Issue 61 of INTERNATIONAL SOCIALISM JOURNAL Published Winter 1993 Copyright © International Socialism

Revolution and the challenge of labour

A review of Chris Wrigley (ed), Challenges of Labour: Central and Western Europe 1917-1920 (Routledge, 1993) £40


History, unlike time, does not advance at an even pace. There are moments when changes that in normal circumstances take decades to occur happen within the space of months or weeks. The humdrum pattern of daily existence is disrupted. Mighty institutions that seemed fixed and immovable can crumble into dust overnight--1789, 1848 and Eastern Europe recently were such moments. Such events create the possibility, for millions of people who often feel powerless to shape their lives, to discover hope and a sense of mass power.

The period 1917-20 is especially significant in this regard. It saw the collapse of an old order and the struggle for birth of a new one. A new book, Challenges of Labour, Central and Western Europe 1917-1920, brings together a series of articles on all aspects of this crucial period, a time of mass struggles following the 1917 Russian Revolution.

The question of revolutionary potential

This book is made up of the writings of 13 leading academics from a range of countries. It is not written from a revolutionary socialist point of view. Yet, in spite of this, the revolutionary potential of the period following the 1914-18 war shines through. Indeed, there is a flat contradiction between the commentary some of the writers make about events and the facts they themselves describe.

Let us first look at the commentaries. Dick Geary's article on 'Revolutionary Berlin' argues that those who believed there could be a 'new socialist order... are given little credence by most serious historians,'1 because 'the prospects of socialist revolution were always remote...'2 There is an article by Piero Melograni which says that during the so called 'Two Red Years' in Italy (1919-20) 'the revolutionary movement was not very strong.'3 Another Italian suggests that in Turin--the most militant area--there was not even a working class 'as understood by first the Socialist, then the Communist, agitators of the period'!4 Elsewhere we are told that 'there does not appear to have been a potentially revolutionary situation in Britain'.5

Charles Wrigley, the editor, summarises the message. Far from representing an advance:

Given the book's perspective it is strange to read in these same pages of the enormous scale, breadth and intensity of class struggle. First Germany:

In Budapest 'proletarian dictatorship was established peacefully and without resistance.' Vienna, the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the second largest state in Europe, was rocked by a series of mass strikes which:

Now, it could be objected that an apparent breakdown of these regimes only occurred as a result of disappointment and defeat in the First World War. It is true that the victor powers, France, Britain and Italy, did not witness armed overthrow of governments. But this does not mean that the potential was lacking for just such an event. Once again the book presents excellent evidence to contradict its own perspective.

In May-June 1919, writes Roger Magraw, Paris was gripped by a 'quasi-insurrectionary' strike of metal workers which 'set the tone for post-war labour politics'.9 This was in spite of the relatively better conditions of the victorious French government. In April they had, after all, 'rushed through the Eight-Hour Day Act in the hope of heading off worker unrest--a hope rudely dashed by events of the following weeks.'10 Nonetheless militants 'found a receptive audience for denunciation of Allied intervention in Russia and in April 100,000 Parisian workers had marched to protest at the acquittal of [the socialist leader] Jaures's assassin.' On May Day 1919 demonstrations turned into 'massive confrontations with police and troops in which 600 workers were arrested and hundreds, mainly building workers and metal workers, were injured--two fatally.'11 Thus 'fear of revolution was an insistent theme of the entire post-war period.'12

At Fiat in Italy, too, attempts to appease worker discontent had an impact contrary to that intended:

John Foster's article on the Clyde quotes from Prime Minister Lloyd George's evaluation of the period:

Foster goes on to argue that 'Clydeside was able to relate in a particularly direct fashion to models of social change provided by the Bolshevik revolution.'15

Class and revolution

In constructing the argument that socialist revolution was not on the agenda (and by extension is impossible now), a common device is to suggest that the potential forces are just too weak. The masses are portrayed as splintered into different and competing groups. Today the divisions are often seen as women versus men, blue collar versus white collar, soldiers versus workers, and--in economically backward countries--country people versus townsfolk.

This suits the analysis presented in Challenges of Labour, but despite the intentions of most of the contributors, the book explodes the myth and does so very effectively. Although there was supposed to be no 'class' in Turin, the links between different groupings were established by their very actions. The 'Two Red Years' at Fiat actually began with a strike by white collar workers, a large percentage of whom were women. Meetings were always chaired by women--the 'Signorine'. When management tried to split the labour force by offering male manual workers pay rises during the strike they refused to accept until the white collar workers had won. On the strength of this movement the technical grades immediately came forward with their own set of demands.

In Paris the 100,000 women working in the weapons factories were given the patronising nickname 'munitionnettes' by the press. But there is evidence of the way they began to get organised and link up not only with industrial agitation around pay and conditions, but with anti-war activities. In 1917 they formed one third of the audience at strike rallies and chanted for the return of 'their men' from the army. Seamstresses forced a cut in the working week, and milliners won double pay while munitions workers demanded pay rises, denounced brutal foremen and demanded extra holidays for those with menfolk on leave from the army.16 Furthermore, in France:

The workers' movement was involved in community protests over food prices, public amenities, sewage, educational and health provision. A 50,000 strong tenants association organised direct action squads against evictions, and began the tradition which in the 1930s made this area 'the notorious "red belt".'18

Hostility between towns and a supposedly reactionary countryside has often been cited as a reason for the impossibility of socialist revolution in backward economies. However, even ignoring the example of Russia in 1917, Hungary showed the potential:

Given the ethnic divisions in Eastern Europe and the current arguments about the inevitability of nationalist conflicts, it is interesting to read that:

Finally, even in Britain, the country least damaged by the war, barriers between different groups began to fall away. Not only did trade unionism expand amongst ordinary workers, there were even serious efforts made to organise in the police force and army. Amongst the police this led to strikes, while in the army the Soldiers', Sailors' and Airmen's Union (SSAU) was formed. The formation of such a body contributed to a more rapid demobilisation of soldiers. In spite of this mutinies broke out. While the one in Calais is well known, mutinies in Russia and in Punjab also occurred. These mutinies were only put down when the dissidents' camps were surrounded by brigades armed with machine guns. The government served out exemplary 'justice' to deter others from the same course:

If there were potential and real links between mass actions of apparently diverse groups, then the argument against the possibility of a unified revolutionary challenge is weakened. So another argument must be deployed. This is to point out that the numbers involved in a conscious revolutionary movement were small. In one sense this argument is valid, but not in the way the authors of Challenges of Labour intend. As will be shown later, the absence of organised revolutionaries was a crucial problem. However, this is not the point that the authors seek to make. Rather, they split up mass activities into separate compartments along the lines of revolutionary, labourist and constitutional action to show that pure, consciously revolutionary action was minimal.

However, the actual events again cry out against this analysis. We read that the Kiel mutiny that began the German Revolution of November 1918 was started by sailors,

And yet, as the book grudgingly points out: 'In themselves demands for peace and the freeing of political prisoners were not devoid of political consequences...'[my emphasis].23 This is a fantastic understatement. No revolution has ever begun in a fully conscious way. That of 1789 began when a parliament refused to disband. The 1905 Russian revolution began with a march to humbly beseech the Tsar to grant reforms, and 1917 began when women demanded bread. In Germany the sailors' mutiny against the state, whose very basis consists of the exclusive control of physical force, is a highly political act with dire consequences should it fail. The sailors knew of the executions of previous mutineers. That was why the November revolution swept Germany within the space of ten days. It was the sailors of Kiel rushing as quickly as they could all over the country that spread the revolution and they did so consciously--their lives were at stake if they failed! This was indeed 'not devoid of political consequences'.

If it is ridiculous to try and put up barriers between economics and politics in defeated countries, the strategy seems more plausible in victor countries. Articles on Britain and France make a sharp distinction between conscious revolutionary organisations--which were small and weak--and the general labour movement which, it is pointed out, was interested in bread and butter issues. John Foster's article on the Clyde is effective in demolishing the arguments of right wing historians like Iain McLean who, in The Legend of Red Clydeside, pretends that nothing significant happened at all. Unfortunately Foster falls into the trap of separating revolutionary politics and economics by arguing, in semi-nationalist fashion, that there was something specially radical about the Scottish labour movement which set it off from backward England. Clydeside was unique in a number of ways, in particular in possessing an impressive revolutionary voice in the group around John Maclean. But the greatest potential for shaking the system lay with the miners' struggle on a national scale.

Another article on Britain achieves the same division of economics and politics by a different route. After dealing with the Jolly George incident and near general strike which were against British military intervention against Russia, Chris Wrigley turns to the supposedly separate area of economic conflict. He is aware of the 'sheer number' of strikes in Britain. In 1920 there were 1,607 strikes involving 1,932,000 people and costing 26,568,000 days, but decides, 'Whether such strikes presaged a major threat to the existing social order is another matter.'24 In France we are told in identical terms that 'there was little politicised or subversive unrest... Labour unrest was another matter.'25

'Another matter'? Such an approach, which sees the revolutionary movement as distinct from mass strike action for economic ends, is strongly reminiscent of the right wing German social democrats Rosa Luxemburg criticised after 1905 in her pamphlet on The Mass Strike. In the section on 'The Interaction of the Political and the Economic Struggle' she wrote:

Europe in 1917-20 saw all of the phenomena Luxemburg described. The fact that they did not culminate in successful socialist revolutions is not due so much to an unbridgeable gap between the struggle for pay and the struggle for power. It was the lack of a conscious socialist force trying to develop the connections, an organisation which could convince large numbers that the only long term solution to economic problems was the overthrow of capitalism, just as the struggle for the overthrow of capitalism grew out of the immediate struggles in the factories, offices and mines. But before dealing with this it is necessary to look at the alternative viewpoint put in Challenges of Labour.

The ruling class response

The great question hanging over the European class struggles of 1917-20 is why there was no successful socialist revolution outside of Russia. Challenges of Labour claims to explain this in its second half which 'is made up of essays on major aspects of the resurgence of the old order...'27 However, it is here that the book is most disappointing. The idea of a 'resurgence of the old order' implies new methods, great political skills and sophistication in heading off unprecedented dangers, and so on. Yet we will search in vain for major evidence of such things.

In Hungary 'the fall of the council republic was primarily due to international power relations...'28 It was no cunning strategy but 'the superior power of the external armies [that broke] the resistance of the still half-organised red army and... proletarian dictatorship...'29 In France we read that, 'for a traditional threat, the state used traditional repression'.30 Its key innovation was to organise scabbing including 'patriotic groups, the more conservative veterans' organisations, and women's voluntary nursing and aid associations...'31 None of this is very startling. The historian of Italy tells us no more than that 'the revolution had not come [as] it had not been wanted.'32 For Britain we read, 'With a mixture of concession and firmness the British propertied classes came through the turmoil of the immediate post-war years with their privileges and wealth mostly intact.'33

Only in Germany is a specifically new strategy for heading off revolution presented: the rapid demobilisation of the army. This supposedly allowed for the dispersing of the discontented radical soldiers and retention of a reactionary elite for use in the near civil war that swept Germany afterwards. Even here the argument is not fully convincing.34

The break up of the army in Germany, like the forced acceleration of demobilisation in Britain and elsewhere, was not the result of skilful government planning. It was imposed on the governments by the pressure of the discontented soldiers themselves. It is difficult to imagine the German High Command rejoicing in the fact that:

In fact, during the war governments found that the quickest and surest means of achieving obedience and crushing opposition had been to conscript militant workers. The British government had tried to do this with the unofficial shop stewards' movement in Sheffield and been compelled to back off by mass strike action. It was regularly used in Italy where up to one third of factory workers were under military discipline.

Mass demobilisation brought about by mass mutiny, as in the German case, is not a convincing reason for the failure of the revolutionary movement--it was one of its successes. The demobbed soldiers could have been welded into a revolutionary force if the will to organise such a force had been present on a large enough scale. It was not, and that was the key issue in Germany, as elsewhere.

The absence of a revolutionary party

The weakness of the book's explanation for the failure of the revolutionary wave lies in this final point. Capitalism's strength did not save it from destruction. If, as has been shown above, the potential for a socialist overthrow of society was there and yet the working class failed to realise that potential, then the problem must have been a subjective one. It was the lack of mass revolutionary parties arguing within the class that really explains the outcome of the 1917-20 period.

The writers in Challenges of Labour point all too easily to the weakness of the organised revolutionary forces. In Germany the Communist Party was not founded till weeks after the outbreak of revolution in November 1918. The Austrian Communist Party was founded just one week before the overthrow of the Hapsburgs and 'eked out a shadowy existence until spring 1919'.36 In France it was not until December 1920 that revolutionaries founded a distinct party. The Italian Communist Party was actually founded in 1921, after the revolutionary wave had passed, and Britain was just as late.

Perhaps the most unusual party was that of the Hungarian Communists, founded on 24 November 1918 and in power on 21 March 1919. This sudden rise to influence was of little use, since the lack of experience led to elementary yet disastrous mistakes. Facing a peasantry who were a major force the Soviet government should have distributed the big estates amongst them. This 'could have won them over to the revolution's side, even though they held the traditional order and hierarchy of the village to be natural'.37 Without this move the regime was easily isolated and defeated from without.

The weakness of revolutionary organisation is taken as evidence of lack of radicalism in the working class in general. However, most of the writers in Challenges of Labour want to avoid stress on the subjective element, since that would suggest a revolutionary potential for the working class. The nearest most of them get to the issue is to complain about 'divisions of the Left'.38 Once again the evidence clashes with the interpretation. The problem of subjective weaknesses in the working class is most clearly demonstrated by comparing the revolutionaries with reformist Social Democrats and union officials in various countries. Hans Hautmann, writing on Vienna, makes the role of the latter wonderfully clear:

In France, Merrheim, the leader of the metal workers' union (FM), played a key role. He helped bring about a sell out of the Paris metal workers' strike in the summer of 1919 because he:

New realism was as much a dead end then as now. Instead of creating a 'large, disciplined industrial union capable of bargaining', Merrheim's sell out left workers weak in the face of declining military orders and bosses who were out to sack prominent activists. Soon thousands were laid off by the likes of Citroen and Renault while 'unionisation levels collapsed dramatically in the Parisian engineering sector...'41

In Britain, too, trade union leaders are described as:

The Labour Party played its role, with its leader, Henderson, declaring: 'The problem was to restore popular confidence in representative [parliamentary] institutions and to guide the mass movement along the path of constitutional change.'43 As in France, there was little gratitude for these sterling efforts on behalf of the ruling class. Henderson, who had gone to Russia during 1917 to try to bolster the reformists against the Bolsheviks, found himself 'damned as one who had "hobnobbed" with Lenin and Trotsky when there. This was a remarkable smear given that Henderson had not met them...'44

The situation in Italy was that the Socialist Party 'made a substantial contribution to the preserving of the status quo. The revolutionary potential of the party was paralysed and consumed uselessly.'45

It becomes clear that to blame divisions on the left for workers' failure is simplistic. If there had been a division much earlier and a credible revolutionary alternative to reformism established, then the Social Democrats and union officials could have been challenged for leadership of the mass movement.

One writer at least recognises that the subjective factor is an issue. This is Dick Geary in his piece on Berlin. He too wants to write off the potential for socialist revolution, but he has a problem. Firstly, in Germany the reality of revolution was more than apparent. Thus in November 1918 the country was covered by a network of workers' and soldiers' councils. In 1919 a Soviet republic was declared in Bavaria, with numerous risings in places like Hamburg and Bremen occurring. Between 1919 and 1923 there was an almost uninterrupted series of general strikes, coups and counter-coups. Secondly, it was the reformist leaders from within the labour movement who were central in preventing the revolution leading to workers' power. It is just not possible to overlook the fact that the Social Democrats were the government. The result was the murder of revolutionaries like Liebknecht and Luxemburg, together with the crushing of risings all over the country. This was organised by the Social Democrat Noske and his Freikorps troops.

Geary solves the problem by suggesting that, rather than failing to fulfil their potential, the Social Democrats more or less represented the working class and so their actions corresponded to the will of significant numbers of workers. Therefore, to describe the sending of troops and Freikorps 'not only against communist insurrections but also against striking metalworkers and miners... as a simple "betrayal" of the German working class... is however, more than a little misleading.'46 Why? 'The fact that the SPD continued to enjoy the support of a sizeable proportion of the German working class alone is sufficient to indicate the problematical nature of any such claim.'47

This will not do, and Geary himself is clearly uncomfortable with this argument. The fact is that the reformist leaders who worked hand in glove with the remnants of the Kaiser's High Command were not in the same position as their rank and file supporters. They had risen on the back of workers' struggle against a repressive government and employing class because they promised to bring a better society and put an end to the sufferings of capitalism. They claimed to lead this fight. They did betray the class by not only failing to lead but actively collaborating with the capitalists. As Geary says:

He does now get to the nub of the issue.

This was betrayal on a grand scale of the class that put it into a position of influence.

Challenges of Labour is an important survey of a crucial period in working class history. It fails politically and historically because it tries to squeeze events of a revolutionary character into a reformist interpretation which is both inappropriate for that time and has been shown to be a flawed and dead end approach today. The academics who produced it have extensive knowledge of their subject in a dry academic sense, yet most show a lack of understanding as to what a revolution is about. It is easy to look back and say that since revolution did not spread successfully outside Russia this proves no other outcome was possible. But history is not just about what was, but about what could have been. This is not a matter of wishful thinking, of wanting reality to be different, but of recognising that people make choices that matter, that 'man makes history, but not in circumstances of his own choosing', as Marx put it.

In the period 1917-20 workers had a unique power and influence. The way they chose to use these was decisive for the future. Tragically the choices they made were dominated by reformist organisations that wished to see capitalism preserved. The failure to take power would lead to the rise of a semi-fascist dictatorship in Hungary and full fascism in Italy, Germany and Austria. There is no other period so rich in lessons for revolutionary socialists, and so the writers of Challenges of Labour have, in spite of their best efforts, created a valuable and interesting book.


  1. D Geary, 'Revolutionary Berlin', in C Wrigley (ed), Challenges of Labour: Central and Western Europe 1917-1920 (Routledge, 1993), p39.

  2. Ibid, p47.

  3. P Melograni, 'Lenin, Italy and Fairytales', in C Wrigley (ed), op cit, p229.

  4. G Berta, 'The Interregnum: Turin, Fiat and Industrial Conflict between War and Fascism', in C Wrigley (ed), op cit, p109.

  5. C Wrigley, 'The State and Challenge of Labour in Britain 1917-1920', in C Wrigley (ed), op cit, p262.

  6. Ibid, p289.

  7. D Geary, op cit, p36.

  8. H Hautmann, 'Vienna: a City in the Years of Radical Change 1917-1920', in C Wrigley (ed), op cit, p103.

  9. R Magrew, 'Paris 1917-1920: Labour Protest and Popular Politics', in C Wrigley (ed), op cit, p136.

  10. Ibid, pp136-137.

  11. Ibid, p137.

  12. J Horne, 'The State and the Challenge of Labour in France 1917-1920', in C Wrigley (ed), op cit, p248.

  13. G Berta, op cit, p114.

  14. J Foster, 'Working Class Mobilisation on the Clyde 1917-1920', in C Wrigley (ed), op cit, p163.

  15. Ibid, p159.

  16. R Magrew, op cit, p 132.

  17. Ibid, p144.

  18. Ibid, p140.

  19. I Romsics, 'The Hungarian Peasantry and the Revolutions of 1918-19', in C Wrigley (ed), op cit, p202.

  20. Ibid, pp202-203

  21. C Wrigley, op cit, p269.

  22. D Geary, op cit, p37.

  23. Ibid, p37.

  24. C Wrigley, op cit, p271.

  25. J Home, op cit, p249.

  26. R Luxemburg, Rosa Luxemburg Speaks (New York, 1970), pp 181-182.

  27. C Wrigley, op cit, p1.

  28. Z Nagg, 'Budapest and the Revolutions of 1918 and 1919', in C Wrigley (ed), op cit, p83.

  29. Ibid, p83.

  30. J Horne, op cit, p253.

  31. Ibid, p254.

  32. P Melograni, op cit, p254.

  33. C Wrigley, op cit, p283.

  34. For details see C Harman, Germany: The Lost Revolution (London, 1982).

  35. W Wette, 'Demobilisation in Germany 1918-19, the Gradual Erosion of the Powers of the Soldiers' Councils', in C Wrigley, op cit, p183.

  36. H Hautmann, op cit, p97.

  37. I Romsics, op cit, p207.

  38. D Geary, op cit, p47, and C Wrigley, op cit, p295.

  39. H Hautmann, op cit, p94.

  40. R Magrew, op cit, p137.

  41. Ibid, p139.

  42. C Wrigley, op cit, p275.

  43. Ibid, p278.

  44. Ibid, p279.

  45. P Melograni, op cit, p236.

  46. D Geary, op cit, p41.

  47. Ibid, p41.

  48. Ibid, p42.

  49. Ibid, p42.

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