Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘jakob walcher’

The problem of the workers’ government. 

The political consequences of the putsch ran very deep, even in the regions
where neither workers’ councils nor workers’ militias were formed, even
where the working people were content to follow the order to strike without
taking up arms. For millions of Germans, the main lesson of the putsch was
its demonstration of the bankruptcy of the Social-Democratic leadership.
Noske, ‘the generals’ socialist’, whom they discarded as soon as his job was
done, was completely discredited, and his political career was at an end. 

Moreover, it was the workers who had defeated the putschists, by a general
strike which was started without the knowledge of the Majority Social-
Democratic government, and in a certain sense in spite of it. During the
struggle, activists of the different parties, who until that time had been opposing
each other, drew closer together. For the first time since before the War they
had fought side by side against the class enemy. The prestige of the trade-
union leadership rose; Legien had issued the order for the general strike when
Noske and Ebert ran away. From that point, the trade-union leaders were
expected to take on political responsibilities.
There was deep confusion in the ranks of the SPD. The President, Otto
Wels, posed the problem on 30 March in these terms: ‘How are we going to
get the Party out of the chaos into which it has been plunged by the common
fight against reaction?’ In very many localities, the Social-Democratic activists
and even their organisations had marched with the Communists and the
Independents with slogans contrary to those of their national leadership. For
example, in Elberfeld, a leader of the SPD had gone so far as to sign with
the representatives of the Independents and the KPD(S) a call for struggle
‘for the dictatorship of the proletariat’  Vorwärts expressed the sentiment of
nearly every German worker when it wrote on 18 March: ‘The government
must be rebuilt. Not to its right but to its left. We need a government which
makes up its mind unreservedly to fight against the militarist, nationalist
reaction, and which knows how to win the confidence of the workers as far
as possible to its left.’ 

It was clear before Kapp’s flight that the bourgeoisie was trying to assemble
a front of the Reichswehr and the governmental parties against the reawakening of the working class. Vice-Chancellor Schiffer and General von Seeckt together
issued in the name of the government an appeal for a return to calm, for
national unity ‘against Bolshevism’. The SPD was torn between opposing
tendencies. But this also happened in the USPD to some extent, particularly
in places where its right-wing leaders had lined up with the Majority’s
capitulatory approach. The USPD’s activists expressed the united pressure
of the working class, shoulder to shoulder in the strike, and the demand for
guarantees at the level of government; the Party’s press broadly reflected this
response. 

The Party apparatus and the parliamentary group, however, were
inclined to favour restoring the parliamentary coalition. The latter issued an
appeal in which it declared that the continuation of ‘the people’s strike’ after
the leaders of the putsch had fled was a threat to the unity of the ‘republican
front’. At the same time, a proclamation signed jointly by Schiffer and the
Prussian Minister of the Interior, the Social Democrat Hirsch, assured everyone
that the police and the Reichswehr had done their duty throughout, and had
at no time been accomplices in the putsch. This ‘amnesty’ was evidently
necessary for order to be restored, and the government proclaimed a state of
extreme emergency on 19 March. 

The government had been saved by the general strike. But would it use
against the workers the generals who had refused to resist the putschists?
Were Ebert and Noske to retain power? Had the workers fought for nothing
else but to keep them there? The reply to these political questions depended
largely on the leaders of the workers’ parties and trade unions. 

The workers had a very powerful weapon at their disposal: the general
strike. Legien was aware of this. On 17 March, he called on the USPD Executive
to send representatives to a meeting of the General Commission of the trade
unions. The Executive delegated Hilferding and Koenen, and Legien proposed
to them that a ‘workers’ government’ be formed, made up of representatives
of the workers’ parties and the trade unions. He justified his proposal by
explaining that from now on, no government could rule in Germany against
the trade unions, and that in an exceptional situation the latter were ready
to take on their responsibilities.
Clearly, neither the representatives of the Independents nor the railway
worker Geschke, who had also been invited to the meeting, where he
represented the KPD(S), could give a reply before they had consulted the
responsible bodies in their parties, which they then did. 

During the meeting
of the Executive of the Independents, Koenen and Hilferding spoke in favour
of accepting Legien’s proposal, and of opening negotiations with a view to
forming a workers’ government. Crispien, who was Chairman of the Party
and the leader of its right wing, protested that he could not possibly sit at
the same table with people who ‘had murdered workers’, and that no discussion
was possible with ‘betrayers of the working class’ such as the members of
the General Commission. Däumig, the leader of the left wing, supported him,
and said that he was ready to resign his function and even to leave the Party
if the Executive engaged in such negotiations. Koenen and Hilferding did
not find much support amongst their comrades. Stoecker and Rosenfeld, other
leaders of the Left, expressed surprise at Koenen’s views, and demanded
simply that the Executive should not brusquely reject them, for fear of not
being understood by the millions of striking workers. When the vote was
taken, the categorical refusal which Crispien and Däumig proposed was
carried by a large majority.

But Legien did not withdraw from the game. On the next day, 18 March,
despite the pressure on him from Social-Democratic elements close to the
apparatus who urged him to call off the strike now that the putsch had been
defeated, he prevailed upon the General Council to prolong it until the working
class had received sufficient guarantees about the composition and the policies
of the government. Laborious discussions began between the leaders of the
trade unions and the representatives of the government. Legien warned his
questioners that he would not hesitate, if he thought it necessary, to form a
‘workers’ government’ himself, which would use force to prevent the return of the Bauer government in Berlin, even if this initiative were to lead to civil
war, as he knew it might.

Legien put forward a number of non-negotiable conditions. Noske must
resign from the government of the Reich, as must two ministers, Heine and
Oeser, from that of Prussia; trade-union delegates must have key posts in the
government; the putschists and their accomplices must be severely punished,
and the army and the police must be thoroughly purged. He repeated that
there existed an immediate possibility of forming a workers’ government
with representatives of the trade unions and the two Social-Democratic Parties.
The trade-union leadership opened an unprecedented crisis in the SPD by
its call for a general strike, and by its open opposition to the Party’s leaders.
This shook the Party to the very top of its apparatus, the Executive and the
parliamentary group. But the attitude of the Independents was decisive. The
problem was not simple for them. The Left was divided, with Däumig opposing
Koenen. One section of the Right, including Crispien himself, went back on
its first response on the evening of 17 March, when a new delegation from
the Executive sought out Legien to tell him that they wanted to continue the
discussions. Däumig, however, stood completely firm; he declared that he
could not agree to the Party approving any ‘workers’’, government unless it
called for the dictatorship of the proletariat and the régime of workers’
councils.

Despite the opposition of his comrades of the same tendency who
controlled the trade unions in Berlin, he carried the day. The majority of the
Left agreed with him that the workers’ government which Legien proposed
would amount to nothing but a fresh version of ‘the Noske régime’, a new
edition of the Ebert-Haase government of 1918. As for the right wing, it
finally reached its decision in the light of the risks involved in forming such
a government under the fire of criticism from the Left and the threat of a
split, in a situation in which it would become nothing more than a fragile
left cover for the government. Legien had to drop his proposal. 

However, Legien still had to present to the government his conditions for
resumption of work. On the morning of the 19th, after long negotiations, the representatives of the government solemnly undertook to fulfil the conditions
which Legien dictated, and which were called ‘the nine points of the trade
unions’. These were: 

Recognition by the future government of the role of the trade-union
organisations in the economic and social reconstruction of the country. 

Disarming and immediate punishment of the rebels and their accomplices. 

Immediate purge of all counter-revolutionaries from the state
administration and state undertakings, and immediate reinstatement of
all workers dismissed for trade-union or political activity. 

Reform of the state on a democratic basis, in agreement and cooperation
with the trade unions. 

Full application of existing social legislation and adoption of new, more
progressive laws. 

Immediate resumption of measures to prepare for the socialisation of
the economy, convocation of the socialisation commission, and immediate
socialisation of the coal and potash mines. 

Requisition of foodstuffs to control the food supply. 

Dissolution of all counter-revolutionary armed formations. 

Formation
of defence leagues on the basis of the trade-union organisations, with
the units of the Reichswehr and the police which remained loyal at the
time of the putsch to be unaffected. 

Sacking of Noske and Heine.

On this basis, the ADGB and the AFA decided to call for a return to work, and most of the ministers and the parliamentarians made their way back to
Berlin. But neither the Independents nor the Greater Berlin strike committee
had given their agreement, and the decision remained on paper awaiting the
meetings of the strikers, which were generally called for Sunday, 21 March.

Indeed, the agreement of the strikers was far from having been won. Many
of the meetings decided to reject the decision of the trade-union confederations,
believing that the government had given nothing but promises for which the
workers had no guarantee, and that to endorse the decision would effectively
be giving the government a blank cheque. Furthermore, when ‘government’ troops had entered the suburbs of Berlin, there had been several violent
confrontations with armed workers, exchanges of shots, and arrests.

 A messenger presented himself at the Greater Berlin strike committee
bearing an appeal for help from the workers in the Ruhr who were under
pressure from the Reichswehr. The representatives of the KPD(S), followed
by many Independent workers, opposed ending the strike. Pieck and Walcher
argued that they should protect the Ruhr workers and continue the movement
until their security was ensured, that is, until the proletariat was armed. 

Then
the question of the workers’ government was raised publicly for the first
time. Däumig denounced what he considered to be the manoeuvres of Legien
and his ‘government operation’, the sole purpose of which was to pull the
Independents into the parliamentary game and to provide a left-wing cover
for the enfeebled coalition. The Communists had no mandate on this question.
They said that they were only learning about Legien’s proposals in the meeting
itself, and that they could speak only as individuals.

Walcher emphasised that the sort of workers’ government that the trade
unions proposed would be a ‘socialist government against Ebert and Haase’,
and that it did not need, contrary to what Däumig demanded, to announce
formally that it recognised the dictatorship of the proletariat, in order to be,
by its very existence, a step forward and a victory for the workers’ movement.
He turned to the trade-union delegates and said:

If you take your undertakings seriously, if you really want to arm the workers
and to disarm the counter-revolution, if you really want to purge the
administration of all the counter-revolutionary elements, then that means
civil war. In which case, it is not only obvious that we support the government,
but still more that we shall be at the forefront of the struggle. If, on the
contrary, you betray your programme and stab the workers in the back,
then we – and we very much hope that we shall be supported by people
coming from your ranks – we shall undertake the most resolute struggle,
without reserve and with all the means at our disposal.

At the end of a stormy session, it was finally decided, with the support of
the KPD(S) delegates, to demand that the strike be continued until guarantees
had been obtained, especially about the eighth point, the integration of workers
in the forces of ‘republican defence’. At the end of the meeting, negotiations
opened between the delegates of the two Social-Democratic Parties and the
trade unions. The Majority Social-Democratic delegates had a vital interest
in driving a wedge between the Communists and the Independents, and in
ending the general strike. In the name of the Social-Democratic fraction, Bauer
undertook to respect these four conditions: withdrawal of the Berlin troops
to the line of the Spree; lifting of the state of siege; undertaking to take no
offensive action against the armed workers, especially in the Ruhr; and
enrolment in Prussia of working people in ‘defence groups’ under
trade-union control.”

– Pierre Broue, The German Revolution, 1917-1923. Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2006, pp. 361-367.

Photographs are: Top: Berlin, U-Bahn Bülowstraße, März 1920 Generalstreik Kapp-Putsch.  Above, left: Postcard showing women fetching water during the General Strik in Berlin. Source. Above, right: Funeral procession in Solingen, Rhineland, of fallen militants, who died at Hahnerberg ( Wuppertal ), 1920. Source. Bottom: Portrait of Carl Legien.

Read Full Post »