Chapter 5 - The 1918 'November Revolution'

Submitted by Spassmaschine on October 23, 2009

Prior to November 9
The revolution began among the sailors of the German fleet at Kiel, the major Baltic port. They had mutinied during the summer of 1917 and were crushed: some were imprisoned, others executed. Like the workers, they organized their revolt through revolutionary shop stewards. They had established contact with the USPD Local (Dittmann), which then disavowed them during the repression of their summer 1917 revolt. They had also been in contact with the workers at the Kiel shipyard and the arsenal. At the end of October 1918, the High Command of the German Navy decided upon one last battle. The sailors refused to set sail and seized the ships, and later took over the city. A workers and sailors council was formed which took control of the city on November 4.

Their attitude and program were quite pacifist: peace, democracy and recognition of the workers. This was the program of all the councils which were born in that first phase. They took the form of the Russian workers and soldiers soviets. They were based on cities, neighborhoods or the various military units. Their form was unlike that of the enterprise or factory councils.

The Kiel council, with an SPD majority, elected Noske as its president, the same person who would later be called the “bloodhound” of the revolution; dispatched to the scene by the SPD leadership, he also took control of the local city government. This fact alone summarizes the whole period: the rebellion chose as its representative the man who had come to squelch it, and he would promptly organize its armed repression.

This tactic of the SPD proved to be more suitable under the circumstances than the one advocated by the government minister from the Catholic Zentrum Party, Erzberger, who proposed that Kiel should be militarily assaulted, but could find no one to carry out such a plan. This same Erzberger, who had presented the motion in favor of peace adopted by the Reichstag in July of 1917, would later be assassinated by the extreme right in 1920, at a time when the revolutionaries had other things to attend to than killing ministers: the good democratic souls of the “workers parties” would, of course, utilize the occasion to criticize the sectarianism of the “leftists” who refused to participate in the insipid campaigns in defense of legality, which is an internal affair of the bourgeoisie.

The revolution rapidly spread throughout the whole country, taking Hamburg and Lübeck on November 5. A general strike broke out in Hamburg after the Kiel revolt.1 Huge crowds seized warships, the port, the trade union headquarters, the central rail station, and the barracks of the city’s regiment (after a gunfight that led to some casualties), and then armed themselves, without taking any further steps. The senate (the local city administration) and the council mutually recognized one another and functioned (or, more accurately, failed to function) alongside each other: it was by no means a situation of dual power. Instead of dealing with real problems (food, production in the interests of the population and the revolution, armaments, links with the outside), the council organized elections . . . for the workers and soldiers councils, which would cost them three days to prepare. After having seized power, the council immediately relinquished it, seeking legitimacy instead. The president of the council was H. Laufenberg. The council proclaimed “the indissoluble unity of the Russia of the Soviets and the government of the Hamburg councils.” According to Laufenberg, it was the movement in Hamburg which transformed the Kiel revolt into a pan-German phenomenon, which spread to Bremen (where the ISD exercised a great deal of influence), Stuttgart (the first party section to split from the SPD), and later, on the seventh, to Munich.2 The demonstrators in Munich proclaimed the Bavarian council republic and freed all political prisoners. At that time, when the councils were just being formed, this council republic appeared to be copied from the “council-republic” of Russia. Its president was Kurt Eisner (USPD).

Unlike the precedence of Paris in French revolutionary history, Berlin fell, under pressure from all the rest of Germany, on the ninth: a “division” of revolutionary sailors (the Volksmarinedivision) arrived from Kiel and demonstrators occupied all public buildings. Under the direct democratic pressure of the crowds, the republic was proclaimed by the SPD minister, Scheidemann. Ebert reproached him for such an undemocratic act, since a republic can only be proclaimed by a constituent assembly elected by the people. Scheidemann responded that, had he not done so, the demonstrators would have immediately rallied to Liebknecht. An entirely Social Democratic government was created, called the “Council of Peoples Commissars”, composed of three members of the SPD (Ebert, Scheidemann, Landsberg) and three from the USPD (Haase, Dittmann, Barth). Due to his popularity, Liebknecht had been approached, but had refused to participate: at the head of another demonstration, Liebknecht proclaimed the socialist republic.

Approximately 10,000 councils were established, electing leaders who were in their great majority members of the SPD. Both the leaders of the SPD as well as the Army encouraged this process and helped to form councils: “All power to the Councils”. The council was the form chosen to liquidate the subversive movement, from the very moment of its appearance. The “council-form” is no less a failure than the “party-form”. Yet, even today, in imitation of the Leninists, councilists speak of the council as if it must always be a revolutionary council, while the latter constituted an exception within the German Revolution. The Leninists speak the same way about the “revolutionary party”, as if it were a magical talisman, despite the fact that it has never existed. These disputes concerning party or council are of no account because they have always lacked and will continue to lack any real historical substance.

The November Revolution took place in a totally unexpected manner for all the parties and groups which attempted to assume its leadership, including, among others, those who were closest to the rank and file, the RO, whose plan for an insurrection was rendered superfluous by the wave which spread from Kiel. But the social democracy knew perfectly well how to use this current in its favor, and was all the more pleased when it conformed to its desires. When social democracy took the power which the proletariat had granted it, and which the bourgeoisie was prudent enough to surrender to it, the democratic revolution was already over. The emperor had abdicated after nobody spoke of him anymore. The struggle against the social revolution was initiated and led by the “most powerful workers party in the world” and its peoples commissars, in the name of democracy, the councils and socialism. One of the dangers of democracy is that it preys upon the need to transform our surroundings and of acting in common; a need which is frustrated by capital, which organizes everything according to its own logic, and reduces us to an infantile state in which the isolated individual receives the means to live without producing them. Democracy is an attempt to simultaneously overcome this isolation and this passivity. The contemporaries of the German Revolution had perceived this quite well. In 1921, W. Roemer explained the advantages of the council system in the following terms: 3 in other times the worker had no other opportunities for political activity than that which took place through a political party and through voting in elections, while from now on he participates directly thanks to the council.

The strategies and functions of the various organizations
As far as the bourgeoisie was concerned, the State was momentarily neutralized. Nowhere did the bureaucracy offer any resistance to the formation of councils which, although concentrating all power in their hands wherever they were established, left the old State intact, and demanded that the latter “recognize” them. The Army dissolved, although its officers managed its return to Germany in a more or less orderly and disciplined fashion. There was little fraternization with enemy soldiers. The soldiers who were not immediately reincorporated into civilian life formed councils throughout the country at all levels, from the barracks up to the army corps. They were mostly social democrats, but were utterly useless as a force for direct repression: their purpose was more to immobilize the movement, so as to make it expire from inactivity. Some officers attempted to reestablish the status quo in the Army but could only create the Freikorps, paramilitary formations led by officers and government employees. The bourgeoisie and its parties did not take any overt action and ceded political power. Under pressure, their parties changed their names; all of them introduced the word “peoples’” or “popular” into their titles.4 Liberalism was weak in Germany: the bourgeoisie was not very unified. In 1918, it was not economically destroyed, but surrendered political power to the workers parties. Once again, under the Nazi regime, the bourgeoisie would not itself exercise political power, and Hitler was able to say: “I do the politics, you do the economy”.5 Immediately after the First World War, the bourgeoisie was divided between republicans and monarchists, those who benefited from inflation and those harmed by it, etc. . . . .6

The SPD which had taken power had undergone a large reduction in its membership, which was in its eyes a sign of proletarian radicalization, although the masses allowed it to remain in power. Once it occupied the highest offices of the State, its membership as well as its audience rapidly expanded: it obtained 35% of the vote in the January 1919 elections. It was the “backbone of the new bourgeois State” (Wolffheim).

Although it had been formed by those who had been excluded from the SPD, the USPD never lost the hope of reunification. Since its leaders were primarily concerned with the exercise of power, they did not consider the possibility of assembling a council as the Spartacist left had desired. Having taken account of the obvious current of radicalization, Spartacus had to show that it had at least become a significant minority within the USPD. We must point out that “public opinion”, the press, etc., had at that time seized upon the term “Spartacist” as being more suitable than “left radicals”, “international socialists”, etc., for causing a sensation, and that the term was applied to the whole revolutionary movement, within which Spartacus was just one group among others, and which would constitute neither the majority nor the most radical current within the KPD. The term “left radical” was also used in an imprecise manner, designating not only the USPD left (without distinction) but also everything to the left of the USPD.7

On October 7, 1918, the Spartacists, as an autonomous group, convoked a national conference, to which they invited the groups of the ISD as observers. This conference launched the slogan, which had already been heard in certain places during 1917-1918, calling for the formation of councils everywhere following the Russian model. It adopted a democratic transitional revolutionary program which was presented as follows: ending the state of emergency, liberation of all political prisoners, expropriation of the banks, heavy industry and the mines, as well as of large and medium-size agricultural properties, and the completion of German unification. This last point was in conflict with Wilson’s “right of self-determination”, which was devised to weaken Europe and strengthen the United States, and to give rise to buffer States against the revolution. The conference refused to deal with the trade union question as a “secondary” issue, despite the appearance of numerous autonomous organizations in the factories.

Freed by the government at the end of October, Liebknecht met with the Berlin shop stewards, who elected him to their leadership along with Müller (ISD). Luxemburg, who was also imprisoned during the war, was freed by the revolution on December 9. On that same day, Spartacus published the first issue of its daily newspaper, Rote Fahne (The Red Flag), the future organ of the KPD, the right wing KPD and the VKPD. On the 18th, it became the “Spartacist League”, thereby demonstrating its movement towards autonomy in respect to the USPD.

Like Spartacus, the ISD also grew and multiplied the number of its publications: some of them would become the organs of the left wing which would be excluded from the KPD. On November 23, meeting in Bremen, the ISD would assume the name IKD: Internationale Kommunisten Deutschlands. This would be one of the names proposed at the founding congress of the KPD. Laufenberg and Wolffheim’s organization joined the IKD, which also led the Bremen council. In Berlin, a member of the IKD (Müller) was elected leader of the shop stewards. On December 1, the IKD of Saxony, with Rühle, held its founding congress: after a week of experiences it had withdrawn from all the councils dominated by SPD and USPD members. These groups would attend the national conference of the IKD on December 24 (see the next Chapter). After November, the IKD declared its full solidarity with the struggles and the slogans of the Spartacists and, together with the latter, proclaimed the watchword: “All power to the councils”. However, as could be deduced from the press and attitude of the Saxon IKD, the IKD, from its inception, unlike the Spartacists, judged that the workers and soldiers councils, so recently created, the products of a still confused movement, could not be the vehicles for the proletarian revolution. On this point the IKD was not the victim of a fetishism of the organization and the masses. It put forth as a specific task the clarification of the relation of forces throughout the country and, taken as a whole, played a much less well-known but more important role than Spartacus.

On a national scale, the revolutionary shop stewards seemed to constitute the trade union left. As such, they corresponded exactly to the USPD (following the old economic-political dichotomy which the revolution would try to overcome). The RO was ultimately the trade union organization of the USPD. It fully confirmed this tendency by providing itself with a trade unionist leadership: Ledebour, Däumig (both from the USPD) and Müller (of the Berlin shop stewards). Even after the revolution, the RO would still allow a place for the USPD. In Berlin, however, where the Spartacist tendency of the USPD was strongest, the RO elaborated the insurrectionary plan which would be short-circuited by the revolution itself.

On January 1, 1919, the RO refused to become the KPD’s economic organization, and requested, among other things, that the party abandon the provocative name of “Spartacus”.8 As an expression of its radical-reformist base, the RO would be replaced during the struggles of early 1919 by the factory organizations and action committees, the precursors of the future AAU. After the end of 1918, left wing action committees existed in all of Hamburg’s factories.

Meanwhile, the anarchosyndicalists, although outlawed and reduced to inactivity during the war, had preserved their cadres. The Free Federation of German Trade Unions (FVDG) rapidly rebuilt its organization. During December 26-27 it held a conference and, most importantly, decided to invite its members to collaborate with the communist organizations (IKD) and the Spartacists, in support of the councils and the dictatorship of the proletariat.9

The “November Revolution” was not even a bourgeois revolution: ultimately, it was the political conclusion, carried out by the proletariat, of a bourgeois revolution which started in the 19th century. This “revolution” was not a revolution: it did not fight the essence of the State, which was only modified in a secondary manner. Eichhorn, a USPD member, who was appointed “chief of police” of Berlin, was by no means the real chief of police. And what kind of police was he supposed to lead? The police of the bourgeois state had not changed. The mere fact that the workers and the revolutionaries had mobilized in its defense was more than symbolic: it reflected the incompetence of the movement. To speak of the “German Revolution”, granting this term its most profound meaning, as Luxemburg did in her last article (January 14, 1919), is a dangerous illusion.

  • 1 Comfort: Chapter III.
  • 2 See The Revolution in Hamburg ,in Part Two, below.
  • 3 Summarized by Waldman: p. 107, note 78.
  • 4 Compare with the Italian bourgeoisie of the same era: R. Paris, Histoire du fascisme, Maspero, Vol. I, 1962; and Communisme et fascisme, Ed. Programme Communiste.
  • 5 Quoted in A. Grosser, Hitler, la presse et la naissance d’une dictature, Colin, 1972, p. 19.
  • 6 Reichenbach: “Zur Geschichte der KAPD”, Archiv für die Geschichte des Sozialismus und der Arbeiterbewegung, 1928, Vol. XIII.
  • 7 Comfort, p. 43.
  • 8 On the relations between the RO and the Spartacus League, cf. Prudhommeaux.
  • 9 Bock: p. 105, and Document III.