“If ever a working class in any country in the world was treacherously betrayed, it was the German working class.” These words from a revolutionary sailor identified only as “Icarus” sum up the heroic yet tragic experience of the German Revolution of 1918–19. In All Power to the Councils, a collection of telegrams, public statements, letters, and reminiscences, this experience is illustrated in ways that only the firsthand accounts of active revolutionaries can provide.
In the autumn of 1918, the people of Germany rose up and toppled the autocratic government of Kaiser Wilhelm II. What began as a sailors’ mutiny against a pointless and suicidal order from the High Command steamrolled into a strike wave and a general movement of protest against the mindless slaughter and privations of the war. The king was forced to step down. The entire process took two weeks.
In the wake of Wilhelm’s abdication, two very different visions for Germany’s future were set to square off against each other. The first was for a socialist revolution and a republic based on the workers’ councils that had sprung up across the country. The second was for the continued rule of the capitalist class, rehabilitated in the form of a parliamentary republic without the management of the old monarchy. On one side stood the majority of the working class and a myriad of small but heroic organizations. On the other stood the monarchists, along with proto-fascist gangs, the liberal bourgeoisie, and crucially, the “moderate” socialist leaders who feared the revolution.
All Power to the Councils tells the story of the drama that unfolded in the wake of these events. Over the course of the following year, the German working class vied with the bosses in a titanic struggle for power.
In utilizing the accounts of the people who made the revolution, Kuhn seeks not only to provide a more developed view of this heavily studied and debated period in history, but also to give voice to the various tendencies within the workers’ movement of the time. According to Kuhn, the best work on the subject is nearly exclusively that of Marxists, who focus primarily on the activities of the Spartakusbund and its most outstanding leaders, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. The forty-seven pages of their material reproduced here testify to their importance, but as Kuhn points out, their politics were not uncontested inside the revolutionary movement.
All Power to the Councils reveals the complexity of social revolution. The book deals with questions of the organs of power, the role of political leadership and organization, and the united front against counterrevolutionary violence. Such debates did not take place in the abstract. With the establishment of the Weimar Republic in August of 1919, the first round of the German Revolution ended with a resounding defeat for the working class. A second round of defeats would bring about the rise of Hitler and the coming of another, more terrible world war.
Today a new generation attempts to grapple with the continued horrors of imperialist war and economic catastrophe. We can only hope that All Power to the Councils will, in the editor’s words, help a new generation strategize for the future.