The Kapp Putsch and the German October: a reply to John Rose

Issue: 152

Tony Phillips

My previous piece on the German Revolution in International Socialism 1491 was prompted by John Rose’s argument at his meeting at Marxism 2014 that the revolution was effectively over by January 1919.2 My article was not an attempt to provide a potted history of the entire period, only a response to the areas of John’s talk with which I disagreed. There is no need for a new history given the existence of the two classic accounts by Pierre Broué and Chris Harman which are easily available in English.3 Although both books are decades old, I do not believe that the account and interpretations of the events contained in them have been superseded from a revolutionary socialist perspective by subsequent scholarship. However, contrary to John’s claim, I do not regard the works of Chris Harman (or any other Marxist) as holy writ and therefore beyond criticism. I do maintain on the basis of my study of the period (not just Harman and Broué) that John’s argument that the prospects for victory after January 1919 were non-existent is not borne out by the facts.

In his response to my piece in International Socialism 150 John accused me of giving a misleading account of his talk. I do not accept that. I included all the quotations from John’s talk that I disagreed with in response to his complaints about an earlier draft. Readers can judge for themselves by listening to the recording of John’s talk (you can hear my intervention at the end of the discussion just before he sums up in which I first raised my disagreements with him) and reading my International Socialism article.4 Readers can also listen to our debates at Marxism 2015 and 2016 (the latter also with Ian Birchall).5

John’s talk focused on the role of workers’ councils in the November Revolution and the weeks immediately afterwards. I argued at the meeting and in International Socialism that a victorious workers’ revolution was objectively possible right up until October 1923, referring to the civil war of 1919, the mass strike wave of that year, the general strike in response to the Kapp Putsch in 1920 and finally the revolutionary crisis of 1923.

John chides me for ignoring John Riddell’s article in International Socialism 1306 and claims that “Riddell’s emphasis…on the 1920 Kapp Putsch is very different from Tony’s”.7 In fact I agree totally with Riddell’s assessment. I did not claim in my piece that the Kapp Putsch represented a direct opportunity for workers to take power. I argued only that it offered the potential to turn the tables on the bourgeoisie in a similar way to the defeat of the Kornilov coup in Russia in August 1917 which radically changed the balance of class forces while defending the gains of the February Revolution.

John appears to have retreated from his claim in his Marxism talk that the defeat of the Kapp Putsch strengthened the Weimar Republic. However, his statement that “the strategic and tactical initiative was with Carl Legien, the notorious right wing trade union leader,” does not do justice to the revolutionary potential of this event.8 It is true that Legien, the man who said before the war that “the general strike is general nonsense” was forced, faced with a military coup, to call, yes, a general strike to save the skins of the union bureaucracy and the SPD leadership. It is also true that he did not call off the strike even when the generals had been routed in order to strengthen the hand of the ADGB (the national confederation of trade unions) in determining the government that would follow, although it is also doubtful that many workers would have taken any notice of a call for an immediate return to work.

However, the strike cannot be reduced to a bureaucratic mass strike controlled by the union leadership from start to finish. It was completely solid from the Rhine to the Elbe. Given the level of military repression, this was only possible through rank and file initiative even in politically backward areas such as rural East Prussia, where the unions were weak but the farm labourers nonetheless armed themselves against the coup and joined in. As John rightly mentions, in Saxony there was a revival of the workers’ councils led by the KPD leading to dual power. As I pointed out in my previous article, the workers also took control of the Ruhr, Germany’s most important industrial area, where a red army was set up with mass workers’ support that routed General von Watter’s regular Reichswehr troops.

The strike was only allowed to peter out thanks to the vacillation of the KPD and USPD leaderships. It was the USPD that had real control of the strike, not Legien, as that organisation contained many of the militants who were leading it on the ground. But its leadership was divided between reformists whose politics were no different to the SPD and left wingers such as Ernst Daumig who were confused over how to respond to Legien’s proposal of a workers’ government. As Broué writes, “the real decision on stopping the general strike was in the hands of the Independents [the USPD]”.9 Ralf Hoffrogge writes that revolutionary shop stewards’ leader Richard Müller “accused the [USPD] party leadership of abandoning the struggling workers in the Ruhr region by calling off the strike”.10

As it was, the defeat of the coup and the defence of the gains of the November Revolution were a great victory despite the army being allowed to take revenge on the Ruhr workers. But the most important outcome was less tangible. As Riddell argues, “the successful resistance to the Kapp Putsch increased the confidence of working people in Germany, giving the revolutionary left new energy”.11 KPD leader Ruth Fischer recalled that the lost opportunity represented by the sell-out of the general strike by the right wing USPD leaders had a huge impact on the hundreds of thousands of party members, which included the cream of working class militants in the factories and pits: “The Kapp Putsch stimulated new impulses in the USPD… The mood prevailing in the spring of 1920 was ‘We need an organisation able to cope with…the Freikorps and their allies in the army’”.12 That is what enabled Communist International president Grigori Zinoviev to persuade the USPD congress a few months later to vote to affiliate to the Comintern and merge with the KPD.

I fully concur with John’s discussion of the problem of the demand for a workers’ government. As Harman argues, the slogan of the workers’ government is highly ambiguous. It can mean different things to different political forces in the same situation and different things in different situations.13

In November and December 1918 the SPD-USPD government had acted as cover for the right wing SPD leaders Philipp Scheidemann and Gustav Noske to outmanoeuvre the revolutionary workers and work with the army high command to repress the revolution. Lenin argued that the KPD should adopt the workers’ government slogan following the Kapp Putsch to put pressure on the SPD, USPD and ADGB leaders to form a government to take measures to repress the army generals who had supported the coup attempt. He believed that they should use any backsliding by the government to expose the reformist parties and trade union bureaucrats such as Legien and grow the influence of the KPD. The Communists should avoid adding to illusions in the reformists by arguing for the strengthening of the workers’ councils and workers’ militias as the only way to ensure that action was actually taken against the leaders of the putsch.14 Lenin was arguing for essentially the same approach as used in June 1917 when Bolshevik workers demonstrated in the streets of Petrograd carrying banners saying “Down with the Ten Minister-Capitalists”.15 The fourth congress of the Communist International also correctly supported the use of the slogan during 1922 to help increase the influence of the KPD.16

I only referred to the March action of 1921 in passing in my previous article because John did not mention it in his talk. I agree with his verdict that it was an unmitigated disaster. It cost the KPD thousands of the worker militants it had just won over and led to the departure of some of its most able leaders such as Paul Levi and Daumig. KPD leaders such as Heinrich Brandler who had supported the March action were clearly scarred by the experience and the harsh criticism they received from Lenin and Trotsky at the subsequent Comintern congress. They lost confidence in their ability to make independent judgements which was to prove disastrous in 1923.

However, I do not believe that the March action meant that victory two and a half years later was impossible. Fischer argues that: “During the latter part of 1922 the Communist Party of Germany was gaining in influence and membership. In the third quarter of 1922 it had 218,555 members. This contrasts with a membership figure of a year earlier, just after the March action, of 180,443”.17 Harman states that “there is little doubt that [the united front policy] built the party up again in 1922 after the near devastation of 1921”.18 Broué shows that during 1923 all indicators show the spectacular growth in size and influence of the KPD in the mass organisations of the working class including the trade unions, factory councils and proletarian hundreds and that the influence of the SPD and the trade union bureaucracy was draining away. Circulation of Die Rote Fahne, the KPD national daily paper, outstripped the SPD’s Vorwärts, despite raging inflation and dire poverty.19

John rightly goes through some of the things that went wrong in 1923 including the failings of the Brandler leadership. However, he persists in his efforts to play down the importance of the factory councils. John refers to Broué’s discussion of their role in 1920, but by 1923 they had developed dramatically and were now led by the KPD at national level, spreading their power beyond the workplaces through the proletarian hundreds (armed workers’ battalions) and the control committees that sought to control food prices. As Victor Serge, in Germany at the time working as a Comintern official, points out, “the factory committees have in the present situation a role which is in some ways reminiscent of the Soviets at the beginning of the February Revolution in Russia…they constitute a genuine proletarian power in the face of the government”.20 John does correctly describe the leading role of the factory councils in the Cuno general strike of August 1923 and rightly calls the outcome of the strike “a tremendous disappointment”.21 However, he implies that the limitations of the factory councils were in some way partly responsible for both this and the final defeat of the revolution in October but does not explain why.

The Cuno strike did not achieve its full potential outcome, not because of the limitations of the factory councils or the predictable betrayal of the SPD leadership, but because of the wrong perspective of the KPD leadership and the Executive Committee of the Communist International (ECCI) up to that point. By the beginning of August only the KPD did not recognise that a revolutionary situation now existed in Germany. On 26 July the Prussian conservative Kreuz-Zeitung paper, which carried the Iron Cross on its masthead, wrote that: “Without doubt we are on the eve of another revolution—who could be mistaken after seeing what is unfolding before our eyes.” The Catholic Zentrum Party’s Germania drew similar conclusions.22 On 29 July the KPD had called an anti-fascist day of demonstrations across the country in response to the rise of the far right. It then cancelled outdoor protests in many regions due to fear of state repression. But the response was still massive, with 200,000 workers joining indoor meetings in Berlin, for example.

The fact that two weeks later the KPD, through the factory councils and against the opposition of the official ADGB bureaucrats, called a nationwide general strike that toppled the Cuno government showed that workers’ power was on the agenda. At this point the slogan of a workers’ government was lagging behind the movement. In a fast developing revolutionary situation with the KPD now ­hegemonic in the working class, the Cuno strike should have been turned into a struggle for workers’ power. Harman asks: “Would things not have been a little different if the party had moved (as Brandler had himself suggested) from the defensive to the offensive two or three weeks before the strike broke—if it had not retreated on the anti-fascist day of demonstrations—and if it had raised a clearer slogan than for the ‘workers’ government’”.23 The central slogan of the strike should have been “Down with the Cuno government—all power to the factory councils!”

But it was only with the fall of the Cuno government that the ECCI in Moscow woke up to the situation in Germany and started urging the KPD to go onto the offensive and start preparing for an insurrection. Drawn out planning for the rising began in Moscow accompanied by detailed military preparations in Germany. But all this should have started months earlier. The presence of key KPD leaders, such as Brandler, in Moscow for weeks in August and September contributed to the failure of the KPD to give a positive lead to continuing workers’ struggles. Fischer, who was also in Moscow for much of this time, later argued that too great an emphasis was placed on technical military preparations and that political preparation of the mass organisations of working class for the rising was neglected. She believed that a correct strategy would have involved the “occupation of factories by workers’ committees, open military organisation in all industrial centres, armed demonstrations and finally the formation of a dual government—regional and Reich committees of factory councils proclaiming their aspiration to rule Germany from now on”.24 This particular view is supported by August Thalheimer, a leader of the rival Brandler faction in the KPD leadership otherwise very hostile to Fischer.25

John writes, “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”.26 But as Brandler told Isaac Deutscher many years later: “In the Executive of the Comintern, these differences between him [Trotsky] and the rest of the Soviet delegation were concealed”.27 Deutscher reports that Brandler told him that “the Soviet delegation to the Comintern presented outwardly a united front so that other members knew little or nothing about the disagreements among the Russians…the whole Soviet delegation considered the situation in Germany a revolutionary one”.28

As John argues, the decision to rely on the support of the local leaders of the left wing of the SPD at the Chemnitz conference of the workers’ councils for a general strike as the trigger for the insurrection was a huge mistake. But an even bigger mistake was for the KPD leadership to then call off the insurrection. The delegates at Chemnitz were from Saxony only. The government had banned a national conference of the factory councils but the Cuno strike had been launched by a delegate conference of factory councils in the Berlin area. Failing that, the factory councils’ leading national body, the Council of Fifteen, could have called a general strike. Fischer points to the growing involvement of SPD supporters in the proletarian hundreds in the key industrial areas, which suggests that, unlike in 1921, the KPD would not have been isolated if the rising had gone ahead on 21 October, the date of the Chemnitz conference.

Of course, there was no guarantee of success but, unlike in March 1921, Germany was in deep crisis and the rising could have galvanised the whole working class. Hitler’s and Erich Ludendorff’s bid for power in Munich in early November was a total flop. The ruling class had driven the majority of the population into desperate poverty and, in mortal fear of revolution, it had appealed to British, French and US imperialism for help. The KPD had marched the most militant sections of the working class up to the top of the hill; marching them back down again led to huge demoralisation and loss of faith in the party. It did not even live to fight another day as a revolutionary party. The crisis passed and within months the bureaucratisation of the Comintern under the direction of Zinoviev—and later Stalin—was under way.

Ten years later the KPD would allow Hitler to come to power over a divided working class without a shot being fired. It would have been better to have fought and lost in 1923 than to miss an opportunity that could have changed ­history. In hindsight defeat can either be seen as inevitable or we can look at how things could have been different. This period is so fascinating because the stakes were so high and the lessons for revolutionary socialists today are so important and so numerous. But the key lesson that stands out is the need to build the ­revolutionary party now.

Tony Phillips is a member of the SWP based in Walthamstow in London and is a Unison trade union branch secretary working in the fire service.


1 Rose, 2016.

2 Phillips, 2016.

3 Harman, 1982; Broué, 2006.

4 I do however accept John’s criticism in footnote 2 of his International Socialism article.

5 Phillips and Rose, 2015; Birchall, Phillips and Rose, 2016.

6 Riddell, 2011.

7 Rose, 2016, p192.

8 Rose, 2016, p192.

9 Broué, 2006, p367.

10 Hoffrogge, 2015, p138.

11 Riddell, 2011, p119.

12 Fischer, 1948, p134.

13 Harman and Potter, 2007.

14 Lenin, 1977, pp579-580.

15 Trotsky, 1977, pp462-463.

16 Riddell, 2012, p1,167.

17 Fischer, 1948, p222.

18 Harman, 1982, p239.

19 Broué, 2006, pp713-720.

20 Serge, 2000, p52.

21 Rose, 2016, p196.

22 Quoted in Broué, 2006, p742.

23 Harman, 1982, p273.

24 Fischer, 1948, p322.

25 Thalheimer, 1931.

26 Rose, 2016, p197.

27 Quoted in Deutscher, 1977.

28 Deutscher, 1977.


Birchall, Ian, Tony Phillips and John Rose, 2016, “Debating the German Revolution 1918-23”, talk at Marxism 2016,

Broué, Pierre, 2006, The German Revolution 1917-1923 (Haymarket).

Deutscher, Isaac, 1977, “Record of a Discussion with Heinrich Brandler”, New Left Review, I/105.

Fischer, Ruth, 1948, Stalin and German Communism: A Study in the Origins of the State Party (Harvard University Press).

Harman, Chris, and Tim Potter, 2007 [1977], “The Workers’ Government”, International Socialism (online only),

Harman, Chris, 1982, The Lost Revolution, Germany 1918-1923 (Bookmarks).

Hoffrogge, Ralf, 2015, Working Class Politics in the German Revolution: Richard Müller, the Revolutionary Shop Stewards and the Origins of the Council Movement (Haymarket).

Lenin, V I, 1977 [1920], “‘Left-wing Communism’: An Infantile Disorder”, in Selected Works (Progress Publishers),

Phillips, Tony, 2016, “Was the German Revolution Defeated by January 1919?”, International Socialism 149 (winter),

Phillips, Tony, and John Rose, 2015, “Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils of Germany 1918: The High Point of the Revolution?” talk at Marxism 2015,

Riddell, John, 2011, “The Origins of the United Front Policy”, International Socialism 130 (spring),

Riddell, John (ed), 2012, Toward the United Front: Proceedings of the Fourth Conference of the Communist International, 1922 (Haymarket).

Rose, John, 2016, “Revolutionary Workers’ Movements and Parliaments in Germany 1918-23: A Reply to Tony Phillips”, International Socialism 150 (spring),

Serge, Victor, 2000, Witness to the German Revolution: Writings from Germany 1923 (Redwords).

Thalheimer, August, 1931, A Missed Opportunity? The German October Legend and the Real History of 1923 (Marken Press),

Trotsky, Leon, 1977, The History of the Russian Revolution (Pluto Press).