Translated and Edited by Mike Baker: published by the
Movement for Workers' Councils, London 1990.
Marked up by Jonas Holmgren for the Marxists Internet Archive.
When, in November 1918, imperial rule collapsed in Germany, this was not at its inception the result of the revolutionary activity of the working masses. The front had been pierced, the soldiers were deserting in their thousands. In this situation, the sea-lords of the German navy conceived the idea of a last great show of strength, to take the form of a desperate battle on the North Sea. The sailors believed, rightly or wrongly, that they would all find their deaths in this battle, and on the warships this then provoked desertions on a mass scale. Having once taken this course, the sailors were compelled to pursue it to the bitter end, because otherwise the crews which had mutinied, together with their ships, would have been shot to pieces by the "loyal" troops. For this reason they struck the red flag, and this became the signal for a general uprising of the sailors. With this the decisive action had been taken; the die was cast, and the sailors were forced to continue the struggle they had started. With an iron logic of its own, one action led to another. In this way they marched on Hamburg, in order to appeal for help from the workers there. How would they be received? Would they be repulsed?
Approaching Hamburg, there was no question of any resistance being offered to the revolutionary sailors. In their hundreds of thousands workers declared themselves in solidarity with them, whereupon all revolutionary activity found its expression in the Councils of Workers, Soldiers and Sailors, and the triumphal march of the German Revolution began to move throughout the whole of Germany. And here a peculiar feature of this revolutionary development began to make itself manifest: although the military censorship had controlled all reports concerning the Russian Revolution since 1917, and although for that reason absolutely no propaganda had been made on behalf of the Council concept, indeed in spite of the fact that the council structure of the Russian workers was completely unknown to the German workers, within a period of a few days an entire network of Workers' Councils had sprung up all over Germany!
The civil war which now followed took place under the banner of socialism. On the one side stood Social Democracy, which embraced the cause of socialism. It understood this as a simple continuation of the process of concentration characteristic of capitalism, and which found its culmination in the legal nationalisation of large scale industry. Given such a movement, it was inevitable that the council movement, as the embodiment of the self-activity of the working masses, would be seen by Social Democracy as a threat which had to be destroyed. On the other side was newly-born communism, which conceived of the conversion of private property in means of production into socialised property as being attainable only be illegal means, that is to say as being embedded in the self-activity of the working masses themselves. The aim was the same, but the path leading to it a totally different one.
Although the occupation of the factories by the proletariat was in general carried through during the whole of this revolutionary period, nowhere did this come to an "appropriation in the name of society". The factories continued to be administered and managed by the old proprietors, they still remained their property, even if here and there this took place under the effective control of the workers.
That the revolution did not develop any further can be attributed in the main to the fact that the revolutionary section of the proletariat needed all its strength merely to maintain its position over and against the mounting counter-revolution. This, under the leadership of Social Democracy, was concerned to prevent the onset of "social chaos" and the resort to autonomous ("wildcat") nationalisation. For this reason the proletarian revolution was extremely weak. Many social groups were subdued by the revolution and compelled to choose, for good or for evil, the side of the victors of the moment, which ever side that might be. Nevertheless, in the end they were all driven into the arms of the counter-revolution, since the proletariat was still divided within itself and preoccupied with its own problems.
Although this is not the proper place to sketch out in full the course of the revolutionary civil war in Germany, it is necessary for us to devote some attention to a brief examination of this subject, because the attitude adopted by the agrarian proletariat and the small and middle peasants towards the revolution stands in close connection with that process and the entire course taken by the revolution.
The first characteristic to be noted here is that the peasantry did not constitute a strategic factor of any significance in the revolutionary process. They were, for instance, unable to develop their own independent organisations capable of playing an independent role. They also failed to form their own independent Councils, except in Bavaria. In that latter case, the peasants were forced to adopt a position which caused the same phenomenon to make its appearance where as in the case of the proletariat: they failed to assert themselves as a united force. A section of the peasantry chose the side of the revolution, the other section opposed it. Unfortunately we do not have at our disposal any data concerning the social characteristics of those formations which took up their position on the side of the revolution, nor of any accurate numerical estimation of the forces concerned.
With the exception of Bavaria, the peasantry barely played any role in the revolution. There was no question of their giving any direct support, and the general mood was clearly apathetic. The slogan: "All Land to the Peasants" clearly held no significance here, because small and middle-scale farming industry was decisively predominant. Whilst it may have sufficed for the peasant, given a backward situation in agriculture similar to that in Russia, to be given a strip of land as his private property, the modern economic conditions of Western Europe caused him to put forward quite different demands. Apart from a holding in land, appreciable capital resources in the form of means of production and raw materials were also necessary in order that the average social level of productivity typical of industry and the economy generally might be attained in agriculture also. Should those levels not be attained, the holdings fail to achieve profitability and so are unable to maintain themselves. In the conditions of a highly developed agriculture, the same slogan which in Russia was capable of releasing such colossal social forces, here, made on sense at all for the small peasants.
However, there still exists in Germany extensive territories in which large-scale estate ownership is predominant. This then poses the question as to the extent to which the agrarian proletariat here showed any desire or tendency to follow the Russian example of carrying through land distribution. In this connection it must be said quite baldly: nothing of the kind made itself apparent. The production relations characteristic of large-scale land ownership in Germany effectively prevented the emergence of any such tendencies. If, in the case of a backward agrarian economy, the idea-world of the poor peasant starved of land naturally revolves around a forcible distribution of the large estates, by the same token, given scientific methods of farming as implemented on the large German estates, characterised as they were by a high degree of specialisation, the only ideology capable in such conditions of independent development and of expressing itself as an independent social force was and could only be that of common ownership with communal methods of operation.
On the other hand, an objection which could with some validity be raised against this view is that a given technical level of development does not always or necessarily express itself as the dominant factor in the ideology of the landed population, because the force of tradition always plays an important part in the latter's motivations. Nevertheless, the profound interconnection between production relations and ideology can be clearly perceived as lying at the root of the problem as we have portrayed it.
In the case of large-scale land ownership in Germany, organised production is organised as an industry, since it is laid out on the basis of modern science and technique. The large arable fields are worked with modern machinery, grain is stored in large silos and processed by machinery. In the cattle farming areas, the grazing meadows are of extensive size and equipped with milking sheds capable of housing hundreds of cows, whilst on-the-spot dairies exist for the preparation of the milk. The potato fields in the north of the country are exclusively organised for specialisation in this form of agriculture, and the distilleries are directly connected to them. In the province of Saxony, where everything is specialised for the production of beet crops for the processing in the neighbouring sugar factories of Magdeburg, Aachen, etc., very similar conditions pertain. Under such conditions the slogan: "All Land to the Peasants!" can find no basis for support whatsoever in the sense of a distribution of land according to the Russian example. The agricultural workers would have no conception of what to do with such land. In the sphere of animal husbandry, they might be able to procure for themselves a piece of land and a couple of cows, but since their dwellings are not equipped as farms, they would be unable to pursue any cattle-rearing or dairy-farming operations there. In addition, there would be a complete absence of those farm implements necessary for the exploitation of their holdings. These conditions are valid throughout the whole area of the large landed estates of Germany, and, for all the reasons stated, we can conclude with certainty that a high level of development in agriculture precludes the validity of any measures for distributing the land.
The agricultural workers who work on such estates form the true agricultural proletariat. The perspective they face is the same as that confronting the industrial workers, that is to say, the prospect of the "appropriation of the whole of industry in the name of society". If the industrial proletariat was proved in practice to be too weak to tackle seriously the revolutionary tasks associated with the achievement of communism, in the case of the agrarian proletariat maters did not develop even to the point at which those tasks could be posed. The agrarian production relations themselves ensure that thousands of proletarians are unable to acquire the necessary qualities of solidarity within a small occupational area, with the result that a common front of struggle can come into being only with the greatest difficulty. For this reason, the agricultural proletariat did not succeed in forming, or was barely able to form, its own Councils, and thus its role in the German revolution was barely of any significance.
On the other hand, the attitude adopted by the so-called semi-proletariat in the countryside is worthy of note. There exists in Germany a considerable industrial presence in the countryside, a phenomenon which is also making its appearance to an increasing extent in other countries. This may be attributed to the availability of cheap labour-power and to lower land prices and taxes. Since the labour force required is recruited from amongst the peasant population in the neighbouring territory, and these workers frequently work in their spare time on their fairly large holdings of land, they tend to take up an immediate position which we term that of a semi-proletariat. The type of agriculture pursued by them is that of the closed domestic economy. The role they play as a market force is insufficient to be of any overall economic significance.
The characteristic feature of which to take note at this point is that this semi-proletariat came to represent a force in the revolution which nothing could hold back or intimidate. Time after time they were in the vanguard of the movement; it was they who were in the fore during the uprising and marched to all the neighbouring cities in order to give the struggle a broader base. Thuringia is a typical example of this. Additionally, these workers fulfilled an exemplary role in the task of supplying the cities with essential foodstuffs. At the beginning of the revolution, when the Councils still held power, the peasantry tended to hoard these foodstuffs in order to screw the prices up as high as possible. In order to take measures against this, the Councils in the cities made contact with the Councils holding power in the neighbouring factories in the countryside, and the semi-proletarians, who were fully acquainted with the situation there, brought measures to bear to persuade the peasants to release their products against fixed prices. This, for instance, is what occurred in Hamburg and district.
Summarising the above, we can say that, in general, neither the German agrarian proletariat nor the German peasantry took part in any decisive way in the revolution. Even if, in the case of the agrarian proletariat, communist ideas were already present to some extent, they were nevertheless still extremely weakly developed and were unable to find any effective expression in revolutionary practice. This would seem to give substance to the view that, with the onset of a proletarian revolution, the peasantry in the main tends to adopt an attitude of "wait and see". The general stance they adopt will tend to be determined by the strength of the revolutionary forces, and also by the degree to which the large agricultural estates are or are not successfully integrated into the new-born and developing communist mode of production.