The Kapp Putsch

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The extreme right goes onto the offensive, democracy inflicts a defeat on the working class

In International Review 83 we showed how in 1919 the working class, following the failure of the January uprising, went through a series of heavy defeats owing to the fragmentation of its struggles. The ruling class in Germany unleashed the most violent repression against the workers.

1919 was the zenith of the world revolutionary wave. While the working class m Russia remained isolated in the face of an assault organised by the democratic states, the German bourgeoisie went onto the offensive with the aim of finishing off a proletariat which had been terribly weakened by its recent defeats.

The working class forced to pay for the defeat of German imperialism

After the disaster of the war, even though the economy was in ruins, the ruling class tried to exploit the situation by piling the weight of its defeat on the shoulders of the working class. Between 1913 and 1920, agricultural and industrial production in Germany had fallen by more than 50%. On top of this, a third of the production that remained had to be delivered to the victorious powers. In many branches of the economy, production continued to collapse. Prices rose dizzily and the cost of living index went from 100 in 1913 to 1,100 in 1920. After the hardships suffered by the working class during the war, "peacetime" famine was on the agenda. Malnutrition continued to spread. The anarchy and chaos of capitalist production, impoverishment and hunger reigned over the workers everywhere.

The bourgeoisie uses the Treaty of Versailles to divide the working class

Simultaneously, the victorious powers of the West extracted a heavy price from the defeated German bourgeoisie. However there were considerable differences of interest between the victors. While the USA had an interest in Germany acting as a counter-weight to Britain, and thus opposed any attempt to tear Germany to pieces, France wanted Germany to be weakened for as long as possible on the territorial, military and economic level, and even favoured the dismemberment of the country. The Treaty of Versailles of 28th June 1919 stipulated that the German army would be reduced in stages from 400,000 on 10th April 1920, then to 200,000 on 20th July 1920. The new Republican army, the Reichswehr, was only allowed to keep 4,000 of its 24,000 officers. The Reichswehr saw these decisions as a deadly threat and opposed them by all means possible. All the bourgeois parties - from the SPD to the centre and the extreme right - were united, in the interests of the national capital, in rejecting the Treaty of Versailles. They only yielded to it under the constraint of the victorious powers. However, the world bourgeoisie profited from the Versailles Treaty in that it deepened the divisions which had already existed during the war between the workers of the victorious powers and those of the defeated powers.

Meanwhile, an important faction of the army, feeling directly threatened by the Treaty, immediately began to organise resistance against its application. This faction aimed at stirring up a new conflict with the victorious powers. This perspective demanded that the bourgeoisie very quickly impose a new and decisive defeat on the working class.

But for the moment there was no question of the army coming to power as far as the main forces of German capital were concerned. At the head of the bourgeois state, the SPD had already given proof of its considerable capacities. Since 1914, it had succeeded in muzzling the proletariat And in the winter of 1918-19, it had very efficiently organised the sabotage and repression of the revolutionary struggle. German capital did not need the army to maintain its rule. It could still rely on the dictatorship of the Weimar Republic. Police troops under the orders of the SPD had fired on a massive demonstration in front of the Reichstag on 13th January 1920, where 42 demonstrators were killed. During the strikes in the Ruhr at the end of February, the "democratic government” threatened revolutionaries with the death penalty.

This is why, when in February 1920 parts of the army put their putschist aspirations into practice, they were only supported by a few factions of capital.These were above all from the agrarian east, since they had a particular interest in reconquering the eastern regions lost during the war.

The Kapp Putsch: the extreme right goes onto the offensive ...

The preparations for this putsch were an open secret within the bourgeoisie. But initially the government did nothing about the putschists, On 13th March 1920, a marine brigade under the command of General von Luttwitz entered Berlin, surrounded the seat of the Ebert government and proclaimed its overthrow. When Ebert rallied generals von Seekt and Schleicher to his side in reply to the putsch, the army hesitated, because, as the Supreme Commander of the General Staff declared: "the Reichswehr cannot accept any fratricidal war'of Reichswehr against Reichswehr".

The government then fled, first to Dresden, then to Stuttgart. Kapp then declared that the Social Democratic government was out of office but made no arrests. Before its flight to Stuttgart, the government, supported by the trade unions, launched an appeal for a strike and once again showed the duplicity it was capable of in acting against the working class:

"Fight by all means at your disposal for the maintenance of the Republic. Forget all your differences. There is only one way to oppose the dictatorship of Wilhelm II:

  • the total paralysis of the whole economy;

  • all arms must be given up;

  • no proletarian must cooperate with the military dictatorship;

  • general strike all along the line. Proletarians unite. Down with the counter-revolution.

The Social Democratic members of the government: Ebert, Bauer, Noske The Directing Committee of the SPD"

The unions and the SPD thus intervened immediately to protect the bourgeois Republic - even if on this occasion they used pro-worker language1.

Kapp proclaimed the dissolution of the National Assembly, announced the holding of elections and threatened any striking worker with the death penalty.

The armed response of the working class

The indignation of the workers was gigantic. They understood immediately and clearly that this was a direct attack on their class. Everywhere a violent response developed. Naturally, it was not a question of defending the Scheidemann government From Wasserkante in eastern Prussia, through to central Germany, Berlin, BadWurtemburg, Bavaria and the Ruhr, in all the big towns, there were demonstrations; in all the industrial centres the workers went on strike and raided police stations in order to arm themselves; in the factories they held general assemblies to decide on the struggle to be waged. In most of the big cities putschist troops opened fire on demonstrating workers. On 13th and 14th March 1920, dozens of workers were shot down.

In the industrial centres, workers formed action committees, workers' councils and executive councils. The proletarian masses descended onto the streets. Not since November 1918 had there been such a massive mobilisation of the working class. Everywhere their anger against militarism exploded.

On the 13 March, the day the Kapp troops entered Berlin, the KDP Zentrale took a wait-and-see attitude. In its first statement of position, it was not in favour of a general strike:

The proletariat will not lift a finger for the democratic republic ... The working class, which only yesterday was disarmed and repressed by the Eberts and Noskes ... is for the moment incapable of acting. The working class will take on the struggle against the military dictatorship in the circumstances and with the means that seem suitable to it. These circumstances are not yet present"

However, the KPD Zentrale was mistaken. The workers themselves did not want to wait, on the contrary, in the space of a few days more and more of them were joining the movement. Everywhere the slogans were: "Arm the workers! Down with the putschistsl".

Whereas in 1919, throughout Germany, the working class had struggled in a fragmented way, the putsch provoked a simultaneous mobilisation in many places. However, apart from in the Ruhr, there was hardly any contact made between the different centres of struggle. Throughout the country, there was a spontaneous response but without any real centralised organisation.

The Ruhr, the most important concentration of the working class, was the "Kappists" main target. This is why it was the centre of the workers' response. Starting with Munster, the Kappists attempted to encircle the workers of the Ruhr. The latter were the only ones to unify their struggle at the level of several towns, to give the strike a centralised leadership. Strike committees were formed everywhere.

Armed units, numbering up to 80,000 workers, were set up. This was the most important military mobilisation in the history of the workers' movement, apart from Russia. Although this resistance was not centralised on the military level, the armed workers managed to stop the advance of Kapp's troops. In town after town the putschists were defeated. The working class had not achieved such a success in 1919, during the various revolutionary uprisings. On 20 March 1920, the army was forced to retreat completely from the Ruhr. Already on 17th March, Kapp had been compelled to resign unconditionally. His putsch had hardly lasted for 100 hours. As in the events of the previous year, the main foci of the workers' resistance were Saxony, Hamburg, Frankfurt and Munich2. But the most powerful reaction was in the Ruhr.

Whereas in Germany as a whole the movement ebbed considerably after Kapp's resignation and the failure of the putsch, in the Ruhr this did not put an end to the movement. Many workers saw this as an opportunity to take the struggle forward.

The limits of the workers' response

Although a very broad workers' front had developed with the speed of lightening against the bloody putschists, it was obvious that the question of overthrowing the bourgeoisie was not yet on the agenda. For the majority of workers the issue was one of thwarting an armed aggression. At this point, it was not clear how to follow up the workers' initial success.

Apart from the workers of the Ruhr, those in other regions advanced hardly any demands that could have given the class movement a further dimension. As long as the workers' energy was directed against the putsch, there was a homogeneous orientation among the workers. But once the putschist troops had been defeated, the movement began to mark time and lacked a clear objective. Repelling a military attack in one region, which was the immediate issue facing the workers, does not necessarily create the conditions for overthrowing the capitalist class.

In various places, the anarcho-syndicalists tried to carry out the socialisation of production. This expressed the illusion that kicking out the extreme right was enough to open the door to socialism. A whole series of "commissions" were created by the workers with the aim of putting their demands to the bourgeois state. All this was presented as the first measures on the road to socialism, as the first steps towards dual power. In reality, these conceptions were signs of an impatience which was distracting the workers from the most urgent tasks. The illusion that it is enough to establish a favourable balance of forces in one region is a grave danger to the working class, because the question of power can only be posed, first of all, at the level of a whole country, and in reality only at an international level. This is why it is so important to combat petty bourgeois impatience and the demands for "everything, now".

While the workers mobilised themselves immediately on the military level against the putsch, the impulse and force of their movement did not come fundamentally from the factories. Without this - i.e. without the initiative from the masses exercising their pressure in the streets but also expressing themselves in general assemblies where they can discuss the situation and take decisions collectively - the movement cannot really go forward. This process demands that the workers take direct control of the extension and direction of the movement, but it also requires a development of consciousness in depth, since this alone makes it possible to unmask the enemies of the proletariat.

This is why the arming of the workers and a determined military response are not sufficient. The working class has to set in motion its principal strength: the development of its consciousness and its organisation. In this perspective, the workers' councils occupy a central place. However, the workers' councils and action committees which reappeared spontaneously in this movement were too weakly developed to serve as a rallying point and spearhead of the combat.

Moreover, from the beginning, the SPD undertook a whole series of manoeuvres to sabotage the councils. While the KPD focused its whole intervention on the need to re-elect the workers' councils, in order to reinforce the workers' initiative, the SPD managed to block these efforts.

The SPD and the unions: spearhead of the workers' defeat

In the Ruhr many representatives of the SPD sat in the action committees and the central strike committee. As in the period from November 1918 to the end of 1919, this party sabotaged the movement both from the inside and the outside, and once the workers had been decisively weakened, it brought to bear all the means of repression at its disposal.

Following Kapp's resignation on March 17, the withdrawal of the troops from the Ruhr on 20 March and the Ebert-Bauer government's return from "exile", the latter, alongside the army, was able to reorganise all the bourgeois forces.

Once again the SPD and the unions came to the aid of capital. Using the worst kind of demagogy and scarcely veiled threats, Ebert and Scheidemann immediately called for a return to work:

"Kapp and Luttwitz have been put out of business, but the sedition of the Junkers continues to threaten the German popular state. The combat against them must continue until they submit unconditionally. In this great aim, we must all the more solidly and deeply strengthen the Republican front. The general strike, if it goes on any longer, will not only threaten those who have been guilty of high treason, but also our own front. We need coal and bread to carry on the fight against the former powers. This is why we must halt the peoples' strike, but remain in a permanent state of alert".

At the same time, the SPD made a show of granting political concessions, in order to isolate the most combative and conscious elements from the rest of the movement. Thus it promised "more democracy" in the factories, in order to give the workers "a decisive influence in the elaboration of the new regime and the social and economic constitution"; it also promised the purging from the administration of all those who had sympathised with the putschists. But above all, the unions did everything to ensure that an agreement would be signed. The Bielefeld agreement promised concessions which in reality were aimed at holding back the movement so that the repression could then be organised.

At the same time the threat of "foreign intervention" was once again raised: the workers were told that spreading their struggles would result in an attack on Germany by foreign troops, especially those of the USA, and in the blocking of desperately needed food supplies from Holland.

Thus the unions and the SPD prepared the conditions and put in place all the means necessary for the repression of the working class. The same SPD whose ministers had a few days before, on 13th March, been calling for a general strike against the putschists, now took back the reins and carried out the repression. Although negotiations for a cease-fire were underway and the government appeared to be making "concessions" to the working class, the general mobilisation of the Reichswehr was already taking place. A large number of workers had the fatal illusion that the government troops sent by the "democratic" Weimar Republic would not carry out any action against the workers. This is what the Berlin-Kopenick defence committee promised when it called on the workers' militias to cease the struggle. But as soon as troops loyal to the government entered Berlin, councils of war were set up whose ferocity easily matched that of the Freikorps the year before. Anyone found in possession of a weapon was immediately executed. Thousands of workers were tortured and shot, innumerable women were raped. In the Ruhr alone it is estimated that 1000 workers were murdered. What Kapp's thugs had failed, the butchers of the democratic state succeeded admirably.

Since World War I, all bourgeois parties have been mortal enemies of the working class

Since the capitalist system entered its period of decadence, the proletariat has had to constantly relearn the fact that there are no factions of the ruling class less reactionary than any others, or less hostile to the working class. On the contrary, the forces of the left of capital, as proved by the example of the SPD, are all the more devious and dangerous in their attacks on the working class. In decadent capitalism there are no progressive factions of the bourgeoisie that the working class can support.

The proletariat paid a heavy price for its illusions in Social Democracy. In crushing the workers' response to the Kapp putsch, the SPD showed all its duplicity and proved that it was acting in the service of capital.

It began by presenting itself as the most radical representative of the workers. In doing so it succeeded in mystifying not only the workers in general, but also their political parties. Although at a general level the KPD warned the working class loudly and clearly about the SPD, denouncing the bourgeois character of its politics, at the local level it often fell victim to its tricks. Thus, in various towns, the KPD signed joint appeals for the general strike with the SPD.

For example, in Frankfurt, the SPD, the USPD and the KPD declared jointly that "We must enter into struggle now not to protect the bourgeois Republic, but to establish the power of the proletariat. Leave the factories and offices right away!".

In Wuppertal, the district leaderships of the three parties published this appeal:

"The unified struggle must be waged with the/oil owing aims:

  1. The conquest of political power by the dictatorship of the proletariat, up until the consolidation of socialism by the council system.

  2. The immediate socialisation of the economic enterprises sufficiently large to serve this end.

To attain these aims, the signatory parties (USPD, KPD, SPD) call (or a determined general strike on Monday 15 March".

The fact that the KPD and the USPD did not denounce the real role of the SPD, but lent their support to the illusion that you could form a united front with a party that had betrayed the working class and had its hands covered in workers' blood was to have disastrous consequences.

Once again the SPD was pulling all the strings and was preparing to repress the working class. After the defeat of the putschists, with Ebert at the head of the government, it appointed a new Commander to the Reichswehr - von Seekt, a general who had already acquired a solid reputation as a butcher of the working class. Right away, the army stirred up hatred against the workers: "although the right wing putschists have left the stage in defeat, left wing putschism is again raising its head. We will use our weapons against putsches of all kinds". Thus the workers who had fought the putschists were denounced as the real putschists. "Don't be led astray by Bolshevik and Spartacist lies. Stay united and strong. Form a front against Bolshevism which wants to destroy everything".

Under the orders of the SPD, the Reichswehr carried out a real bloodbath. It was the "democratic" army which marched against the working class, long after the "Kappists" had been put to flight!

The weaknesses of revolutionaries are fatal for the whole working class

While the working class was heroically fighting the attacks of the army and was trying to find a direction for its struggles, the revolutionaries were lagging behind the movement. The absence of a strong communist party was one of the decisive reasons for this new reverse for the proletarian revolution in Germany.

As we showed in the article in IRs 88 and 89, the KPD found itself gravely weakened by the exclusion of the opposition at the Heidelberg Congress. In March 1920, the KPD only had a few hundred militants in Berlin, the majority of its members having been excluded. On top of this, the party was traumatised by its weaknesses during the bloody week of January 1919, when it had proved unable to act in a unified way to expose the trap set by the bourgeoisie and to prevent the working class from falling into it.

This is why on the 13 March 1920, the KPD developed a false analysis of the balance of forces between the classes, thinking that it was too soon for a fightback. It was clear that the working class was facing an offensive by the bourgeoisie and could not choose the moment to struggle. But its determination to resist was extremely important. In this situation, the party was perfectly correct to put forward the following orientation:

"Immediate assemblies in all factories to elect workers' councils. Immediate meeting of councils in higher assemblies which must take charge of the direction of the struggles and the next measures to carry out. Immediate meeting of the councils in a Central Congress of councils. Within the workers' councils, the communists fight for the dictatorship of the proletariat, for the Republic of councils" (15th March 1920).

But after the SPD regained control of the reins of government, the KPD Zentrale declared, on 21st March 1920:

"For the ultimate conquest of the proletarian masses to the cause of communism, a state of affairs in which political liberty can be used without any limits and in which bourgeois democracy does not appear as the dictatorship of capital is of the highest importance for things to go in the direction of the dictatorship of the proletariat.

The KPD sees the formation of a socialist government that excludes any capitalist bourgeois party as a favourable basis for the action of the proletarian masses and the process of maturation necessary for exerting the dictatorship of the proletariat.

Towards the government it adopts an attitude of loyal opposition as long as it does not threaten the guarantees that ensure the working class its freedom of political action, and as long as it combats the bourgeois counter-revolution by all the means at its disposal and does not prevent the social and organisational strengthening of the working class".

What was the KPD hoping for in promising to be a "loyal opposition" to the SPD? Was this not the same SPD which during the war and at the beginning of the revolutionary wave had done everything it could to mystify the working class, to tie it to the state? Was this not the same SPD which had coldly organised the repression of the workers?

By adopting this attitude the KPD Zentrale left itself wide open to the manoeuvres of the SPD.

When the vanguard of the working class falls into an error of this scale, it is not surprising that the masses' illusions in the SPD should have been reinforced. The catastrophic policy of the "United Front from below" as applied in March 1920 by the KPD Zentrale would unfortunately be taken up straight away by the whole Communist International. The KPD had taken a first tragic step.

For the militants excluded from the KPD, thIS new error by the Centrale was the motive for pushing them to found the KAPD in Berlin shortly afterwards, at the beginning of April 1920.

Once again the working class in Germany had fought heroically against capital. And this despite the fact that the international wave of struggles was well in retreat. But once again it was deprived of decisive action by the party. The errors and hesitations of the revolutionaries in Germany were a very clear demonstration of the grim consequences of a lack of clarity on the part of the political organisation of the proletariat.

The. confrontation provoked by the bourgeoisie through the Kapp putsch ended in a new and grave reverse for the proletariat in Germany. Despite the formidable courage and determination with which the workers hurled themselves into the fray, they once again paid heavily for their persistent the SPD and bourgeois democracy. Handicapped politically by the chronic weaknesses of its political organisations, abused by the underhand policies and speeches of Social Democracy, they were. defeated and finally exposed to the bullets not so much of the extreme right but of the very "democratic" Reichswehr under the orders of the SPD government.

But above all this new defeat of the proletariat in Germany was a crucial blow against the worldwide revolutionary wave, leaving Soviet Russia more and more isolated.


1 To this day it is still not clear whether this was a provocation with a precise goal, set up between the army and the government We can in any case not exclude the hypothesis that the ruling class had a plan which used the putschists as a factor of provocation: the extreme right would first draw the workers into the trap, then the democratic dictatorship would strike with all its strength.

2 In Central Germany Max Holz made his appearance for the first time. By organising combat groups of armed workers, he engaged in numerous conflicts with the police and the army. Seizing hold of goods from the shops, he distributed them to the unemployed. We will come back to him in another article. 



German Revolution