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Workers’ councils had power to run society

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In the third part of our series Volkhard Mosler examines the movement that rocked Germany’s rulers in 1918
Issue 2130
Protesting in Berlin. The placard reads, ‘All power to the workers’ and soldiers’ councils’
Protesting in Berlin. The placard reads, ‘All power to the workers’ and soldiers’ councils’

Around a million German workers joined mass strikes against the First World War in January 1918, after almost four years of slaughter.

In the Berlin arms industry alone 500,000 workers downed tools.

A group called the Obleute organised the strike.

Obleute is a German word for shop steward and its members were democratically elected workplace representatives drawn from radicalised shop stewards.

At its first meeting on 28 January 1918, the 60 Obleute delegates elected a central body, which then co-opted representatives from the two main working class parties, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the Independent Social Democratic Party (USPD).

This body was called the Arbeiterrat or workers’ council. A new form of organisation was born in Germany.

It echoed the soviets that were central to the 1917 Russian Revolution.

Its task was to organise the illegal strike movement. It demanded peace without annexations, an end to the military control of the factories, better food supplies, freedom for political prisoners and universal suffrage.

Before the strike the Obleute had demanded that the leadership of the USPD, which had mass support in the Berlin working class and some of Germany’s other industrial cities, call a general strike.

But the USPD said it wasn’t strong enough to take on the military.

Karl Retzaw, a 22 year old worker, led the strike in one of the factories. Standing on a table, he shouted, “We are striking to end the war. We want peace. We don’t want to produce weapons for the Kaiser and the generals any more.

“We are going to strike until the war is ended. Long live the Russian Revolution. Long live Lenin and Trotsky.”

The state crushed the movement and many strike leaders were sent to the front.

But then revolution broke out in Germany in November 1918. This time sailors and soldiers took the lead. Workers’ and soldiers’ councils, sprang up everywhere.

These councils had the ability to develop a revolutionary challenge to the old order – as they had in Russia when the workers’ councils, led by the Bolshevik Party, had overthrown the old regime and attempted to create a socialist society.

The first – and only – session of the All-German Congress of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Council began in Berlin on 16 December 1918.

There were 490 delegates – 406 workers and 84 soldiers.

Nearly 300 were members of the SPD, with just over 100 from the USPD. A small minority of these were members of the revolutionary Spartacus League group in the USPD.

The congress twice voted down a motion that would have allowed Spartacist leaders Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg to speak.

In the end the congress called for a general election to a constituent assembly and liquidated itself.

With this decision the council gave the generals and their capitalist backers the breathing space in which to crush the revolution.

This defeat was not inevitable. On the second day of the Congress, tens of thousands of workers, led by Liebknecht and the Spartacus League, demanded that the council should expand its own powers.

A delegation called for a united, socialist German republic and for “all power to the workers and soldiers’ council”.

The political composition of the congress reflected two things. First, the revolution’s political development was uneven. The revolutionary socialist mood of the Berlin workers contrasted with the non-revolutionary mood in most other parts of the country.

Second, the revolutionary socialists in the council were still tied politically to the USPD, which didn’t support the call for “all power to the councils”.

The Spartacus League could lead tens of thousands of workers, but it did not have an organised network of dedicated and disciplined members as the first huge wave of the revolutionary tide hit.

It was not organised in a way that could influence arguments in all the workers and soldiers’ councils.

This meant that the revolution was strong enough to end the war but also left intact the powers that were responsible for it.

Volkhard Mosler is a writer for the German socialist magazine Marx21. Go to »


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