermined to any substantial extent by the evidence from the new documents that became available in the 1990s” (personal communication). See also Fowkes, 2014, pp72 and 78.

Ben Fowkes is an independent British socialist expert on contemporary German scholarship and the German Revolution. Joseph Choonara, member of this journal’s editorial board, recommends Fowkes’s translation of volume one of Capital (the Penguin classics edition) as the best available.

This praise, of course, does not put Chris beyond criticism, as he would have been the first to acknowledge. We need to guard against “theologising” the work of our leading party intellectuals.

44 Serge, 2012, p203.

45 This was the subject of a mind boggling eve of insurrection dispute between Lenin and Trotsky. See Tony Cliff’s discussion on “Soviet Legality” in Cliff, 1976, p369. See also Cliff, 1976, p314, on the importance of the Bolshevik majority in the soviets.


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