The Self-Education of Jan Appel

communization and its history

part five in a series

parts 123, 4

I can’t leave Jan Appel just yet, it turns out. There is still more to say about his relationship to communization, if not “council communism” or “councilism.” This is because Appel in 1920 on his hijacked herring schooner, navigating toward Murmansk and onward to St. Petersburg to be told off by the man after whom the city would be renamed, was not yet a councilist or even a council communist, if we are to go the definitions Phillipe Bourrinet leaves us.* Rather, he was part of a broad, as-yet-undefined left communism in the process of defining itself while the world revolution decayed. He was on his way to Soviet Russia after all, on behalf of the newly-formed KAPD, whose positions were antiparliamentary, anti-trade-union, and pro-council, but by no means council communist. The very fact that he had hijacked the Senator Schröder on behalf of his party, to communicate with the Comintern, indicates that he still saw an expansive role for the party. He was on a boat named after a parliamentary official, on his way to communicate with the leaders of a rebel state, after all.

Jan Appel remains fascinating not just because he is the very model of the proletarian intellectual, his theories formed directly at the beating heart of class struggle, but because he passes through each of the signal moments of the German Revolution (there are five, though only four are relevant to Appel’s story) and we can read those moments in the evolution of his thinking, an evolution that seems, in fact, to escape all the labels we might apply to it. The first of these periods comes with the great revolutionary strikes leading up to the November 1918 revolution and the formation of the councils. Appel had been sent to the shipyards of Hamburg during the war, still under military command, where he became a leading organizer. This first period ends in early January 1919 with the passage into a second period of open civil war, the so-called “Spartacist” rising of January, crushed quickly in Berlin by the freikorps units which the new SPD Defence Minister Gustav Noske unleashed on the radical workers. Elsewhere the rising lasted longer. Appel was in Hamburg when he heard that the freikorps had recaptured all the buildings occupied by the Spartacists—principally, the police station and the headquarters of Vorwärts, the SPD newspaper—and tracked down and killed both Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, the leaders of the nascent communist left.  

There was no KPD or KAPD then, in 1919, only the USPD, the independent Social Democrats and within it the half-organized communist left known as the Spartacist League, which after January would form into the KPD and then the KAPD. In Hamburg, after the defeated Berlin rising, Appel worked with Ernest Thalmann, then member of the USPD and later leader of the KPD, to organize a night march of workers on the nearby barracks, in Barenfeld, whose soldiers they disarmed and whose four thousand weapons they seized. But the attempt to cohere those four-thousand armed workers into a disciplined insurrectionary force failed, Appel tells us, as “after a good week of effort to build up a well-armed fighting force, those with arms began to disperse one after the other and disappeared along with their weapons. It was at this point that we arrived at the conclusion that the unions were quite useless for the purposes of the revolutionary struggle.”

From then on Appel was a principal organizer of the unionen, the factory-groups which would become the social base for council communism from 1919 to 1921 (after which point the communist left in Germany essentially implodes and cedes the ground to the players of Bolshevist putsch chess in charge of the KPD). The unionen are and were, it must be said right away, not the same as the councils, the räte, which were determined geographically with proportional representation per workplace and sometimes mechanisms for the representation of the unemployed and others. The role of the unionen, after 1919, was to prepare the ground for a workers’ government by the councils, which so far had been thwarted by the SPD and the trade unions. The unionen did not represent the entirety of the working class but rather the perspective of the militant minority.

But what role then, if any, for the party? Positions within left communism, the KAPD, and the KAPD-associated unionen, the AAU, were varied. Some imagined a directive role for the party within the class struggle, able to act where the fragmented unionen could not; others imagined a role for the party as propagandizers, leading the way to a workers’ government by council, but not sticking around to ruin the show. This is more or less Appel’s view when he returns to Russia a year later, by legal means apparently, to present at the well-documented July 1921 Third Conference of the Comintern, which took as its task reflection on the “March Action” of 1921 (discussed below) and in particular the conduct of the KAPD. In its call to the conference, the Executive Committee of the Comintern (ECCI) wrote that the KAPD “must say conclusively whether or not it accepts international discipline.” Appel answered this call to say, no, they would not, and presenting under the name Max Hempel clarified his position on the role of the party. Responding to a withering attack on the KAPD by Karl Radek, Appel offered a crude but effective periodization of the workers’ movement, suggesting politely but definitively that Bolshevist war of position belonged to a bygone age of bourgeois revolution out of step with contemporary the character of the workers’ movement, in which now the whole of the class had at hand the organizational tools (the councils) and the means of production to move directly to workers’ government. Trade unions and parliamentary representatives could only produce more of the same. The parties and unions accustomed to the old state of affairs could only be a hindrance, and there was no question of continuing to work within the trade unions or parliament. The task at hand was to coordinate the arming of the proletariat and transition to a government by council.

Most at the 1921 conference thought that conditions in Germany remained pre-revolutionary, and geared their planning thus. Jan Appel was particularly keen to remind the ECCI that on his previous trip to Russia he was told that the Red Army would march into Silesia, within reach of Dresden and Berlin, and he and his comrades in the underground units of the KAPD alone had undertaken to sabotage the supply trains, filled with French weaponry and supplies, which the Entente powers had forward to Poland through Germany. The unexpected defeat of the Red Army in Warsaw, after it had blazed a path through Eastern Europe, was one of many missed encounters, in which an inability to coordinate armed proletarian power led to the missing of fatal chances. Here if anywhere was the role for the party, not in parliamentary and trade union maneuver.

The truth is that the councils were not an organized power within the revolution after 1918. Even before the January insurrection, they had, in the withering but nonetheless accurate description Dauvé gives, “committed suicide.” This is why Appel’s emphasis is on unionen and party, the forces necessary to revive that great flourishing of council sovereignty suicided in its birth. The democratic mechanisms of the councils meant that SPD officials were able to transparently win a majority outright in many areas, or through simple deviousness in others. Radical elements within the councils attempted to counter this process by convening a Congress of the Councils, for December 16, but the reformists had already embedded themselves in the delegate structure, controlling the Congress and the governing Executive Committee in Berlin. From Broué, we learn that out of 489 delegates, 405 were sent by workers and 85 by soldiers. But only 179 were factory or office workers. Out of the whole, 288 voted with the SPD, and only 90 with the Independents, of whom a scant 10 were Spartacists. The Congress, which met in the Prussian landtag, among the proletarian rabble, voted to hand over power to the Constituent Assembly and the Reichstag.

Every moment in the proceeding sequence, from the January rising on, is an attempt to reckon with the consequences of this decision, and the events in January unfold rather directly from this cross-party intrigue. The councils were by no means defeated, but they were not an alternate form of sovereignty except where they made themselves so, by violent force and declaration, as they would repeatedly throughout the next four years, only to be defeated by the state, the organized counter-revolution, and from lack of worker support from within. Everything Jan Appel does, everything council communism or left communism could mean in this moment, is an attempt to correct this problem, principally around two moments of opportunity: the Ruhr rising of 1920 and the March action of 1921. The chance would come again in 1923, in the throes of hyperinflation, but by that point the communist left was no longer a force.

These subsequent episodes occur largely outside of Berlin, pacified from 1919 on, in places where the councils were, from the start, the most militant. In the Ruhr mining and industrial region, an important part of the western European economy, and for that reason a sticking point in the postwar settlement between Germany and the Entente powers, where many immigrants worked, the council of Essen declared a workers’ government and demanded full socialization. In other places dominated by heavy industry,, similar radical demands were made, sometimes accompanied by the seizing of regional government power. Many of these complicated events unfolded, however, not around the question of control over production but over the reorganization of the armed power of the state. The later insurrections are by and large responses by the workers to attempts by the state to disarm them or, alternately, to fascist counter-revolution, during a period in which the army is in the process of reconstruction, limited by treaty, facing fascist subversion from within, and must rely on irregular and counterrevolutionary forces. These insurrections therefore do not even get to pose the question of revolution against capitalism, except implicitly through a revolt against armed power. The subsequent moments are a retreat from the possibility of council power, a necessary retreat into armed power, that must find its way back to the council.

Perhaps the most promising one was the first and most surprising, which took most unawares. In March 1920, after the SPD attempted to disarm some freikorps units returned from marauding int the Baltic, right-wing officers attempted to seize control of the government. Refused support by the local army commanders (“Reichswehr does not fire on Reichswehr”) the SPD ministers fled, leaving the capital to the putshcists. The leaders newly-formed of KPD, demonstrating their remarkable ability to lose their heads in their asses, would declare neutrality. The working class, however, responded with a ferocity nearly the equal of 1918, annihilating the Kapp government in a four-day general strike that brought the country to a stop from top to bottom. The leader of the putsch, Chancellor Kapp, faced a powerful demonstration of the proletarian science of value; he couldn’t find anyone to print money for the new government, as all the printers were on strike.

The coup attempt collapsed quickly except in Bavaria, where the putschists held power. The Berlin government returned and called on the workers to stand down. Such passions were not easily calmed, however. In the Ruhr, in particular, where the workers heard the local units of the freikorps, stationed nearby, supported the coup, they swept up the entire region in an insurrectionary frenzy, in town after town disarming police and then the military units, forming various commands, and defeating in battle, in several instances, many of the freikorps units sent to fight them. This Red Army of the Ruhr, forming overnight, numbered around 100,000. They were organized regionally as the councils, but had little connection to workplace organizations. There was no central command, to be clear, but various regional groupings. In most areas, the USPD and the right wing of KPD dominated but the anarchists were very active in the area and with the left of the KPD (which would become the KAPD), pushed rather far. In Duisberg, for example, they deposed the SPD executive and raided banks and storehouses, in a moment of proto-communization. Eventually, however, most of the units stood down and turned their power over to delegates who agreed to disarm, in exchange for concessions. A portion of the Red Army had no part in such negotiations, but so it went. Those who refused to disarm were massacred by the Freikorps.

Jan Appel was working in the Ruhr at the time, though I don’t have information about what he was doing. The KAPD was formed in April 1920, as a direct response to the perfidy of the KPD in response to the Kapp putsch, which effectively expelled its majority and continued on as before, in advance of a unification with the independents. In Hamburg, Appel and Fritz were sent by the KAPD to Russia, and it was then he stowed away on the Senator Schröder, arriving in Russia on May 1. This is partly projection, but I like to imagine Appel on the boat reflecting on the course of the revolution so far, and imagining what could have been done? What will need to be done differently next time? The passionate will, disarming freikorps units and stealing boats, was there. What was missing? How prevent the self-disarming of the worker through their own self-organization? The answer must have been, for Appel, the council. If the Red Armies had turned their power to the councils, and not to a negotiating party, if that example could have spread?

They would have their chance a year later, during the March Action of 1921, which erupted in Central Germany, particularly in the industrial areas of Halle and Mansfeld. This was an area where the workers had not been disarmed, particularly in the ultramodern Leuna chemical works. A general strike spread through the region, and in a moment of synchrony, both the KAPD and the KPD decided that the time for insurrection had come. They called on the workers to arm themselves and take power. This was the moment of heroic adventurism. Responding to the general call, armed units began burning down police stations and courthouses, robbing banks, and distributing good. Max Holz, the so-called Robin Hood of the revolution, wrecked the police units sent from Berlin to put down the rebellious workers in Mansfeld. Here is a description of his proto-communizing force in action:

The commando, motorised, counts 60 to 200 men. In front, a reconnaissance group with machine rifles or lighter arms: the heavily armed trucks followed. Then the "chief" in a motorcar, "with the cash" in company of his "minister of finances'. As cover, another heavily armoured truck. All decorated with red flags. From their arrival in a locality, provisions are requisitioned, the post offices and savings banks are ransacked. The general strike is proclaimed and paid for by the employers with a "tax' levied.  Butchers and bakers are ordered to sell their merchandise 30 to 60 per cent cheaper. All resistance is crushed immediately and violently…

The KPD and KAPD issued a general call to insurrection, but beyond that they had little control over fast-moving events. Messages got lost in the relay between the center and the provinces, and the inability for these units to form lateral connections proved fatal. In the Leuna works, the skilled workers resisted the call to take up the arms they had and pass over into the offensive, because they concluded they would be massacred. They were unaware, however, that Holz’s force was nearby. Eventually the factory was bombed, the workers disarmed, Holz captured and arrested. The moment had been lost again.

It’s not clear whether this was the last chance or not. In 1923 what appears to be a genuine pre-revolutionary situation returned. As a result of events in the Ruhr, from which the Reichswehr was prohibited by the treaty of Versailles, the French army occupied this vital industrial center (the source for much of its coal). The Germany economy went into a hyperinflationary tailspin; radical councils formed and the once again the passage toward insurrection began. But the KPD had lost touch with workers’ organizations, thinking the lesson from March the lack of organized, disciplined chains of command. The communist left didn’t exist anymore, and the KPD initiated a mechanical insurrection, out of touch with the mood of class struggle, which failed.

By that time Appel was in prison. He had been arrested by the French authorities, who were in the process of negotiating to send him back to Hamburg to stand trial for piracy. One detail we learn from the biography of Paul Mattick is that he, then 19 years old, was preparing to break Appel out of the jail, but the authorities agreed to charge Appel with a lesser crime, to which he was willing to plead guilty. Appel began his studies, and emerged in 1925 with a first draft of the GIK document, which he took to the Netherlands. This document is then a reflection on all these failed insurrections—if the radical unionen had existed, possessed with a workable program for socialization of production, perhaps the working class would not have balked at the prospect of seizing power through the councils and integrating the armed units. The moment of 1923 hyperinflation called for this, as the monetary system had wrecked capitalist reproduction—direct communist distribution and production in such conditions may have been immensely popular, as long as it didn’t look like a death-wish.

Appel is in prison in Dusseldorf writing his draft of the Fundamentals of Communist Production and Distribution around the same time Hitler is in prison in Munich writing Mein Kampf. But the conclusions they draw are diametrically opposed. Hitler gives up on an insurrectionary path to Nazi power and concludes that representative parliamentary mechanisms are a necessary adjunct. Appel gives up on parliamentary organization, deciding the party must be only a coordinator of insurrection. For their respective projects they were both right.

What of the council in all this? Where all the councils? We see immediately two problems that affected council power. One was the centralizing structure of revocable delegates, which created a bottleneck in the Executive Committee in Berlin, and allowed the council power to be easily defanged. It’s not clear to me that revocable delegates—rather than lateral relations—are the last word in self-organizing structure. But more fundamentally, at least for any twenty-first century analysis, there is the problem of the division of labor and the integration of the unemployed. When Appel presented to the Comintern, he suggested that only the regionally organized council form could integrate the great masses of unemployed proletarians with which the new workers’ movement would have to contend. Herein lies a paradox, however: support for council communism and the communist left was greatest among the unemployed or, alternately, in industries with a rather crude division of labor: mining, heavy industry. In these areas the workers tended to form into armed units, Red Armies, not councils, whereas the workers organized in manufacturing and other sectors, formed into councils, tended to be more cautious. The missed encounter between the 12,000 workers of the ultramodern Leuna chemical works and Max Holz’s battalion of 2000 ultraleft marauders is instructive. What is the form that could bring all this together? The council? The party? And which kind of council, which kind of party?

The GIK had an answer—just the council. The council itself, prepared for by groups of unionen, was sufficient. But it’s not clear if Jan Appel ever fully came around to this position. After the Nazi occupation, during which Appel and others councilists participated in Resistance work, his colleagues in the GIK would remark that Appel had too much the taste for intervention, and wanted to continue working with the resistance groups long after the other councilists decided it time to depart. In the 1960s and 1970s, when interest in the history of council communism is renewed, Appel joins with members of the International Communist Current, a left communist group, at their founding meeting in 1976. The ICC’s position is quite opposed to the GIK, and the history of the Dutch-German Communist Left that they produce, written by Philippe Bourrinet, reads councilism as a kind of crypto-anarchism that fails for its inability to think the crucial role for the party. But who knows what Appel really thought about all that? Not me. I’m using him as a set of coordinates, as a way to think history, but I realize the real Appel escapes all this, cutting across all the categories – party, council, unionen, red army—with which we might try to make sense of his time.

*Bourrinet, aligned closely with the perspective of Amadeo Bordiga, insists on the difference between rätekommunismum and linkskommunismus, pointing out the lively debate about the role of the party within the Dutch-German communist left. Councilism, by his definition, is council communism which sees no role for the party. A clarification of terms, then, is as follows: left communism consists of a rejection of trade unions and parliamentary parties, involving unionen, party, and council. Council communism includes all three, with a supressed role for the party. Councilism rejects the party, but not unionen and council. Bordiga rejects the council and the unionen for the party. Without adopting Bourrinet’s tendentious argument, I find this use of terms helpful.