Review: Wild Socialism: All Power to the Councils!

Martin Comack, Wild Socialism: Workers Councils in Revolutionary Berlin, 1918–1921 (2012)
Gabriel Kuhn, ed., All Power to the Councils! A Documentary History of the German Revolution of 1918–1919 (2012)

Workers’ councils have been something of an embarrassment for the left ever since they first appeared in the early 1900s. With the exception of a few key moments, they have never attracted much interest either. Two new books by Martin Comack and Gabriel Kuhn focus on the German workers’ councils that developed at the end of the First World War. That the recent Occupy movement dealt with many of the same issues as the councils—direct democracy, popular governance, and general assemblies—makes the appearance of these two books all the more timely. But whereas the Occupy movement confounded people because of its refusal to articulate immediately obtainable goals, the councils threatened pre-existing institutions and newly-established modes of governing. What’s more, the immediate danger for the councils came not from the bourgeoisie and the reactionaries but from the left itself.

Nothing about the councils seemed to make sense, even at the peak of their influence. If they were essential to the unfolding of the German revolutionary developments, the councils were equally responsible for their own demise. They were all-powerful and yet freely ceded that power to groups who then neutralized their effectiveness. This is a less complicated story than is often assumed. Comack’s Wild Socialism: Workers Councils in Revolutionary Berlin, 1918–21, condenses the main threads of this history into a short, lively, and highly readable digest of less than 100 pages. It has the additional value of focusing exclusively on the councils rather than the various left political parties and organizations which have obsessed chroniclers ever since. Kuhn’s All Power to the Councils!: A Documentary History of the German Revolution of 1918–1919 is an excellent accompaniment, with translations of original documents, short biographies of key figures, and introductions of a page or two in length for each major phase of these tumultuous years. The translations are of exceptionally good quality, with many moving accounts. For Kuhn, “readability has been a priority,” rather than the wooden, literal translations that mar previous attempts to bring the German developments to the attention of the English-language world.[1]

By some estimates, 10,000 or so councils were scattered throughout Germany in late 1918.[2] Just about every sizable workplace and military garrison had one. Other than the vague rumors that filtered through about developments in Russia the year before, the councils seemed to materialize out of nowhere.[3] They were formed within the space of a few days, so contagious were the events that constituted the German revolution. The same circumstances that catapulted the councils into existence also elevated Germany’s socialist (Social Democratic) party into a position of dominance, thereby realizing a decades-old ambition. A limited franchise had kept the pre-war socialists marginalized politically despite their great popularity, with over one million members and one-third of the vote nation-wide. The movement had grown rapidly during the previous decades because no other political entity within Germany was as willing to represent working class interests, whereas the socialists were quite aggressive in getting their ideas into the public realm, with hundreds of newspapers and publications, frequent meetings, and a huge roster of public speakers who toured the country. These background developments are a particularly strong aspect of Comack’s Wild Socialism.

With Germany’s defeat imminent, the military authorities essentially handed the socialists the keys to the capital building and fled the scene. The Kaiser had abdicated, the aristocracy was in hiding, the military in near-complete disarray, and the middle classes in shock and fearful of the popular outcry against the war. For a brief period, no one except the socialists was willing to take responsibility for what came next. The immediate situation was quite dire, and the socialists voluntarily embraced the tasks that their previous oppressors had deserted—to demobilize and send home the returning troops and, even more urgently, to ensure that the municipal authorities had adequate food supplies now that the war was over.

If the socialists owed their ascension to the councils, they also understood that the councils were a threat to their newly-acquired status. This was not immediately apparent, as the councils were easily mollified in the weeks following the collapse of the monarchy. The introduction of an eight-hour working day and plans to introduce universal suffrage seemed to presage the start of a new era. True, the radical takeover of buildings in the center of Berlin produced a bloody reaction on the part of the socialists, who paid decommissioned soldiers to put down the rebellion. But the radicals had misread the readiness of the working class for revolution. Afraid that events had stalled already, and prone to their own ultra-left forms of mystical thinking, the radicals imagined that their actions might prompt a still-wider response within the working class. They were wrong about this and paid dearly for their mistake.

That the socialists resorted to violence against members of their own movement stunned everyone on the left, including the socialists’ closest followers. It wasn’t the radical rebellion, the so-named Spartacist uprising at the end of December 1918, which produced the leftward lurch sought by the radicals, but the use of paramilitary forces and wanton killing of well-known and beloved figures like Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht after their arrests. One merit of Kuhn’s documentary collection, All Power to the Councils!, is the republication of editorials written by these two figures during the few short months that separated the outbreak of the revolution from their deaths.

The councils, however unclear they were about their own power and intentions, wanted something more than just a democratic version of the previous status quo. A major rethinking about the goals of the revolution began, now that the space for such activity existed. Egged on by the radicals within its own ranks, the working class lurched leftwards. The working class thought in terms of the socialization (nationalization) of the means of production, especially the nationalization of the mining industry in the Ruhr region’s industrial belt, where low wages and brutal working conditions continued to prevail. Nearly a half century of socialist propaganda had had an impact.

The socialists were caught in a tremendous dilemma. Wedded to the idea that elections were essential to their own success, they introduced universal suffrage and thus undercut the councils whose base was overwhelmingly working class. This was obviously the case in the factory and workplace councils. The soldiers’ councils, on the other hand, had initially served as a brake on the revolutionary developments because they included lower-lever officers (enlisted men) alongside the working class draftees, but these councils were in a process of rapid dissolution because of demobilization and played a diminished role precisely as the working class began to radicalize further.

By suppressing the radicals (Spartacists) only six weeks after the overthrow of the monarchy, the socialists had in effect signaled that they meant no harm to, and were even willing to protect, the middle and upper classes. It was only then that these other social groups reappeared on the political scene. In the elections that followed in January—a short two and a half months after the overthrow of the monarchy—the socialists were surprised when less than half the electorate voted for them. Thus began a decade of coalition governments that continued until the Nazis finally abolished the democratic system, and with it, the need for coalitions. As the socialists moved right and lost ground, the working class was radicalized anew, with a newfound embrace of the councils. Throughout the spring months of 1919, the socialists, sometimes in conjunction with their coalition partners, used government resources to fund an ever-expansive paramilitary force to quell the radicalization.

Both Comack and Kuhn expand what is known about the radical left by including information about “unionist, syndicalist, and anarchist influences” in their accounts.[4] Still other groups could be mentioned, especially from northern seaports where radical Social Democrats maintained their independence from all party-oriented politics during the war (in distinction to the Spartacists who joined the newly formed anti-war party, the Independent Social Democratic Party). In the accounts by Comack and Kuhn, the Revolutionary Shop Stewards receive special mention. These were the shop floor delegates (radical trade unionists) who created an underground network during the war and played a leading role in Berlin as the revolution unfolded. In most historical accounts, only the Spartacists are mentioned. But if the Spartacists tended to run ahead of the working class and were thus decimated by the socialists for doing so, the Revolutionary Shop Stewards were guilty of just the opposite problem. Their sense of realism led to a cautiousness that prevented them from ever getting in front.

From the vantage point of the Revolutionary Shop Stewards, the Spartacists were guilty of “revolutionary gymnastics,” a slight that is repeated by both Comack and Kuhn.[5] In truth, neither the impatient tactics of the Spartacists nor the prudent policies of the Revolutionary Shop Stewards were successful. During the critical opening weeks of the revolutionary period, both groups were defeated, but each for different reasons. The Spartacists were turned into martyrs, while the Revolutionary Shop Stewards were outmaneuvered by the vastly shrewder and politically-experienced socialists. To favor one group over the other, as do Comack and Kuhn, seems gratuitous. Neither group could figure out how to advance the revolution. Besides, when only a few short weeks separated the defeat of the Spartacists from the marginalization of the Revolutionary Shop Stewards, why bother to talk about tactics at all? All the radicals, no matter what their ideas or actions, wound up on the losing end.

Comack and Kuhn might have made more explicit the crucial role played by new organizations which would not outlast the revolutionary wave. Both the Spartacists and the Revolutionary Shop Stewards fit this bill, as does the Independent Social Democratic Party, forced into existence when the anti-war faction within the Social Democratic Party was expelled midway through the war. A bit later, many radicals clustered in the Communist Workers Party (KAPD) and the General Workers Union (AAUD), until they too were outflanked and overwhelmed by organizations more adept at refashioning themselves for non-revolutionary times, like the original Social Democratic Party and the hastily-convened but long-lasting Communist Party, both of whose adaptive strategies were helped along by ample financial resources.

Notwithstanding these criticisms of Comack and Kuhn, their treatments are vastly superior to several recently re-published accounts of the German revolution, in particular Pierre Broué’s exhaustive 1000 page tome, The German Revolution: 1917–1923, originally published in 1971, and Chris Harman’s The Lost Revolution: Germany, 1918–1923, dating back to 1982.[6] Both books are classic accounts of who did what wrong when, as if a historically-vindicated politics might have been possible. In neither account are the councils of real interest, pushed aside in a rush to judge the errors committed by the Communist Party (KPD). The focus on great men (and a few women), political ideologies, and organizational trajectories mirrors in an uncanny fashion an older, stodgy form of historiography, a merger of politics and methodology that has been out of vogue, even if still widely practiced, for some time now. Form and content merge into one, all in the name of a vanguard politics that focuses on leadership and the elite.[7]

The inability to treat the councils as something fundamentally different from the left political parties is as true for Broué and Harman as it was for the early twentieth century radicals. The German Social Democrats referred to the councils as ‘wild socialism’; hence, the title of Cormack’s book. The Russian Bolsheviks weren’t much different; once in power they reassessed their relationship to the councils, and council advocates were denounced as ‘infantile leftists.’ Even Rosa Luxemburg, whose eventual embrace of the councils was all-consuming, spent a decade juggling the relationship between spontaneity, mass strikes, and socialist political parties before accepting councils as the logical endpoint towards which radical activity should strive.

For left organizations like the Social Democrats and Bolsheviks, the councils were stepping stones, not the final outcome.[8] Socialist organizations were expected to provide both form and content for the unpredictable outbursts that every so often overtook the working class, lest these dissipate into something ephemeral and ineffective. So fixated were these ideas that newly-conquered political power in both German and Russia led to the violent repression of radicals who thought otherwise.

But of what relevance are the councils to the contemporary world, given their location a century ago within the factory system? And what about the relationship of the workplace councils to other forms of councils—neighborhoods, consumers, municipalities and regions? Some analysts have been misled by the events described in Comack’s book into positing that the councils were the preferred organizational form for skilled, well-paid workers who feared mechanization within Germany’s metal industry.[9] Comack provides the information needed to rebut these charges, although he does not make the arguments explicit.

Inside the factories, the councils served initially as grievance and strike committees, either because union representation was lacking or because the unions, including the socialist unions, cooperated with civil and military officials to suppress wage demands and protests about harsh working conditions. Coordination throughout a locality, like the factory districts of Berlin, likewise required a council of delegates. The workforce had changed considerably during the war, with women and adolescents drawn in as auxiliary employees. The links between working women and housewives’ protests against food scarcities helped draw the councils into action. This was the situation in both Germany and Russia. Women were key. Responsible for the well-being of their families, they also had fewer roots in the cautious and conservative labor movement, and because of gender, were somewhat less subject to police violence, so much so that they generated sympathy within the population at large, including members of the middle classes. The women’s actions goaded husbands, sons, brothers, and fathers to follow suit.

Very little attention has been focused on the connections between gender and forms of protest, something true not just for Comack and Kuhn but also for other chroniclers of the German events. If the councils represented an anti-politics, they were rooted nonetheless in workplaces, neighborhoods, and families, situations mostly beyond the purview of anyone obsessed with politics and organizations as levers of social change. In this way of thinking, if something doesn’t acquire a fixed institutionalized presence, it doesn’t really exist.

The councils could be revolutionary, or they could be nothing much at all—a temporary means to hold society together during a time of crisis and collapse until some facsimile of the old order reconstituted itself. In Germany, they were primarily workplace councils, some of which served as grievance committees vis-à-vis management and the government, while in other places, they took over managerial functions directly. Soldiers also had their version of councils. In Russia, poor peasants and sharecroppers had theirs too. In both places, councils took on responsibility for municipal and regional affairs. They established committees to run police departments and security agencies, regulated public transportation, arranged food shipments and the distribution of essential consumption items, produced theater productions and public service announcements, and more.

Councils were easy to form and had enormous potential. They were flexible and democratic. They presupposed cooperation and coordination, and they extended notions of popular governance and grassroots participation. For council members, neither pre-existing organizations nor a background in socialist theory were prerequisites. Councils made the unions and political parties redundant. They could embrace as much of the population as prevailing political understandings and cultural prejudices made possible. Because of the councils, society was both thrown into chaos and was susceptible to a thorough and radical reorganization. If councils are still relevant today, it’s not because they imply a particular solution to humanity’s problems, but because the need for something new in both form and content grows ever more pressing.

The German Revolutioni—A Timeline

1912—As Germany’s largest political party with nearly one million members, the Social Democratic Party receives one out of every three votes in the national elections.

1914—Soon after World War I begins, the Social Democrats agree to suspend all strikes and take punitive action against any job actions.

1915—Revolutionary Shop Stewards, Spartacists, and other independent groups begin to meet illegally.

1916—Food protests begin in earnest. A widespread strike wave startles the county and emboldens the anti-war movement.

1917—The anti-war faction is expelled from the Social Democratic Party and eventually forms the Independent Social Democratic Party.

February: Russian Revolution begins, characterized by workers,’ peasants,’ and soldiers’ councils on the local and municipal levels. In place of the monarchy (Tsar), a series of coalition governments form which include the various liberal, socialist, and populist political parties.

November: The Bolsheviks piggyback on the councils and seize power.

1918–October: German Social Democrats invited as junior partners into a ‘peace’ cabinet.

November: Revolution spreads throughout Germany. Councils formed in workplaces, municipalities, and in the armed forces. The monarchy (Kaiser) abdicates, and military rule ends. Social Democrats and Independent Social Democrats jointly form an all-socialist government. An eight hour day is negotiated with leaders of the country’s business community.

December: Social Democrats open negotiations with remnant units of the military. Independent Social Democrats resign from government in protest against repressive actions. National Congress of Councils endorses elections with universal suffrage.

1919–January: German Communist Party founded by Spartacists and other groups. Spartacist uprising in central Berlin suppressed by paramilitary forces at the behest of the Social Democrats. Luxemburg and Liebknecht arrested, tortured, and killed. National elections force Social Democrats into coalition with bourgeois political parties.

Spring: Major strikes and council republics are suppressed in Berlin, Bremen, Upper Silesia, the Ruhr industrial region, Württemberg, Magdeburg, Leipzig, Brunswick, and Munich.

October: Reformist wing of German Communist Party purges over half the membership.

1920—The Communist Workers Party (KAPD) and General Workers Union (AAUD) form as radical alternatives to the Communist Party.

  1. [1] Kuhn, p. xv.
  2. [2] Also: Jürgen Tampke, The Ruhr and Revolution: The Revolutionary Movement in the Rhenish-Westphalian Industrial Region, 1912–1919, London: Croom Helm, 1979.
  3. [3] The classic account remains: Oskar Anweiler, The Soviets: The Russian Workers, Peasants, and Soldiers Councils, 1905–1921, New York: Pantheon Books, 1974 (1958).
  4. [4] Kuhn, p. xii.
  5. [5] Comack, p. 57; Kuhn, p. 76.
  6. [6] Pierre Broué, The German Revolution: 1917–1923, Leiden: Brill, 2005; Chris Harman, The Lost Revolution: Germany, 1918–1923, Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2002.
  7. [7] Hayden White, The Content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation, Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press: 1990.
  8. [8] Paul Mattick, “The New Capitalism and the Old Class Struggle,” Online 2003 (1976 in Italian and Spanish). This article situates councils within capitalism’s crisis cycle.
  9. [9] For instance, Sergio Bologna, “Class Composition and the Theory of the Party at the Origins of the Workers’ Council Movement,” Telos 13 (Fall 1972); for the most effective of the rebuttals: Erhard Lucas, Zwei Formen von Radikalismus in der deutschen Arbeiterbewegung, Frankfurt: Verlag Roter Stern, 1976.

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