9 November is an auspicious date in the German historical calendar. 80 years ago this was the anniversary of Kristallnacht (the Night of Broken Glass) when synagogues were burned and 10,000 Jewish males were marched to concentration camps. It was the first step on the road to the genocide of millions. 28 years ago it was the day that the GDR authorities announced the dismantling of the Berlin Wall. However, a century ago it was also the date when the Kaiser announced his abdication in the face of a workers’ revolution which had begun with mutinies in Kiel before spreading across Germany.
It was one year and two days after the October Revolution had brought the working class to power in Russia. For the Russian revolutionaries the outbreak of the German Revolution brought an end to the agonising debate over the signing of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk eight months earlier. Those who had argued that this Treaty would allow the German government a new lease of life and strangle the German working class had been proven wrong. The German revolution, which Trotsky, Lenin, Bukharin, and indeed the entire Russian revolutionary working class, had counted upon to turn their audacious act of October 1917 into a real world proletarian revolution, was now on the march. Or so it seemed from several hundred miles away in Moscow. In reality the situation was much more problematic.
The Difficult Break with Social Democracy
For a start, the counter-revolution was already being prepared weeks before the workers and sailors rose in revolt. In September Ludendorff, at that time Chief of the General Staff and virtual dictator of Germany, told the Kaiser that his famous offensive begun as the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk was being signed had been halted, and the German Army was now in retreat.
The question now for the German ruling class was how to get out of a lost war with the minimum of damage. They put their faith in President Wilson’s Fourteen Points for a “just a lasting peace” announced in January 1918 as a deliberate propaganda response to the Russian Revolution. Lenin’s first Decree on Peace had raised a banner for the world working class and thrown down a challenge to the imperialist order. Wilson’s Fourteen Points were intended to neutralise this appeal of the Russian Revolution to the world’s workers. The German Generals, reactionaries to a man, now tried to use this piece of democratic propaganda to get out of the war. However it soon became clear that neither they nor the old imperial regime would have any credibility in discussing a “democratic peace”. Thus they consulted the leaders of the majority Social Democratic Party. This was not new for them. They had discussed with them before the war to ensure that the Social Democrats would not sabotage the war effort and were rewarded, when, to the astonishment of the world, the German Social Democratic Party reneged on its own past (“not a man, not a farthing for this system” their leader August Bebel had announced years earlier) and on every international resolution it had agreed to, in voting a war budget for the Kaiser.1 The party signed up to the Burgfriede2 with the Kaiser. Thus German workers were disarmed overnight.
The Burgfriede lasted until April 1916 when the SPD split and the so-called Independents of the USPD left, having denounced the Majority Socialists for betraying socialist principles by supporting the Kaiser. However, the Independents were pacifists with no critique of imperialism. The USPD only called only for a peace where no country would annex territory or pay damages to another. They did not even call on the working class to actively oppose the war. These tasks were left to the smaller groups which had already exited Social Democracy over its support for the war.
The clearest of these were the Bremen Left around Johann Knief and Paul Fröhlich, who also received support from Karl Radek before he was deported to Russia. They took many of their positions from the Dutch Tribune group of Herman Gorter and Anton Pannekoek which itself had broken with the Dutch Social Democratic Party in 1909 over the issue of organisation. Along with other groups in Brunswick, and the Lichtstrahlen group in Berlin, they were the forerunners of the German communist left.
They stood for Lenin’s policy of turning the imperialist war into a civil war which he had presented to the Zimmerwald Conference in 1915. It was after this conference that these groups fused to form the German International Socialists (ISD). In November 1918, the ISD fused with Rühle’s Dresden group and the Hamburg Left Radicals to form the German International Communists (IKD). However this was still a relatively small and ineffectual grouping with few roots in the working class.
The one organisation which had more fame, kudos and working class support was the International group, or Spartakists. This was partially due to Karl Liebknecht who had been the first to break the famed parliamentary discipline of the Social Democrats by refusing to vote on further war credits in December 1914. His lone stance gained him enormous prestige inside the working class, especially as the war fever of August 1914 was already dying when it was clear that the war would not be over by any foreseeable Christmas. It was entirely in keeping with his anti-militarist principles (he had announced these in his most famous work, written in 19073 ). When Liebknecht was put on trial again in 1916, 55,000 workers struck in solidarity. Impressive though this was (in the middle of an imperialist war, too) the International Group were still transfixed by trying to rebuild the old SPD. Thus, despite the fact that Liebknecht called the USPD (or Independent Socialists)
“... a crowd of heterogeneous elements thrown together ad hoc; a crowd of such contradictory views on theory and tactics, and such different degrees of energy and firmness, that it would be incapable, to start with of carrying out as a group a consistent socialist policy, a conglomerate that could do serious damage if it held back and thwarted the most advanced elements in the free use of their initiative,”4
the International Group actually added to the “heterogeneous” nature of the USPD by joining it if with its own separate platform. This was a tragedy for the German proletariat, since the USPD was not really “independent” but full of all the “revisionists” in Social Democracy like Bernstein, like the “renegade” Kautsky – as Lenin called him.
Even Rosa Luxemburg, the other famous leader of the Spartakists, had spent the last twenty years fighting for a revolutionary perspective inside Social Democracy yet could not bring herself to break completely from the very foes she had tackled. At the beginning of the war, when urged to break with the SPD, she had replied that “better the worst working class party than none at all”. This was to gloriously miss the point. Her Junius Pamphlet was the programmatic basis of the Spartakists and although it contains a brilliant critique of the Majority Social Democrats it is still written with a view to changing the nature of Social Democracy. She did not see that the war had demonstrated that the era of the mass party was over and with it any revolutionary role for social democracy. There was no longer any ambiguity that the SPD was integrated into a system it claimed to oppose and accepted collaboration with the capitalists to preserve the system.
The Social Democratic Party still regrouped thousands of workers but it was no longer a workers’ party. In no sense did it represent the interests of the working class. It is no accident that almost the entire union leadership of Social Democracy sided with the Majority leaders like Ebert and Noske who had once been union officials themselves. Their entire existence was bound up with negotiating with capital. And yet Luxemburg still feared to make a complete break. The USPD themselves were expelled from the SPD (they did not open the breach themselves), and the Spartakists were now hanging onto its coat-tails.
The argument the Spartakist leaders used for remaining in the USPD was that they would be in a position to win over its more revolutionary members when the inevitable split came. In fact the opposite was the case. As part of the centrist USPD, the Spartakists did not even side with the working class anti-war positions of Lenin and the other smaller German groups at Zimmerwald and Kienthal (the so-called Zimmerwald Left). At every turn the Spartakists failed to distinguish themselves organisationally and dissipated any momentum that they gained from the anti-war activities of Liebknecht and Luxemburg. Indeed, their principled opposition to the war was all but forgotten once the November armistice was signed.
In Russia by contrast, the Bolsheviks had broken with their “centrists” much earlier (1912) and were thus able to organise and propagandise independently in advance of the arrival of the revolutionary situation. Although relatively small at first, they became a political reference point around which the working class could rally against the war and imperialism after February 1917. In Germany everything seemed to conspire against this. Not only did the Spartakists bury themselves in the USPD, but they were quite happy to go along with its federalist decentralised structure. This meant that there was no drive to establish any clear policy – a quite deliberate ploy on the part of the USPD leaders who were not called “centrists” for nothing. As it happened, the proletarian revolution had gone on for two months before a Communist Party was finally formed in the last days of 1918. Although they must take the lion’s share of the blame for this delay, it was not just the fault of the Spartakists. Luxemburg had at least outlined in her Theses on the Tasks of International Social Democracy what should be
“... socialism’s principal mission today is to regroup the proletariat of all countries into a living revolutionary force; to make it, through a powerful international organisation which has only one conception of its tasks and interests, and only one universal tactic appropriate to political action in peace and war alike, the decisive factor in political life...”5
Unfortunately, this was a perspective rather than an urgent course of action and so there was no split with the USPD, and no attempt to rally the smaller left groups. For their part these groups, had largely tactical, though quite serious, political differences with the Spartakists over parliamentarism and trades unionism. But most German revolutionaries who formed the Communist Party were guilty of localism and federalism at a time when not only a new German party was needed but also a new International. Thus the Spartakusbund simply translated its own federalist structure into the new Communist Party which cannot even be said to have had a Central Committee in the effective sense.
The Pre-Emptive Counter-Revolution
No such stumblings were taking place on the other side of the class divide. In his famous History of the Russian Revolution, Trotsky gave three basic essentials of a revolutionary situation. The one to which least attention is paid is that there has to be a split in the ruling class. In Germany the opposite was happening. Having come to the aid of German imperialism once, the Social Democratic leadership had no difficulty in doing it again and again. Strikes and demonstrations had already broken out in 1917 but the inspiration of the October Revolution led to further strikes amongst a population which was made more desperate by malnourishment and disease. In January 1918 a quarter of a million workers in Vienna had gone on strike, elected workers councils on the Russian model and demanded an end to censorship, the 8 hour day and the release of the anti-war socialist Friedrich Adler. It only lasted a week but the Spartakists now issued leaflets in Berlin calling for a repetition. Half a million workers responded and voted to run the strike through delegates elected at mass meetings i.e. the first step towards a workers council (or soviet). These delegates voted an action committee of 11. But Ludendorff’s regime did not sit idly by. The meetings were broken up with violence and a state of siege was declared. Worse though, was the agreement to let 3 members of the Social Democrat Majority join the strike committee. As their leader, Ebert, later explained
“I joined the strike leadership with the clear intention of bringing the strike to a speedy end to prevent damage to the country.”6
and they did everything to convince the workers of their working class credentials. The regime banned Vorwärts, the SDP paper to give credence to their claims and Ebert even addressed an illegal meeting (though he was never arrested whilst Dittman of the USPD was gaoled for 4 years for addressing the same meeting). Ebert now offered to negotiate the economic demands of the strikers with the government and the revolutionaries on the committee, having as yet prepared nothing else were forced to accept this and the strike ended in confusion and demoralisation. The government then carried out reprisals sending one in ten of the most militant strikers to the front, thus removing a potential leadership for the next round of the class struggle.
But the final patriotic act of the Ebert-Schiedemann-Noske leadership for German capitalism came in November 1918. The German General Staff, made up largely of Prussian landowners, having lost the war to save the Empire, were now turning to the question of saving their class privileges. They persuaded the Allies at the armistice negotiations to allow them to retain thousands of machine guns to “preserve social order” and even set up secret units in each regiment who would be armed and purged of “unreliable elements” in preparation for the coming struggle at home. As the Allies had allowed the German troops to march peaceably with arms back to barracks in Germany the bourgeoisie also organised “victory parades” for them on their return! This did not quite work out as planned since most rank and file soldiers deserted as soon as they could once back in Germany but it not only left the 250,000 strong officer class in control of an arsenal, it also fed into a nationalist campaign that was the precursor to class war.
The final and most important element in the General Staff plan was to get their “class opponents” to save their society. Negotiations to bring the SPD into government and present the necessary democratic face to accept Wilson’s 14 points had been going on for a month when news of the sailors’ mutiny in Kiel reached Berlin on at the end of October. On November 4th Noske was sent to Kiel on behalf of the General Staff-SPD alliance. By this time, the first soldiers’ council of the German revolution had come into existence and Noske saw he would not be able to persuade the sailors to return to their ships or surrender their arms. Instead he used his “socialist” credentials to declare himself the head of the movement and this was not challenged by anyone. The USPD supported him in the name of “proletarian unity” and, as the Spartakists were still in the USPD, they had no independent basis for fighting this.
In the meantime the revolution was on the march. Hamburg, Bremen, Hanover, Brunswick, Cologne, Munich, Leipzig, Dresden, Chemnitz, Frankfurt, Dusseldorf, Stuttgart, and about 100 towns, all followed Kiel in setting up workers’ and soldiers’ councils. Germany’s petty princes were now driven from their palaces. On 9th November they were joined by the Kaiser himself. In Berlin, workers took to the streets led and organised by the Revolutionary Obleute.7 The police gave their arms to workers and soldiers left their barracks. Some officers did fire on workers (three were killed) but most recognised that further resistance was futile. By lunchtime, Prince Max of Baden, the Prime Minister, was announcing the abdication of his cousin, the Kaiser. The next day he resigned and handed over to Ebert.
The SPD now moved quickly. They hastily formed a Berlin “workers’ and soldiers’ council in the offices of their paper, Vorwärts and called on Berlin workers to send delegates to an assembly the next day. USPD leaders could not believe the chutzpah of these “Kaiser socialists” but still went along with them in the interests of “socialist” unity. The council movement that was spreading all over Germany was forcing these inveterate parliamentarians to take the lead inside them but with the clear aim of liquidating them as soon as possible. And, dominated as they were by the soldiers (and by this time it usually mean officers) and the Social Democratic Majority, they were not even in form like the Russian soviets. Whilst the latter had been born in the streets and on the shopfloor of the productive units of society, the council movement in Germany often sprang from the decisions of the political parties and the trades unions when faced with a mass revolutionary movement. Nor were they uniquely proletarian, as Carsten demonstrates.
“At Breslau the council from the outset called itself a “people’s council”. It was composed of representatives of the Social Democratic, Progressive, national liberal, Conservative and Centre parties. In Bielefeld too the bourgeois parties sent delegates to the local “people’s and soldiers’ council”. At Iserlohn, another Westphalian town, bourgeois representatives were admitted after only one week...Especially in the small towns, the non-working class element participated actively. In many large towns, too, “councils of intellectual workers” were founded to represent writers artists, academics etc. Elsewhere the civil servants aimed at representation on the councils.”8
And, when he talks of civil servants, he means the Kaiser’s bureaucrats who were all maintained in office by the Social Democrats with the aim of “ensuring order”. It is true that in some places the proletariat did establish councils more like soviets but the overwhelming tenor of the movement was more like a form of federal municipalism than the embryonic shape of a new political order. It was little wonder then that the First Congress of these Soldiers and Workers’ Councils held between 16th and 20th December 1918 would reflect their heterogeneous class character. As Anton Pannekoek wrote in an article published in Workers’ Dreadnought, the British left communist paper at that time,
“There is little doubt but that the Congress of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils called for December 16th will support, by a big majority, the bourgeois government of Ebert-Haase. These councils are not by any means pure proletarian institutions; in the Soldiers’ Councils are the officers; in the Workers’ Councils are the Trade Union and party leaders. These men will not allow the revolution to go any further if they can prevent it.”9
This prediction was fully confirmed in the report Eugen Leviné, a Spartakusbund delegate gave to his comrades. Leviné begins by saying that the Spartakists did not have very high hopes but
“we could never have imagined that it would, in fact, present such a hopeless picture … to consider the fate of the Congress we must first of all establish the relationship between the Spartacus League and the Independents.”
And throughout the report he keeps asking the same question “where was the Spartacus League?” His answer comes soon enough.
“Instead of operating from the Congress platform we were tied to the Independent faction, which hung around our necks like a millstone, and a very treacherous one at that...”10
In short, he was pointing out that the failure of the Spartakus League to stand organisationally separate from the USP (the Independents) meant that Spartakist delegates found it difficult to get a hearing. Their key proposal was that the Congress should declare that the council movement was the legitimate source of power in Germany and oppose the election of a National Assembly. They wanted to debate this at the beginning but the USPD refused to allow it. When the vote finally came the proposal was overwhelmingly defeated as the SPD Majority presented themselves as a working class force aiming at unity and the National Assembly was the way to achieve this. Leviné’s frustration was clear
“In former revolutions the struggle was simple. The counter-revolution fought in the open, on the side of the monarchy, and did not hide its views. Nowadays the struggle is more difficult because capitalism and imperialism hide behind the mask of the SPD and have to fight them in disguise.”11
At Last – A Communist Party
And this was to be a theme repeated many times over in the months ahead but Leviné presciently recognised what the Spartakists now had to do.
“Our task is to create a Soviet organisation that does not exist solely on paper; such an organisation can be torn to pieces. Our duty is to build up an organisation from below.”12
Here was the first tragedy of the German Revolution. Luxemburg, in particular, had refused to organisationally separate from the mainstream of Social Democracy. Her view that “better the worst working class party rather than none at all” was in many ways a reflection of the general class consciousness of German workers who could not see that the SPD Majority were not simply mistaken or opportunist. They had crossed over to the other side of the class barricades. There was no working class party as such left. Thus the Spartakists never raised a separate banner around which the revolutionary working class could unite. They were incapable of making a decisive criticism of Social Democracy and even when the split occurred they did not strike out on their own but did a deal to work within the USPD who themselves had a feeble pacifist position on the war.
Indeed, the formation of the German Communist Party (KPD) would not have taken place by the end of 1918 if it were not for Karl Radek who persuaded the International Communists of Germany (IKD) to invite union with the Spartakists so long as the latter broke from the USPD. Only when the USPD rejected Luxemburg’s call for a Party congress on 24 December was she left with no other option but to set up the KPD. And as Leviné so dramatically discovered, the lack of organisational independence from the USPD at this time condemned the Spartakists to impotence.
Partly too there was an idea that if the revolution can only be the work of the masses then the revolutionary party should be a mass party of the Social Democratic type. However, the German situation revealed this to be a huge mistake. Mass parties by their nature have to work inside the system simply in order to survive. If they want to retain a mass membership their tactics and strategy are dictated by always having an immediate (i.e. reformist) answer to every question.13
German Social Democracy had been brilliant at facing two ways at the same time by having a maximum and a minimum programme but, when imperialist war demands “whose side are you on” then a split along class lines is inevitable. Avoiding this split meant that the German Communist Party was born very late in the revolution when, as we have seen, the counter-revolution was already on the march. However, even now, all was not lost. Two days before the opening of the disastrous Congress of Soldiers’ and Workers’ Councils Rote Fahne (Red Banner) had published Rosa Luxemburg’s draft programme What the Spartakist League Wants. This was the first step on the road to the formation of a revolutionary party.
The document underlined that the war had left humanity with only the option of more bloody imperialist wars, more “bloody confusion”, or socialism. Socialism could only come about via “proletarian world revolution” and could not be brought about by a minority as had all other great social convulsions in the past:
“The socialist revolution is the first one to triumph in the interests of the vast majority and the first one that can succeed only with the participation of the great majority of toilers... The essence of socialist society is that the vast labouring masses cease to be ruled over, and instead begin to experience every aspect of political and economic life for themselves - to run it and to acquire free and conscious control over their own destiny...The working masses must learn to transform themselves from lifeless automatons that capitalist insert into the production process, into free, thinking, self-activating administrators of that process... The socialisation of society can become a reality only if the working masses in their entirety fight for it stubbornly and tirelessly everywhere that labour and capital, the people and bourgeois class rule square off face to face. The liberation of the working class must be undertaken by the working class itself.”14
Given the lack of preparedness of the German working class (as shown by the Congress of Soldiers and Workers Councils) this perspective contained a recognition that there would have to be a considerable period of work and preparation at the grassroots before the German proletariat would go beyond the limits imposed on the revolution so far by the Majority Social Democrats. Why then did the Spartakists take part in a putschist adventure little more than a week after the new German Communist Party had come into existence?
The January 1919 Uprising
This is one of those issues where the combined actions of all the participants end up creating a tragedy. Having failed to break with Social Democracy early enough, there was no body of common experience amongst the various delegates of the KPD. Add to that the tradition of German localism and you end up with a party which designs a Zentrale to lead it but without ascribing precise roles to its members. The KPD as a whole rejected parliamentarism as the way to socialism, but there was disagreement on whether to tactically participate in elections to the new National Assembly. The abstentionists triumphed in the vote despite Rosa Luxemburg’s intervention in favour of participation. The abstentionists triumphed in the vote despite Rosa Luxemburg’s intervention in favour of participation.
On January 5, the Revolutionary Obleute called for a demonstration against the dismissal of the Berlin USPD Police President Emil Eichhorn by the Ebert government, in which the KPD also participated. The demonstration was so well attended that the same evening representatives of the three organisations decided to form a provisional revolutionary committee, including Liebknecht of the KPD.
All Liebknecht’s weaknesses were now to be exposed. A courageous but impulsive and egocentric individual at the best of times, he was also not used to acting within the discipline of a real revolutionary organisation. Without consulting with his colleagues in the leadership of the KPD, Liebknecht put his, and the Party’s, name to a proclamation of the Revolution-Ausschuss (revolutionary committee) which declared it had “deposed” the Ebert Government. These, however, were just words since there was no coordinated plan as to how this was to be done. Young KPD members joined with other elements from the USPD, and those proletarians who had been waiting for this opportunity, now seized newspaper offices and started skirmishing with the police.
Luxemburg and her allies were appalled (she is alleged to have asked Liebknecht “what had become of [their] programme?”) but they were caught between a need to defuse the situation and a desire not to abandon the workers who were already on the streets. Radek, who was present in Berlin, called upon the KPD leaders to repudiate the movement saying it was just like the July Days of 191715 in Russia. But then the Bolsheviks in July 1917 managed to tread a fine line. They neither denounced the movement nor ever quite went along with it. This itself had been no tactical masterstroke since it still led to the suppression of the Party. Only the fact that the Bolsheviks had already put down roots inside the working class meant that they could hold on and recover. Without those deep roots in the working class, the July Days would have been an utter disaster rather than a temporary setback. The KPD still had to put down those roots, and in this crisis it did not even have control over its own forces on the ground, let alone those of the USPD. Its late appearance and its failure to sort out both a clear organisational structure, its indiscipline, plus its lack of a body of practice in the face of the devious defence of capitalism by the so-called “socialists” of the Majority SPD, meant it was largely unprepared for the complex situation of 1919. The German proletariat was to pay a heavy price for this.
As it was, the SPD propaganda machine virtually ignored the wavering USPD and from the beginning labelled this a “Spartakist Revolt” accompanying this description with incitement to murder Luxemburg, Liebknecht and Radek.16
The heavy price was paid not just in the massacres in cold blood of hundreds of workers and communists (including Luxemburg and Liebknecht themselves) but it was to permanently split the revolutionary proletariat in Germany. The split in the KPD which led to the formation of the KAPD, and the failures of the revolutionary attempts of the March Action in 1921 and again in November 1923 were all consequences of the original sin of not building a functioning proletarian party after 1914. The tragedy is further compounded when we recognise that in the social conditions of 1919 the revolutionary crisis did not go away easily. As the history of the next four years showed the bourgeoisie were also divided about the nature of the new Republic, and opportunities for a genuine revolutionary movement to defeat their class enemies would arise again. But whilst the KPD oscillated from opportunism to adventurism and became increasingly a tool of a degenerating Third International, the KAPD was riven by localism, syndicalism and councilism, and thus was to disappear with the end of the revolutionary wave. For the working class, precisely because it was so critical to the extension of the world revolution, the history of the failure of the German Revolution makes depressing reading, but its study is probably worth more in terms of what it teaches us than even the victory of Bolshevism in far off 1917.
9 November 2018
The above article is based on a version originally published ten years ago but it has been substantially edited with the assistance of our comrades in the Gruppe Internationaler SocialistInnen (Germany) to whom we offer our thanks.
- 1Hugo Haase, who had voted against war credits in the Fraktion meeting of the SPD, was called upon to read out the Majority declaration in the Reichstag which bizarrely justified defencism as follows: “We will not forsake our fatherland in the hour of need. In this we feel that we are in accord with the International which has always recognised the right of every people to national independence and self-defence...”
- 2From the medieval German tradition where any knight could enter any castle or town provided he swore to uphold “the peace of the castle” or burgfriede.
- 3Militarism and Anti-militarism. It was based on a speech he gave in 1906. He was tried for treason and gaoled for 18 months during which time the workers of Berlin elected him to the Prussian Landtag, and later, to the Reichstag.
- 4Quoted in A.J. Ryder, The German Revolution, p.82.
- 5From Rosa Luxemburg Speaks, Pathfinder, NY, 1970, p.330)
- 6Quoted in C. Harman, The Lost Revolution, p.33
- 7Obleute is usually translated as “shop stewards” but these were more like coordinators of sections of workers in the Berlin metalworking industry. Politically they were close to the USPD leader George Ledebour so the “revolutionary” label has to be considered with care.
- 8Revolution in Central Europe, 1918-19, p.49
- 10Taken from the appendices to Rosa Leviné-Meyer, Leviné, Life of a Revolutionary, Saxon House, 1973, p.189ff.
- 11loc. cit. p.195
- 12loc. cit. p.196
- 13Trotskyism in its various shades has always suffered from this illusion and this was why Trotsky himself showed the way with his “French turn” in 1935 where he urged Trotskyists to go into Social Democracy to work secretly to radicalise it.
- 14This version is taken from The German Revolution and the Debate on Soviet Power, Pathfinder, 1986, pp.119-121.
- 15For this see our pamphlet 1917 on our site leftcom.org
- 16See Werner Angress, Stillborn Revolution, Princeton 1963, p.35.