Council Movement in Germany

Council Movement in Germany in Europe

In the Republic of Weimar

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(T)he Council movement proper—the revolutionary movement—has been almost driven underground. The Central office of the Berlin Executive Council has been repeatedly raided, its leaders are continually being arrested, and its meetings broken up. At a conference of the Industrial Councils of Germany recently held (August 26th, 1919) at Halle from which all Majoritarians were excluded, the general tone was pessimistic. It was recognised that the German workman was not as a whole revolutionary in sentiment, that the mass movement to the Left that had marked the first months of reaction had to some extent been checked and that the Government policy of compromising with the Council movement had had some measure of success. No agreement could be reached at this conference, even on such primary questions of policy as to whether the Government proposals should be considered or whether the Trades Unions should be co-operated with. Finally, centres of the revolutionary movement were established at Halle and Leipzig.

From this it would seem that the revolutionary Council movement is just at present passing through a phase of depression due to the Government’s diplomatic policy.

It will be seen that so far the German Councils are no political system, but only a surge of spontaneous self-government. If they can be really co-ordinated with the new political machinery, and if they can be concentrated on the economic reconstruction of Germany, it may be the salvation, not only of Germany but of Europe. For, though the years of war have accustomed us to looking on Germans as barbarians and better dead than alive, as a matter of fact this unattractive people is still, as it always has been, the sturdiest and steadiest of the workers of the world; and Germany is still the centre of gravity of the European social system. There can be no stability in Europe if the Germans are on strike. The consequences of driving the Russians into extremes are before us now in the worst menace to the existing social order since the peasants’ rising of the Middle Ages. It will take much pressure to drive the German revolution into extremes, but if Germany once develops a real Bolshevism of its own, it will not be long before the rest of the Continent follows its example.

It is a national characteristic of us English to [187]fight new ideas and institutions in principle abroad, while, in practice, we introduce them at home under different names. This has worked well on the whole. While reaction is occupied with damning and downing the novelty as an absurdity and atrocity introduced by the brutal and barbarous foreigner, real-politik finds that the same novelty, under some new name, helps production at home. Thus, while we fight the Soviets with military expeditions and poison gas, and the milder Räte-Republics of Germany with military missions and diplomatic notes, we work away at our Guild Socialism and our Shop Stewards’ Committees, extend Whitley Councils to the Civil Service and Welfare Committees to the Navy, and even admit employés to joint control of our railways.

There is an English revolution not only impending, but in progress, and those to whom revolution means barricades and “Bolshevism” will be relieved to hear that the course of events, both in Germany and Russia, suggests that our British revolution is so well advanced that these stimulants of a revolution, that has stiffened and stagnated, will not be required. England, not being wholly, at all events for long, run by London clubs and political cliques, manages to achieve its political revolution by way of economic reconstruction, and it is doing this on the same principles as Germany, though by a different procedure. That is why it was as foolish for the British to try to upset the Council movement of the Berliners as it was for the Berliners to upset it among the Brunswickers and Bavarians.

Moreover, if the Councils can still be killed, the Germans themselves will eventually kill them by diddling concessions or by diplomatic compromises. For such compromises as those already put forward in Germany show a fatal ignorance of, or indifference to, the fundamental facts of this revolutionary movement. I much doubt whether the German revolutionary workmen and their political leaders, whether Independent or Communist, can ever be got to accept the Labour Chamber (Arbeitskammer) with its parity of representation between employers and employed; at all events, until the employer is represented by the State. And such “nationalisation “is only valued by the German workman as a preliminary to “socialisation.” The workers are attached to the Council idea largely because it attacks the capitalist, and gives the workmen protection against him in a way the Union cannot. If the Councils are to be widened into a democracy including all classes, the power of private capital must first be broken or brought in bounds.

So desperate is the economic condition of the country that even the Employers’ Associations of Berlin have declared in favour of a large measure of Council government. But this is an exception. The German ruling class, and their middle-class supporters, recognise that their class supremacy is challenged. They retort by attacking Council government as class government and, consequently, as undemocratic. The issue is represented as being between a Parliamentary democracy, as in England, and a Soviet despotism, as in Russia. It seems worth while, therefore, to the German ruling class to fight the revolution with its own weapon of violence, rather than face the risks of Council government; and this same view would doubtless be taken in England if the question of principle were raised. In the recent railway strike our Government, by appealing for national support against a leading section of Labour, did, in fact, go far to create a class war.

But, as a matter of fact, the demand for a dictatorship by the proletariat is not an essential element in the Council movement. Such a demand is not the cause, but the consequence, of class conflict. Essentially and fundamentally the Council movement, so far from being less democratic than our Parliamentary system, is a revolt back to the purest and most primitive democracy from the artificialities and anomalies of modern Parliamentary representation. It is no more undemocratic than the Renaissance was inartistic, the Reformation unchristian, or the French Revolution anarchical. As the German Revolution best shows, the growth of Councils is the result of a revolutionary impulse in a modern community. Such an impulse uses any form of association between men and women for the urgent political purpose of appointing a spokesman and leader. The most widely spread and deeply rooted association nowadays is industrial—in the workshop. Consequently, we find the Councils taking predominantly an industrial character and origin, as in our native embryo the Shop Stewards’ Committee. But any association will serve; and so, in the German Revolution, besides the Workmen’s Councils there were Soldiers’ Councils, Communal Councils, and even Unemployed Councils.

If this new system were to develop, so to say, in a vacuum, without opposition, it would theoretically provide a democratic representation for every human relationship. As it is, such representation is reduced, as in Germany, by political pressure, to association that is rooted in the most vital relationship; and we find the Unemployed Councils, Communal Councils, and even Soldiers’ Councils being choked off, and only the Workmen’s Councils surviving. This is why the practical process in Germany is, as said before, leading to the same conclusions as those come to by the a priori reasoning of our own Guild Socialists when they divide the citizen into consumer and producer, and, in his latter capacity, give him representation through a Council system. I found, in fact, that my most useful function in Germany at one time was putting German Labour leaders in possession of the conclusions of our Guild Socialists.

Nor, when we come to examine constitutional history, is there any real difference between the democracy of the Council system and the democracy of Parliament. They are the same in origin and will probably be the same in development. For Parliament, it must be remembered, grew out of a Council with an industrial suffrage—land tenure—which was later reinforced by a general industrial suffrage through the Boroughs and their Guild organisations. But, for the first two centuries of its existence, say 1100 to 1295, Parliament, the National Council of our Angevin Kings, was a Soviet, a Betriebsrat. It was to this body that we owe our Magna Charta of 1215, the foundation of our democracy. And, in the [192]fourteenth clause of the Great Charter, the clause constituting Parliament, we read that the summons was to be sent direct to the Archbishops and Bishops, Earls and Greater Barons, and, through the Sheriff, to all those “who hold of us in chief.” It was this latter body of tenants of the Crown that became the Knights of the Shire in our House of Commons. The Knights of the Shire represented the landed industrial interest as directly as the representatives of the Boroughs represented other forms of industry and commerce. Of course, later, the regional and representative system gradually overlaid and obscured the original industrial basis, much as it has done with the Council system in Russia and is doing in Germany.

The Council system in Germany has, in three months, indeed, covered the course that took our Parliamentary system three centuries. This corresponds roughly to the increased pace of political development to-day. If we were to translate the Council movement of to-day into the terms of the Parliamentary movement of seven centuries ago, we might say that, before our present democracy could begin, industry had to be nominally socialised by the principle that all land was held of the King, and a strong central government established on a popular basis of industrial councils, with equal representation for the two other estates, the feudal or military and the clerical or official.

For we can see the progenitors of the Soldiers’ Councils of to-day in the feudal courts of yesterday, and of the Civil Service bureaucracy of to-day in the chancellors and justiciars of yesterday. Thus we may, if we like, see in the short history of the Russian Council movement an epitome of our whole constitutional history. Or, we may compare the present Council movement in England with the political situation early in the thirteenth century, when the Greater Barons, progenitors of our Captains of Industry, were about to force clause 14 of Magna Charta and a National Whitley Council on a Civil Service of arrogant ascetics, who were vainly trying to retain power for a silly and selfish ruling class. In applying this analogy to the present day, the Parliament of to-day would be no more than a survival of a previous constitutional epoch, a Witanagemot applying Anglo-Saxon Dooms. And this will, any way, give an idea of the way parliaments are looked upon to-day by German workmen. Possibly, in the end, the representative and regional system will rule the roost again, and will force the industrial suffrage upstairs into a House of Lords that will, in time, exercise mainly the judicial functions peculiar to its original industrial character. But we have first to get our Magna Charta and our Statutes of Westminster.

That the Council system of to-day is a truer democracy than existing Parliamentary systems is also shown practically by its being a much surer and safer machine for the realisation of public opinion. Theoretically, the pyramidal piling up of Councils, each represented in a superior Council, until a Central Council caps the pile, would seem to be indirect election raised to infinity; and indirect election is theoretically undemocratic. But this was not the conclusion forced on one in Germany when one compared the working of the two systems. The inferiority in the position of politicians, owing their power to the Parliamentary system, compared with that of those based on the Council system, was very striking.

The Parliamentarians never knew where they were or what was what. Out of touch, necessarily, with their enormous constituencies, they seemed to be always crawling about with their ears to the ground, dependent on agents and reporters of every sort, even on the Press, for an idea of what was going on. As they never knew where the hounds were, they could not use such knowledge of the country as they had to lead the field. The leaders of the Council movement, on the other hand, had an immediate indication of every trend of opinion in the changing composition of the lower strata of Councils; and their difficulty was rather to control the energies that came pouring up to them through the system. The Parliamentary leader seemed like a water finder, wandering about and waiting for the twig to twiddle, while the Council leader was more like a marine engineer with his eye on the pressure gauge and his hand on the lever. Perhaps indirect election is only undemocratic when the function of the lower body is mainly to elect to a higher, but becomes democratic when it has vital functions of its own that are merely controlled by the higher body.

And yet another point and a paradox. Whereas the results of Council representation of opinion in Germany are not revolutionary, the results of the Parliamentary system are becoming more and more so, and not only in Germany but in Great Britain. The failure of the Parliamentary system to express the forces making for change—a failure not confined to Germany—and the fictitious relationship between the elector and the elected has two results. It diverts a large part of these forces of progress into various forms of direct action, all of them revolutionary, whether actively so, such as street fighting, or passively so, such as strikes. It also gives a revolutionary character to the periodical elections. For the vast constituencies vote merely along the line of the least common multiple of their mob minds. This line is generally a vague dissatisfaction; and unless it be diverted by “stunts” or otherwise diddled, will result in violent pendulum swings. Under these impulses Parliament will become still less representative, and will tend to be either revolutionary or reactionary. For an exaggerated majority is the extremists’ opportunity.

The Council movement, on the other hand, slowly changing from below upwards, should never drop much behind the drift of opinion, and consequently should be in little danger of being driven ahead of it. The German Parliament, as the results of an election decided by this L.C.M. motive of the mob mind—a motive of assuring power to whichever party seemed to offer the best prospect of peace abroad and at home—is to-day reactionary. Whereas the political condition of Germany to-day is such that it absolutely must have a Government responsive to the requirements of reconstruction, or relapse into civil war. The Weimar Parliament is so dead that only civil war can galvanise it to action. If reinforced by a Council system, the Weimar Party Government and the Preuss Federal Constitution would perhaps have steam enough to work.

The Councils are as essential to Germany to-day as the Commons were to us a century ago. Indeed, our insistence on the supremacy of the Weimar Assembly as a guarantee for the maintenance of peace, can be paralleled by our insistence a century ago on the maintenance of Upper Houses in the constitutions of the States revolutionised from France. The function of the territorially elected Parliament will, in Germany, and probably everywhere, become more and more that of an Upper House; while the industrially elected Congress will be the creative and constructive institution. The whole difficulty lies in finding a working compromise, or rather co-operation. Just as Feudalism imposed its political system which survives in the House of Lords, just as Liberalism imposed its system as represented in the House of Commons, which now obviously requires supplementing, so Socialism must have its political system in the Councils. This is not revolution but evolution. The revolution comes from thwarting and threatening it. (1)



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

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