Council Government in Germany

Council Government in Germany in Europe

In the Republic of Weimar

For more information about the history of the Council movement in Germany, click here.

From its present position and at its present pace the Weimar Parliament will never overtake events. (…)

Meantime the dogs of war—of civil war between the constitutional and council movements, between Conservatives and Communists—are still running at a fearful pace and quite out of hand. The workmen will not work unless some real socialisation is introduced, and this is only possible if more steam be brought into the political machine than the parliamentary system can raise. Socialisation and reconstruction have been going back, not forward. The Socialisation Commission and the responsible Minister have both resigned, because Weimar would not give effect to their mildly socialistic recommendations. Yet nothing can save Germany from bankruptcy and Bolshevism but a re-energising and reorganising of the people for peace at least as effective as that they underwent in the war. Nothing can do this but a new ideal and new institutions. And the ideal of direct political power for the workmen and the institution of an industrial councils system is, so, far as I can see, alone capable of drawing out such force as is still left and of driving the country through the slough of war weariness and waste.

The Councils movement in Germany, at first, followed much the same course at much the same pace as it did in Russia. In Germany, as in Russia, the Councils, after reaching at a bound the sole power during the days of revolution, relapsed under a re-assertion of Parliamentary and Party government; then recovered, and, in the case of Russia, realised the second revolution. The German movement was last spring (1919) in the early stage of recovery. Its development is of special interest to us, in that eventually the German movement will probably take a middle place between the Russian and our own.

Before the revolution the Labour movement in Germany was very much in the same condition as with us. The attempt to combine on a [165]patriotic platform all productive forces, and to concentrate Capital and Labour on winning the war, had only superficially smoothed over the distrust between Employers, Associations and Labour organisations, or the dissension between heads of unions and the bodies of workers. When the revolution broke out on November 9th it was carried through first by committees of sailors, then of soldiers, and finally of workmen, that sprang up simultaneously and assumed supreme authority. The advent of this new authority, however, brought about an alliance between the previous authorities thus put on one side, the Employers’ Associations and the Trades Unions.

The employers, who had hitherto been resisting claims for an eight-hour day and a share in control, found themselves threatened with expropriation. Under the leadership of a Captain of Industry, Hugo Stinnes, they at once opened negotiations with the Unions led by Legien; and by November 15th reached agreement on the eight-hour day and the establishment of Labour Associations (Arbeitsgemeinschaften) equivalent to our Whitley Councils, and Labour Chambers (Arbeitskammern), for dealing with wages and welfare, in which employers and employed would have equal representation.

As Dr. Reichert, spokesman for the metal industries, has pointed out to his supporters, these concessions looked more than they were. For the eight-hour day would have to be abandoned unless, as was unlikely, it became general in Europe; and as to the associations, it should always be possible to get in and bring over a “Christian” representative of one of the Labour organisations under the influence of the Catholic Centrum. It is this agreement, none the less, between the Trust and Trade Union bosses that is the basis of the present Coalition Government’s Labour policy, and that is embodied in the new Constitution.

But, since the revolution, the real Labour movement of Germany has passed to the “Councils” (Räte), as we must call them for want of a better word. For “moot” is too archaic and “committee” suggests either a party of bores and busybodies or a posse of Bulgarian brigands; while Soviet, which is only the Russian for Council, would mean branding the movement as “Bolshevist.”

Of these Councils then, the three main divisions in Germany are Workmen’s Councils (Arbeiterräte), or Industrial Councils (Betriebsräte), Soldiers’ Councils, and Communal Councils. Of these, the first only seem to have a constitutional future in Germany.

The Communal Councils have not yet been fully admitted to the Council system, and seem to have but little vitality.

The Soldiers’ Councils, which played the more prominent part in the revolution, and still form part of the organisation, have not succeeded in making headway against the efforts of the Government to demobilise them. Thus a regulation of January 19th reduced them to welfare committees and restricted their right of deposing officers to a mere recommendation. Attempts of the more revolutionary corps to resist authority in December, January and March were put down by the Frei-Corps with excessive and progressive severity; and the large bodies of revolutionary troops that survived the demobilisation, as “Republican Guards,” “Public Safety Guards,” “People’s Naval Division,” etc., etc., have been gradually dispersed by the Government’s Frei-Corps. They have since been replaced by two anti-revolutionary bodies, a sort of gendarmerie and a local middle class militia (Einwohnerwehr). The Frei-corps have become the Reichswehr. So that the Soldiers’ Councils as the political organ of the revolutionary fighting forces are losing their importance. Now that the British Admiralty have recognised “welfare committees” in the Navy, it is safe to assert that the Council movement in Germany so far as concerns the armed forces is no longer in advance of ours.

Returning, therefore, to the Industrial Councils, we find that in the early days of the revolution the movement spontaneously developed an organisation consisting of a national Central Council, elected by a national Congress of Councils, in its turn elected by local Executive Councils. These were all political institutions, which for a few days enjoyed entire political power. This power passed back to the old political Parties and Parliamentary system, owing to the Council accepting as “Commissaries of the People” Parliamentary politicians, whose sole idea and secret intention it was to reconstitute a Cabinet and reconstruct a Chamber on reformed but not revolutionary lines. The capital error was in trying to realise the revolution by only establishing revolutionary bodies—the Councils—in supervision of, instead of in substitution for, politicians and officials of the old régime. This was the cause of the relapse into reaction.

The real revolutionaries realised this mistake and Liebknecht, after accepting office, withdrew and joined the Communists and “Spartacists.” The Communists were and are, of course, “whole-hoggers” in the Council movement, whose war cries are, “All power to the Soviets” and “Down with the Assembly.” The Independents ranged from men like Ledebour, Däumig and Richard Müller, who saw in the Councils the salvation, not only of the revolution, but of civilisation, to men like Haase, Cohn and Breitscheidt, who believed that Parliamentary democracy and proletarian dictatorship could be co-ordinated. The Social-Democrats ranged from members of the Council organisation, who believed that the Councils should have economic functions, and who were last summer coming over to the Independents, down to men like Legien, who would abolish the Councils as a revolt against the Trade Unions, or Noske, who would abolish them as rebels against authority. The Democrats included intellectuals, who recognised the political utility of the Councils, but consisted mostly of Liberals with no appreciation for them: though many of these latter had been coming over to the idea, as, for instance, the veteran economist, Brentano, or the internationalist, Schucking.

Owing to a tactical blunder of the Independents, the Central Council, as well as the Cabinet of Commissaries, came under the sole control of the Social-Democrats, the Trade Unions, and Moderate Socialists. Consequently, the Central Council, instead of being the citadel of the Council system, became a salient from [170]which the enemies of the system could undermine its whole position.

The Central Council, pursuing the Government’s policy that all power in the hands of revolutionary authorities must be surrendered to the parliamentary institutions, in February publicly and formally recommitted its mandate, whatever that might be, to the Assembly. One might have supposed that this solemn suicide of its central authority would have been the end of the Council movement. But exactly the same surrender of the Central Council occurred at a similar stage of the Russian revolution, with the result, not that the movement collapsed, but that control of it passed from the Socialists to the Communists. This seems likely to be the result in Germany. The first consequence of the abdication of the Central Council was that leadership passed to the Executive Council of Berlin, where the Independents and Communists were already in a majority. The Executive Council proceeded to press for a convocation of the Congress of Councils, and thereby a re-election of the Central Council. The latter procrastinated, but gave way on the Executive Council threatening to convene the Congress itself, but even then succeeded in having it postponed more than once.

Now, while the Opposition was moving to the Left in attempts to realise the revolution, the Government was moving to the Right, and rapidly restoring the old Police-State behind a façade of parliamentary institutions. The consequence was a growing dissatisfaction with the Government, which, for want of proper expression through the Council organisation, broke out in periodic strikes and street fights. These were exploited by the Government as excuses for repressive and reactionary measures, which all contributed to reinforcing the Council movement. It was the vicious circle that we in England have come perilously near more than once.

The defection of the Central Council also resulted in depriving the whole Council movement of any stability and solidarity, and drove it into local offensives or “putsches,” which were beaten in detail. First Bremen and the coast ports, then Dusseldorf and the coal area, next Saxony and the industrial districts, and finally, in the first week of March, Berlin itself, all declared general strikes in which recognition of the Council system was the principal demand. And the Berlin strike, following close on that of Saxony, did frighten the Government into what might have been a considerable concession.

As late as the end of February the Government had declared semi-officially that no member of the Government had the slightest intention of having the Council system incorporated in the Constitution either legislatively or administratively; but two days after the outbreak of the Berlin strike, early in March, the Government announced, not only the socialisation of mines but the sanction of the Council system in the Constitution.

The first Government scheme for organising the Councils was of much the same character as the socialisation that it promised at the same time—an elaborate organisation of Factory Councils, Industrial Councils and Labour Chambers with “economic functions”; which all boiled down to little more than the “Whitley Council” principle previously proposed and rejected by the workmen. Since then the Government has had to concede more, and Art. 165 of the Constitution as signed in August, recognises the Workmen’s Councils without representation of the employers, though they have to associate themselves with employers’ representatives in order to discharge their constitutional functions. Thus associated they can intervene in social and economic legislation through a Central Economic Council. But it was clear that neither this nor any other concession likely to be made by the Assembly would satisfy the workmen. A bi-cameral system might have done so, but this the Coalition Government could never have imposed on its Centrum and middle-class supporters.

The best chance of arriving at a compromise between Parliamentary and Council government was through the Congress of Councils which at last met in Berlin in May.

This Congress had also another function of the first importance. It afforded the only gauge available as to the velocity and volume of the revolutionary revival. The Assembly at Weimar was in this, as in most respects, useless. The Press was so coloured by class and party feeling as to be quite unreliable. While owing to general disorganisation of the country and the disintegrated nature of the revolutionary movement the leaders of it themselves did not know what their forces were. All that was known was that there had been a steady defection from the Majority Socialists supporting the Government and the Parliamentary system to the Independents, in opposition, who advocated a combination of Parliament and Councils; and from the Independents to the Communists, who were for “all power to the Councils.”

So steady had this leftward flow been that probably the Congress, if left to itself, would have [174]reflected it by coming together with a majority for the Opposition. It would then have been able to begin at once its function of elaborating a suitable compromise between Parliament and Councils. For it is to be assumed that the Communists and the right Majoritarians would have been each in a small minority, with an absolute majority for delegates representing the Independent position. That this was, at the time, the prevalent opinion in the movement is suggested by the delegates from German-Austria associating themselves with the Independents.

However, partly for the better preservation of party, power, and place, partly from the pressure of constant “officious” admonitions from us that peace would only be made with a parliamentary government, the German Government did their best to falsify the character of the Congress and get as many Majority Socialists into it as possible by hook or crook. The hook used was a new electoral arrangement prepared by the Central Council which most of the great towns rejected. In some, as in Breslau, the delegates first elected were recalled, and real workmen’s representatives substituted. And when the Government found its lost sheep weren’t coming home, like Bo-peep, it took its little crook, determined for to find them; and found them indeed, but with the historical result. For if by hook and by crook you make workmen’s delegates of country lawyers or country magistrates you cannot expect them to bring much of a working-class tail behind them. So when the Council came together it was distinctly rather parliamentarian than proletarian in its character. But if the Government’s object was to cripple and control the Congress it failed. Because the first result of their gerrymandering was that the Communists refused to take part, thereby greatly facilitating the subsequent rapprochement between the two Socialist factions, the Majority and the Independents.

The Congress, when it met, was found to consist of 130 Majority Socialists, 64 Independents, 20 soldiers’ representatives, and about 80 miscellaneous and absent; and of these quite a large number were not working men at all. But all the same the difference between the atmosphere of Parliamentary and Council government at once appeared when it got to work. For this much gerrymandered and very jerry-built Congress showed itself capable of adapting itself to pressures in a way that the National Assembly could not. It showed itself to be a real deliberative body, capable of coming rapidly to a joint decision radically different from the [176]several views subscribed by its individual members before its meeting. In other words, the Congress had vitality enough to make its constituents real representatives instead of merely instructed delegates. Its response to the general trend of opinion to the Left and against “Government by the Frei-Corps” was shown by its first vote which, by 199 to 81 called for the release of Ledebour, an Independent “intellectual” imprisoned for alleged complicity in the January disorders. This was followed by a vote of congratulation to Hungary; while a similar congratulation to Bavaria, where a “Council Republic” had just been proclaimed, was very properly postponed as prejudging the whole question of Council government that was before the Congress.

The first days were passed in general debate, during which much negotiation between section leaders and a general alignment of forces were going on in the lobbies. A fictitious interest was given to this work of “realising the revolution” by the Congress having met in the Herren-Haus, the old Prussian House of Lords, the shrine of reaction. It was piquant to see a fervent Majority Socialist and a fiery Independent discussing whether Parliament and universal suffrage were not irretrievably reactionary, under the cold marble nose of a Prussian Princelet who had looked on them as the ultimate Chaos and Dark Night of Revolution. But as will be seen, the genius loci, won in the latter end.

The Congress took some days in making up its mind what line to take. The Majority leaders did not know which way to turn, associating themselves when they could with attacks on the Government, and when they could not, apologising. For though the Independents on one side and the small Democratic section on the other were disciplined bodies, the Majoritarian bloc was disorganised. When it came to a vote they obeyed the whip, but many slipped out, and the vote was very different from what was expected.

The Government’s advisers in politics and in the Press, finding that so far from bringing over the Independents to the Government the Congress was fast drawing the Majority into opposition, strongly recommended the Government to close the Congress on the ground that it was only wasting time in futile and inflammatory agitation. The Independents countered this by forcing an immediate issue on the main question—the constitutional recognition of the Council system.

The opening of the discussion showed that a majority of the Congress favoured a combination of Parliament and Councils in which the latter [178]should have political as well as economic functions. Whether the Majoritarian leaders in the Congress were genuinely convinced of the necessity of giving the Council system recognition or whether they were forced to compromise in order to retain command of their followers, and through them control their following among the workmen, I do not know. Anyway, after a series of speeches, in which the Majoritarian leaders, Kalinsky and Cohn-Reuss, vied in concessions, a compromise was put forward that represented practically the position held by their opponents the Independents a few weeks before. The compromise between the Parliamentary system and Council system they proposed was probably workable; though arrived at from an unsound position—that of regarding the Central Council as a controlling authority over the National Assembly; whereas it would really be supplying the driving power and the Assembly the brake.

Now, although the Independents, for the same tactical reasons that had driven the Majoritarians to the Left, were now proclaiming the principle of “all power to the Councils” (which had been until then the position of the absent Communists) they were rather embarrassed at finding themselves “Bolshevists,” explicitly demanding the dictatorship of the proletariat. [179]The spring running of German politics to the Left had been so headlong that the parliamentarian leaders of the Left had had to sprint hard to keep ahead of their followers. But if they had kept one eye anxiously gauging the pace of the avalanche surging at their heels they had kept the other guessing no less anxiously at the position of the abyss of “Bolshevism” ahead. And small wonder if they were a little bewildered and out of breath. For as late as December they had been still accepting the Assembly as the sole executant of the revolution, and looking on the Councils as practically extinct and politically eccentric.

By January they had been forced to accept the Councils as a fact that had to be fitted in somehow. In February their periodicals were full of schemes for giving economic powers to the Councils, while reserving all political power, national and provincial, to the Assemblies. By March they had recognised that they must have political power as well and by April they had reached the compromise of a bi-cameral constitution now adopted by their conservative opponents, the Majoritarians. And now, in order to clear the leftward road for the Majoritarians and keep pace with the Communists, old parliamentary hands, like Haase, Oscar Cohn and Breitscheidt, found themselves condemning their [180]newly born and much beloved parliamentary democracy to be smothered in its cradle for the benefit of a Bolshevist changeling. No wonder they were ready to join forces with their Socialist comrades of the majority in a compromise which found a place for their firstborn the Weimar Parliament and for their familiar world of party politics.

Thus the Socialist parties, still hopelessly divided in that cold storage of faction, the Weimar Assembly, had been re-fused and re-moulded by the volcanic fires of the Congress.

One Sunday afternoon, after the Congress had been a week at work, I heard that the leaders of these two sections had that morning privately agreed to reconstitute the Central Council on a principle of parity, i.e., twelve Majoritarians and twelve Independents, with a few Democrats and soldiers.

This private agreement, unreported until after it had been repudiated, was a political event of an importance second only to the revolution itself. It reunited the Socialist party on a platform of realising the revolution through the Council system by constitutional action. The Congress of Councils, for whose dissolution the whole Press were clamouring openly and every secret sinister influence was conspiring, had in six days [181]gone further towards the reconstruction and re-orientation of Germany than Weimar had in six months.

But one obvious result of this new alliance between Majoritarians and Independents in the Council system would have been the jettisoning of Majoritarian Ministers, such as Noske, Landsberg and Scheidemann, compromised by their complicity with reaction and the brutalities of the Frei-Corps. It was therefore not surprising that the full force of party pressure and of administrative authority was brought to bear on the Majoritarian parties to the agreement. Under this pressure, like good citizens and genuine Germans, they buckled up and broke down, repudiating the principle of parity. They offered instead a proportion of fourteen Majoritarians to ten Independents in the Central Council or a representation corresponding to the numerical proportion of parties in the gerrymandered Congress. These offers were refused, the Congress came to an end, and the pusillanimity and place-hunting of parliamentary politicians had ruined the revolution a second time. The first was when the Independents, under pressure from the Left, withdrew from the Coalition with the Majoritarians in December. The second was when the Majoritarians, under pressure from the [182]Right, now in their turn withdrew from the reconstituted Coalition in May.

The Council was reconstituted with Majoritarians, and the Independents were thrown back upon the Communists and “direct action.” The only course then left to the adherents of the Council movement was to perfect their organisations and wait until parliamentary government was overthrown, either by reaction or revolution. The first essential for such organisation was a general electoral system which would put the Councils on a regular basis and prevent such interference and intrigues as had preceded the previous Congress. The last meeting that I attended of the Plenary Assembly of Berlin Councils, the driving body of the movement, was occupied with discussing the crucial question as to who should be considered a workman and qualified to vote and stand for a Council. It was there tentatively agreed that a workman might have a few assistants without becoming an employer, and that scientists, experts, and such like connected with an industry, other than managers, directors and such, might count as workmen.

On the other hand the Assembly had to adjourn for a time in disorder owing to protests against the presence of a police official as a delegate of the Democrats. It was clearly [183]going to be difficult to express in terms of an electoral law a disability obvious enough in each individual case. The German workmen were ready to admit to equality anyone with any industrial productive status, who was not in the service of declared enemies of the Councils—such as the captains of industry or the Coalition Government. And so important is this suffrage question as a gauge of the liberality of the Council movement in Germany and of its distinction from Bolshevism, that I append as a footnote the regulation of the Berlin Executive Council, published previous to the Convention of the second Congress of Councils. The re-organisation and reconstruction of our political and economic existence calls for the co-operation of the whole effective population. The revolution has given us the means of such reconstruction in the Council system. In order to give the Council system its full development and a better foundation, fresh elections to the Workmen’s Councils are indispensable.

This work of making the Council system really representative has been much hampered of late by the growing reaction which is still trying to break the neck of the movement by arresting its leaders, and impeding its development in every way. At the same time, schemes are being continually put forward by the less reactionary elements for drawing the teeth of the movement by “diddling” concessions. Among such may be counted the clauses “anchoring” the Councils in the Constitution. The word itself shows how rapidly the German politicians are picking up the devices of parliamentary democracy. Again and again, on the platform and in the Press, the workmen are assured that all is well with the Councils because they are “anchored” in the Constitution. What the workmen want is not to see them “anchored” so much as under way; but it is creditable diddling is that catchword, “anchored in the Constitution.” And another [185]diddling device is the electoral law advocated by the Majoritarians that the Government are trying to impose on the Councils, which would penetrate the movement with propertied interests and partition it up into regional areas.



  1. George Young, “The New Germany” (1920), New York, Harcourt, Brace and Howe

See Also

Leave a Comment