Remembering the Workers’ Rising in East Germany 1953

It is 60 years since the workers’ rising in East Germany and we will be commemorating it with two articles in Revolutionary Perspectives (Series 4 Number 2) which will be due out next week. In the meantime out of historical interest in what revolutionaries thought at that time we print the first article we wrote on that in 1978 in the first series of RP. Although the main purpose of the article (to demonstrate the state capitalist and exploitative relations of the Eastern bloc) remains valid, we now longer claim these as representative of our current views and the underestimation of the impact of the false idea that Stalinism was communism on the consciousness of workers in Eastern Europe stands out here. We nowadays would reject the notion that the revolt took place in “the depths of the counter-revolution” (i.e. before the magical date of May 1968). The workers’ resistance to the end of the post-war boom in the period 1968-76 gave rise to a new generation of left communists like the CWO and the ICC and it is perhaps not surprising that we exaggerated the significance of those years of huge but ultimately economistic struggles. The CWO came to realise the error of this around the time the article below was written and it has been one of the great differences between the two organisations ever since. The road to working class revival has proved to be a longer and rockier one than we anticipated then as our future comrades in Italy warned us would be the case at the time.

From Revolutionary Perspectives 11 (1978)

Twenty five years ago, in the summer of 1953, East Germany was paralysed by a series of strikes and street demonstrations. East German workers were openly confronting the “communist” state and its Russian overlords. With sticks and stones they fought the “people’s army” and Russian tanks and infantry. While the workers did not make a revolution, and no clearly communist direction was taken, this uprising is worthy nevertheless of its place in the history of the workers’ struggle against capitalist exploitation.

In May 8 1945, German forces in Berlin had surrendered to the Russians. Within days the dismantling of hundreds of factories destined for Russia began. By 1949, when the Russian sector became the German Democratic Republic, the state machine was firmly in the grip of the Socialist Unity Party (SED), a USSR puppet. As window dressing the form of bourgeois democracy — elections, parties, etc. — were maintained and likewise the unions which served as useful transmission belts for State ideology. Under East German “communism” the economy has remained fully capitalist: it has simply become increasingly stratified and wage slavery has in no way disappeared. Nationalisation and expropriation has made the State the manager of otherwise unchanged capitalist firms. State direction of trade, centralised planning, price and wage fixing complete the picture of state capitalism.

After the war East German trade turned increasingly towards Russia, often on unequal terms over and above forced reparations. Another burden on the workers’ backs was “Socialist Reconstruction”. The first five year plan started in 1951 (aiming at vast investments in basic industries such as iron, steel and shipbuilding) called for “great sacrifices from the people”. The state’s efforts were hindered by continued flight of thousands of key workers to the Western zones. The Russians sought to continue their political domination increasingly through local agencies so the armed muscle of the new state was built up in paramilitary forces, with the “new Peoples Army” on its formation in 1952 resulting in a call for — surprise, surprise — yet more sacrifices from the workers! Constrasted with the Marshall Plan (which aided growth in Western Germany with US finance) “Socialist Reconstruction” was especially slow and painful. This reflects the relative strengths of the only two imperialisms left remaining after the Second World War: America poured capital into Western Europe, while Russia leeched it out of her satellites. The resulting burdens on the East European workers were particularly great.

Mourned by few, Stalin died in March 1953 and immediate moves occurred in Russia towards “de-stalinisation”. Stalin’s “iron fist” was a consequence of the childhood of Russian state capitalism — but now the state bosses saw gains to be made with a somewhat velvet glove approach to the workers. Friction occurred in East Germany as state boss Ulbricht resisted the “New Course”. But regardless of the arguments between the masters, attacks on the workers continued. Food and consumer goods were as short as ever, as capital flowed towards Russia and into heavy industry. The 1953 Economic Plan sought yet more from the workers with increased productivity, using the time-honoured capitalist device of widespread piecework. Then in April, food prices rose amid continued rationing.

In May, when norms for production rose by 10% with no increase in pay, class resistance became open. On 16 June building workers on East Berlin’s prestige new Stalinallee struck, and were joined by 2,000 to 3,000 other building workers from the suburbs. A disorganised column surged to government offices where various demands were made. The demands in the course of the rising included the repeal of the norm increases, for cuts in food prices, for free elections and for no People’s Army. The striking building workers demanded, fruitlessly, the appearance of Grotewohl, the Chief Minister, or of Ulbricht.

The limited nature of the demands should not shield the nature of the conflict. With the absence of “real” unions there was no buffer between the workers and the state. The workers directly confronted the state and soon its army. In “democratic” Western bloc countries, the union’s role is to take up disputes and act as a mediator and safety valve between the workers and the state. Under Eastern bloc state capitalism the unions do not have that potential.

On 16 June, delegates from the striking workers had gone to RIAS (the radio station in the American Sector of West Berlin which broadcasts in German to East Germany) with pleas to broadcast calls for a mass demonstration and general strike for the following morning. After hesitation, the Americans broadcast the appeals for the demonstration only, thus limiting the scope of the appeal largely to Greater Berlin. Imperialist rivals as they are, the Russians and Americans, will unite against their common enemy — the working class.

The following morning, 17 June, brought 100,000 people onto the streets of East Berlin for the demonstration. The “peoples” police quickly lost control as red flags were burnt, ministers mobbed and “party offices were sacked and records hurled into the street, jails invaded and prisoners released” (Shears, The Ugly Frontier p.159). The workers were soon confronted with Russian tanks, armoured cars, infantry and a declaration of martial law. Soviet forces occupied factories and strategic buildings throughout the country. The disorganised workers’ response was limited to sticks and stones, resistance being significant in Leipzig and Jena as well as Berlin. The general strike was not solid but nevertheless seems to have involved 400,000 workers. This was, without question, a movement of the working class.

Regardless of the wishful thinking of “spontaneists” who see a communist consciousness developing simply and automatically out of a mass class struggle, no glimmer of a communist direction can be seen in the workers’ demands. No organisations were developed to lead the struggle, to co-ordinate the seizure of radio stations and presses, or to discuss the political direction the struggle had to take. Neither were the workers spared the time to learn the lessons of history again nor to re-discover communism from “square one”. That explains why communists today see the necessity for delving into the history books to re-appropriate for the class the lessons that earlier generations of workers learnt in their bloody battles now long obscured by years of counter-revolution. The limited nature of the East German revolt can partly be explained by the fact that it occurred in the depths of the counter-revolution.

The East German workers’ uprising of 1953 must be seen as only one in a series of battles by the class in the “socialist” bloc against the conditions of life under decadent state capitalism. Others occurred in Czechoslovakia in 1952, in Romania in 1953 and especially Hungary in 1956. This battle has been continued into the seventies, notably by the Polish workers in the winter of 1970-71.

The end of the events in East Germany in 1953 was an inevitable return to work in the face of overwhelming opposition. Arrests and executions ensued, and the SED leaders admitted a few “mistakes”. The workers were beaten but not totally down, for after a fortnight’s calm, sit-in strikes burst out. As events in Italy in 1920 showed, workers must combat the state and not merely occupy the factories if they are not to be defeated. Sit-in strikes are welcome defiance but little more.

July 1953 might have brought a setback in the German workers’ struggles, but they were not totally defeated as in the 1920’s. As today’s crisis slowly deepens, the strain worldwide on decadent capitalism will bring workers everywhere into conflict with the state. And the East German workers will join in capitalism’s last battle as the struggle towards communism begins.

Friday, July 5, 2013