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

This is the second and last part of the historical summary article by Ph. Bourrinet on the workers’ councils in the proletarian struggles of 1918 -1923. The first part has been published in A Free Retriever’s Digest Vol.2 #6 (December 2018 – January 2019) and can be read on this web blog as well.


Disappearance of the councils.

Formation of workers’ unions and organizations of the unemployed

The official disappearance of the councils did not mean that they were definitively buried. The defeat of January 1919 in Berlin (but also that of March) had decapitated the revolutionary movement of its most prominent militants (Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht, Leo Jogiches). But at the same time, economic and political strikes from Upper Silesia to the Ruhr, via Berlin and central Germany, where even the defeat of March 1919 could not stop the movement, multiplied. The workers were reduced to starvation wages, with real wages often falling by 40% compared to 1914. Unemployment had become massive: 40,000 unemployed in Munich, 50,000 in Berlin. At the beginning of 1919, there were more than 3 million unemployed. Hunger riots were common (Frankfurt, Bochum, Dortmund, Breslau). The one in Hamburg in June 1919 was worth a second occupation of the city by the Reichswehr. (1)

From the outset, the SPD had tried to control discontent by favoring the action of the old unions, through an Agreement concluded on 15 November 1918 between employers and the ADGB led by Carl Legien (the “Stinnes-Legien Agreements”). (2) The latter became the “designated workers’ representatives”. This agreement was supplemented by an ordinance of 23 December 1918 on works councils (“Tarifvertragsverordnung”) aimed at supervising all workers (the “Arbeiterschaft”); these committees, which would be attached to the unions, would ensure good class collaboration:

“The commissions of workers and employees (…) as well as the representations of the workers and employees (…) have to take charge of the interests of the workers and employees towards the company, the administration or the bureau of the employer. In community with the employer they have to see to the carrying out of the applicable tariff agreements in the enterprise. (…) They are obliged to promote good understanding between the workers or employees as well as between these and the employer.” (3)

In the Ruhr region, where capital (Stinnes, Krupp, etc.) put the lock-out in practice, miners and steel workers were given hope of the possibility of nationalization – which was called “socialization”, and especially of workers’ co-management (“Mitbestimmung”). Strikes multiplied from February to April 1919. Once again, they were met with repression led by the Reichswehr and ‘formalized’ by a social-democratic worker: Carl Severing, who said: “As a representative of the workers, I want to talk to the workers; as a worker, I want to act for the workers.” (4) The result was almost immediate: miners and steel workers massively left the trade unions to form workers’ unions.

The divorce between the mass of workers and the ‘Free Unions’ (Freie Gewerkschaften”) was total. One had to submit oneself or resign. To get or even keep a job, it was better, as in the councils, to vote for the SPD unions.

From the end of 1918, but especially from the spring of 1919, a slogan became popular, echoed by the KPD, the anarcho-syndicalists and the left-wing Independents: “Get out of the unions!” (“Heraus aus den Gewerkschaften!”). (5) Radical communist militants attacked the offices of these unions in Bremen and Hamburg, Berlin, Essen, etc., seized their funds and distributed them to the unemployed, as well as to militants on the run or in prison. (6)

The first union, that of the miners, was formed in the Ruhr on 30 March 1919. It was composed of revolutionary syndicalists and communists. Destroyed by repression and Freikorps, it was reconstituted in June under the name of Union of Gelsenkirchen. Soon anarcho-syndicalist unions (FAUD) and especially Marxist unions became widespread, claiming, like the AAUD, to adhere to the “dictatorship of the proletariat”, a dictatorship that would emanate from the “revolutionary enterprise [organizations] (“revolutionäre Betriebsorganisationen”), a kind of factory groups of the revolutionary party. Before the KPD chose to form “communist cells” in the official trade unions, a large number of workers had joined the Workers’ Unions. These constituted a unitary mass organization, both of economic struggle and political struggle until the seizure of power by the workers’ councils.

When the AAUD was officially founded in February 1920, and despite the repression, it ended up with more than 120,000 members. It is worth mentioning that these unions, as in the Leuna factories (central Germany), often disposed of weapons caches. It was this union, the most radical, that joined the KAPD in April 1920, a very large minority of the KPD that had been excluded in October 1919 (Heidelberg Congress), and had a 90% majority in Berlin! (7) This 40,000-member party – which had literally siphoned off the KPD in Berlin – was born out of the Ruhr struggles in March 1920.


1 Uwe Schulte-Varendorff, Die Hungerunruhen in Hamburg im Juni 1919 – eine zweite Revolution?, Hamburg University Press, 2010.

2 The ADGB, once the order was restored, reached 8 million members in 1920; this figure dropped to 3 million in 1932.

3 Source: “Regulation on Tariff Treaties, Workers’ and Employees’ Commissions and Resolution of labor disputes” of December 23, 1918. [See: RGBl. Nr. 6605 Verordnung über Tarifverträge, Arbeiter- und Angestelltenausschüsse und Schlichtung von Arbeitsstreitigkeiten. II. Abschnitt. Arbeiter- und Angestellenausschüsse, § 13.]

4 Speech of April 8, 1919, quoted by Heinrich August Winkler, Von der Revolution zur Stabilisierung. Arbeiter und Arbeiterbewegung in der Weimarer Republik 1918 bis 1924, Berlin/Bonn, 1984.

5 Kommunistische Räte-Korrespondenz, No. 11, Berlin, July 1919. In this KPD organ, Paul Frölich writes: “The more we enter into great struggles, the more this call: “Let’s get out of the unions!” can become a slogan for the masses.”

6 Cf. the testimony of the council communist, former member of the KAPD, Paul Mattick: Die Revolution war für mich ein großes Abenteuer. Paul Mattick im Gespräch mit Michael Buckmiller. Unrast Verlag, Münster 2014.

7 According to H.-M. Bock it consisted of “more than 50% of the membership”. “Syndikalismus und Linkskommunismus von 1918 – 1923”, Verlag Anton Hain, Meisenheim am Glan, 1969, p. 228. (F.C.)

The last revolutionary uprisings: the Ruhr 1920.

Red Army and Workers’ Councils

While an economic struggle resurfaced increasingly radical in its organization, the ruling class did not remain passive. As early as June 1919, General Lüttwitz, who had participated in the repression of the January insurrection, suggested to Noske the establishment of a military dictatorship. Still in collaboration with Noske, he worked to suppress the railway strikes of January 1920 and to ban the KPD and USPD presses. Also the coup d’Etat of March 13, 1920, called the ‘Kapp-Lüttwitz putsch’, was no surprise, except for Noske who fled and asked General von Seeckt, the Reichswehr leader, to arrest the putschists. Of course, the whole army and the state apparatus as a whole support the putsch.

But the reaction of the proletariat is immediate. The general strike, which affected 12 million workers, spread across Germany: Ruhr, Saxony, Hamburg and Bremen, Bavaria, Thuringia, Pomerania and East Prussia. In this province, SPD Governor August Winnig took up the cause of the putschists.

Where the SPD does not take a local position in favor of the putsch, the strike is supported, and sometimes even encouraged, especially by trade union leaders such as Carl Legien, who calls for the defense of the ‘Republic’ and the formation of a workers’ government”. The KPD, except for its left, which it excluded in October 1919 at its Heidelberg Congress, and its leader Paul Levi (who was imprisoned), declares itself “neutral”, stating that it will not “lift a finger” to act. (8) If it acts, as in Chemnitz (with Heinrich Brandler), it is to rally to the idea of a “loyal opposition” in the event of the formation of a SPD-USPD “workers’ government”.

The reaction of the German proletariat can be compared to that of the Spanish proletariat during the Pronunciamiento of July 1936. (9) In three places, the proletariat more or less spontaneously takes power to engage in the struggle on a social terrain, forming workers’ councils (especially in the Ruhr) or action committees (when it is a party-union alliance). In Central Germany, in a rather confused way, after armed fights in Gotha, Gera, Halle, in Vogtland (with Max Hoelz), or peacefully, as in Chemnitz (under Brandler’s leadership), the proletariat ‘takes power’. We should specify: ‘more or less’. The same is true in Kiel and the Schwerin region, but not in Hamburg and Bremen. In Hamburg the ‘Left’, represented by Laufenberg and Wolffheim, reacted like the KPD: The general strike is a general absurdity”. This position is defended by Otto Rühle in Dresden, but also by the leadership of the anarcho-syndicalist FAU, which declares itself, through pacifism, against armed struggle. The FAU base will not follow its direction.

It is in fact in the Ruhr, and not always in a homogeneous way, that the movement goes the furthest towards a total takeover of power, after the entry into the general strike of 300,000 miners. As soon as the Freikorps appeared, as well as the local guards composed of SPD members (in the case of Dortmund they shot at the workers), recruitment offices appeared which gave rise to a real red army, 50,000 to 80,000 men strong. The conditions for fighting are: at least six months on the front during the war and membership of a ‘workers party’ or trade union or a workers’ union (AAU and FAU). In some places, the dictatorship of the proletariat is proclaimed and supplies, like weapons, remain under the authority of the councils. The Freikorps were driven out of the Ruhr and the SPD government militias were disarmed.

But if, on March 17, Kapp had to flee to Sweden, the SPD did not remain inactive and reinstalled itself in power, without Gustav Noske, but with Gustav Bauer – and later with Hermann Müller – as chancellor. He instructs the head of the Reichswehr Von Seeckt to set up special courts against worker insurgents. Freikorps of students are formed. One of them will massacre workers taken prisoner in Bad Thal (Thuringia) on March 24, justifying its action as follows: “we need corpses for our anatomy courses”. (10)

But the 80,000 Ruhr workers had to be disarmed. This was the meaning of the Bielefeld negotiations, led once again by Severing, while General Watter’s troops were stationed in Münster. The Bielefeld agreements, signed on March 24 by the Independents and two members of the KPD, resulted in the disarmament of a part of the Red Army, while the Western Front rejected the agreement. Arguing for this refusal, the SPD government led General Watter’s troops to march on April 4. It was a new butchery: mass shootings, including Red Cross nurses, all thrown into mass graves.

This defeat, both military and political, was decisive, much more so than that of January 1919. (11) But it was under these conditions that the KAPD, a split from the KPD, was created at the same time, whose militants, supported by AAU members, had played a major role in the Ruhr combats. This party called for the continuation, until victory, of the “world revolution”.


8 Udo Winkel, ‘Paul Levi and his significance for the German workers’ movement’, Cahiers Léon Trotski No. 62, May 1998, pp. 32-34.

9 In fact: The military coup against the government of the left-wing Popular Front in Spain, the beginning of the ‘civil war’. (Editor’s note)

10 Illustrierte Geschichte der deutschen Revolution [1929], op. cit., p. 487. After a trial in July 1920, the murderers were released. Edifying comment from the bourgeois press (‘Deutsche Zeitung’): “Our good boys have been released. There are still judges in Germany….”.

11 Chris Harman, op. cit. pp. 127-159.

March 1921 – October 1923: Putschism.
From exaltation of the world revolution to that of national sentiment

At the time when the revolt of the Kronstadt mariners and workers broke out, the Komintern developed a typically putschist theory called “forcing the revolutionary course”, the instrument of which was Bela Kun, the defeated leader of the Republic of the Hungarian councils, who arrived clandestinely in Germany. However, at that very moment, certain that the German proletariat would not move, Minister of the Interior Carl Severing decided to go on the offensive, and occupy central Germany, where the workers had kept their weapons.

The unified KPD (VKPD) is suddenly moving from a policy of “open letters to trade unions, to form a “workers’ government” to a united insurgent front. Faced with the passivity of the German proletariat, Hugo Eberlein – KPD delegate to the First Congress of the Komintern – even proposes false attacks against the VKPD to arouse “the indignation of the masses”. However, it was necessary to find ‘allies’. The Komintern asked the KAPD, as a sympathizing party, to join the KPD in this adventure. The KAPD makes fiery proclamations to the German proletariat, despite the reluctance of its base: “With guns and knives, with fists and teeth, take it on. It is all or nothing. (12) Its leadership affirms “the masses of the CP act according to our watchwords. They have forced their leaders to do so.” (13)

Neither the action of the two parties, nor the ‘autonomous’ action of free electrons of the KAPD – such as the ‘troops’ of Max Hoelz and Karl Plättner – can stop the disaster. The proletariat of Berlin, of Central Germany remains passive. The Leuna factories, whose authority was the workers’ Union, with 2,000 members (10 percent of the workers), were bombed by the ‘Greens’ of the Schupo (“Schutzpolizei”), who disposed of armored vehicles.

The KAPD perfectly summarized its position in its Declaration, which it could not read at the end of the sessions of the Third Congress of the Comintern (July 1921), which was also that of Rosa Luxemburg in January 1919:

“The Communist Party cannot trigger economic struggles; neither can it refuse the fight, otherwise it would sabotage the preparation for victory. In the long run, it can only obtain the direction of these struggles if it opposes all the illusions of the masses with full clarity about the purpose of the methods of struggle.” (14)

In the pamphlet written at the same time by Herman Gorter against the VKPD, the KAPD condemned both Paul Levi’s wait-and-see policy and the Communist Party’s putschism, “an obligatory counterpart to its parliamentary and union opportunism”. (15)

The defeat was cruel: after its forced exit from the Komintern in September 1921, the KAPD suffered a hemorrhage of militants, then in March 1922 the scission. The KPD went through a similar process, with the departure of Paul Levi, the party leader, and saw its membership collapse, despite Moscow’s unwavering support.

The German CP then reverted to a policy of ‘united front at the basis’ with the social-democratic trade unions of calling for the formation of a ‘workers’ government’ including all ‘proletarian parties’.

The occupation of the Ruhr by the French Army in January 1923, the acceleration of the economic disaster, and hyperinflation created a situation of chaos, which could have seemed “pre-revolutionary”, with the development of a movement of enterprise councils similar to that of the revolutionary ‘Obleute’ of 1918. The success of this movement as well as the creation of party “workers’ militias” (proletarian centuries), to fight against the police and the Freikorps in the Ruhr, restored confidence in the PC’s base. But, as Pierre Broué notes, 1923 was marked above all by the “progression of extreme right-wing nationalists” – who addressed the “millions of declassed petty bourgeois”, and workers sensitive to nationalist and anti-Semitic propaganda – and developed their armed militias (the S.A. of the Nazi Party), thanks to subsidies from the major industrialists of the Ruhr, and with the complicity of the Reichswehr. (16)

However, the KPD engaged in populist demagoguery with these ruined petty-bourgeois layers and flatter their exaggerated nationalist feelings, and even their antisemitism. (17) Karl Radek, the former Left-wing radical” of Bremen, was able to give a speech – before the executive of the Komintern – in memory of the Nazi Leo Schlageter, who had been shot by the French occupation army in June 1923:

“Only when the German cause becomes the cause of the German people, only when the German cause becomes the fight for the rights of the German people, will the German people win active friends. (…) If the cause of the people is made the cause of the nation, then the cause of the Nation will become the cause of the people. United into a fighting nation of workers, it will gain the assistance of other peoples who are also fighting for their existence. Whomever is not prepared to fight in this way, is capable of deeds of desperation but not of a serious struggle. This is what the Communist Party of Germany and the Communist International have to say at Schlageter’s graveside.” (18)

This appeal to nationalist sentiment could perfectly coexist with an “antifascist” mobilization, such as the “antifascist day” on July 29, which was a significant failure. The KPD then tried a Popular Front policy avant la lettre’. On October 10, the Saxon Social Democratic government integrated several communist ministers, including Fritz Heckert (future Stalinist leader, still buried in a Kremlin wall), and especially [Heinrich] Brandler, who became head of the State Chancellery. The same thing happened on October 13 in the Thuringia government, where three ‘communist ministers’ entered, including Karl Korsch in charge of justice.

These apparent “successes” opened the road to defeat. The ‘workers’ governments’ were dissolved by the Reichswehr without resistance. And it is without resistance that the whole movement capitulates. The Hamburg insurrection of October 23, limited to a single district, was a fiasco: “only some of the communists fought, and they fought alone, the large masses remaining, if not indifferent, at least passive.” (19)

It was another October, that of 1929, which consummated the defeat of the German workers. After a turn designated ‘class-against-class’ (or ‘third period’), when social democracy was described as ‘social-fascist’, the KPD returned to its policy of exalting the German “proletarian nation”. In August 1930 its central committee, wishing to compete with Nazism on its own territory, launched an address “For a national and social liberation of the German people”. (20) In November 1932, the KPD established a united front at the base with Nazi workers during the Berlin transport strike.

The counterrevolution had been in power since November 9, 1918, it led the workers’ councils to committing suicide, then imposed the law of the Weimar Constituent Assembly by iron and fire. It was a real bloodshed of the German proletariat operated under the direct responsibility of social democracy. In 1923, at the end of the German revolution, the number of workers’ victims was already comparable to that of the Paris Commune.

The defeat thus paved the way for Hitler in January 1933. The dream of a global emancipation of the workers – in which Germany would play a key role – turned into the bloody nightmare of a “national and social liberation of the German people”. It was to open the royal road to world war.

Philippe BOURRINET, September 12, 2017.

Source:  Les conseils ouvriers en Allemagne 1918-23, Controverses No. 5 (May 2018), p. 30 ff. Translation, proofreading and annotation revisions by Jac. J. and F.C., December 2018. Final editing: February 3, 2019

This translation and its annotations have been supplemented following retrievals from German sources. Insertions between square brackets are from the translators.


12 Heraus zum Kampf auf die ganze Front! KAZ (Berlin), No. 181 or 182 [F.C.].

13 Ph. Bourrinet, The Dutch and German Communist Left (1900-68), Brill, Leiden, 2016, pp. 234-240.

14 Report of the KAPD at the III. Congress of the Comintern, Protokolle des III. Kongresses der Komintern, op. cit., p. 335. For comparison: Rosa Luxemburg, What are the Leaders Doing? (Die Rote Fahne, Berlin, 7. Januar 1919): “The mass must learn to fight, to act in the struggle itself. And today one can sense that the workers of Berlin to a large extent have learned to act; they thirst for resolute deeds, clear situations, sweeping measures. They are not the same as they were on November 9th; they know what they want and what they should do. However, are their leaders, the executive organs of their will, well informed? Have the revolutionary chairmen and delegates of the large-scale enterprises, have the energy and resolve of the radical elements of the USPD grown in the meanwhile? Has their capacity for action kept pace with the growing energy of the masses? (…) And meanwhile, what have these leaders done? What have they decided? Which measures have they taken to safeguard the victory of the revolution in this tense situation in which the fate of the revolution will be decided, at least for the next epoch? We have seen and heard nothing! Perhaps the delegates of the workers are conferring profoundly and productively. Now, however, the time has come to act.

15 Herman Gorter, Der Weg des Dr. Levi, der Weg der VKPD, KAPD, Berlin, 1921, pp. 11-12. (Gorter has only written part of this pamphlet. See: Gorter, Erklärung, in Proletarier, Monatschrift für Kommunismus, Jahrgang 1, 1920-1921, Heft 8, August, p. 19. (F.C.)

16 Broué, op. cit. pp. 686-688.

17 Ruth Fischer, leader of the left-wing tendency of the KPD, proclaims in a public meeting held in a schoolyard in Berlin on July 25, 1923: “He who calls for the struggle against Jewish capital is already, gentlemen, a class fighter, even if he does not know it. You are against Jewish capital and want to shoot down the stockbrokers. Very well. Trample on Jewish capitalists, hang them from the lantern, trample on them!” (Die K.P.D. im eigenen Spiegel, Berlin : Kommunistische Arbeiter-Partei, Wirtschaftsbezirk Berlin-Brandenburg. Publisher: Buchhandlung für Arbeiter-Literatur, Berlin, O 17, Emil Schubert (Verlag), 1926. p. 75)

18 Karl Radek, Leo Schlageter: the Wanderer into the Void” (June 1923). For a somewhat different version see: Die K.P.D. im eigenen Spiegel. p. 71 (“The K.P.D. in its own mirror”).

19 Broué, op. cit., p. 773.

20Programmerklärung zur nationalen und sozialen Befreiung des deutschen Volkes”, Die Rote Fahne n° 197, Berlin, Sunday August 24, 1930 (“Programmatic declaration on the national and social liberation of the German people”).This call was officially written by Ernst Thälmann and the Central Committee, in fact by Heinz Neumann. As a refugee in the USSR, [the latter] was shot on Stalin’s orders in November 1937.

Contents of Part 1:

  • Introduction
  • [The mass revolt of November 1918]
  • Duality of powers – An increasingly unequal balance of power
  • The Constituent Assembly buries the councils. The defeat of January 1919 and the assassination of Luxemburg and Liebknecht


Documents of the historical Communist Left

Topic: The Mass Struggles in Germany 1918/23