Workers Rise; Seize Control In Cities
- NY Times headline, March 16, 1920
There has been nothing more inspiring to the working class than a popular movement of the people, taking over the streets, flexing their muscles by sheer numbers, and sweeping away all that oppose them. And nothing is more terrifying to the entrenched power than this scenario.
Class struggle has been with western society since the dawn of civilization, and it will continue as long as there is inequality in the world.
"When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman? From the beginning all men by nature were created alike, and our bondage or servitude came in by the unjust oppression of naughty men. For if God would have had any bondmen from the beginning, he would have appointed who should be bond, and who free. And therefore I exhort you to consider that now the time is come, appointed to us by God, in which ye may (if ye will) cast off the yoke of bondage, and recover liberty."
- renegade priest John Ball, 1381
The first recorded general strike happened in Rome in 494 BC. Because General Strike was not a term that had been invented yet, the term used was Secessio plebis - in which all the plebians (i.e. working class) simply left the city until the patricians (i.e. aristocracy) gave in. The name of this conflict was known as the Conflict of the Orders.
It didn't happen often, but Secessio plebis was extremely effective when it was used. The plebians used it in 494 B.C. to force the patricians to create the political office of tribune.
There, without any commander, in a regularly entrenched camp, taking nothing with them but the necessaries of life, they quietly maintained themselves for some days, neither receiving nor giving any provocation.
A great panic seized the City, mutual distrust led to a state of universal suspense.
In 449 B.C. it was used to force the creation of a written and published legal code, something the authorities vehemently opposed.
In 287 B.C., the last time Secessio plebis was used, the working class managed to force the patricians to abolish debt slavery, laws forbidding the marriage of a plebian and a patrician, gave plebians final say in all legislative matters, and allowed any plebian to hold any political office.
In other words, a non-violent general strike was far more successful for the average, working class person than any armed revolt in history.
The Return of the General Strike
The middle ages were filled with failed peasant revolts (especially the 14th, 15th and 16th Centuries), the General Strike became something largely forgotten. That is, until the birth of the Industrial Revolution.
The first major General Strike in the modern era was in Scotland in 1820. The general strike came to America in 1835 when several Philadelphia labor unions walked out at the same time.
Big Bill Haywood called the 1871 Paris Commune, probably the most dramatic example of people power in history, a general strike. In 1905 a general strike was an instrumental part of a Russian Revolution that forced the Tsar to create the Duma.
General strikes continued to get larger and gain in size throughout the 19th Century and early 20th Century, culminating with a wave of major strikes all over the world from 1918 to 1920. It is this two year period that I would like to focus on.
This massive wave of general strikes started even before the guns had fallen silent on the Western Front. It started in Dublin, Ireland in 1918. It was known as the Conscription Crisis.
A general strike was called in protest, and on 23 April 1918, work was stopped in railways, docks, factories, mills, theatres, cinemas, trams, public services, shipyards, newspapers, shops, and even Government munitions factories. The strike was described as "complete and entire, an unprecedented event outside the continental countries".
False claims that the strike was German-inspired and arresting all the leaders of Sinn Féin did nothing but gather sympathy for the strikers.
Irish Anti-Conscription Committee
In the end, the conscription drive in Ireland had completely failed to bolster the British Army. The war ended before the draft could effectively start.
Within a year Ireland was in full rebellion against the British.
In early February of 1919, eight workers at 'La Canadiense' in Barcelona, Spain were laid off for protesting a wage cut. Normally this action was ignored and forgotten. Instead what happened was the most successful general strike in Spain's history.
140 workers walked out with the fired workers. Three days later the rest of the employees of the plant also walked out. A sympathy sit-in strike happened at another plant. A week later, 80% of the workers in the textile industry walked out, demanding recognition of a union and an eight-hour day. By February 21st Barcelona's power grid had been completely shut down.
Authorities declared martial law, and the government in Madrid called up workers for military service to be used to break the strike. The problem was the call went almost totally unheeded. In fact, it wasn't even printed in the newspapers because the unions had gently threatened them beforehand. When word of the military call-up finally reached Barcelona, it caused trolley and railway workers to strike.
The government arrested over 3,000 strikers, but that didn't even come close to breaking the strike. By the middle of March the government began negotiating with the unions. When it finally ended on April 1, the government caved to every major union demand, including an 8-hour day, reinstatement of the striking workers, and union recognition.
Winnipeg, Canada is not the first place you would think of for radical unionism. But at 11AM on May 15, 1919, virtually the entire working population of Winnipeg had walked off the job. 30,000 to 35,000 people were on strike in a city of 200,000.
Work stopped quickly at the big railway shops and yards across the city, while and all factory production ceased. Winnipeg had no mail, streetcars, taxis, newspapers, telegrams, telephones, gasoline, or milk delivery. Most restaurants, retail stores, and even barber shops closed. Police, fire fighters, and employees of the water works shocked and frightened many in Winnipeg by joining the strike.
The reason for the strike was because the management of the Building Trade Council and Metal Trade Council flat out refused to negotiate with the growing labor movement. On May 6, the Winnipeg Trades and Labour Council (WTLC) polled its members. Only 600 voted against the strike, as opposed to 11,000 for it. Even the union leaders were shocked by the support. Business leaders established a Citizens' Committee to discredit the strike, calling them Bolsheviks and "alien scum". The press took a similar hard-line. The NY Times declared "Bolshevism Invades Canada." The Manitoba Free Press printed cartoons showing hook-nosed Jewish radicals throwing bombs. This is despite the fact that like most general strikes, it was a relatively peaceful strike and the unionists merely wanted to reform the system, not destroy it.
Sympathy strikes spread to the cities of Calgary, Edmonton, Vancouver, Victoria, and dozens of others.
The federal government then decided to intervene. Representatives met with the Citizens' Committee, while refusing to meet with the Labor Council. All federal employees were fired and the definition of sedition was broadened. But the strike continued.
Mounted soldiers riding through Winnipeg
On June 21, 10 strike leaders were arrested. Four days thousands of strikers assembled at Market Square.
The Mayor called on the North West Mounted Police to disperse the crowds. In the ensuing confrontation, two strikers were killed and at least 30 injured. As the crowd scattered onto nearby streets and alleyways it was met by several hundred "special police" deputized by the city during the strike. Armed with baseball bats and wagon spokes supplied by local retailers, the "specials" beat the protesters.
It became known as "Bloody Saturday". A few days later the Labor Council called off the strike in order to prevent more violence.
The Citizens' Council had won...or had they? The Conservative government was routed in the 1921 election in the backlash from their handling of the strike. The Liberal government that took its place enacted many of the demands from the Labour Council, such as union rights and worker safety laws. One of the members elected to that government was J.S. Woodsworth, who had been arrested during the strike.
In the year 1919 there were two major general strikes in America, one in Pittsburgh and an even larger one in Seattle. Both of them are worthy of their own diaries, so I'm going to skip over them here and continue onto the most unlikely of nations.
This country had two nationwide general strikes, one in 1918 and one in 1920. Both general strikes led to the downfall of the governments at the time. In fact, the success of the general strikes in this country had much more to do with worker revolts all over the world than did the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia.
Most people are under the impression that Germany surrendered in WWI much like how WWII ended, with Germany under occupation and their military completely destroyed.
Instead when Germany surrendered in 1918 their troops were still spread all over eastern Europe and half of Belgium. So why did Germany surrender? Because Germany's military refused to fight anymore.
On 24 October, 1918, Admiral Franz von Hipper ordered the German fleet at Kiel, near Wilhelmshaven, to sail out against the British blockade in what would basically have been a suicide mission. Peace negotiations had already started and the German military was waiting for an end to the war. Admiral Hipper's orders were a bitter blow to moral
The battleship SMS Thueringen
On October 29, the crews of the ships Thuringia and Helgoland refused to lift anchor. They even went so far as minor sabotage. However, the mutiny failed to catch on with the rest of the fleet. The following day some torpedo boats pointed their cannons at the two battleship and the sailors aboard gave up without a fight. Approximately 1,000 arrested mutineers were held for court-martial, but their mutiny had been effective.
The German High Command, now with real doubts about the loyalty of the fleet, canceled the planned suicide mission. However, if the German leadership thought this was the end of the mutiny they were about to discover a shocking surprise.
Other sailors of the fleet, knowing that the mutineers had acted in their interests as well, sent a delegation of 250 men to petition for the release of their comrades on November 1. The fleet officers refused to even meet with the delegation and they shut down the Union Hall in Kiel where the sailors had been meeting. That's when the sailors did something that the German leadership never expected.
Led by the sailor Karl Artelt, and shipyard worker Lothar Popp, both USPD party members, the sailors called for a large open-air meeting at Großer Exerzierplatz on November 3rd. The USPD ("Independent Social Democratic Party of Germany") was formed in 1917. It was a union labor-based political party formed after the Social Democratic (SPD) opposition party (the mainstream labor-based political party) banned the anti-war voices. The USPD demanded an immediate end to the war.
When the November 3rd meeting took place, labor unions were also represented.
The slogan "Frieden und Brot” (peace and bread) was used at this time, showing that the sailor's caused had been adopted and expanded by the unions.
The meeting ended with a call to march on the military prison. Thousands marched down the streets and were met by a military patrol commanded by sub lieutenant Steinhäuse. The patrol fired into the demonstrators when they refused to turn back, killing seven people and wounding 29. Some of the demonstrators were armed and returned fire. Steinhause was injured with a rifle butt. Both the demonstration and the patrol were scattered. Nevertheless the mass protest turned into a general revolt.
The following morning large groups of mutineers moved through town. At this point the sailors engaged in mass disobedience. Karl Artelt organised the first soldier's council, and soon many more were set up. The naval commander was forced to negotiate with the mutineers, and eventually he freed the imprisoned sailors. Sailors and workers brought public and military institutions in the city under their control.
When troops from outside the city were ordered to put down the revolt, mutineers and workers met them on the outskirts of Kiel and either turned them back, or got them to join in the revolt. By the evening of November 4th, the entire city was firmly under the control of 40,000 sailors and labor unions members.
That evening SPD deputy Gustav Noske arrived in the city under strict orders to put down the revolt. He managed to get himself elected chairman of the soldiers' council and began limiting the influence of the labor councils, but he failed in his primary objective - he failed to keep the revolt from spreading.
Even as Noske arrived in Kiel, delegations of sailors were heading out of town to other major cities. By November 7, all large coastal cities in Germany were under the influence of the revolt, as well as the cities of Hanover, Frankfurt and Munich. In Munich a Workers' and Soldiers' Council forced the last King of Bavaria, Louis III, to abdicate.
Bavaria declared an end to the Empire and became a "Council Republic" (Räterepublik) Bavarian Soviet Republic. In the following days the royals of all the other German states abdicated, the last one on November 23.
The Workers' and Soldiers' Councils were almost entirely made up of SPD and USPD members. Their programme was democracy, pacifism and anti-militarism. Apart from the royals they only deprived the hitherto almighty military commands of power. The imperial civilian administration and office bearers –police, municipal administrations, courts- remained unscathed. There were also hardly any confiscations of property or occupations of factories because such measures were expected from the new government.
On the evening of November 9, the USPD called up 26 assemblies in Berlin and announced a general strike and mass demonstration for the following day. The demand was put forth that the Kaiser abdicate. A rifle regiment was called into the city to restore order, but the soldiers were unwilling to fire on their fellow citizens.
In the meantime the Kaiser got a report from his commanders on the Western Front. The troops were unwilling to follow the Kaiser's orders anymore, and one Guards unit had openly mutinied for the first time.
The Kaiser fled to Netherlands without even abdicating first.
What followed was known as the German Revolution, and it deserves its own diary as well. But it is more about extremist politics, where the center-left sold out the working class to the fascists, and less about general strikes. So I'm going to cut off the story here.
The Kapp-Lüttwitz Putsch
The forerunner of the Nazi brownshirts was known as the Freikorps, a volunteer paramilitary created during WWI to bolster the Army. They were unreliable, but had fascist tendencies by nature. Some even wore the swastika as a symbol of resistence to the "red pack". They continued to fight for a "Greater Germany" (in the new Baltic Nations) nearly a full year after the end of WWI. They were also instrumental in crushing the communist Spartacist League revolt in January 1919. Hundreds of german communists and union members were executed by the Freikorps following the revolt, their bodies dumped into a nearby river.
The question today is not democracy or dictatorship. The question that history has put on the agenda reads: bourgeois democracy or socialist democracy. For the dictatorship of the proletariat does not mean bombs, putsches, riots and anarchy, as the agents of capitalist profits deliberately and falsely claim. Rather, it means using all instruments of political power to achieve socialism, to expropriate the capitalist class, through and in accordance with the will of the revolutionary majority of the proletariat.
- Spartacist Manifesto
The Freikorps had 250,000 registered in early 1919 (not counting 350,000 in the regular military), but under the terms of the Versailles Treaty Germany was supposed to reduce its military to just 100,000. The Freikorps had to be dissolved, and in March 1920 the order was issued.
The Freikorps were not happy about the way Germany surrendered in 1918, and how the leftists of their homeland had overthrown the monarchy. They were especially unhappy about how the German government had failed to support them in the Baltics when victory was within their grasp. And now they were being asked by a government they didn't like to lay down their arms.
Members of the Freikorps during the putsch
Its leaders were determined to resist dissolution and appealed to General Lüttwitz, commander of the Berlin Reichswehr, for support. Lüttwitz, an organiser of Freikorps units in 1918-19 and a fervent monarchist, responded by calling on President Ebert and Defence Minister Noske to stop the disbandment. When Ebert refused, Lüttwitz ordered the Brigade to march on Berlin.
The Freikorps marched unopposed into Berlin on the morning of March 13, 1920. The new royalist government immediately declared the Versailles peace agreement annulled, much to the concern of the allied powers, and dissolved the parliament.
Defense Minister Noske had ordered the regular army to stop the Freikorps, and had been flatly refused. General Hans von Seeckt, a senior Reichswehr's commander, told him: "Reichswehr does not shoot on Reichswehr". The German government was forced to abandon the capital and a proto-Nazi government took over.
Dr. Wolfgang Kapp, president of the German Fatherland Party, assumed the Chancellorship. Major General Baron von Luttwitz, formally military governor during the Rape of Belgium, was named Commander in Chief.
"This government is not capable of warding off Bolshevism, which is threatening from the East. Germany can only escape external and internal collapse by the re-establishment of a strong State power...any opposition to the new order will be unsparingly put down."
- statement issued by the Kapp-led government, March 14, 1920
This development could be considered very ironic because Friedrich Ebert and the rest of the German government fully supported the Freikorps during the German Revolution, betraying their most active supporters to their deaths.
Now the same murderers that Ebert had turned to a year earlier, had now deposed him. So who did Ebert turn to for help? Why the same labor unions he betrayed the previous year.
The unions no longer trusted Ebert, but they were damned if they were going to tolerate their murderers to remain in power without a fight. The labor unions of Germany called for a general strike and the workers answered.
"We won't knuckle down to the Socialists and workmen who think they can run the country."
- Kapp government spokesman, March 16, 1920
The Freikorps quickly learned that they did not have the support of the populace. They didn't even have strong support in the military. For instance, the troops in Munich never joined with the Freikorps putsch.
The workers in Hamburg walked out first. Cologne, Dusseldorf and Essen workers followed the next day. Gas and electricity was shut off in Berlin by strikers. Fighting broke out in Frankfurt. The March 17th NY Times reported that in Kiel the cruiser Eckernforde fired into the city, intentionally targeting unarmed striking workers, killing and wounding hundreds.
Street fighting broke out in Dresden when Kapp's troops stormed a government building that strikers were holding. Dozens were killed and wounded. Troops fired into protesters in Leipsic. Street fighting reached the suburbs of Berlin.
By the 16th, only three days after taking Berlin, the Kapp government was already trying to negotiate with the Ebert government. One of proposals that the Kapp government sent to the Ebert government was:
"The new and old Governments shall issue a joint declaration that under present conditions a general strike is a crime against the German people."
Herein lies the explanation of why the Kapp government was failing so quickly.
Spartacides Rise, Attack Soldiers
Workers Win Battles
- NY Times headline, March 18, 1920
With the Kapp government losing power, and the Ebert government unable to regain it, the communists of the Spartacist League began declaring Soviets in various regions. The Kapp government was forced to rush troops around the country to crush the Soviets, which was increasingly difficult because of the railroad strike. The resistance put up by the communists became increasingly bold, as many of the workers were also veterans of WWI.
Workmen's Councils, the same groups that led the 1918 general strike, began to take control of the contested regions.
"In the eastern parts of the industrial region at Bochum, Dortmund, Gelsenkirchen and Unna, the proletariat is in charge. Armed laborers are speeding to various places to assist their comrades engaged in fighting."
- NY Times, March 18, 1920
By the 18th troops were beginning to refuse orders from the Kapp government. At this point even Kapp's colleagues began to urge him to step down before the country descended into anarchy, or worse, the workers took over.
"All those present urged Kapp to sign his resignation, as military reports from all over Berlin made it quite apparent order could not be maintained if the masses were not pacified. Danger that the Bolsheviki would gain the lead was imminent."
- NY Times, March 19, 1920
Kapp and Lüttwitz fled to Sweden.
As the Freikorps marched out of town defeated, workers turned out to "hoot and jeer" them. The troops turned their guns on them and open fired, wounding many. As they passed the Brandenburg Gate they opened fire again, hurting many more.
Kapp's coup did the most damage to the Conservatives, who were left discredited and distrusted. The workers of Germany turned further to the left.
When back in Berlin, the Ebert government issued this announcement: "Traitors to the people who forced you to resort to the general strike will be most severely punished by the Government."
But in fact the Ebert government had no intention to fulfilling that promise. The fact is that few who took part in the coup were even arrested. Fewer still were thrown in jail.
This inexplicable lack of accountability was to doom the Wiemar government to chronic instability, and eventually to failure.