Rob Sewell’s GERMANY: From Revolution to Counter-Revolution

The Kapp Putsch

ONCE THE THREAT of revolution bad subsided, and the workers’ councils began to dissolve, the bourgeois looked for the removal of the Noske-Scheidemann-Ebert government. On 13 March 1920, 12,000 troops from the Ehrhardt Brigade and the Baltikum Brigade under General Luettwitz, entered Berlin in order to establish a military dictatorship, and declare Wolfgang Kapp, a founder of the old Fatherland Party, as the new Chancellor.

Noske, the Commander-in-Chief, called upon Reichswehr officers to put down the rebellion, which they refused point blank to do. The head of the army, General Hans von Seekt, simply announced he was going on ‘indefinite leave’. To save its skin, the government fled from Berlin, firstly to Dresden, where a Freikorps general threated to put the entire cabinet under arrest, and then to Stuttgart.

As a matter of self-preservation the SPD, USPD and trade union leaders appealed to the workers to put down this military putsch and defend the republic. A general strike was called which so paralysed Berlin that Kapp could not find a single secretary to issue the decree that he had assumed power!

In a completely ultra-left fashion the young KPD issued a statement that the workers should remain neutral as it was a fight ‘between two counter-revolutionary wings’. Within 24 hours the KPD were forced to reverse their position 180 degrees. The German workers were solid in their determination to defeat the military coup and the communists had no alternative but to participate in the struggle.

The coup electrified the whole country. From Berlin, the strike spread spontaneously through the Ruhr, Central Germany and Bavaria. Such was the counter movement that, in nearly every city and town, the military were driven out by mass demonstrations of workers and the middle class. The sheer scale of the resistance to General Luettwitz was gigantic.

In the Ruhr armed workers began to join forces in a ‘Red Army’ that put the Reichswehr to flight. They were estimated as 50,000 strong, fully equipped with modern weapons and artillery. They became, for a period, masters of the Ruhr.

Workers took action all over. Typically, in Chemnitz, the post office, railway station and town hall were occupied by armed workers. The Executive Council established on 15 March was made up of ten KPD members, nine SPD, one USPD and one Democrat, and extended its authority over a radius of 50 kilometres.

The spontaneous movement of the masses against the coup was similar to the later actions of the Spanish proletariat in July 1936 after Franco’s revolt. As in Spain, with a revolutionary leadership, the German workers could have taken power easily.

Lenin had compared the Kapp putsch to the Kornilov uprising in August 1917 in Russia. In a similar way the forces of counter-revolution attempted to overthrow the Kerensky government and restore the old regime of the Tsar. Unlike the KPD, the Bolshevik Party immediately threw itself into the forefront of defending the revolution, organising a united front with the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries in order to defeat reaction. It was a huge blunder for the German KPD initially to advocate neutrality in such a struggle. Such ultra-leftism simply put up barriers between themselves, the social democratic workers and ordinary trade unionists.

 A Swing to the Left

The consequences of the Kapp putsch brought about a great shift in the political landscape. After its failure, Noske resigned. In June 1920 the USPD became the second largest party in the Reichstag with 81 deputies; in the Landstags of Saxony, ‘I’huringia and Brunswick it became the largest party. Its membership had grown spectacularly to 800,000. It published 55 daily newspapers. In the Reichstag elections, the USPD had got 4,895,000 votes, more than double its January 1919 figure, whilst the SPD, due to the masses’ shift to the left, lost half the votes it won in January 1919, falling to 5,614,000. The SPD still, however, remained the biggest party in the Reichstag. On the other side of the spectrum, the vote for the extreme right also doubled at the expense of the liberals, indicating a growing polarisation of the situation in Germany.

In Bavaria, General von Nohl, ungrateful for past services, forced out the SPD Premier Johannes Hoffmann and established a more right wing government. In the Ruhr, however, the armed workers who had succeded in driving out the Freikorps and the Reichswehr forces now refused to lay down their arms as requested by the central government.

The new coalition government, under SPD member Hermann Mueller, decided to despatch government troops—who had previously refused to fight Kapp—to restore order in the Ruhr, which they did eagerly and with much brutality. Hundreds were killed and hundreds more executed to restore ‘normality’.

Towards a mass Communist International

The year 1920 was a turning point not only for the KPD but also for the Communist International. The founding congress of the Third International, in March of the previous year had laid down the fundamental principles of the socialist revolution and the nature of soviet power. The success of the Bolshevik revolution was now having a big effect within the ranks of the mass parties of social democracy, with large layers pressing for affiliation to the new International. Negotiations concerning affiliations were opened by a whole series of mass workers’ organisations: the Independent Labour Party in Britain, the French Socialist Party, the USPD of Germany, the Italian Socialist Party, the Norwegian Labour Party, and a number of others.

The possibility of creating a mass Communist International was in the offing. But the danger also existed of bringing into the new International reformist and centrist leaders who were attempting to keep a firm grip on their radicalised rank and file. In order to win over the genuine revolutionary membership, and to separate them from their opportunist leaders, the Comintern formulated 18 conditions for affiliation to the new International. When some of the opportunist leaders were prepared to swallow these conditions, three more were added to effectively exclude them.

The KPD had grown from 3-4000 members in January 1919 to 78,000 immediately after the Kapp putsch, despite an ultra-left split-off. It was nevertheless tiny in comparison to the two other mass parties, which had approaching one million members apiece. Under the impact of events, however, the ranks of the USPD was moving away from reformism and towards the ideas of Marxism. At its March 1919 conference, the USPD came out in favour of the dictatorship of the proletariat and a soviet government. In December it broke with the Second International and began negotiations with the Comintern. In October at its Halle Congress the USPD, after a four-hour appeal by the president of the Comintern, Zinoviev, voted to accept the 21 conditions and affiliate to the Communist International. Negotiations then opened up with the KPD with a view to the creation of a merged united Communist Party, which was founded in December with a membership approaching a half a million workers. The German Communist Party was now a truly mass party, which under the guidance of the Comintern, began to make preparations for the socialist revolution in Germany.

In December, the 140,000 strong French Socialist Party voted to affiliate to the new International. The whole of the old Socialist Party apparatus, its headquarters, its secretariat, and its daily paper L’Humanité with a circulation of 200,000 became the weapons of the new Communist Party. In Czechoslovakia also a mass Communist Party was formed out of the Socialist Party, numbering 350,000 members. With the split in the Italian Socialist Party, 50,000 members were drawn into the ranks of the newly founded Italian Communist Party.

These mass parties did not emerge from small sectarian groups on the fringes of the labour movement, but arose from the traditional mass organisations of the working class that were experiencing political turmoil due to the colossal events of the period. The mass of workers do not learn from theory, but from experience. They tend to take the line of least resistance and develop enormous loyalty to their traditional mass organisations that they have built up over generations. It was on the basis of titanic events that these parties were thrown into ferment, reformism became compromised and the rank and file moved towards the ideas of genuine Marxism.

The First Congress of the Communist International in March 1919 met amid great hopes of a rapid development of the European revolution. By the time of the Second Congress in 1920, it became obvious that more serious organisational and political preparation would be needed for the proletariat to gain victories in Western Europe. Along with the creation of mass communist parties went the urgent necessity of imbuing them with an understanding of revolutionary strategy and tactics. In the words of Trotsky: ‘The art of tactics and strategy, the art of revolutionary struggle can be mastered only through experience, through criticism and self-criticism...the revolutionary struggle for power has its own laws, its own usages, its own tactics, its own strategy. Those who do not master this art will never taste victory.’

Lenin’s Struggle Against Ultra-Leftism

In 1919 and 1920, a number of ultra-left tendencies appeared within the ranks of the newly formed Communist parties. This reflected a revolutionary impatience, which in turn was a reaction against the opportunist actions of the old reformist leaderships. This ultra-leftism was an attempt to find a short-cut to success. It failed to appreciate the strong grip of reformism on the minds of the mass of the workers, and the patient work that was needed to break these illusions.

One of Lenin’s most important works, Left Wing Communism—An Infantile Disorder, was devoted to this problem. Lenin saw ultra-leftism as a natural problem occuring in the newly formed communist parties, whose membership had been won to an irreconcilable struggle against capitalism and those who defended it. He compared it to a childhood illness which was a necessary part of growing up. Lenin’s book, together with the discussions at the Second Congress, was aimed at educating the leaders of the various communist parties in the tactics and methods of bolshevism. For the child-like ‘lefts’ and sectarians of today, who repeat all the mistakes of the ultra-lefts of the past, these writings and ideas remain a closed book. As Lenin explained:

“It is beyond doubt...those who try to deduce the tactics of the revolutionary proletariat from principles such as: ‘the Communist Party must keep its doctrine pure and its independence of reformism inviolate: its mission is to lead the way without stopping or turning, by the direct road to the communist revolution’ will inevitably fall into error.”

The task of the communist leaderships was to innoculate itself against infantile-leftism and absorb the method, tactics and strategy of Bolshevism in order to equip itself for the revolutionary battles that were unfolding in the main capitalist countries, particularly Germany.

After the unification of the new party, a central committee was elected under the joint chairmanship of Ernst Daeumig and Paul Levi, who had been a close friend of Rosa Luxemburg. At Levi’s insistence, the ultra-left group was expelled from the Party, and established themselves as the short-lived German Communist Workers Party (KAPD). In February 1921, after violently disagreeing with the Comintern’s decision to split the Italian Socialist Party, Paul Levi resigned from the party leadership. In his place came Brandler, Meyer, Froelich, and Thalheimer.

To assist the KPD, the Comintern had despatched the Hungarian Communist leader Bela Kun to Berlin, after the crushing in blood of the Hungarian Soviet Republic. (The Hungarian Revolution is dealt with in Militant International Review Number 18). But as leader of the Hungarian Soviet Republic, Bela Kun had made big mistakes, and was infected by ultra-left ideas. This tendency was fed by Zinoviev, the head of the Comintern, Bukharin and Radek, who poured scorn on the defensive struggles of the SPD organisations.

The ‘March Offensive’

The new leadership of the KPD, egged on by the Comintern representatives, looked increasingly for a showdown with German capitalism. Their blind impatience became the framework of the new theory of the so-called ‘offensive’. The whole essence of this theory was that the advance guard—the KPD—could by its own actions ‘electrify’ the passive proletariat into taking revolutionary action.

The situation in Germany was extremely tense after French troops had occupied Dusseldorf because of the government’s failure to pay reparations in full. The party’s central organ Rote Fahne stated: ‘The workers of central Germany are not taken in by the ‘anti-putschist’ rumours alleging that a spirit of cowardice and apathy has arisen in the German working class.’

On 27 March a decision was taken by the German leaders to launch the revolutionary offensive in support of the miners of central Germany, whose Mansfeld coalfield had been occupied by the security police to prevent ‘sabotage and attacks on managers’. This provocative occupation was conducted under the orders of the SPD President of Saxony, Otto Horsing, who attempted to pacify the area and purge it of Communist influence. The miners conducted armed resistance under the leadership of Max Hoelz, an heroic revolutionary figure, who had earlier been expelled from the KPD. The KPD called on the working class throughout Germany to arm itself in solidarity with the miners. They had completely misjudged the mood and the action remained mainly isolated to the central German area.

Out of desperation the Party attempted to provoke the workers into action. A KPD leader, Hugo Eberlein, was sent ‘to provoke an uprising in mid-Germany’, and, according to many sources, even went so far as to advocate the sham kidnapping of local KPD leaders, dynamiting a munitions depot, blowing up a workers’ co-operative in Halle, and blaming it on the police in order to fuel the anger of the workers. Fortunately, little came of these crazy plans. Groups of communist workers occupied the Leuna Works and called for support, but were driven out after a bitter confrontation. The Communist Party organised the occupation of the docks in Hamburg in support of a partial strike, but again it was soon dispersed. The workers remained passive, leaving the KPD members to fight it out alone with the police.

This infamous ‘March Action’ resulted in hundreds of deaths and thousands being imprisoned for their involvement. The ultra-left actions of many good communists widened the split between them and the reformist rank and file. Within a short time over 200,000 members had deserted the KPD in disgust.

A few days after the debacle, Paul Levi issued a bitter attack on the Party’s action, which was broadly correct. However, he wrongly published these criticisms outside the party’s ranks, and as a result was disciplined and subsequently expelled from the KPD.

Lenin was alarmed at the putschist actions of the KPD and strongly condemned those responsible. ‘The theses of Thaelheimer and Bela Kun are radically false...That a representative of the Executive proposed a lunatic ultra-left tactic of immediate action "to help the Russians" I can believe without difficulty: this representative (Bela Kun) is often too far to the left.’

The United Front Policy

At the Third Congress of the Comintern in June 1921, both Lenin and Trotsky conducted a rigorous struggle against the so-called ‘Theory of the Offensive’ and the fallacies of the ‘March Action’. The Congress also recognised a new turn in the international situation that had arisen. The first great revolutionary wave had now ebbed and capitalism had succeeded temporarily in stabilising itself. ‘In 1919’, stated Trotsky, ‘we said it (the revolution) was a question of months, and now we say it is a question perhaps of years.’ As the immediate struggle for power had been temporarily postponed, the tactics of the Comintern had to be concentrated on the united front policy: fighting in day to day struggles on wages, conditions etc., bringing around it the ranks of the reformist organisations. The united front was used to unify the workers’ organisations in action against a common enemy. It did not mean the abandoning of any programme or mutual criticism under the guise of a spurious unity. In essence, it meant: ‘March separately under your own banners, but strike together’. It was precisely through this joint action of the mass parties that the KPD could demonstrate the superiority of militant struggles over the limitations of reformism. In this new period of temporary, relative stability, the communist parties had to step up their activities in partial struggles to win the majority of the working class to their programme. In a nutshell, it was not a question of the Conquest of Power, but the Conquest of the Masses. The new KPD slogan became: ‘Towards the Masses!’.

The turn of the German Communists towards united front work saw a steady revival in the party’s influence. The annual report presented to the Leipzig party conference in 1922 described the considerable progress: amongst women, youth and children’s sections, the co-operatives and trade unions. Alongside its press agency, the party now had 38 daily newspapers and numerous periodicals. They possessed over 12,000 councillors, with an absolute majority in 80 town councils and were the biggest party in a further 170. In the trade unions they possessed nearly 1000 organised fractions with 400 members in leadership positions.

Even according to the ultra-left Ruth Fischer, ‘In the second half of 1922 the party was gaining in numbers and influence. In the third quarter of 1922 it had 218,555 members. It showed a sharp rise from the 180,443 of the previous year, just after the March Action.’ The KPD was by far the biggest communist party in Western Europe.

On 24 June 1922, the foreign minister Walter Rathenau was murdered by the extreme right wing ‘Organisation Consul’, a gang of ex-army officers. There was widespread revulsion—as with the Kapp putsch and moves towards united working class action, which the KPD used to the maximum effect. On 4 July a monster demonstration organised by all the workers’ organisations proved an outstanding success. It provided the KPD with the opportunity to prove in action the superiority of militant leadership and policies. Yet, because of this, the SPD broke off relations with the Communists four days later.

Number of political murders committed 354 22
Number of persons sentenced for these murders 24 38
Death sentences - 10
Confessed assassins found ‘Not Guilty’ 23 -
Political assassins subsequently promoted in the Army 3 -
Average length of prison term per murder four months fifteen years
Average fine per murder two marks -

(Source: Vier Jahre Politischer Mord, EJ Gumbel)

At this time inflation began to take off. Years of successive governments reverting to the printing press to plug their budget deficits had completely undermined the currency. It took 300 marks to buy one dollar in June: by December it was 8000 marks, and by January 1923, 18,000 marks to the dollar. This had a shattering effect not only on the workers but the middle classes, particularly those on fixed incomes, who faced absolute ruin.

By this stage the German bourgeois became increasingly determined to regain all the concessions won by the proletariat in the November revolution. In 1918 under the threat of revolution, the capitalist class were prepared to grant huge concessions: trade union recognition, agreement to withdraw support from company unions, establishment of shop stewards’ committees, universal suffrage, all de-mobbed soldiers to be able to return to their former employment and the shortening of the working day to 8 hours. In October 1922 as inflation reached new heights, the German bourgeoisie prepared their offensive. The powerful industrialist Fritz Thyssen addressed an open letter to the government which stated ‘Germany’s salvation can only come from a return to the 10-hour working day.’ The former Minister Dernburg fumed: ‘every 8-hour day is a nail in Germany’s coffin’!

Two weeks later another leading industrialist, Hugo Stinnes, declared:

“I do not hesitate to say that I am convinced that the German people will have to work two extra hours per day for the next 10 or 15 years...the preliminary conditions for any successful stabilisation is, in my opinion, that wage struggles and strikes be excluded for a long period...we must have the courage to say to the people: ‘for the present and for some time to come you will have to work overtime without overtime payment.’”

The battle lines were drawn. Living standards were to be driven down to starvation levels to put German capitalism back on its feet. With hyper-inflation and the state facing bankruptcy, the SPD-Liberal coalition of Wirth collapsed, giving way to the right wing bourgeois government led by Wilhelm Cuno, director of the Hamburg-Amerika Line.