Like a brilliant gleam of light in the gathering darkness of the post-war years, the rising of the German working class has already shattered myths and shamed despair. It has already answered a host of questions that had been posed by those who became panic-stricken before the seemingly invincible strength of Stalinist tyranny.
These June days may well go down in history as the beginning of the workers’ revolution against Stalinism — the beginning, in the historical view, quite apart from any over-optimistic predictions about the immediate aftermath to be expected from this action itself.
Is the Iron Curtain empire monolithic? Have the workers of East Europe been so duped by Stalinism as to become cowed creatures, hypnotised, straitjacketed by the Stalinist “mystique”? Has the working class lost its revolutionary dynamism? Is the Russian power so solid, or all-intimidating, within that there is no hope of stopping its menace except by Western military might and the third world war? The German working class has given an answer, and it is the answer we Independent Socialists have looked to.
Beginning as a spontaneous, peaceful mass demonstration against the latest speed-up decree increasing work norms, in 24 hours it necessarily became a battle with the real power in the country, the Russian troops. Beginning as a movement for economic demands, it was at bottom, and quickly became overtly, a political demonstration.
Five hours after it began at 9 a.m. on July 16, the regime had already capitulated on the immediate issue of the speed-up, withdrawing its ukase.
On the second day of the action, Russian tanks, armoured cars, artillery and soldiery had taken over from the East German police, who had refrained from blocking the riotous demonstrators.
In the vanguard of the march, and apparently its inspirers, were several hundred construction workers who had downed tools, openly heading the demonstration under the banner “We Building Workers Demand the Lowering of Work Norms.” Every report in the New York press emphasised the working-class character of the action.
According to the Associated Press (AP), workers from outside Berlin in nearby areas poured into the city to join the movement, 15,000 from Oranienburg and 3000 from the Hennigsdorf steel works. In the rain in Marx-Engels Plaza they shouted an old strike slogan of the German labour movement; “Wheels do not turn when our strong arms will it.” Estimates of the mass turnout run from 10,000 to 100,000.
A general strike called by loudspeaker trucks was solidly shutting down the city.
The political slogans appeared immediately: “Ivan [Russians], go home!” “We want to be free!” “We don’t want a people’s army, we want butter!” “We want free elections!” “Tear down the borders!” “We don’t want to be slaves!”
Here, in this Eastern zone of the country where American occupation officials in West Germany were burning books and wondering what colleagues were safe to talk to, for fear of the knout wielded by a man named McCarthy, here workers under the Moscow heel booed the police and Russian troops, and gathered before the government buildings to throw bricks and stones with bare hands.
A cabinet minister who tried to talk to them, Fritz Selbmann, was shouted down; and a nameless bricklayer stepped forward to shout the workers’ demands at him and threaten a general strike. The AP reports that a group of workers tore a portrait of fuehrer Ulbricht off a wall and “threw it derisively in the faces of Soviet tommy-gunners approaching in a troop carrier.”
At 2 p.m., loudspeakers all over the streets blared the order of the Russian commandant banning all gatherings of more than three persons. Gaston Coblentz reports in the NY Herald Tribune: “The crowd muttered and even laughed and paid no further attention. The same reaction was witnessed by another reporter, who was in Stalinallee.”
The Russians were deploying an entire armoured division including T-34 tanks in addition to armoured cars and truckloads of machine-gunners, under martial law, but so far, seemed to take care to avoid a massacre, largely firing into the air or ricocheting bullets off building walls.
“At Potsdamer Platz on the western frontier, a leader told the milling throng to avoid clashes with the Communist German people’s police. ‘They may soon join us, he said ominously.” On countless street corners crowds of a dozen to several hundred listened while the dissidents and those loyal to the government argued it out.” (New York Times)
The events in Germany have been learned in detail, and witnessed, because of the special situation of East Berlin, easily accessible from the West. Elsewhere in the satellites this transparency of the Iron Curtain does not obtain. A similar action in Poland or Bulgaria would be likely to filter through only in the form of rumours. In the case of Czechoslovakia, however, this same past week the Stalinist press itself confirmed previous reports of a mass workers’ action in the city of Pilsen, where important armament works are located, on June 1.
In Germany, not a word in any report has indicated pro-US slogans or manifestations in the course of the agitation. According to the New York Times, Minister for All-German Affairs Jakob Kaiser, broadcasting over the American radio station in Berlin, counselled moderation to the East German workers, telling them not to “allow yourselves to be carried away by distress or provocation.”
The event shows the imprint of the classic pattern of revolution in more than one respect. It may be debatable to what extent the explosion was brewing even before the last period of relaxation and concession on the part of the Russians following Stalin’s death; but what is clear is that this policy of easing-up and concession inevitably had the effect of encouraging and whetting demands.
It is the classic dilemma of the hard-or-soft policy: the new masters are weak; they would be “soft” in order to appease and allay, in order to re-consolidate; but such appeasement betrays their weakness; with cracks showing on top, the masses below surge forward to take advantage of, their difficulties. Then, on a higher plane, the hard-or-soft dilemma is posed again: crush the movement with a hail of gunfire, with the reverberating impact that such a massacre must have — or buy it off, with the sure danger that this will encourage others? In the last analysis, no regime has succeeded in solving this contradiction.
The greatest likelihood is that the German rising, which is still going on as this is written, will be quelled by force or fraud or a combination of both, and a lull will follow. But shake the whole Russian empire it must, at least its European segment — shake it: that is, not overthrow it, not necessarily cause it to totter on last legs, but make it tremble from the Rhine to the Pacific. The workers of the other satellites will not remain in ignorance of what took place.
The question even arises of what effect it must have on the Russian troops which are called on to quash it, especially if it is true that these troops are not special GPU detachments but regulars.
These June days in Germany are, to us, the greatest blow against the third world war that has been struck in recent times. We are not thinking only of what it should mean to those renegades who have deserted the socialist banner out of panicky despair in the ability of the working class to deal with the Stalinist menace itself, and have therefore decided to “save civilisation” under the banner of the U. S.’s atom bomb; who ask “Where is your Third Camp?” and “Where is your working class?”
More basic is the perspective, of which the German workers’ action is the earnest, that the power which can blow up the Russian juggernaut is the workers’ revolution, and it will not do so merely in order to prop up the old system of capitalism in the world.
Labor Action, 22 June 1953.