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Fourth International, May-June 1953 1953


The Editors

The East German Uprising


From Fourth International, Vol.14 No.3, May-June 1953, pp.67-70.
Transcription & mark-up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The emergence of the East German masses as an independent socialist force on the world political arena caught by surprise the diplomatic chancelleries of world capitalism, the puppet rulers in East Germany and the Kremlin masters. All the intelligence services – those of the imperialists as well as that of the Kremlin, let alone Ulbricht’s secret police – had no inkling of what was in store. Symptomatic of this ignorance is the fact that the first demonstrations of the construction workers were generally misunderstood. It was taken for granted that these demonstrations took place under official auspices, presumably staged by the regime to serve its own purposes. Police regimes always appear impregnable and omnipotent until the revolutionary masses appear on the scene.

The fact is that the movement of the East German workers, beginning with a number of scattered and shortlived, strikes in various towns, advanced to a new stage with huge strikes and demonstrations in Berlin on June 16 and 17 and then erupted into a nationwide general strike and insurrection. This political uprising of the German workers laid bare the irreconcilable conflict between the working masses and the parasitic Stalinist bureaucracy. The relations and conditions which produced the East German events are not limited to East Germany; they prevail throughout the buffer-zone countries and within the Soviet Union itself. East Germany thus foreshadows the revolutionary developments and struggles that lie ahead in the Stalinist-dominated countries.

Previous reports of working class ferment, discontent and opposition had come from Czechoslovakia and other East European countries. The German workers under the Stalinist rule went the furthest and their actions assumed the broadest scope and sharpest expression primarily because they are the most advanced workers in Europe, richest in socialist traditions, organization and combativity. Their action demonstrated the necessity for a political revolution against Stalinist rule which was predicted years ago by Leon Trotsky.

The basis of Trotsky’s prediction was his analysis of the nature of the Stalinist bureaucracy as a privileged minority. It has expropriated the Soviet workers politically, consumes and wastes a lion’s share of the national income, perpetuates inequality and is unable to maintain itself except by totalitarian terror. This regime collides head-on with the needs, interests and aspirations of the masses. The workers require the broadest possible democracy, otherwise it is impossible for them to defend their interests and move forward onto the socialist road. The workers need the decisive say in the management and planning of the economy and the distribution of the national income.

This irreconcilable conflict in the Soviet Union was extended into the satellite countries with the advent of Stalinist rule. Now it has flared for the first time into the open in East Germany. That is the essential meaning of the East German events as it will be recorded in the annals of history.

Scope of Movement

First and foremost it is necessary to understand the scope of the movement. The German revolutionary socialist periodical Pro and Contra reported that involved in the struggle were not only the workers of East Berlin but the overwhelming majority of the working class in the entire area. When the struggle in East Berlin had already started to slacken, the workers in the other industrial centers moved to the fore. “As early as the first morning hours of June 17 the flame of revolution had leaped over to the industrial centers of Central Germany and touched off explosions in this high-tension area,” stated Pro and Contra in its July 7, 1953 issue. Affected was every major industrial city: Halle, Merseberg, Magdeburg, Erfurt, Gera, Leipzig, Dresden, Jena, Chemnitz. From these cities the movement spread to “the middle-sized and smaller industrial centers.”

“The working class had sensed the colossal potential inherent in itself ... Since 1923, there has been no action of the working class which comes even close to approximating the power of this one. Neither the petty bourgeoisie nor the peasants can lay claim to an essential part in the insurrection,” concluded Pro and Contra. These are the undeniable facts.

The rapidity with which this movement unfolded, its power and unity can be attributed only to the irreconcilable opposition of the working class as a whole to the regime and all its agencies, beginning with the ruling Stalinist party. This opposition, building up gradually through a molecular process and as if waiting a signal, exploded to the surface when the East Berlin workers took the initiative. This was far from aa “elementary” movement. It started with economic demands (abolition of 10% increase in production norms, demands for reduction in prices, etc.) but it was not confined to these demands. Virtually from the beginning the workers raised political demands (dismissal of the most hated bureaucrats, free elections, democratic unions, unification of the country by the joint action of workers in both zones, etc.). In their totality these demands represented much more than a movement to reform the bureaucracy or its regime. For example, a demand for free elections under certain conditions could amount to nothing more than a reform demand. But under the Stalinist regime this, as other political demands, was a revolutionary challenge to the police state. The masses could gain their demands only by a victorious overthrow of the regime and replacing it by the workers’ democracy. The nature of the regime determined the nature of the struggle. The masses engaged in a political revolution. The Kremlin rulers, on the other hand, engaged in a counter-revolution.

In the course of the struggle, the masses demonstrated in action that they rejected – and sought to eject – the regime, its party, its trade unions, in brief, the bureaucracy and all its agencies.

This repudiation of the Stalinist regime, the Stalinist party, the bureaucracy as a whole, comes as a climax to the countless crimes Stalinism has perpetrated over the years in Germany. What was at one time the most powerful party in the Communist International remains today nothing more than an administrative apparatus resting on Russian bayonets. This is the new interrelation between the masses and the Stalinists which has been established in Germany.

The methods employed by the regime against the insurgent workers were typical of the methods of all counterrevolutionary regimes:

  1. the use of armed force;
  2. promises of concessions;
  3. police action against the advanced elements and
  4. a campaign of slander against the movement.

The armed forces used to suppress the revolution were formidable. Some 300,000 Russian troops, including armored divisions, were deployed against the workers. The size of this armed force is, in its own way, a gauge of the scope and power of the uprising. It has been said that the armed forces did not do much shooting and in some instances even fired over the heads of the insurgents. If this is supposed to show that there was something merciful about the intervention of the Kremlin troops, it misses the mark completely. Confronted with workers in revolt, military commanders prefer to accomplish their ends with a minimum of bloodshed.

The Russian commanders knew that excessive bloodshed might only provoke the unarmed masses to fight all the harder. They knew, for example, the consequences of Bloody Sunday in St. Petersburg (Jan. 22, 1905) when Czarist troops fired on unarmed workers and caused the revolution to sweep over the entire country. The counter-revolutionary role of the Kremlin troops consisted in their confronting the unarmed working class with a display of overwhelming force, which saved the shattered regime from decisive defeat. The revolution was thereby blocked, and the workers who entered the political arena were compelled to retreat.

The promises of concessions similarly differ in no essential respects from the ruses employed by other counter-revolutionary regimes under similar conditions. Let us recall that the Russian Czar made extravagant promises of concessions in 1905 in order to create the illusion that his regime would reform itself.

Actually the German Stalinist regime never went far in its concessions. Their promises were confined to measures to improve living standards, but at no time were any democratic rights granted. One official, the Minister of Justice, Fechner, said on June 30th that “the right to strike is constitutionally guaranteed. Members of strike committees will not be punished for their activities as strike leaders.” A week later Fechner announced the arrest of 50,000 strikers and was dismissed from his post and expelled for his expression of “liberalism.” This one case tells the story of the real connection between the concessions, repressions and purges.

The touchstone of concessions for Marxists is whether or not in their totality they give the workers an opportunity to assert themselves politically, permit their voices to be heard and create a fissure in the totalitarian system which can then be extended. In a word, the test is whether the workers’ struggle for power is enhanced by the concessions. In East Germany the promises of concessions were intended for the opposite purpose, namely, to enable the regime to continue holding the workers by the throat.

Typical Methods

The immediate aim was to divide the revolutionary ranks. To separate the “softs” from the “hards” among the insurgent masses so that the police could deal more quickly and effectively with the “hards,” that is, the most militant, resolute and class-conscious elements. Far from representing the dawn of a new era in East Germany, that is, the beginnings of self-reform of the totalitarian regime, these promises of concessions were kept down to a minimum and combined with military and police repressions in the methods of the counter-revolution.

The slander of the movement as a “fascist adventure” is something which the Stalinists have typically made their own. They cannot imitate the capitalists who, as is well known, do not hesitate to denounce even spontaneous movements for elementary demands as “Communist inspired.” Even when completely false, such denunciations constitute only partial frame-ups. Because it is true that every struggle of the masses, even for elementary demands, contains in it a potential socialist challenge to the capitalist system. As one Prussian Minister of Internal Affairs long ago said, “Every strike discloses the hydra-head of revolution.”

But the defamation of the East German uprising as Fascist-inspired is without a grain of truth. It is a frame-up of the basest sort. The movement was anti-capitalist through and through; its aim was to establish a democratic workers’ power. Expressed in this charge is the bureaucracy’s fear that the East German events have torn away the Kremlin’s mask of passing itself off for “workers’ representatives.” The Stalinist bureaucracy dares not admit that it has been openly challenged by the East German working class in their bid for power. By slandering the uprising as fascist, the Stalinist bureaucracy pursues above all the aim of retaining its demagogic disguise.

The immediate aim pursued by this slander is to serve as a cover for further repressions. If the state is indeed threatened by such formidable “fascist” forces, it means that terror against the “fascist underground” must be intensified. It means an even greater growth of the police state, more terrible repressions. By his call to “strengthen” the secret police issued in the middle of September, Grotewohl has expressed precisely this need. That is the logic of the slander.

In this case the charge of fascism is hurled at the working class which was itself the worst sufferer from fascism. The German workers fought Nazism bravely before Hitler’s rise to power and could have won the fight were it not for the betrayal of the Stalinist and Social Democratic leaders. These workers had endured 12 years of fascist rule and as a result when the Russian troops first marched in they were greeted as liberators. Given half a chance by the Stalinists, they could have become staunch supporters of the regime. It is the harshest condemnation of the Stalinist overlords that their tyranny imposes such intolerable living and working conditions, coupled with a total absence of democratic rights, on the workers as to leave them no resort other than revolution to break the chains of Stalinist enslavement.

But that is not all. The infamous slander of fascism means that the Stalinists have lost hope of winning over the German workers. They propose to resort to more terror to maintain themselves in power. This is further borne out by the purge of that section of the East German bureaucracy that favored or is suspected of favoring a softer attitude. It is borne out most of all by the sweeping firings and arrests of worker-militants in the factories since the open struggle subsided.

Divide Ranks

Although the workers had to retreat, from all indications they have been neither crushed nor cowed. On the contrary, having measured strength with Grotewohl’s government, they remain in a militant and confident mood. They continue to voice demands, particularly for the release of political prisoners and renewed strikes in some places to reinforce their demand.

The regime was openly defied by hundreds of thousands who went to West Berlin for food packages. The Stalinist leaders fear another uprising and are taking “preventive” measures to forestall it. While seeking to refurbish their repressive apparatus, they are making promises of improvements in living conditions such as an end to rationing within a year.

But no matter what measures they take, the basic causes which provoked the uprising will not be eliminated. The workers will be impelled to rise again. The struggle launched on June 16 can end only with the downfall of the Stalinist dictatorship.

In the very first open test of forces the regime exposed itself as lacking any support among the masses. It was opposed by a united working class and saved only by the intervention of foreign troops. Concessions, even if forthcoming, cannot possibly save the regime because it is alien to the needs and aspirations of the masses.

All Political Tendencies

There has been much speculation about the political complexion of the insurgent German masses. The fact is that in their political composition the masses represented all the political tendencies within the working class. There were Social Democrats, there were also many members of the Communist Party, along with members of the SAP, an old split-off from the German CP, and there were Trotskyists. The touchstone of the mass uprising is that they were all united in action. Bat at the same time it is perfectly correct to say that in its aims and tendencies the insurrection expressed the Trotskyist program.

The worker members of the CP, the SD and other parties and groups actually broke in action with the parties and programs they had adhered to. The political revolution against the bureaucracy is not inscribed in the program of any party other than the Trotskyist party. The Trotskyists are the only ones who have correctly analyzed the nature of Stalinism and elaborated the methods of struggle against it.

As far back as 1936 Leon Trotsky proclaimed “the inevitability of a new revolution” against the Stalinist regime. The Transition Program, the foundation document of the Fourth International adopted in 1938, calls for this revolution. The 1940 Manifesto of the Fourth International – The Imperialist War and the Proletarian World Revolution – states that “The preparation of the revolutionary overthrow of the Moscow ruling caste is one of the main tasks of the Fourth International.” This was reaffirmed in 1951 by the Third World Congress of the Fourth International. The East German events have not only brought with them the verification that this political revolution is historically necessary and inevitable, but they have demonstrated the forms and methods it must take.

The test of forces in East Germany revealed not only the remarkable power of the workers but also what is lacking to bring that power to victory. The revolutionary perspective opened by the June events is bound up with the unfolding struggle of the workers throughout the East Europe Soviet zone. East Germany was the most advanced expression of the mass upsurge in all of Eastern Europe. At the same time the East German events posed the burning question of the unification of the entire German working class, East and West, on a new plane.

To realize the great revolutionary possibilities opened up by these events the organization of a revolutionary party of the German proletariat becomes imperative. In outlining the conditions for a successful political revolution against the Stalinist bureaucracy, Trotsky said in 1934, “We must set down, first of all, as an immutable axiom – that this task can be solved only by a revolutionary party.” Today this is truer than ever. And the cadres for such a party have already made their appearance and demonstrated their capacity in the crucible of the general strike uprising of June.

The iron necessity for a revolutionary socialist party – that is, the Trotskyist party – has been confirmed once again by historical events. We are confident that the German workers, both in the Eastern and Western /ones, will begin drawing this lesson from the East German events.

* * *

In the light of the foregoing, we wish to make a few remarks on the discussion article on the East German events in the March-April issue ofFourth International by Comrade George Clarke. His presentation plays down the counter-revolutionary role of the Kremlin as well as of its puppet regime. He takes careful note of the moderate conduct of the occupying forces, but fails to characterize and bring out their counter-revolutionary part in blocking the workers’ bid for power.

Further Comrade Clarke’s presentation, minimizes the scope and meaning of the East German events. Nowhere in this discussion does he bring forward the inescapable necessity of the mass uprising to get rid of the Stalinist bureaucracy. Nor does he assert the need of the (revolutionary socialist party in order to lead such a mass uprising to victory.

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