Fritz Heckert

The Class Struggle

The General Strike in Germany,
its Development, its Effect and its Lessons

(6 September 1923)

From International Press Correspondence, Vol. 3 No. 59 [37], 6 September 1923, pp. 649–651.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2023). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.

On the anniversary of the founding of the German Republic, 12,000 shop stewards representing the workers of Greater Berlin assembled m Berlin, and resolved to enter upon a general strike, and to call upon the workers in town and country to participate in it. The strike was called for three days; its demands included political and economic aims. Now the strike has terminated without all the demands having been realized, the bourgeoisie and social democracy haste to exclaim; “The general strike action has completely collapsed, the workers have been lured to rum by the communists, but the collapse of the general strike has at least had the beneficial effect that the Communist Party is completely done for and the workers have been cured of all ideas of communist putsches.” At the same moment, when all bourgeois and social democratic newspapers are writing in this fashion, the minister of police. Severing, issues a Ukase declaring the National Committee of the Factory Councils and all its subcommittees to be dissolved. Words and deeds are here completely at variance. If the workers have completely rejected communism, if the Communist Party is absolutely dead – then whence the necessity of an exceptional law against a committee of shop stewards which has entirely lost all influence owing to the outcome of the movement? The bourgeois papers and the social democrats are forced into such contradictions. They must keep up their own courage and that of their readers.

If we desire to form a correct estimate of the last general strike, we must accord it a somewhat more thorough attention than the social democratic and bourgeois newspapers care to give it.

The Vossische Zeitung writes: “The communists enjoyed an incredible boom last week (before the general strike), but they have lost the entire game by their foolishness. If they had waited, the ripe fruit would have fallen into their mouths. They have lost everything by their stupid general strike.” The social democratic Vorwärts expounds at great length that such a general strike was destined to fall from the beginning, as the trade union leaders had not organized and led it. No general strike has any prospect of success miles properly prepared, and less its demands have been thoroughly examined as to their expediency by the competent authorities. We need not be offended when the Vossische Zeitung and all the other press duennas write such foolish nonsense about the labor movement. But we have a right to expect more from a social democratic paper.

As early as 1900, when the problem of the mass strike was pushed into the foreground by the first Russian revolution, our murdered comrade, Rosa Luxemburg, overwhelmed the trade union leaders and party bureaucrats with biting irony and ridicule, because they condemned the mass strike as not fitting into their famous strike formula. She showed that the mass strike is based on other conditions and other laws than the ordinary wages strikes, and that a mass strike, when formulating its aims, will not hold to conditions devised in the conference rooms of trade union bureaucrats.

Mass strikes do not fall from the sky. They have to be made by the workers. But before the working masses grasp the intuitive for a mass strike movement, a number of prerequisites are necessary. Were these prerequisites given in this last strike movement? To this question we can reply in the affirmative. The working class of Germany is living under the most wretched conditions imaginable. The bankrupt bourgeoisie plunges the working class into daily increasing misery and poverty. This unbearable misery forces the workers into continuous economic struggles. But the results of these economic struggles are always annulled again by the policy of tire ruling class, The Cuno government was a government which had proved itself entirely incapable of saving German economics, and with them the German working class, from falling over the precipice. The workers knew from experience that so long as this government held the reins there was no hope of emerging from their misery. But experience has also taught them something else in the course of the last few months, i.e., that the social democratic party and the trade union leaders have been tolerating or even supporting this bankrupt bourgeois policy. Thus the working class not only lost its confidence in Cuno’s government, but became very distrustful of the trade union leaders. During the last few weeks the workers have entered into a number of strikes. The net result of these strikes has been that wages had a lower purchasing power at the end of the strike period than at the beginning, that the government ruthlessly employed its forces for the suppression of all strikes, and that the social democratic bureaucracy sabotaged or even combatted the strikes. The working class, owing to these experiences. felt itself thrown on its own resources.

When the Cuno government was compelled to convene parliament in order to create for itself a basis for its further rule, the workers in all cities and villages of Germany felt: This government cannot be tolerated any longer. It must go! A workers’ deputation expressed this feeling of the masses by the sentence: “It is no longer possible to pace any confidence in this government. If another government comes, there is at least a hope that it will be better than Cuno’s government.” There was no need for the workers to hold any great consultations before formulating their demands: Wages with a constant value – but first of all the overthrow of Cuno’s government. Resolutions and motions to this effect were passed at thousands of meetings. When the Reichstag met, hundreds of workers’ deputations came and demanded of the leading organizations that they should fight energetically for the aims formulated by the masses. But social democracy, and the General German Trade Unions Federation, would not for a moment entertain the idea of a joint struggle of the workers for the realization of the workers’ demands. By Friday, August 10, the head organizations had still not decided to accede to the will of the masses. The proposal made by the Communists, that the General German Trade Union Federation should place itself at the head of the now unpreventable mass movement, and should fight with the masses for the realization of their demands, was scornfully rejected. On Saturday August 11, at 1 o’clock p.m., there was still a three-quarters majority in the social democratic Reichstag fraction for the retention of the Cuno government. The higher bureaucracy still believed that it was possible to hold the workers back from lighting. But when a “wild” plenary factory council meeting, attended by 12,000 shop stewards, resolved on the general strike; when the tramway workers ceased work and the electrical workers at Golpa turned off the current, then the social democrats saw that they could no longer maintain the Cuno government. The mass storm broke the resistance of the social democratic leaders, and swept away Cuno’s government. The bourgeoisie found itself obliged to make great material concessions to the workers in many places. Thus the mass strike brought about the realization of many of the demands made, even before its effects were fully felt.

And how was its leadership, its organizatory and technical executive? On Friday, August 10, the trade unions declined to put themselves at the head of the inevitable movement. And yet it was perfectly plain to the trade union bureaucrats that their standing aside could not stem the movement. Their sole consolation was that neither had the communists sufficient power to lead the movement and bring it to a good end. We were told: “The masses are already beyond your control. By next Wednesday the whole movement will be a heap of debris, and we trade union leaders will once more be called upon to help the workers out of the unhappy situation into when you communists have led them.”

The plenary factory council meeting had therefore no choice but itself to form a central strike leadership for the purpose of securing the united and uniform advance of the movement. Trade union bureaucracy and social democracy immediately called upon the workers to ignore the instructions issued by the strike central, and to remain at work. Despite this, the strike leaders were able to keep perfected control of the lighting masses. All provocat ons on the part of the bourgeoisie, the police, and the trade union and social democratic bureaucracy, were successfully warded off.

In order to undermine the general strike, and to disunite the fighting masses, every available means were employed by the government, the bourgeoisie, and the social democrats, the committees of the national trade union of railwaymen, and of the German railwaymen’s union, declared to the ministers Stresemann and Hilferding that the minister for traffic for the whole German Republic, the notorious General Gröner, must not be permitted to enter the cabinet, or they would not be able to hold the workers back from striking. Under this pressure the new ministers made this concession, followed by further concessions with respect to higher wages. The workers on the overhead railways and tramways were granted large additions to their wages for coping with the rising prices, in order to induce them to desert the ranks. This manoeuvre met with considerable success. The printers, who were also on strike were granted enormous payments per hour; by this they were bought off and the bourgeoisie and the government were enabled to publish their press and poison public opinion. In this strike the electricians did not prove so powerful a factor as has been the case in former movements. This is due to the fact that a number of large power stations connected their systems with one another, while there was no unified down tools policy in this whole network of electric works, for coordination among the electrical workers was extremely deficient. These were circumstances very prejudicial to the strike. To this must be added that the provincial districts were insufficiently prepared for participation in a general strike. The appeal issued by the Berlin factory councils did not reach the ears of the workers throughout Germany until Monday, so that the provinces could not join the movement until Monday afternoon or Tuesday morning. This deprived the strike movement of the impetus of a simultaneous beginning And a third factor calculated to interfere with the coherence and progress of the movement was the fact that the main political demand – overthrow of Cuno’s government had already been realized on Saturday evening, 36 hours before the provinces received the summons to take part in the general strike.

The strike leaders devoted every attention to all these difficulties and defects iu the movement. At a fresh plenary factory council meeting, attended by 13,000 shop stewards, they advised that the strike be broken off on Tuesday evening, the term fixed from the beginning of the strike. In making this proposition, the strike leaders felt that the growing united front of the workers must not be destroyed; that it would be unwise to let one section of the workers continue in the struggle whilst others had returned to work. The strike leaders were anxious to avoid the possibility of the section of the proletariat which had resumed work being played off against the section which continued the fight. Fresh schisms among the workers were to be prevented by every possible means. Trade union bureaucracy and social democracy should be given no opportunity of keeping up their pretence of being the saviours of the proletariat. It was important to gain time, to gather force, to prepare for future struggles, to enlighten those workers who took no part in the strike, to fill up the gaps in the united front, and to learn the real lessons taught by the errors and shortcomings of the movement.

The 13,000 shop stewards assembled, showed complete understanding of the position of the strike leaders. With hearts filled with anger at the despicable behaviour of the leaders of the trade union organizations, and at the fresh treacheries of the social democratic leaders, the shop stewards decided that the fight be discontinued all round. Very few votes were cast against this proposition of the strike central. The meeting listened in perfect silence to the many speeches on the deficiencies in the movement, and the resolve matured in every heart to carry on the work with the utmost energy, to utilize the lessons taught by the movement in the interests of the proletariat, and thus to step forward into fresh battles with greater unity and strength than ever before. The leaders of a great struggle have never before received such a mighty and unanimous vote of confidence as that accorded to the improvised strike leadership of the general strike by the plenary meeting of the Berlin factory councils.

There have been many cases in which the trade union bureaucracy and social democracy have practised shameful treachery, and in these cases there have always been thousands and thousands of trade union members who nave thrown aside their trade union books and given up their membership; but this is not the case this time. The fighting workers have recognized that they must keep their trade unions united, and that it is their duty to rid themselves as rapidly as possible of the treacherous functionaries. Those social democrats and trade union bureaucrats who are calculating on being able to resume their rôle as saviours of the proletariat are doomed to disappointment. The masses are filled with an unexampled hate of bureaucracy. And when the social democratic newspaper scribes assert that the communists will be called to account by the masses for the “senseless putsch”, their words are flatly contradicted by the events in the trade unions and factories. This general strike has enormously increased the feeling of self-reliance among the workers. The Communist Party has won many tens of thousands of members. The masses recognize the Communist Party as the sole leader of the revolutionary proletariat, and the prohibition of the activity of the national committee of factory councils by the social democrat Severing, is the proof that the social democrats have lost all confidence in being able to regain the masses.

The general strike has brought us the coalition between the social democracy and the bourgeoisie: the alliance of bankrupt bourgeoisie with bankrupt reformism. These two partners can only work together for their common ruin. For a certain time they can rule with the aid of martial law, and at the points of Fascist and national army bayonets. The next general strike of the workers will make a clean sweep of these methods of governing a working people, and will shatter to pieces the throne of the coalition confraternity. We share the opinion of the social democratic Chemnitzer Volksstimme, that: “the coalition signifies for social democracy and reformism the last move before checkmate”. Meanwhile we leave it to the bourgeoisie and to the social democrats to continue to philosophize over the “breakdown” of the Communist Party and the general strike. The German working class will march forwards and act.

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Last updated on 28 April 2023