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“As early as the last period of the feudal epoch, a kind of parliament had already existed: the convocation of Estates. In the struggle with the estates – first the nobility, later especially the world of finance and trade, to whose material aid he had to turn – the prince had drawn or selected representatives of the different orders and occupations and convened them in a corporate body. But this body was only to express wishes, make suggestions, furnish opinions: this meeting of estates was not competent to enact and promulgate laws itself. Eventually a second body partly joined the assembly of estates, coming more from the people and even sometimes elected, so that a distinction was drawn between a first and second chamber (Lords and Commons). But the competences of both chambers were still very limited by the power of the princes. Real parliaments with full legislative power, proceeding from open election, everywhere formed one of the achievements of the bourgeois revolution.

As we know, the bourgeois class stood for the principle of liberalism in its state-political ideology and the principle of democracy in its state-political organisation. It was, then, for freedom and equality. But only for freedom as it saw it, namely as far as it regarded the interests of its economy of profit, and for equality only insofar as it could be expressed in paragraphs on paper, not to be confirmed and realised through equality of social conditions. Not even in dreams did it occur to them to respect and practice freedom and equality in relation to the proletariat, still less did they let the principle of brotherhood carry any weight for it.

At the same time, bourgeois society is by no means a monolithic class. Rather it contains many layers, groups and professional categories, and therefore a lot of different economic interests. The wholesaler has different interests from the retailer, the house-owner from the tenant, the tradesman from the farmer, the buyer from the seller. But all the different groups and categories want to and ought to be taken into account in the legislature. Each has more prospect of consideration the larger the total of representatives of its interests in parliament. On this account every layer or group tried to collect as many votes as possible for its candidates in parliamentary elections. To make their agitation vigorous and lasting, they combined in election associations from which the parties emerged with firmer organisations and more definite programmes. Whatever these parties called themselves, whichever programmes they put forward, whatever high and holy virtues they stood up for, whatever fine phrases and slogans they used – their struggle, to the extent that it strove for political influence, was always concerned with quite definite economic interests. Thus the conservative party, which wanted the preservation (i.e. conservation) of the old traditional state form, distribution of power, and ideology, formed the rallying point for the feudal caste of big landowners. The big industrialists with an interest in the national state, who embraced the liberalism of the capitalist era, formed the party of the national liberals. The petty bourgeois, to whom freedom of opinion and equality before the law seemed achievements worth striving and being thankful for, were found in the democratic and radical parties.

At first the workers had no party of their own, for they had not yet grasped that they were a class on their own with their own interests and political aims. So they let themselves be taken in by the democrats and liberals, or even the conservatives, and formed the faithful herd of voters for the bourgeois parties. In proportion, however, as the workers’ class consciousness was jolted awake and strengthened, they went over to forming their own parties and sending their own representatives to parliament, with the mission of securing for the working class as many and as large advantages as possible during the construction and completion of the bourgeois state. Thus, in the Erfurt Programme[11] of the Social-Democratic Party, the many practical demands of the movement are laid down alongside the great, revolutionary final goal, reflecting its parliamentary life and orientation towards the immediate present. These demands had nothing to do with socialism, but derived mainly from bourgeois programmes; only they were never carried out by bourgeois parties, in fact had never been seriously wanted. It is not to be denied that the representatives of social democracy did hard and sincere work in parliament. But their effectiveness and success remained limited. For parliament is an instrument of bourgeois politics, tied to the bourgeois method of making politics, and bourgeois too in its effect. In the last analysis, the real advantage of parliamentarism accrues to the bourgeoisie.

The bourgeois, i.e. parliamentary method of carrying on politics is closely related to the bourgeois method of carrying on economics. The method is: trade and negotiate. As the bourgeois trades and negotiates goods and values in his life and office, at market and fair, in bank and stock exchange, so in parliament too he trades and negotiates the legislative sanctions and legal means for the money and material values negotiated. In parliament the representatives of each party try to extract as much as possible from the legislature for their customers, their interest group, their ‘firm’. They are also in constant communication with their producers’ combines, employers’ associations cartels, special interest associations or trade unions, receiving from them directions, information, rules of behaviour or mandates. They are the agents, the delegates, and the business is done through speeches, bargains, haggling, dealing, deception, voting manoeuvres, compromises. The main work of parliament, then, is not even done in the large parliamentary negotiations, which are only a sort of spectacle, but in the committees which meet privately and without the mask of the conventional lie.

In the pre-revolutionary period, parliament also had its justification for the working class in that it was the means of securing for it such political and economic advantages as the power relations of any given moment allowed. But this justification was null and void the instant that the proletariat arose as a revolutionary class and advanced its claims to take over the entire state and economic power. Now there was no more negotiation, no putting up with greater or lesser advantages, no compromises – now it was all or nothing. The first revolutionary achievement of the proletariat would logically have had to be the abolition of parliament. But it could not fulfil this achievement because it was itself still organised in parties, and so bound up with organisations of a basically bourgeois character and consequently incapable of transcending bourgeois nature, i.e. bourgeois politics, economy, state order and ideology. A party needs parliamentarism, as parliament needs parties. One conditions the other, in mutual sustenance and support. The maintenance of the party means maintenance of parliament and with it the maintenance of bourgeois power.

After the model of the bourgeois state and its institutions, the party too is organised on authoritarian centralist principles. All movement in it goes in the form of commands from the top of the central committee down to the broad base of the membership. Below, the mass of the members; above, the ranks of officials at local, regional, country and national level. The party secretaries are the NCOs, the MPs, the officers. They give the orders, issue the watchwords, make policy, are the higher dignitaries. The party apparatus, in the form of offices, newspapers, funds, mandates, gives them power to prescribe for the mass of members, which none of the latter can avoid. The officials of the central committee are, so to speak, the party Ministers; they issue decrees and instructions, interpret the decisions of party congresses and conferences, determine the use of money, distribute posts and offices according to their personal policy. Certainly the party conference is supposed to be the supreme court, but its composition, sitting, decision-taking and interpretation of its decisions are thoroughly in the hands of the highest holders of power in the party, and the zombie-like obedience typical of centralism takes care of the necessary echoes of subordination.

The concept of a party with a revolutionary character in the proletarian sense is nonsense. It can only have a revolutionary character in the bourgeois sense, and then only during the transition between feudalism and capitalism. In other words, in the interest of the bourgeoisie. During the transition between capitalism and socialism, it must fail, the more so in proportion to how revolutionary had been its expression in theory and phraseology. When the world war broke out in 1914, i.e. when the bourgeoisie of the whole world declared war on the proletariat of the whole world, the Social Democratic Party should have replied with the revolution of the proletariat of the whole world against the bourgeoisie of the whole world. But it failed, threw away the mask of world revolution, and followed bourgeois policy all along the line. The USP should have issued the call to revolution when the peace treaty of Versailles was concluded. Its bourgeois nature, however, forced it to a western instead of eastern orientation; it agitated for signing and submitting. Even the KPD, hyper-radical as its pose is, on every critical question is constrained by its bourgeois-centralist authoritarian character to serve the bourgeois politicians as soon as it comes to the crunch. It sits in parliament and carried on bourgeois politics; in the Ruhr in 1920 it negotiated with the bourgeois military[12]; it fought on the side of Stinnes in the Ruhr action against France by means of passive resistance; it falls victim to the cult of bourgeois nationalism and fraternises with fascists; it pushes itself into bourgeois governments in order to help further Russia’s policy of capitalist construction from there. Everywhere – bourgeois politics carried out with typically bourgeois means. When the SPD says it does not want a revolution, there is a certain logic in this because it, as a party, can never carry out a proletarian revolution. But when the KPD says it wants the revolution, then it takes into its programme far more than it is capable of performing, whether in ignorance of its bourgeois character or out of fraudulent demagogy.

Every bourgeois organisation is basically an administrative organisation which requires a bureaucracy in order to function. So is the party, dependent on the administrative machine served by a paid professional leadership. The leaders are administrative officials and as such belong to a bourgeois category. Leaders, i.e. officials, are petty bourgeois, not proletarians.

Most party and trade union leaders were once workers, perhaps the most sound and revolutionary. But as they became officials, i.e. leaders, agents and makers of business, they learned to trade and negotiate, to handle documents and cash; they undertook mandates, began to operate within the great bourgeois organism with the aid of their organisational apparatus. To whom God gives office, he also gives understanding. Anyone who is leader in a bourgeois organisation, including parties and trade unions, does so not on the strength of his intellectual qualifications, his insight and excellence, his courage and character, but he is leader on the strength of the organisational apparatus, which is in his hands, at his disposal, endowing him with competence. He owes his leadership role to the authority arising from the position he occupies in the organisational mechanism. Thus the party secretary obtains his power from the office in which all the threads of the administration converge, from the paper work of which he alone has exact knowledge; the editor obtains his from the newspaper which he has in his intellectual power and uses as his instrument; the treasurer from the funds he manages; the MP from the mandate which gives him an inside view of the apparatus of government denied to ordinary mortals. An official of the central leadership may be much more limited and mediocre than an under-official, and yet his influence and power are greater, exactly as an NCO can be smarter than a Colonel or General without having the great authority of these officers. Ebert[13] is certainly not the ablest mind in his party, yet it has installed him in the highest office it has to give; he is certainly not the ablest mind in the government either – but why does he occupy that position? Not on the basis of his personal qualifications but as the random representative of his party, a centralist, authoritarian organisation, in which he has climbed to the highest rung of the ladder. And why does the bourgeoisie put up with this Ebert? Because the bourgeois method of his politics has brought him to this position and because he conducts himself politically throughout as the advocate and counsel of these bourgeois politics. A bourgeois leader in this position would be neither better nor worse than he.

Here a word must be said about leadership in general.

There will no doubt always be people who in their knowledge, their experiences, their ability, their character are superior to others whom they will influence, advise, stimulate in struggle, carry away with them, lead. And so there will always be leaders in this sense. A good thing too, for cleverness, integrity of character and ability should dominate, not stupidity, coarseness and weakness. Anyone who, in his rejection of the paid professional leadership that gets its authority from the organisational apparatus, goes so far as to repudiate all and every leadership without considering that superiority of mind and character is a quality of leadership not to be repudiated but worthy of welcome, oversteps the mark and becomes a demagogue. That goes too for those who inveigh and rage against the intellectuals in the movement, or – as has occurred – even against knowledge. Naturally bourgeois knowledge is always suspect and usually questionable, bourgeois intellectuals are always an abomination in the workers’ movement, which they misuse, lead astray, and often enough betray to the bourgeoisie. But the achievements of bourgeois learning can be re-cast for the working class and forged into weapons, exactly as the capitalist machines will one day perform useful services for the working class. And when intellectuals in the interest of the proletariat attend to the important process of the scientific assimilation and reworking of intellectual works, they deserve recognition and thanks for it, not abuse and inculpation. In conclusion, Marx, Bakunin, Rosa Luxemburg and others were intellectuals, whose scientific labours have rendered the most valuable services to the liberation struggle of the proletariat.

The paid professional leaders of the bourgeois organisations deserve mistrust and are to be rejected as agents of a bourgeois administrative apparatus. Their bourgeois activity generates in them bourgeois living habits and a bourgeois style of thinking and feeling. Inevitably they take on the typical petty-bourgeois leadership ideology of the party and trade union apparatchiks. The secure appointment, the heightened social position, the punctually paid salary, the well-heated office, the quickly learnt routine in the carrying out of formal administrative business, engender a mentality which makes the labour official in no way distinguishable from the petty post, tax, community or state official as much in his work as in his domestic milieu. The official is for correct management of business, painstaking orderliness, smooth discharging of obligations; he hates disturbances, friction, conflicts. Nothing is so repugnant to him as chaos, therefore he opposes any sort of disorder; he combats the initiative and independence of the masses; he fears the revolution.

But the revolution comes. Suddenly it is there, rearing up. Everything is convulsed, everything turned upside down. The workers are in the streets, pressing for action. They set themselves to casting down the bourgeoisie, destroying the state, taking possession of the economy. Then a monstrous fear seizes the officials. For God’s sake, is order to be transformed into disorder, peace into unrest, the correct management of business into chaos? Not that! Thus ‘Vorwärts’[14] on 8 November 1918 warned of “agitators with no conscience” who “had fantasies of revolution”; thus the newsletter of the trade unions combated the “irresponsible adventurers” and “putschists”; thus the parliamentary party sent Scheidemann[15] even at the last minute into the Wilhelmite Cabinet[16], so that “the greatest misfortune – the revolution – might be avoided.” And during the revolution, wherever workers wanted to go into action they were eagerly countered every time by party and trade union officials with the call: “Not too violent! No bloodshed! Be reasonable! Let us negotiate!”

As negotiations were resorted to, instead of grabbing the enemy and throwing him to the ground, the bourgeoisie was saved. Negotiation is after all their method of carrying on politics, and on their fighting terrain they are at their most secure. Wanting to carry on proletarian politics in the home of the bourgeoisie and with their methods means sitting down at the capitalists’ table, eating and drinking with them, and betraying the interests of the proletariat. Treachery to the masses – from the SPD to the most extreme of the KPD – need not arise from base intention; it is simply the consequence of the bourgeois nature of every party and trade union organisation. The leaders of these parties and trade unions are in fact spiritually part of the bourgeois class, physically part of bourgeois society.

But bourgeois society is collapsing. It is more and more falling victim to ruin and decay. Its legislature is ridiculed and despised by the bourgeoisie itself. Laws on interest rates and currency are promulgated, and no-one gives a damn. Everything that not long ago was regarded as sacred – church, morality, marriage, school, public opinion – is exposed, soiled, made mock of, distorted into caricature. In such a time the party, too, cannot go on existing any longer; as a limb of bourgeois society it will go down with it. Only a quack would try to preserve the hand from death when the body lies dying. Hence the unending chain of party splits, disturbances, dissolutions – of the collapse of the party which no executive committee, no party congress, no Second or Third International, no Kautsky and no Lenin can now stop. The hour of the parties has now come, as the hour of bourgeois society has come. They will still hold out, as guilds and companies from the middle ages have held out until today: as outlived institutions with no power to form history. A party like the SPD, which gave up all the achievements of the November uprising without a struggle, in part even wilfully played into the hands of the counter-revolution, with which it is tied up and sits in governments, has lost every justification for existence. And a party like the KPD, which is only a West European branch of Turkestan and could not maintain itself for a couple of weeks by its own strength without the rich subsidies from Moscow, has never had this justification for existence. The proletariat will transcend them both, untroubled by party discipline and the screeches of the apparatchiks, by resolutions and congress decisions. In the hour of downfall it will rescue itself from asphyxiation by strangling bourgeois power of organisation.

It will take its cause into its own hands.”

– Otto Rühle, From the Bourgeois to the Proletarian Revolution. 1924.  Translation was first published by Socialist Reproduction in co-operation with Revolutionary Perspectives in 1974. The translation was made from a German edition of the text published in 1970 by IPTR (Institut für Praxis und Theorie des Rätekommunismus, Berlin)

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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.

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Scenes from the Straßenkämpfe in Leipzig, März 1920. [Scenes of the General Strike in Kiel, March 18, 1920].

“Nothing moved in Berlin, where the Regime could not get a single poster
printed. In the Ruhr, on the contrary, when the Lichtschlag Free Corps began
to move, it immediately came under attack from bands of armed workers.31
In the same way, there was fighting in Leipzig, Frankfurt, Halle and Kiel.
The sailors in Wilhelmshaven mutinied, and arrested Admiral von Leventzow
and 400 officers. In Chemnitz, still under the leadership of the Communists,
a committee of action formed of representatives of the workers’ parties called
on the workers to elect their delegates to workers’ factory councils. A few
hours later, these delegates, elected by 75,000 workers on a basis of lists and
proportional representation, in turn elected the workers’ council of the city,
ten Communists, nine Social Democrats, one Independent and one Democrat. Brandler was one of the three chairmen of this revolutionary body, the authority
and prestige of which extended through a whole industrial region where the forces of repression were disarmed or neutralised, and the workers were
armed. He was to write, not without pride:

In Chemnitz, we were the first party to issue the slogans of the general
strike, disarming the bourgeoisie, arming the workers and immediately re-
electing the political workers’ councils. We also were the first, thanks to the
strength of the Communist Party, to make these slogans a reality.

However, a new danger appeared, precisely in the very region where the
Communist initiatives seemed to be enabling a solid front of working-class
resistance to the putschists to be created. An activist of the KPD(S) named
Max Hoelz had during 1919 been the organiser of violent demonstrations of
the unemployed in the Falkenstein region. Under threat of arrest, he went
underground, where he met active elements in the Party opposition.

In this miserable Erzgebirge-Vogtland region, crushed beneath generalised
unemployment, he had organised armed detachments, a kind of ‘urban
guerrilla’, groups of unemployed or quite young people with weapons, who
attacked the police or agents of the employers, and often seized the money
in factories or banks to finance his troops. In this crisis-ravaged region, after
three arrests and escapes, Hoelz cut the figure of a modern-day Robin Hood. On the news of the Kapp uprising, he attacked, forced open the prison gates
at Plauen, recruited and summarily organised guerrilla units which he named
‘red guards’, and began to harass the Reichswehr. He organised raids against
its isolated detachments, looted shops and banks, and spectacularly improved
the food supply to the people of the workers’ suburbs. His ‘activist’ conception
of action, the way in which he substituted commando raids for mass action,
as well as the alarm which he provoked even in some of the working-class
population, aroused the anxiety of Brandler and the Chemnitz Communists,
who condemned him as an adventurist, and denounced some of his initiatives
as provocative.

A similar phenomenon in the Ruhr attracted more numerous masses of
workers, and gave rise to what was called a ‘Red Army’. In Hagen, a committee
of action was formed on the initiative of Independent activists, Stemmer, a
miner, and Josef Ernst, a metalworker, and set up a ‘military committee’. In
a few hours, 2,000 armed workers marched on Wetter, where the workers
were fighting the Free Corps.

It seemed on 16 March that there was either fighting or preparation for it
throughout Germany, except in the capital, where the military superiority of
the army seemed overwhelming. The Red Army of the Ruhr workers was
marching on Dortmund. The Free Corps and the Reichswehr held the centre
of Leipzig against improvised detachments of workers. In Kottbus, Major
Buchrucker ordered any civilian bearing arms to be shot on the spot. In Stettin,
a committee of action on the Chemnitz model had been formed, and the
struggle between the supporters and the opponents of the putsch took place
in the garrison itself.

Levi wrote to the Zentrale a very angry letter from the prison in Berlin
where he had been held for several weeks. He criticised its passivity and lack
of initiative, and its blindness to the possibilities which the struggle against
the putsch offered to revolutionaries. Moreover, over most of the country,
apart from Berlin, the leading Communists reacted in a similar way to him.
The activists in the Ruhr called for the arming of the proletariat, and for the
immediate election of workers’ councils from which the supporters of bourgeois democracy would be excluded. The instructions drawn up by the
Zentrale on the 13th received a cool reception everywhere, and its orders
were destroyed. Almost everywhere, without taking any notice of the
instructions from the Zentrale, Communists called for a general strike, and
played a part in organising it. Several opposition groups, however – notably
that in Hamburg – took up a wait-and-see position which they justified by a
refusal to join in common action with the ‘social traitors’. Neither in Berlin
nor in Rühle’s group in Dresden did the ultra-leftists play any role. However, from various regions of Germany, opposition activists such as Appel from
Hamburg and Karl Plattner from Dresden came to join the workers fighting
in the Ruhr.

In Berlin, Kapp, in desperation, negotiated with Vice-Chancellor Schiffer,
who was representing the Bauer government. In the common interest, Kapp
agreed that General Groener should attempt to mediate with President Ebert.
But Ebert was in no hurry. Kapp, confronted with the general strike, was
in fact struggling ‘against problems too great for human strength’, as Benoist-
Méchin put it. In a sense, his government was in a vacuum. Bread and meat
were in short supply in the capital. The head of the Reichsbank was refusing
to pay out the ten million marks which Kapp was demanding of him. On
16 March at one o’clock in the afternoon, Kapp gave the order that ‘agitators
and workers on picket lines were to be shot down from four o’clock onwards’. This time, it was actually the big employers who reacted against a measure
which could have unleashed civil war; Ernst von Borsig in person led a
delegation to insist that Kapp should abandon any use of force. ‘Unanimity
is so great amongst the working class that it is impossible to distinguish the
agitators from the millions of workers who have stopped work.’ The workers in the Ruhr had recaptured Dortmund by six o’clock in the
morning. During the night of 16–17 March, a regiment of pioneers mutinied
in Berlin itself, and imprisoned its officers. Intervention by the spearhead of
the putsch, the Ehrhardt naval brigade, was needed to free them. Civil war
was inevitable if the putschists persisted, and the victory of the working class
was probable, both over them and over the government, not least because
the latter’s base and possibilities of action were narrowing hour by hour, as
the army, whether putschist or ‘neutral’, had ceased to be reliable. 

On 17 March, realising that he was defeated, Kapp fled. General von Lüttwitz
came under pressure from officers more politically aware than himself to put
an end to the adventure, and he too fled a few hours later, even leaving to
Vice-Chancellor Schiffer the task of drafting his letter of explanation. His
collaborators could no longer answer for their troops, and demanded that command be handed over to a general who had not been compromised in
the putsch. The man of the hour would be von Seeckt. The putsch had lasted
for no more than a hundred hours in all, and it was well and truly crushed
by the response of the workers, and in the first place by their general strike. 

But the consequences of the putsch were not exhausted. The first armed
fights broke out in Berlin that day. Shots were exchanged in Neukölln, and
barricades were raised by the workers at the entry to Kottbus. In Nuremberg,
the Reichswehr fired on a demonstration of workers and killed twenty-two
people; this sparked off a real insurrection. In Suhl, the workers’ militia seized
a Reichswehr training centre and took control of a substantial stock of arms
and ammunition. In Dortmund, the police, controlled by the Social Democrats,
took the side of the ‘Red Army’ against the Free Corps. The general strike
continued across the country, and at that point the question was whether
Kapp’s headlong flight would lead to the strike being called off, and at what
cost, or whether the revolutionary wave which Kapp’s putsch had so
imprudently set in motion was leading to fresh civil war.

Amid the fears
voiced on the Right, it is difficult to distinguish the genuine fears from the
attempts to spread hysteria.
Indeed, whilst this time Germany was not covered by a network of elected
workers’ councils – Chemnitz and the Ruhr remained exceptional – it was
nonetheless covered by a tight network of executive committees [Vollzugsräte],
or action committees, formed by the workers’ parties and trade unions.
The struggle against the putschists and the organisation of defence led these
committees to play the role of revolutionary centres, and this posed in a
practical way, in the course of the general strike itself, the problem of power
in general, and the more immediate question of the nature of the government.”

– Pierre Broue, The German Revolution, 1917-1923. Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2006, pp. 356-360.

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