From Labor Action, Vol. XVII No. 28, 13 July 1953, pp. 6–7.
Slightly abridged vedrsion copied with thanks from the Workers’ Liberty Website.
Additional Transcription by Einde O’Callaghan.
Marked up by A. Forse & Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
We publish here a part of the lecture given by Max Shachtman on July 2 on the subject of the East German workers’ revolt, as transcribed from a tape recording made by friends. This section deals mainly with the German action itself; Comrade Shachtman continued with a discussion of the international significance and impact of the event. – Ed.
There have been anti-Stalinist actions before, both outside of Russia and even inside of it. But yet they are not the same thing as the rising that occurred in Berlin.
Inside of Russia it has happened any number of times, before, during and since the Second World War. There have been many cases of small isolated strikes, long strikes, by desperate, atomized leaderless workers who would almost rather die than continue to submit any longer to the depredations and abuses of their masters. Invariably, according to all the reports about them, they were blown to bits by the platoons of the GPU. And the heroism of the workers involved left an imprint on the minds of only a tiny handful of people. The world at large, outside of Russia, heard very little of these struggles.
Similarly in the cases of the multitude of peasant actions that occur almost all the time in one place of the Russian empire or another – actions against the bureaucratic bandits sent to keep them subjugated and silent.
Outside of Russia there has been more than one case, dozens of cases in fact. The first big inspiring movement was that of the Ukrainian Partisans, the so-called UPA which arose in the Ukraine, both parts of it, in the course of the Second World War, with the cry “Against Hitler! Against Stalin!”
This movement displayed a heroism and a tenacity that is almost incredible under conditions that are almost impossible to believe could exist, and it had the honor, of lighting up the first dawn of the new day after the many gloomy years of ineffectual calls to resistance issued in Russia by the revolutionary movement, in particular by the Trotskyist movement, the old Trotskyist movement.
But in the first place the UPA was essentially a guerrilla movement, arising directly out of the conditions of the war in that particular part of Europe at the time, and limited by these conditions. And secondly, it was primarily a peasant movement, moreover a peasant movement constantly on the move. And for these two reasons it was doomed to instability, to insecurity, to a gradual wearing-down and unfortunately to obscurity. Similar and analogous movements have been known in Poland ever since the Stalinists took power there, but they had the same or greater natural and military handicaps.
Of greater importance and of sounder foundations have been the spontaneous movements in Czechoslovakia. Like the working classes in all the Stalinist countries – it is a feature of them all – the Czech workers, almost from the beginning, starting only shortly after the Stalinists took complete power in the country, have been on a more or less permanent general strike, inside the industries, inside the plants, inside the factories, inside the mills, on the railroads, even on the farms. It is a characteristic means whereby the working class of these countries, starting with Russia herself, carry on the class struggle against the totalitarian regime.
But with the new developments in the Stalinist regimes which have come into the open since the death of Stalin, this peculiar durable general strike has already broken out into open demonstrations in the plants and in the streets in various cities of Czechoslovakia, particularly in connection recently with the vicious so called currency reform.
But all of these taken together, and certainly any one of them, fail to have the scope and significance of the Berlin events of the middle of June.
It is true, as all the more or less bewildered reports in the newspapers agree, that the movement in Eastern Berlin and thereafter in Eastern Germany was a spontaneous movement. It was indeed a spontaneous movement, as are all genuine mass movements. Genuine mass movements cannot simply be commandeered from above, no matter how widespread is the support enjoyed among the population by those whom the “above“ represent. They have to conform to a sentiment in the masses; they have to represent it – truly, or not quite so truly as the case might be. In that sense the outpouring of the mass, whether on order or request from above or by the mysterious movement which often sets masses in motion without anybody – the masses themselves included – knowing who it was, is nevertheless an authentic popular movement.
But in this case what was undoubtedly a spontaneous movement was at the same time, I am convinced by everything that has appeared about it, also an ORGANIZED movement. In that respect I think it is fundamentally different from virtually all the movements we have known under Stalinism in the past – and by movements in this respect I mean movements that have appeared openly in the streets, in direct combat with Stalinism.
All sorts of people – and this is a second feature of the Eastern Berlin affair – were in the demonstration. It was perhaps the broadest mass movement against Stalinism that has been witnessed. Many of the correspondents who were on the scene were somewhat puzzled by the variegated class character of the demonstration. They saw people who were obviously workers – building trades workers in particular, who, in Germany, are very easy to recognize – and they saw people with briefcases. People with briefcases in a country like Germany means middle-class people – employees, government people, civil-service people, etc. They saw housewives with big shopping baskets – which shows, already, not a proletarian housewife. They saw moderately well-dressed people in the demonstration.
But however true and gratifying it is that everybody, so to speak, plunged into the demonstration, the outstanding fact about it is that it was initiated by organized working people. They were the moving spirit of it, they were its spinal column, they were its heart, and above all they were its mind.
And when we speak of organized working people we’re speaking of the Berlin proletariat. And comrades and friends, there has never been a proletariat, certainly not over a long period of time, like the Berlin proletariat – never.
Almost throughout the history of one century of the socialist proletarian movement it has been unique. Always strongly organized; always permeated to the marrow of its bones with the spirit of solidarity and organization; always permeated with the spirit of discipline – very often too good for it – but nevertheless discipline. And courage!
Berlin differs, you may know, from New York among other things in this respect: it is a strongly industrial center. While New York is dominated by a working-class population, it is a different working-class population in the kind of work it does and in the kind of plants in which it works.
This tradition of organization, of class consciousness, of socialist class consciousness, of discipline and courage, was manifested in East Berlin two weeks ago as though it had never gone through the purgatory of fascism and the exhausting paralysis of the division that made it possible for fascism to come to power 20 years ago.
So while it was an authentically popular demonstration and uprising, it was initiated, carried on and dominated from start to finish by the Berlin socialist proletariat – the old proletariat who existed and flourished and thought and acted before Hitler, and the young proletarians who, in the multifarious ways known to the working class, were trained by their older working class brothers.
I feel confirmed in my belief that this was an organized demonstration as well as a spontaneous one, that it was an organized demonstration and not merely a spontaneous one, by the reports which uniformly agree on one thing: on who literally started the demonstration and who constituted the massive bulk of the demonstration.
You must have read the reports in all the newspapers: that it was started by the workers of the Berlin construction industry, the building-trades workers; and that it got its most weighty support, once it got started, from the workers in Henningsdorf, a suburb 12–15 miles from the center of Berlin, which is industrial through and through and the seat of the famous Henningsdorfe Stahlwerke, the steel works famous in the class struggles of Germany for years and of Berlin in particular.
Now what is very interesting about both of these groups of workers is their past. They share a common past, and for some reason they are almost exactly the opposite in politics and tradition from their similars in the US. The steelworkers of Henningsdorf and the building-trades workers of Berlin have in common a Communist past.
And not by accident – the case was not that somebody pretended he was a member of the city committee of the Democratic Party and got elected to the building trades council in Berlin, or something of the sort. Year in and year out both of them – both unions – both industries – from almost the beginning of the post-World War I period, almost from the beginning of the creation of a Communist Party in Germany, regularly elected Communist shop-council stewards. They were known as fortresses of the Communist Party, and not by skimpy majorities – they were really fortresses of the Communist Party!
The Berlin building-trades industry, the Henningsdorf steel works – to mention the two that were involved in this case, there were others of course – were among the proletarian sectors where the Nazis could never penetrate. Social-Democrats in these industries inclined to the left rather than to the right. That gives you some idea of the political past of the workers who were primarily involved in these demonstrations.
When the Communist Party in the old days before Hitler called its big demonstrations, its big parades, outstanding among them were the Berlin building trades workers, dressed in the heritage of the old guild costumes that they affected on those occasions: great big broad-brimmed black hats, and great big broad breeched black pants. And that seemed to enhance their brawn. I can almost see them walking down the streets now in Stalinist Berlin and infusing into the Stalinist Volkspolizei, into the Stalinist soldier, not an impression of contempt but an impression of worriment. They were something to look at! And if some have died since the old days – Hitler took power 20 years ago, people have died, many of them murdered – those who replaced them have, no doubt, been brought up in the same fundamental tradition of revolutionary, militant, uncompromising socialism.
Because I have to add to that story of their tradition the fact that there has been a complete break with Stalinism both in the building trades industry and in the steel works, among these workers who participated. Nowhere else is there a deeper, sturdier hatred of Stalinism and of the so-called Communist Party of Germany than among these workers. These places are no longer fortresses of Stalinism; they are fortresses of the proletarian socialist enemies of Stalinism.
These former Communists are unquestionably united today with the Social-Democratic workers, the members of the SPD, the socialist party of Germany, in those industries and enterprises. One need not have any inside information to come to that absolutely firm and sound conclusion. What could possibly divide the former Communist Party workers of those areas and industries from the former Social-Democratic Party workers? Nothing, absolutely nothing. And that was perfectly clear from the slogans that were chanted with such organized and prepared firmness by those who appeared in the demonstration. The differences of the past no longer relate to anything in the world to day. There cannot be a division between them – that’s in the past.
The fourth thing that was interesting about the East Berlin affair and which justified the conclusion that this was not only organized but well organized, intelligently organized, wisely and cunningly organized, was the systematic and integrated character with which the crowd put forward their slogans. These slogans were all revolutionary political slogans.
The ostensible ground upon which the building trades workers left their jobs on the first “socialist“ street in Berlin, Stalinallee, was lost sight of in the demonstration, in the uprising. It was as if they were ready to acknowledge, publicly, that this was only a pretext for manifesting their opposition to the regime.
You know, surely, how it started. The Stalinist rulers, or sub-rulers, of what is referred to as the “workers’ state“ of East Germany – by many people, none of whom is a worker in East Germany – issued a decree that the production norm in the building-trades industry would be lifted 10 per cent. And although in this mighty totalitarian state these workers had but to lift their finger in protest to get the decree withdrawn by the rulers of the German more-or-less “degenerated workers’ state,“ that did not prevent them from going out into this demonstration which was half uprising and half demonstration. On the contrary, it only stimulated them.
And the minute they went out – although they came from different parts of the city and converged upon one key point where their employers who rule them, the employers’ state, the government offices, are located – they said virtually nothing of the 10 per cent increase in the production norm. All their slogans were political, all their slogans related to the question of rule, of politics, and because they were directed against the regime and violently against it, uncompromisingly against it, demanding nothing from the regime, except its demise, they were revolutionary political slogans.
“Ivan Go Home“ was the one heard most often.
“Down with the Volkspolizei!“ This is an old and, in its original form, beloved slogan of all German workers, above all, of the Berlin workers. They have had “Po’s“ before. There was the hated Sipo of the Weimar republic – the Sicherheitspolizei – the security police; and the word Sipo on the lips of a Berlin worker was not pleasant to hear, if you were a member of the Sipo! There was likewise the Schupo – the Schutzpolizei, the “protective police,“ and on the lips of the Berlin workers it had no less hateful a significance. And after these representatives of the democratic Weimar republic were transmogrified into the police of the Hitler regime there were added to them also the Gestapo – the Geheime Staatspolizei, secret police of the late Goering, and that only deepened the hatred of the German workers.
And to them all – and you might say summing them all up – was now added by the Stalinists the Vopo, the Volkspolizei, which added insult to injury by calling itself a people’s police. And it is interesting that among the slogans most popular on the streets two weeks ago was “Down with the Vopo!“ – down with the armed agents of the Stalinist regime in Germany.
“Down with Ulbricht“ was the third of the popular slogans. Ulbricht is the principal Stalinist quisling in Germany, together with front man Grotewohl, who is kept there only because he was a former minor functionary in the Social-Democratic Party of Germany and who is a handy man for the Russians to have around because nature deprived him of the elementary lime deposits to make up a backbone. They are known, nevertheless, by all the workers for what they really are.
The workers demanded nothing of Ulbricht and Grotewohl – no “give us this or that.“ No: Vacate! Disappear! Or as they say in vulgar Berlinese: Verrecke! (croak).
What they demanded positively – not of Grotewohl and not of the Russian tanks, but as an assembling slogan for all the people – were two things: Unite Germany, and free elections. To demand free elections in the U.S. is to demand something very serious, but not revolutionary. In a Stalinist country free elections is a revolutionary demand – revolutionary from every point of view. And the slogan for the national unification of Germany is a revolutionary and democratic slogan which quickens the heartbeat of every authentic German today.
It is impossible to believe that these were merely the spontaneous utterances of so many atomized individuals in East Berlin. These were slogans drawn up not artificially, not to be “injected“ into the Germans or the Berliners but drawn up because they so pregnantly summarized the most passionate feelings of the Berliners. They were drawn up by people who were accustomed to summarize pithily that which is in the heart of people.
To make no bones about it, no people in our time have shown themselves to be more skilled, more thoughtful, more experienced, taking it all in all, at doing precisely that than those trained in the Communist or the Stalinist movement. I do not hesitate for a moment to acknowledge their skill and experience in this respect. The demonstration was not organized by anybody who never had had anything to do with demonstrations, let alone demonstrations that are uprisings. It was organized by experts, by experienced people, skilled people, people with know-how in these matters.
Among Social-Democrats, including good ones, how many of them have experience in organizing uprisings? at least, lately, that is, since 1848? Not so with one who has been in the Communist movement, above all in the Communist movement of Germany and the Communist movement of Berlin, where the organizing of demonstrations (and insurrections) was publicly taught in detail, in technical detail, by the CP of Germany up to the day that Hitler took power, which openly published a magazine devoted to the art of insurrection.
The way in which they went to the places where they went; the way in which they converged upon the strategically located centers; the way in which they attacked those who were to be attacked and refrained from attacking those whom it was pointless or inexpedient to attack; the lack of aimless wandering which is the special characteristic of spontaneous demonstrations that have no organization, preparation and leadership; the immediacy of their assault on the prisons to liberate all political prisoners: the speed with which they reached government buildings In order to try to take them, with which they reached buildings of the Stalinist party and did take them – for the time required to destroy the paraphernalia: all these speak of a prepared organized demonstration, all these things speak of the existence of an underground revolutionary organization throughout the German Stalinist territory.
Read the serious correspondents who wrote about the Berlin uprising two weeks ago, not the sensation mongers but those who tried to understand the spectacular, bewildering event that was occurring before their very eyes. Some of them had seen uprisings before, evidently. They knew their features, their characteristics, what leads up to them, what follows them. This one was a mystery.
There was no organization. – (Otherwise they’d have heard of it, wouldn’t they? The first thing an underground movement does naturally is tell an American correspondent!) And yet this had the appearance of an organized movement! Yet they knew of no leaders; they knew of no headquarters; no newspapers; no dues payments; no meetings; no constitution, above all. It was interesting to read the reports – that’s what puzzled them all.
But we can say with utter certainty: there is such a movement. There is such an organization. It must embrace thousands in the sense that thousands follow it, almost unquestionably, but it contains as its actual staff only few. These people learned not only in the hard school of the Stalinists in the old days but they learned in the even harder and more unrelenting school of life under the Gestapo.
You may ask yourself: Is it possible to have an under ground illegal organization in a country dominated by that most experienced and most all-persuasive spy organization in the world, that most skillful and powerful underground apparatus that history has ever known, the GPU? Would it not penetrate it? Would it not expose it and explode it?
In Russia, perhaps; or at least, in Russia with less difficulty, for reasons which I believe will occur to you yourselves if you reflect but a moment. In Germany, no.
In the first place, there is no reason to doubt that among those who have taken the courageous responsibility of organizing this revolutionary underground movement, this nameless and faceless movement for which nobody in the West speaks or can speak, there are those who at one or another time were in the service of the GPU or got their training in it, know its methods and know how to avoid the consequences of these methods to themselves. That’s in the first place.
But more important than that is the social and political environments of this movement. The militants of such a movement live among a people that almost uniformly hate the Stalinist regime.
We have forgotten, we who hardly know very much what happened only a few years ago. They have not. They know what happened when these Stalinist “liberators“ came to their country; they know the shame and the shambles that came with the cannon of the so-called Red Army. They know its hideous record. Nothing has happened to appease that deep national hatred for a country that has deprived them of everything – above all, their honor, their country, their dignity as people of it; and that has submitted them to a degradation which in one respect is deeper than that which they suffered under Hitler.
In such an atmosphere an illegal underground anti-Stalinist movement is doubly and trebly protected by the population, protected from infiltration, protected from espionage, protected from harassment of all kinds. In any case, that it exists is to me incontestable, for to contest it makes a miracle out of what happened in Berlin and the rest of the cities of Germany a couple of weeks ago; and in spite of the Roman Catholic Church, this is not the age of miracles, not even in the struggle against Stalinism.
Who was the aim of this half-demonstration, half uprising? To judge this is at the same time to judge: Was it a success or a failure, was it a victory or a defeat?
If we proceed from what is apparent to the naked eye, if we proceed secondly from what seems like a reasonable analysis of what was behind the demonstration, it seems clear that insofar as it represented conscious thinking people accustomed to advancing not on the basis of some capricious whim of emotion of the moment but on the basis of thinking and planning and preparing, their aim was NOT to take power now from the Stalinists. That’s not possible. Rather, what seems to me to be the aims are the following.
It was a test of arms, the first one between the German working class and the Stalinist ruling class in the eight years since they took power in that country. It was a feeling out of the enemy, a feeling for the enemy’s soft spots, for the enemy’s reaction. It was, as it were, a patrol in mass.
I cannot believe that this represented the total strength that can be mustered by the German working class against the Stalinists. There is much, very much, in reserve.
Their aim was, if possible, to disgrace completely the quisling government of Grotewohl and Ulbricht, and in this aim they were brilliantly successful. In this they achieved a complete and unalloyed victory.
Think only of this fact: The so-called native government of East Germany, of the Democratic People’s Republic, as it is called, the “German“ government of the Russians cannot cope with a demonstration of unarmed workers! – with the arms at its disposal! This isn’t an unarmed government. Arms at its disposal – by that I do not mean Russian arms; I mean its so called Volkspolizei.
Like any more or less normal government, it sees a demonstration in the streets which seems to be somewhat critical of the regime; it calls out its police; the police either stand and stare, or cheer secretly, or if they attack the demonstrators, are attacked so fiercely in return that they are helpless. What is such a government? It’s a sham, a shambles; it is in reality non-existent; it is a puppet; it is powerless; it cannot cope with so elementary a situation.
Bear in mind these weren’t 10,000 workers with rifles. These were workers with trowels, with mallets, with iron pipes and steel bars, with paving stones from the street, the ordinary equipment of militant workers in a violent demonstration, but not in a revolution by armed people – like, let us say, Russia in March 1917 or in July or in November. There the workers bristled with rifles, with machine guns, armored guns. If the government was somewhat frightened by that, it was more or less understandable. If the entire government dressed up like a woman and fled in a motor car, it was entirely understandable.
But here: paving stones, a mason’s trowel, and young people’s with matches – the government cannot cope with that. It collapsed. And the only way in which this demonstration could be curbed was by wheeling into position the instruments used to overthrow the biggest military power on the Continent up to 1945: Russian tanks. Not as many were employed as against Hitler, but significantly – tanks! Cannon, machine guns set up on barricades, and Russian troops with sub-machine guns.
At one stroke this brilliant demonstration revealed what to you and other refined political people was obvious all the time, but which had not been quite so obvious to the entire world, and now is. The government of the Democratic People’s Republic of Eastern Germany is a puppet, an impotent puppet, a helpless tool in the hands of the Russian occupants. And to the German people above all, this means much.
Then, another aim – I cannot conceive of its not having been in the minds of the organizers and initiators of the uprising – was to discredit completely, as it deserves to be discredited, the myth that so many melon-heads are swallowing whole, about a new policy of “liberalism“ that is being adopted by the new government in Russia.
It is true – say certain intellectual vacuums who direct newspapers, who are even congressmen, though that is not saying much, and senators and people in various chancelleries of the world – it is true that the new Muscovite regime is not entirely free of the narrow-minded and oppressive and essentially oriental government of Stalin; but it has shown a genuine desire to liberalize its regime and, given a favorable reaction in the West, the regime may organically develop into a democracy, or anyway, as much of a democracy as Russians can ever have, given their particular type of soul.
This is seriously listened to by statesmen; books are written to explain it – one has just been written which is applauded by no less a statesman than George F. Kennan.
But the organizers of the demonstration know better. They know what Stalinism is, and their timing was exceptionally shrewd, if you agree with me that the 10 per cent increase in the production norm was not and could not have been more than a pretext for so extensive and violent a reaction.
They set out to prove, among other things, what may not need proving to you and me but which needs proving to many millions: that the Stalinists, especially the present breed which has taken over in the interregnum between one Stalin and another, will if necessary make all the concessions you can think of, all the concessions you can ask for, EXCEPT to give up the power, or one fraction of the power, to rule over, exploit, oppress, dominate the peoples under their heel.
In this the new Russian rulers show wisdom, in my judgment. It is altogether intelligent on the part of the present Moscow regime to make concessions. It is altogether wise on their part to talk like editors of The Nation on all the great political questions of the day. It is altogether wise to make the concessions they have made and the many more they will make. But to create the myth that they will, little by little, as soon as they gather their wits about them, fully give up power and be like ordinary citizens along with other ordinary citizens, to accept that – what phrase can I use that will be least offensive to everybody? To accept that is not to have a full understanding of the Stalinists. In a lower voice I add: it is to have no understanding whatsoever of the Stalinist regime or anything else. But in a loud voice I say merely: it is to lack a full understanding of Stalinism.
The Berlin uprising showed that the minute the Kremlin gang feels that one ounce, one millimeter, or a fraction of it, of their power to rule, to dictate, to determine whether or not or when concessions shall be made – is endangered, then it acts like the most reactionary, crassest, most sadistic regime we have ever known – with tanks, bayonets, machine guns, martial law, drumhead trials, executions, shootings on the spot, mass prisoners, and shooting of their own troops if they fail to carry out the orders to shoot those who are fighting for freedom.
And even if the organizers of this magnificent demonstration did not have that in mind, if it was only a by-product, it is a rich and wonderful by-product of the East Berlin uprising.
That the organizers of this demonstration existed as a compact, planful group is further confirmed in my thinking by the fact that they seemed to realize – and so well, so wisely – that an out-and-out old-style blood bath against the demonstrators by the Russians was impossible now. And in that they were right. The Russian Stalinists were ready for it – what else do tanks mean? They were ready for it if they had to, as an absolutely last resort. But as we read what happened, carefully, we see that they were reluctant to fire.
The demonstrators took this into account. They did not go too far. They went as far as the specific aims they had in mind required, but they did not go so far as to produce merely martyrs.
The Russians wounded many, they killed dozens, a hundred, all over East Germany. We mourn for everyone who died, we grieve for everyone who was so much as hurt by the barbarian Stalinist regime. And we exult in the victory that the demonstrators achieved. But in this cruel age of ours, when the law of survival dictates struggle first of all, when the smallest patrol action in the inaccessible and unimportant hills of Korea brings far more casualties than occurred in East Berlin, we can say, in our mourning, that the price paid for all that was achieved was small, and this is a tribute, I think, to the sense of responsibility in the minds and hearts of the militants who had the responsibility for this demonstration.
Last updated on 25 January 2015