The Workers’ Councils in Germany 1918-23 (Part 1/2)



‘To think of emancipation’, a century after the global revolutionary wave that began in 1917, is to question the very term emancipation. Who is the subject of this emancipation and who emancipates who, in a struggle that is anything but an ideological game between four walls. This emancipation has its source in the working class (manual and intellectual). It cannot be assimilated to a “struggle of the people”, whose “Cause” would be national and patriotic. ‘To think of emancipation’ in [2018] is to look back at the great proletarian revolutionary insurrections in Russia and Germany and draw lessons from them at the beginning of the third millennium. In doing so, the revolution in Germany from 1918 to 1921 is an essential milestone, since it raised the question of the forms of organization of any revolutionary class struggle: workers councils, workers’ unions, revolutionary factory organizations, factory committees or action committees. Like the Russian Revolution, it raised – albeit to a lesser degree, in the absence of a real takeover of power – the question of socialization of the means of production, and therefore of the abolition of the capitalist system based on profit.

[The mass revolt of November 1918]

As in Russia in 1905 after the defeat against Japan, and again in February 1917, the councils that emerged in Germany were the product of war, more precisely military defeats that created a power vacuum. An article by Liebknecht published after November 9, 1918 perfectly summarizes this situation of internal collapse, where the masses of workers and proletarians in uniform will rush into:

“The victory of the masses of workers and soldiers was not so much due to their impact force, but to the internal collapse of the previous system; the political form of the revolution was not only proletarian action, but flight by the ruling classes from the responsibility for the course of events as well; the flight by the ruling classes that, with a sigh of relief, left the liquidation of their bankruptcy to the proletariat, hoping in this way to escape from social revolution, whose weather lightning brings cold sweat to their foreheads.“ (1)

These councils are assemblies of workers, but also of soldiers who – as in Russia – want to put an end to the war. They are the expression of a generalized revolt of workers starving and exhausted by the militarization of daily life, which is reflected in repeated strikes in the major sectors of industry, more and more in a revolutionary spirit: strikes in April 1917 (300,000 workers in Berlin) and January 1918 (1 million strikers in the Reich). During these struggles, the imperial power and social democracy were unanimous: “Whoever goes on strike while our armies are facing the enemy is a dog” (General Groener). (2) On 31 January 1918, Ebert, leader of the SPD, told the strikers of a Berlin factory that they had “the duty to support their brothers and fathers at the front and to provide them with the best weapons.” (3) He was interrupted by cries of “strikebreaker” and had to back down quickly. The SPD had to wait until 4 October 1918 before being associated with the war effort [by participation in the government]. Appointed Chancellor of the Reich, Prince Max von Baden formed a coalition government consisting of bourgeois democrats and the social democrats, Friedrich Ebert, Gustav Bauer and Philipp Scheidemann.

However, it was the revolt of the sailors of Kiel (Nov. 4, 1918), on the Baltic Sea, that brought about the fall of the imperial regime. Almost without a shot, the sailors seized power and received the support of the workers of Kiel who conjointly formed workers’ and soldiers’ councils. Gustav Noske, who later called himself “blood hound(“Bluthund”) of the counterrevolution, was sent by Max von Baden, the new chancellor, to take the leadership of the movement and smother it quickly, before the army cannoned and reduced Kiel to ashes.

It is already too late, because in a few days the country sees the emergence of workers’ and soldiers’ councils. There will be 10,000. German cities are covered with red flags and human tides run through the streets singing the International. It was a kind of forty-eight spirit (4), where “everyone swam in mutual trust”, “festivals of friendship”, in short “a universal fraternization of the classes.” (5)

Sometimes it was self-exaltation, where verbal radicalism hardly hid the lack of a real revolutionary project. In a city like Hamburg, Die Rote Fahne, the paper of the councils set up by Paul Frölich, proclaimed: “This is the beginning of the German revolution, the world revolution! … Long live world Bolshevism!” (6) But in Hamburg the power of the aristocratic Senate was never questioned. The most “radical”, such as Laufenberg and Wolffheim – theorists in 1919-1920 of “national-Bolshevism” – pushed for moderation, avoided any call for armed struggle, approved the idea of a National Assembly, and then suddenly declared themselves “anti-parliamentarians”. (7)

From the very beginning, a great political confusion dominated the councils of workers and soldiers, even among their most radical elements. In his memoirs, a radical sailor on the vessel Helgoland gives an idea of the level of consciousness of the workers and proletarians in uniform: “Sign peace immediately. Send soldiers and sailors home. Appoint Scheidemann as Chancellor and Liebknecht as Minister of War”. (8)

Duality of powers – An increasingly unequal balance of power

On the surface there was a double power: the councils of workers and soldiers on the one hand, the new government, on the other hand: Chancellor Ebert, who led a coalition dominated by socialist parties, the SPD and the Independent Party, the USPD who had recently split from the former (1917). The program is clearly counter-revolutionary. Ebert declared in an aside with Prince Max von Baden that the “social revolution” evoked for him the hell of the damned: “…I don’t want it, yes, I hate it like sin”. (9)

To take the lead of the councils, the majority socialists know how to harp on the strings of unity, particularly felt in the working masses, who caress the vain hope of a “universal fraternization of the classes”. Karl Liebknecht – who on 9 November refused to take part in the socialist government as a hostage – warned the 1,500 delegates of the councils of workers and soldiers who had gathered at the Busch Circus in Berlin, the day after: “The counter revolution is already underway, it is already in action, it is in our midst!”. (10) Some of the soldier delegates, almost all of whom were appointed by social democracy, threatened Liebknecht with their arms…

The soldiers’ councils, manipulated by the SPD, occupied the ground floor with their weapons, while the workers’ councils modestly shared the gallery. Very quickly, the majority of councils fell into the hands of social democracy, which imposed its functionaries (SPD and trade unions) mostly without elections. For example, in Cologne, the local leaders of the SPD and the USPD formed a workers’ council on 8 November in a meeting and by simple acclaim. The same is true in Kassel, where the council and its executive (the action committee) are formed following behind-the-scenes discussions between the two social-democratic parties and the trade unions. Sometimes councils are established that include bourgeois parties – such as the Catholic Zentrumspartei in the Ruhr area. When councils are elected, this is done on the basis of electoral districts, in which notables predominate. This is the case in Dresden, where the SPD almost takes the whole cake. This led to the rapid withdrawal (on 16 November) of the IKD (internationalist communists) led by Otto Rühle, who believed that the whole of the real movement was now in the streets and in the factories.

The pyramid of the councils is reversed: the trade unions recognized by the State, thanks to the SPD in power, see their influence increase from the bottom up, dissolving the local councils, dominated by the most radical [elements], into regional councils.

Nevertheless, in major regional centers, this takeover is not easy. The Bremen Council prohibits any meeting or demonstration in favor of the restoration of the Senate. Councils create their own armed forces, as in Frankfurt, Düsseldorf, Hamburg. In Braunschweig (Brunswick) the Socialist Republic is proclaimed on 9 November, arming itself with a red guard of 1,000 members. The same applies to Bremen, where the Council Republic was formed a few days later, on 15 November. In industrial centers, embryos of red guards are formed from Halle to Berlin. In the latter city, the Spartakist attempt to create a Red Guard, called the Union of Red Soldiers (Roter Soldatenbund), failed: it merely demonstrated in November and December. Liebknecht, who deals with the ‘military question’, relies on the police president Eichhorn, a left-wing USPD who disposes of troops, and on the People’s Navy Division (Volksmarinedivision). The latter are very radical but they receive a salary. During the fighting of January 1919, after having suffered heavy losses in December against the troops of General Lequis, the sailors declared themselves “neutral” to continue to receive their pay.

The Kingdom of Bavaria is a special case. The sailors of the Austro-Hungarian port of Pula (Istria), who were also in revolt, arrived very quickly in Munich, where their determined presence neutralized any resistance from the Bavarian army. On November 8, the pacifist Independent Kurt Eisner, appointed prime minister, proclaims the Republic and the foundation of the Free People’s State of Bavaria (Freier Volksstaat) with the support of the councils. Private property is maintained. It seeks a (very ‘socialist’) ‘synthesis’: Parliament and councils, as organs of a unified power. But the Spartakists (now having become communists) are in favor of boycotting the elections, as is the revolutionary workers’ Council, with Erich Mühsam as one of its leaders. On 10 January 1919, Eisner has twelve members of the Communist Party and the revolutionary workers’ Council arrested, including Max Levien (KPD) and Mühsam (anarchist). A spontaneous demonstration leads to their release. The SPD obtains the majority in the Landtag, and on 23 February 1919 Eisner is assassinated by a right-wing extremist while resigning. Another page opened in April 1919, very confused, that of the Council Republic of Bavaria, which was also quickly crushed a few weeks later, on May 1st.

As a book on ‘the Communist Left in Germany’ remarks, the study of a revolutionary period is not the fabrication of a new ‘mythology’, where parties and councils would always be ‘revolutionary’: “… The “council-form” is no less a failure than the “party-form”. Yet, even today, in imitation of the Leninists, councilists speak of the council as if it must always be a revolutionary council, while the latter constituted an exception within the German Revolution.” (11)

It is this very weakness of the revolution, where radicalism is the exception at the outset, that allows the new social-democratic power to maintain a populist language. All power must go to the “whole people”, in short to the Nation, and is not be handed over to workers’ councils. On 13 November, the editor-in-chief of the Vorwärts, the central organ of the SPD, made a clear statement. The November ‘victory’ will not be that of the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’; power will take the form of a ‘people’s democracy’: “Their victory will shine the brighter the clearer it is expressed that it is a victory not of violence, but of the universal democratic people’s right, that the workers and soldiers have won it for the whole people.” (12)

The Constituent Assembly buries the councils. The defeat of January 1919 and the assassination of Luxemburg and Liebknecht

The “power of the Arbeiterräte(equivalent to soviets) therefore rapidly would give way to a constituent National Assembly, described as “democratic”. All the right-wing and central parties – whose motto was formerly “with God, for the King and the Fatherland” proclaim themselves overnight “popular”, even “republican” and “democratic” (National German People’s Party, German People’s Party, Christian Democratic Party, German Democratic Party) and demand elections by universal suffrage. (13) Since November 10, Ebert clarified the situation: as soon as possible there would be an election of a Constituent Assembly that would put an end to the “government of the People’s Commissars”. And in an aside with General Groener, Ebert certifies, on the same day, that it will be the end of Bolshevism. (14)

Against the election of a Constituent Assembly, which will be endorsed by an Executive of the councils (the “Vollzugsrat”) that Rosa Luxemburg qualifies as a “sarcophague of the revolution”, (15) all revolutionary tendencies agree. If there is to be a Parliament, it will be that of the councils alone, the true proletarian democracy against the illusory bourgeois democracy:

The question that history has put on the agenda is: bourgeois democracy or socialist democracy. Because the dictatorship of proletariat is democracy in the socialist sense of the word… Without the conscious will and conscious action of the majority of the proletariat, there can be no socialism! To sharpen this awareness, to harden this will, to organize this action, we need a class organ: the imperial Parliament of the urban and rural proletariat. The convening of such an assembly of workers’ representatives, in place of the National Assembly of bourgeois revolutions, constitutes by itself an act of class struggle, a rupture with the historical past of bourgeois society, a powerful instrument of agitation of the proletarian popular masses, a first open, gruff declaration of war against capitalism. No excuses, no ambiguities – the dice must be cast. Parliamentary cretinism was a weakness yesterday, today it is an ambiguity, tomorrow it will be a betrayal of socialism.” (16)

The left-wing Independents who play a typically “centrist” game, trapped between their proletarian base, sensitive to Spartakist radicalism, and their leadership propelled to government, (17) cannot guarantee the suicide of the councils. One of the leaders of the revolutionary delegates (“Revolutionäre Obleute), Richard Müller, president of the Berlin Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils, who had played a considerable role in the illegal strikes in Berlin’s metallurgy from 1916 to 1918, declared he was willing to risk his life to defend the councils. In his activity report presented at Circus Busch on November 19, he stated: “We have to maintain our power, if necessary by violence. Anyone who wants the National Assembly is forcing us to fight. I declare openly: I have put my life on the line for the Revolution and I will do it again. A national assembly is a path to bourgeois rule, a path to struggle; the path to a national assembly will go over my dead body! (18)

The Constituent Assembly, before installing itself on February 6, 1919 in the grand theater of Weimar, did not pass over the ‘corpse’ of Richard Müller – ironically nicknamed “Müller the corpse” (“Leichen-Müller”) by his political enemies – but over that of thousands of workers, and in particular of the Spartakist leaders, like Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht in January 1919, and Leo Jogiches two months later.

The “suicide” of the Councils, programmed since 10 November, will be carried out in two stages by force and manipulation.

First of all, the government had to have militias, especially since the left-wing Independent Emil Eichhorn, close to Karl Liebknecht, had formed a workers’ security force within the [Berlin] police headquarters (“Kommandantur”), two thirds of whom were volunteers, the other third of the police officers was allied to the Councils. (19)

On 17 November, Social Democrat Otto Wells, commander of the city of Berlin, and the military governor Fischer, formed a corps of republican soldiers, financed by the “donations” of grand industrialists. They soon clashed militarily with the revolutionary left. Not safe enough though (because of their worker’s origin), Ebert set up the Freikorps (free corps) in December with the help of Noske, his “liaison officer” with the general staff. This corps of soldiers was recruited from assault troops and monarchist officers, was generously paid and soon was called the “Noske Guards”. The Vorwärts, like all bourgeois press, published paid advertisements to recruit “volunteers”, often from assault troops, real mercenaries in the pay of the regime.

In order for the counterrevolutionary forces to find legitimacy, the council delegates had to hand over all their powers to the government and the Constituent Assembly. The All-German Congress of Councils (dominated by SPD and trade union staff), meeting in Berlin from 16 to 21 December, gave full power to the ‘Council of People’s Deputies’. Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht cannot make their voices heard. The left-wing USPD opponents only demand that the Councils have ‘their place’ in the Constitution that is to be adopted in 1919.

The way was then opened for the legal liquidation of the revolution, and in the first place in Berlin. Ebert uses both provocation and force. On 23 December, the government blocked the pay of the Volksmarinedivision‘s sailors. [In reply] they sequester the SPD director Otto Wells and [subsequently] are attacked by General Lequis’ troops with cannons. The radicals surround Lequis’ troops, who have to surrender. The workers occupy the Vorwärts editorial bureau; for a few days it will be the seat of the Rote Vorwärts. Under pressure from the street and from the revolutionary, left-wing USPD delegates, the ‘People’s Deputies’ of the USPD resign on 29 December. They are immediately replaced by three SPD Deputies, including Noske. On the same day, at the eve of the KPD’s founding congress, Noske gathers the free corps for the final assault. (20) The bourgeois press, which was never banned, and the Vorwärts rage against the Spartakist “terrorists”; bills are glued everywhere: “Kill Liebknecht!” (“Tötet Liebknecht!”).

The SPD’s provocation takes place on January 4, 1919. The independent police president Eichhorn is dismissed, while Ebert and Noske inspect six extreme right-wing volunteer corps. On the next day, a crowd of 700,000 people respond to the call made by the Independents, the revolutionary delegates and the KPD to demonstrate. In enthusiasm, after the Vorwärts was occupied by armed workers, a 53-member tripartite joint revolutionary committee calls for a general strike on January 7, for “the power of the revolutionary proletariat” and subsequently for the “deposition of the Ebert – Scheidemann government”. The Spartakist leadership, which had not been consulted on this initiative taken by Karl Liebknecht (but also Wilhelm Pieck) and the USPD member Georg Ledebour, was against an insurrection. The left-wing Independents, chased from the government, passed without transition from pure pacifism during the war to putschism…

While the USPD tried to negotiate with the government once more, the tripartite Committee was showing the worst incompetence, with no real plan for a takeover of power and no real forces. The Volksmarinedivision remains neutral; on 9 January, a joint meeting of large Berlin factories calls for the formation of a SPD-USPD-KPD coalition government.

The result of this indecision is known. With the help of two additional social-democratic regiments, the Freikorps easily triumphed and shot at everything. The Vorwärts, taken over by the Freikorps, called for the murder of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. [After they had been arrested, handed over to the Garde Schützendivision at the Eden hotel, and murdered in the night of 15 January, the Vorwärts claimed, on January 17, that Luxemburg had been “lynched by a crowd” and that Liebknecht was shot at an “attempt to escape” from his “guards” on way to prison.] There is however no doubt that the assassination was ordered by telephone by Gustav Noske. To general staff officer Pabst’s question “What to do with the Spartakist leaders”, Noske replied that it would be “up to him [Pabst] to take responsibility for what has to be done”. (21)

By February 1919, the total number of workers killed by the counterrevolution had already by far surpassed the death toll of the Russian Revolution in 1917.

(End of part 1)

Philippe Bourrinet, September 12, 2017

Source: Les conseils ouvriers en Allemagne 1918-23 (Controverses no. 5, French, May 2018)

Translation and proofreading by Jac. J. and F.C., November 6, 2018.

This translation includes some corrections to the French original, due to retrieval of quotations from German language sources.

Insertions between square brackets by the translators.


1 Liebknecht, „Das, was ist“, Die Rote Fahne Nr.6, 21 November 1918.

2 Quoted by P. Broué, Révolution en Allemagne 1917-23, Éd. de minuit, Paris, 1971, p.103. The trades unions tuned in. The Vorwärts of 27 April 1917 launched an appeal to put an end to the strikes: “(…) At the present hour work stops are to be avoided; preservation and security of the Reich come first. After all demonstrations by the opponents of Germany there is no doubt with politically mature people that not a diminishing but only an augmentation of Germany’s capacity of resistance can bring us a rapid peace.” [From the front page article “The Trade Unions to the Armament Workers. Work Stops are to be avoided! – A Warning Call by the Trades Unions”]

3 Broué, id.

4 Referring to the 1848 bourgeois revolutions in Europe (translator’s note).

5 Broué, id.

6 Paul Frölich, Rudolf Lindau, Albert Schreiner & Jakob Walcher: Illustrierte Geschichte der deutschen Revolution (1929), Verlag Neue Kritik, Frankfurt, 1970, p. 192.

7 Paul Frölich, Autobiographie 1890-1921, Science marxiste, Montreuil-sous-Bois, 2011, p. 180.

8 Quoted by Gilbert Badia, Histoire de l’Allemagne contemporaine, Messidor, Paris, 1987, p. 80.

9 Prince Max von Baden, Erinnerungen und Dokumente, Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt Stuttgart, 1928, p. 600.

10 Jakov Drabkin, Die Novemberrevolution 1918 in Deutschland, Dietz, Berlin 1968, p. 166.

11 Gilles Dauvé and Denis Authier, The Communist Left in Germany 1918-1921. Revised English edition, 2006, Ch. 5: The 1918 “November Revolution”, p. 69.

12 Friedrich Stampfer, „Die Reichsregierung und die Arbeiter- und Soldatenräte“, Vorwärts, Berlin, 13 November 1918. (Emphasis in the original). The article equates “proletarian dictatorship” with the rule of “violence”, referring to the “Russian chaos”. Translator’s note].

13 Broué, ibid., p. 169-170.

14 “The officer’s corps expects the government to combat Bolshevism, and puts itself at the disposition of the government for this.” Ebert replied favorably to this wish of Hindenburg and demanded general Groener to “transmit the thanks of the government to the Marshall.” (Quoted by Harman, op. cit., p. 81, our translation).

15 In Vom Kaiserreich zur Republik, Band II: Die Novemberrevolution. Malik Verlag, Wien, 1925, Ch. XIII: Was der Vollzugsrat war, Richard Müller relates the following esteem of the councils’ Vollzugsrat by Rosa Luxemburg: “The executive of the united councils of Russia is – one may cry against it to one’s likening – certainly something different from the Berlin executive. The former is the head and brain of a tremendous revolutionary proletarian organization, the latter the fifth wheel on the wagon of a crypto-capitalist government clique; (…) the former is the living body of the revolution, the latter its sarcophague.” (p. 160)

16 Our emphasis, in Rosa Luxemburg, „Nationalversammlung“, Die Rote Fahne nr. 5, Berlin, 20 November 1918. Source: Gesammelte Werke, Dietz Verlag Berlin, 1983, Volume 4, p. 409/410. In the quotation by Broué, op. Cit., the final phrases on “parliamentary cretinism” have been amputated.

17 Hugo Haase, Wilhelm Dittmann Emil Barth are the three People’s Deputies from the “Independents” (USPD), in parity with Friedrich Ebert, Philipp Scheidemann and Otto Landsberg (SPD).

18 Richard Müller, Vom Kaiserreich zur Republik, Band II: Die Novemberrevolution. Malik Verlag, Wien, 1925, Ch. IX: Demokratie oder Diktatur, p. 84; from the stenographic minutes of the meeting.

19 Chris Harman, The Lost Revolution: Germany 1918-23 (London, 1997; Chicago ,Haymarket Books, 2017.)

20 In the so-called “Dolchstoß-Prozeß” at Munich, General Groener described the agreement of Ebert with the General Staff, in October 1925 under oath as follows: “On December 29 Ebert has called upon Noske to lead the troops against Spartakus. On the 29th the voluntary units gathered and hence the combat could start.” (Source: Paul Frölich, Rosa Luxemburg. Gedanke und Tat, 4th German edition, E.V.A., Frankfurt am Main, 1967, final chapter: ”The path towards death”, p.333.)

21 Klaus Gietinger, Eine Leiche im Landwehrkanal. Die Ermordung der Rosa Luxemburgs (Ed. Nautilus GmbH, Hamburg, 2nd, revised edition 2018); First English edition: The Murder of Rosa Luxemburg (NLB/Verso, London – New York, January 2019). See also (in German): “Die Spur der Mörder führt in die Reichskanzlei. Rekonstruktion einer Bluttat vor 80 Jahren. Zum Gedenken an Karl und Rosa” (Gietinger. Source: Neues Deutschland, 9/10 January 1999.) [Footnote reviewed on Feb. 05, 2023]

Contents of Part 2/2:

  • Disappearance of the councils. Formation of workers’ unions and organizations of the unemployed.

  • The last revolutionary uprisings: the Ruhr 1920. Red army and workers’ councils.

  • March 1921 – October 1923. From putschism to putschism. From the exaltation of the world revolution to the exaltation of national sentiment.©


Documents of the historical Communist Left

Topic: The Mass Struggles in Germany 1918/23  


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