In 1918-19 the German workers could have taken power. Had they done so world history would have been very different, as it would have a huge impact on the workers of Europe, thereby breaking the isolation of Soviet Russia and thus stopping the Stalinist degeneration. A genuine international federation of socialist republics could have been built. Unfortunately the German Communists committed a series of errors, errors which we must learn from and prepare for the future.
It has been 90 years since the German Revolution of 1918-19, one of the most important events in world history. Had the workers in Germany taken power in 1919, world history would have looked much different. A victorious revolution in Germany would have meant that the revolution would have spread to the more developed countries, and the isolation of the Russian Revolution would have been broken.
Most know very little about the German Revolution; it is not something we are taught in schools. But the lessons of the German Revolution are decisive for all who want another society. Not only can we learn from the successes like the Russian Revolution, but also from the defeats. Marxist theory is in the end nothing but the collected experiences of the international working class. We have to learn from these experiences so we can fulfil what the German workers started and what Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht and thousands of others gave their lives for: a socialist society without war, hunger and poverty!
The war and the Second International
As Lenin explained, war often has revolutionary consequences, and the German Revolution was born out of the First World War (1914-1918). The revolution also ended the nightmare of the world war with its 10 million dead.
In the years before the outbreak of the First World War it became clear to the parties in the Second International that a world war was coming. The Second International, based on the ideas of Marx and Engels, consisted of all the Social Democratic parties and a wide variety of individuals, from reformists like Bernstein and Kautsky to the revolutionaries Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, the Danish Stauning and Lenin and Trotsky in Russia. At the world congresses in 1907 and again in 1912, the Second International passed resolutions to resist a war by any means, even a general strike.
SPD and the war
The German Social Democratic Party (SPD) was the largest and most powerful party in the second international. In 1912 they had 1,000,000 members, more than 15,000 full time party workers and 90 daily papers. Like the other parties in the Second International, the SPD had voted in favour of the resolutions against the war in the world congresses, but like most of the other parties in the International they ended up doing the exact opposite of their resolutions in practice. When the war broke out in August 1914, all SPD members of the German parliament, the Reichstag, voted in favour of the war credits and, in practice, in favour of sending millions of workers to kill each other in war. When Lenin saw the front page of the German party paper Vorwärts with this news he was so shocked that he at first taught it was a forgery. Unfortunately, it was not.
This support for the war was the result of a longer period of degeneration of the leading layers in many of the parties of the Second International that Rosa Luxemburg had fought persistently. After years of economic growth, the leaders had gotten used to being able to negotiate reforms, and their living conditions had moved further and further away from those workers they represented. Therefore it became in their interest to support the bourgeoisie in their “own country” instead of the international working class. After this betrayal Rosa Luxemburg called the International “a stinking corpse.”
Even though all SPD members of the Reichstag had voted in favour of the war credits in August, not all of them agreed with this policy. Several had voted in favour only to respect party discipline. It quickly became clear to Karl Liebknecht, an SPD Reichstag member, that it wasn’t enough to raise criticisms inside the group of parliamentarians, but that it was necessary to show disagreement openly. In December 1914 he was the only member who voted against the war in the Reichstag, winning him enormous prestige among the workers, whom the war had already begun to disgust. (see Liebknecht's protest against the war credits).
The discontent with the war policy began to spread quickly inside the SPD, and a growing number of local party organisations passed resolutions against the war policy of the leadership. Rosa Luxemburg and Franz Mehring got together and published the paper Die Internationale, and together with Karl Liebknecht they became known as the International group, the nucleus of the future Communist Party. On New Year's Day, 1916, the group held its first congress, and they decided to launch a clandestine paper called Spartacus, named after the rebellious slave of the Roman Empire. The members of the group were from then on known as the Spartacists. Both the International group and the Spartacists were groups organised inside the SPD, with the purpose of winning the SPD to a revolutionary internationalist policy.
The Spartacists participated in the 1915 meeting in Zimmerwald with the others who had stayed loyal to the principles of internationalism. At the time, the internationalists were only a tiny handful, but that soon changed. Often it is the case that the bourgeoisie, helped by the leaders of the workers' movement, succeeds in whipping up a mood of national defence. But the workers' support for the war disappears as the war drags on and they can see that defence of “The Nation” means nothing more than the defence of the property of the national capitalist class. Just four years after the meeting in Zimmerwald many of the participants constituted the core of what became the powerful Communist Third International.
Growing opposition against the war
On May Day, 1916, a demonstration of more than 10,000 took place on Potzdamer Platz after agitation by the Spartacists in the factories of Berlin. Liebknecht was arrested for anti-war propaganda and was sentenced to 2-6 years in prison. On the day of his trial 50,000 munitions workers stopped work, and there were several demonstrations. As a result, hundreds of Spartacist workers were arrested, and in July Luxemburg was also rearrested.
But the ice had been broken. The opposition to the war started being expressed in a growing number of places. For example 30,000 workers demonstrated against the war in Frankfurt in November 1916.
Growing opposition inside the SPD
The growing opposition to the war from the masses was reflected inside the SPD and also among its members of the Reichstag. In March 1915, 25 SPD members voted against the war credits. In August the number had gone up to 26, and in December 48 out of 108 SPD members voted against them in parliament. The growing opposition to the war policy among the German masses created pressure inside the SPD, and the opposition became emboldened.
In March 1916 a large minority refused to vote for the budget in the Reichstag. They won widespread support in the party and took control of the party organisations in Berlin, Bremen, Liepzig and other key industrial centres. The opposition held its first national conference in January 1917 and took a more organised form. The majority in the leadership of the SPD could not accept this, and they immediately expelled the opposition. They took with them 120,000 from the SPD over to the new independent Social Democratic Party of Germany – USPD, while 170,000 stayed in the old SPD.
USPD between reform and revolution
The USPD was a mix of political tendencies united in their opposition to the war. It consisted of reformists and revolutionaries; Kautsky and Bernstein, Luxemburg and Liebknecht were all members of the new party. The Spartacist group continued as an autonomous section of the new party. The new party reflected the growing ferment among the working class, and became a classic centrist party. Centrism is a phenomenon in which a party wavers between the ideas of Marxism and reformism, e.g. between revolution and reform. But centrism is not stable. Centrist parties usually arise in revolutionary or pre-revolutionary situations, like in the Spanish Revolution with the POUM. The important thing concerning centrist parties is the direction they are moving. In 1918 the USPD was moving in the direction of a revolutionary standpoint.
Hunger and Strikes
The conditions were horrible in the winter of 1917-18. Thousands of German children died of hypothermia, and the German workers lived on starvation rations. In these circumstances the victory of the Russian revolution in November 1917 had an electrifying effect. The revolution was discussed all over the country, in the factories and in the trenches.
The first decree from the new Bolshevik government to the people of the world was for an immediate armistice and a democratic peace based on self-determination and the renunciation of annexations. This had a powerful effect on the psychology of the international working class. In the French army there were massive mutinies; in France, Britain, Austria-Hungary there were massive strikes. In April 1917 Germany experienced the second mass strike against the war. 200,000 workers struck in Berlin and Liepzig.
This was followed in January 1918 by the greatest strike of the war years, when more than a million armament workers went on strike against the treaty at Brest-Litovsk, which the German regime had forced upon the Bolshevik government. The strike was largely organised by a group called the Revolutionary Shop Stewards &endash; or Revolutionary Delegates &endash; that later joined the USPD but maintained a separate existence within the party. When the strike ended in defeat, more than 100,000 strikers were drafted into the army and sent to the front. Lenin commented later that this action marked “a turn of sentiment among the German proletariat”.
A desperate ruling class
The ruling class in Germany were terrified by the growing revolutionary ferment at the front. In the words of Secretary of State Hintze: “It is necessary to prevent an upheaval from below, by a revolution from above.” Quickly a “parliamentary” government was established with the Kaiser's cousin Prince Max von Baden at the head. To appease the masses they included the Social Democrat Scheidemann in the government.
In October an amnesty was announced for political prisoners, including Liebknecht, which was greeted by 20,000 Berlin workers, but Luxemburg was kept in prison. But these reforms were too late.
The mutiny in Kiel
The military front began to collapse. More than 400,000 deserted in 1918. The General Staff had written to the government proposing an armistice to the allies, but it was refused. In a desperate move the German High Command decided on 28 October to launch an offensive on the North Sea to save the honour of the German navy, risking the lives of 80,000 men in a pure suicide action. This was the straw that broke the camel's back.
The sailors on several battleships demonstrated, resulting in up to 1,000 arrests. The remaining sailors, concerned about their arrested comrades, arranged a public meeting and demonstration. The demonstration was banned, but a group of sailors went ahead with it anyway. The demonstrating sailors were met by a patrol which opened fire on them and killed 9. The shock set all the sailors in Kiel in movement and now there was no way back. That night meetings were held on the ships, and in the following days sailors’ and soldiers’ councils were organised. Officers were arrested and disarmed. On shore the SPD and the USPD jointly called a general strike in support of the sailors, and a workers’ and soldiers’ council was set up.
On November 3, 1918 the German Revolution began with the mutiny in Kiel.
Workers and soldiers councils
The revolution spread with the speed of lightning. On November 6, sailors’, soldiers’ and workers' councils took power in Hamburg, Bremen and Lybeck. During the two following days, Dresden, Leipzig, Chemnitz, Magdeburg, Brunswick, Frankfurt, Cologne, Stuttgart, Nuremberg and Munich all followed.
On November 9, workers' and soldiers' councils were established in Berlin, the former centre of revolution, in the supreme army headquarters. The workers and soldiers spontaneously set up the councils, like in Russia in 1905 and again in 1917, and recently in Bolivia. In a few days a power had arisen which challenged the existing state. A situation of double power existed, also similar to the situation in Russia between February and October 1917.
In reality, power lay in the hands of the workers and soldiers, but they didn’t understand what to do to keep it. As in Russia February 1917, they did not yet distinguish between the different socialist tendencies. Out of loyalty and tradition many workers stayed with the SPD that they had fought to build, even though they did not agree with the policy of the leadership. In Germany, as in Russia, only through their own experience could the workers test the parties and learn to distinguish between them. In the short term the masses saw the SPD as their traditional organisation, despite the treacherous role of the leaders, and in this context the USPD played an important but secondary role. The workers handed the power over to the leaders of the SPD.
Revolution – a sin
Even though the leadership of the SPD derived their power from the workers, they had no intention of using it in the workers' interests. The new layer of leaders in the SPD &endash; Ebert, Noske and Scheidemann &endash; had nothing but contempt for the workers and sailors, and they did what they could to keep them calm. They considered it their most important job to stop the revolution. When Prince Max von Baden asked Ebert, leader of SPD, if he would be on his side if he convinced the Kaiser to abdicate, Ebert answered, “If the Kaiser does not abdicate the social revolution is inevitable. I do not want it – in fact I hate it like sin.” But the Kaiser had lost all contact with reality and refused to abdicate. Instead he demanded that the people be bombed to stop the revolution, at which a general had to tell him that he no longer had an army who would obey his orders. Under the pressure from the masses the SPD withdrew from the new government and Max von Baden immediately announced that the Kaiser had abdicated, only telling the Kaiser after the fact.
Long live the Republic!
The ruling class, and with them Max Von Baden, were desperate. The only way out they could see was if the Kaiser appointed Ebert as Reich Chancellor in order to derail the revolutionary energy of the masses into parliamentary lines. Meanwhile, the Berlin masses were on the streets. From early morning on November 9 leaflets had been handed out from the USPD at the Berlin factories, calling for an armed uprising. Revolution was on the order of the day. Armed soldiers, women and children and the working masses of Berlin gathered in the centre of town.
Ebert tried to reach an agreement with the USPD to share government, but the USPD waited to give its answer. The SPD hurried to set up what they called a workers' and soldiers' council, which demanded a socialist republic. The demonstration reached the parliamentary building, and when the Social Democrat Scheidemann met them from the balcony he spontaneously declared that Ebert had become Chancellor, and then shouted “Long live the Great German Republic!” When Ebert heard the news he was furious, and said Scheidemann had no right to call for a republic, but it was already too late. The news spread. Later that day, Liebknecht, from the same balcony, declared that the socialist republic had been accepted. Even though the socialist republic was far from a reality, the declaration shows the mood in Berlin.
That evening the revolutionary shop stewards met at a huge meeting that considered itself the beginning of the workers' and soldiers' council in Berlin. They called a meeting the next day with representatives from all factories and barracks. The SPD accepted this even though it contradicted their own proposal of calling for a constituent assembly. The SPD spent the whole night mobilising their supporters in the factories and especially in the barracks. Meanwhile the SPD and USPD agreed to set up a government with three ministers from each party.
At the meeting 1500 delegates participated, workers and armed soldiers. The SPD had prepared the soldiers by telling them to defend “the interests of the entire people” against the rule of one class, which in concrete terms meant that they should accept the coalition government against the power of the councils. Even though there was a majority for the USPD among the workers' representatives, with arms in hand the soldiers organised by the SPD pushed through the election of a council of people's commissars with the same division of representatives as the government coalition, i.e. parity between the SPD and the USPD.
Ebert suddenly found himself at the head of both a parliamentary government in a bourgeois democracy and the revolutionary government of people's commissars. The SPD had won an enormous victory in the revolution they had done everything to prevent. In the different local workers' and soldiers' councils, the SPD manoeuvred into positions far beyond their representation by demanding parity between the parties in the leadership whenever they were in a minority. Even though the leaders of the SPD did what they could to prevent the revolution, it had only just begun.
Although their power rested on the workers' councils the people’s commissars quickly became very familiar with the old state bureaucracy and the German High Command. The aim of the Social Democratic leaders was to re-establish order as soon as possible so power could be handed back to the ruling class and a socialist revolution avoided. For this purpose they wanted to convene a constituent assembly
The aim of the Spartacists was to call a national congress of workers’ and soldiers’ councils as the basis for a genuine workers' republic. As the immediate threat of revolution became less intense, the bourgeoisie who had supported the monarchy now suddenly became republicans, and put all their weight behind the call for a constituent assembly in order to undermine the workers' councils.
The demand of the constituent assembly gave rise to a great deal of controversy among the revolutionaries. During the struggle against the autocracy, the demand for a constituent assembly had been the democratic demand of the masses, but now there was another power: the workers’ and soldiers’ councils. In Russia, this power was the basis of the workers' rule.
The Bolsheviks used the slogan of a revolutionary constituent assembly to link up with the democratic aspirations of the masses and their struggle against the Tsar. Depending on the relationship of class forces, it can be a forum for workers’ representatives to win the widest possible support for a programme for revolutionary change. The Bolsheviks put forward the slogan, but from February 1917 they also put forward the slogan of “all power to the Soviets”. They explained the advantages of Soviet democracy over a constituent assembly, and the impossibility of combining the workers' councils with the bourgeois state.
Win the masses
The Spartacists, who were a tiny minority of the German working class at this point, took an ultra-left attitude towards the constituent assembly. They had understood the vital significance of the workers' and soldiers' councils, but they hadn’t understood that the great majority of the German workers still had illusions in parliamentary democracy and that the job of the revolutionaries was to patiently explain and destroy these illusions.
In Lenin’s words, their job was to win the masses. Instead the Spartacists rejected everybody who promoted the idea of the constituent assembly and denounced the leaders of the SPD and USPD as “disguised agents of the bourgeoisie”. Even though Luxemburg and Liebknecht had understood that the masses had to pass through this stage, the young Spartacists had become impatient and said that if necessary they would break up the constituent assembly with arms. The Spartacists were courageous revolutionaries but lacked an understanding of strategy and tactics. They saw it as a simplistic choice between bourgeois or socialist democracy. This played into the hands of the reformist leaders, who could portray the Spartacists as terrorists and anti-democratic. But Lenin explained that it is one thing to have a theoretical, worked-out position and something else entirely to apply it in concrete circumstances. The task is to connect with the consciousness of the masses, explain patiently and go through the experiences with them step by step, raising their consciousness at each stage.
At the end of November the General staff, along with Ebert, planned to occupy Berlin with loyal troops to take the power from the councils and set up a strong government. On December 6 troops marched on the Chancellory and declared Ebert president and tried to carry through a military coup. Ebert was evading and saying that he needed to discuss it with his government colleagues. Meanwhile, government soldiers were raiding the Spartacist newspaper, Rote Fahne, and attacking a Spartacist-led demonstration, killing 14, while others arrested the executive committee of the Berlin workers’ and soldiers’ councils. Spontaneously, a crowd of workers marched on the Reichswehr soldiers, freed the executive members, and thereby prevented the coup.
The SPD leaders tried to blame the Spartacists, who answered by organising mass demonstrations. A demonstration of 150,000 showed the anger of the Berlin workers on December 8. More troops started to arrive in Berlin and were greeted by Ebert, but the soldiers started to fraternise with the radicalised Berlin workers, and the ruling class was forced to back down.
National Congress of Councils
On December 16 a national congress of the workers’ and soldiers’ councils convened in Berlin. The SPD leadership had manoeuvred in the local councils, and this together with the rules for election of delegates meant the conference was completely out of touch with the real situation in the rest of Germany. Four-fifths of the 489 delegates were SPD members or supporters, 195 were party and trade union full-time officials – outnumbering the 187 registered waged or salaried workers. As could be predicted, the vast majority supported the calling of the constituent assembly, bringing it forward to January 1919.
Even though the majority supported the SPD, they were very progressive in many respects. They passed resolutions by big majorities demanding the abolition of the standing army and the establishment of a people's militia. They demanded all badges of rank be removed and all soldiers be allowed to elect their officers with immediate right of recall, and that the soldiers' councils should be responsible for maintaining discipline throughout the armed forces. Another key resolution carried by a large majority demanded the immediate nationalisation of all key industries.
But the SPD ministers had no intention of carrying out the demands, and instead built even closer links with the German High Command. On December 23 and 24 there were clashes between the regular army and mutinous sailors in Berlin. The government had demanded the discharge of half of the sailors and when they refused the government sent in their troops against them, killing 67. This was not the first time they used the government troops against workers and soldiers, but this time it lead to the resignation of the USPD ministers. SPD members, including Gustav Noske, the self-proclaimed bloodhound of the government, replaced them.
Founding of the KPD
Quickly the situation radicalised and polarised. At the end of December, pressure mounted inside the Spartacist League to transform itself from a loose federal organisation to a centralised Communist Party.
First the Spartacists gave an ultimatum to the USPD to convene an emergency congress to discuss the new situation. It was clear that the leaders of the USPD would not accept this demand, and the Spartacists went ahead with their own congress on December 29. The congress was attended by 127 delegates, and founded the Communist Party of Germany (KPD). As many of the other newly founded communist parties, it was mainly made up of young people with ultra-left tendencies. The party passed a resolution, against the advice of Rosa Luxemburg, with 62 against 23, to boycott the National Assembly elections in January. This proved to be a mistake. Lenin explained in relation to Russia that the slogan “Down with the government” was wrong as long as the Bolsheviks did not have the majority of the organised workers on their side.
Another resolution proposed boycotting work inside the traditional trade unions. The resolution stated that communists “were to continue in the most determined way to fight against the trade unions!” Many of the young communists couldn’t see that the masses would move through their traditional organisations, i.e. the trade unions. Before the November revolution there had been 1.5 million trade union members. At the end of December 1918 there were 2.2 million, and by the end of 1919, 7.3 million.
With great difficulty, the party leadership managed to postpone any decision on the founding congress, but the mood was clear among the majority of the new Communist Party. During the congress, negotiations were being conducted with the revolutionary shop stewards to join the KPD. But when they saw the ultra-left tendencies at the congress they chose to stay in the USPD. In this way the KPD had lost an important opportunity to secure a base among the workers, especially in Berlin, and the ultra-left tendencies that came forward at the founding congress could maintain a strong presence in the party.
The situation comes to a head
At the beginning of January 1919 the state was in a crisis. A part of the working class began to get impatient, especially in Berlin. But there was a great danger that if the Berlin workers tried to take power alone they could end up isolated &endash; the same happened in Russia in July 1917. The workers in Petrograd were impatient and wanted to recapture the revolutionary initiative, but they were ahead of the workers and peasants in the rest of Russia. The Bolsheviks warned the workers in Petrograd against organising an armed mass demonstration, but still they participated and tried to give it an organised and peaceful expression. This won the Bolsheviks enormous prestige among the working class, thereby preparing them to win the majority in the Soviets.
But the ruling class was getting impatient and wanted action. Ebert and the army officers planned an attack on the Spartacists. On December 29 Ebert asked Noske, along with the Freikorps, a voluntary anti-Bolshevik part of the army, to lead the attack. Noske had become the People's Commissar of Defence on January 6. A vicious campaign against the Spartacists (especially Luxemburg and Liebknecht) was executed by the bourgeois press, assisted by the Social Democratic paper. At the same time the SPD government also opened a campaign against the police chairman in Berlin, Emil Eichorn, because he was a member of the USPD and publicly known to be a revolutionary. The SPD attacked Eichorn to provoke the Spartacists, the USPD and the Berlin workers into premature action. Many workers saw Eichorn as the last bulwark for their defence in the city. On January 3 Eichorn was asked to resign, but refused to do so. The Berlin executive of the USPD, which was in discussions with the revolutionary shop stewards, adopted a resolution supporting Eichorn and met with the leaders of the KPD.
Together the USPD, KPD and revolutionary shop stewards called for a mass demonstration on January 5, 1919. Hundred of thousands of workers marched to the police headquarters. A revolutionary committee was established with representatives from the USPD, the KPD and the revolutionary shop stewards. They were informed that the Berlin garrison was supporting them and that they could rely on military assistance. With this apparent support they decided to use the opportunity to try and overthrow the SPD government. The next day 500,000 workers were on strike and a massive demonstration took place. Several places were occupied by the workers: the SPD paper Vorwärts, along with the railway headquarters, food warehouses, etc. The revolutionary committee was in permanent session during the mass mobilisation, but had no clear plan and could give no clear direction.
This quote from an anonymous KPD leader some years later states it quite clearly:
“The masses were here very early, from nine o’clock, in the cold and the fog. The leaders were in session somewhere, deliberating. The fog grew heavier, and the masses were still waiting. But the leaders deliberated. Midday came, bringing hunger as well as cold. And the leaders deliberated. The masses were delirious with excitement. They wanted action, something to relieve their delirium. No one knew what. The leaders deliberated. The fog grew thicker, and with it came twilight. The masses returned sadly homeward, they had wanted some great event, and they had done nothing. And the leaders deliberated. They had deliberated in Marstall. They continued in the police headquarters, and they were still deliberating. The workers stood outside on the empty Alexanderplatz, their rifles in their hands, and with their light and heavy machine guns. Inside the leaders deliberated. At the police headquarters, the guns were aimed, there were sailors at every corner, and in all the rooms overlooking the street there were a seething mass of soldiers, sailors and workers. Inside the leaders were sitting, deliberating. They sat all evening, and they sat all night, and they deliberated. And they were sitting at dawn the next morning – and still deliberating. The groups came back to the Siegesallee again, and the leaders were still sitting and deliberating. They deliberated and deliberated and deliberated.” (Pierre Broué; The German Revolution 1917-1923)
The KPD leadership, the Zentrale, had come to the same conclusion as the Bolsheviks in July 1917: that it was too early to topple the government, since the most advanced workers, the workers in Berlin, would be isolated. But the KPD members in the revolutionary committee – Liebknecth and Pieck –were swayed by the massive demonstration and changed their position. They ended up backing the resolution calling for the insurrection. But while the revolutionary committee called for insurrection, they had not done anything to prepare it and had no plan for taking power. The revolutionary committee was completely impotent, and its vacillation and endless discussion without a clear plan or direction allowed the counter-revolution time to gather strength. The vacillation also had the catastrophic consequences of a confusion and disorientation of the working class.
Trotsky, in his masterpiece Lessons of October, explains how time is a decisive factor in a revolution. A revolutionary situation can in the end be decided in 24 hours. A revolutionary leadership that vacillates is therefore fatal for the revolution.
“If vacillations on the part of the leaders, which are transmitted to the followers, are generally harmful in politics, then they become a mortal danger under the conditions of an armed insurrection.” (Trotsky, Lessons of October).
Even though the KPD leadership initially had been against the insurrection, all of them, including Rosa Luxemburg, refused to call for a retreat once the fighting started. They said it was a question of the revolution's honour and principles. But sometimes retreat can be necessary in struggles, in order to prepare the next offensive properly. A revolution is not decided by honour, but by the relation of forces between the classes.
On January 10 and during the following days, the Freikorps and the other troops gathered by Noske moved into the city. The government was determined to take back the Vorwärts building, and attacked it with heavy artillery. The 300 workers occupying it had to surrender. In a week 156 had been killed.
Quickly the two KPD leaders Jogiches and Eberlein were arrested, and a price of 100,000 German marks was put on the heads of Liebknecht and Luxemburg. Even Vorwärts joined the campaign that these leaders were best dead!
On January 15, the reactionary Freikorps officers arrested Liebknecht and Luxemburg, and they were taken for “investigation”. Liebknecht was first escorted out and shot officially when “trying to escape”. After Luxemburg was let out her skull was smashed by a machine gun butt, and she was carried to the Tiergarten and thrown unconscious into the canal. Her body was not discovered until May 31.The officers responsible for the murders got away more or less without sentences. In reality those responsible for the murder were the Social Democratic government.
The German and International working class had lost two of its most outstanding leaders. Rosa Luxemburg to the end maintained her unfailing belief in the courage and ability of the working class to fight. Her last article, “Order Prevails in Berlin”, which was published in Rote Fahne the day before her murder, ends with the words:
“'Order prevails in Berlin!' You foolish lackeys! Your 'order' is built on sand. Tomorrow the revolution will 'rise up again, clashing its weapons’, and to your horror it will proclaim with trumpets blazing: I was, I am, I shall be!”
The revolution is crushed
After the crushing of the “Spartacist uprising”, the Freikorps and other counter-revolutionary forces took the initiative in several provinces to restore “law and order”. They broke up the workers' and soldiers' councils by force, and thousands were killed while trying to defend their councils. At the end of February, 1500 delegates met at the general assembly of the Berlin councils to discuss solidarity action with the workers of Central Germany. The composition reflected a changed balance of forces within the working class, and showed that the outcome of the revolution was not yet decided. The USPD and KPD representatives now outnumbered the ones from the SPD. Demands were raised, including the organisation of a workers' militia, the dissolution of the Freikorps and the freeing of political prisoners. 90 percent voted in favour of a general strike to obtain the demands.
Within a day Berlin was gripped by a massive strike. Fighting broke out in Berlin and barricades were erected when the Freikorps tried to restore order. Noske got dictatorial power in Berlin and immediately gave orders to 30,000 Freikorps troops to enter the city. On March 9 the workers’ and soldiers’ councils decided to call the strike to an end in order to placate Noske and the Freikorps. But instead Noske announced that any person bearing arms against the government troops would be shot on the spot.
When the fighting ended 2,000-3,000 workers were dead and at least 10,000 were wounded. On March 10, Jogiches, chairman of the KPD, was murdered at a police station while “trying to escape”.
Following the bloodletting in Berlin, elections were held for the Reichstag on January 19. The KPD boycotted the elections, which as mentioned above was a mistake since the mass of workers saw no alternative.
Both the SPD and the USPD got good results, the SPD with 11.5 million votes and the USPD with 2.5 million. The SPD first approached the USPD about forming a coalition government but the USPD refused. The SPD then approached the bourgeois parties, which even accepted the idea of socialisation to avoid revolution. The revolution had been defeated. But this defeat was not the end. Several times subsequently the German working class tried to take power, before they were finally defeated in 1923.
The need for a revolutionary party
Despite the many mistakes made by the KPD, they were given many chances to lead the working class to a success full revolution. They failed, but not due to the fact that the German working class couldn’t or wouldn’t fight – on the contrary! This is always the excuse from those who are not able to show a way forward and who use the working class as an excuse for their own faults. The German working class showed an enormous fighting spirit, courage and inventiveness. The problem was the lack of a revolutionary party. The German revolution, together with the experience of the Russian revolution, shows more than anything else the need for a revolutionary party.
The German working class revealed courage and a will to fight beyond all limits. What was missing was a leadership with a clear and conscious plan. Such a leadership cannot be invented in the heat of the struggle; it has to be carefully prepared beforehand. The mistake of Luxemburg and Liebknecht was that they did not manage to build up an organisation of cadres, which means trained Marxists with roots among the masses. Their lack of trained cadres allowed ultra-left tendencies to win a large influence inside the KPD, so there was no leadership capable of leading the German workers to victory.
Rosa Luxemburg’s failure to build a mass revolutionary party was not, as some claim, due to the fact that she had not broken earlier with the Social Democracy to form an independent small group isolated from the masses. Lenin and the Bolsheviks had been the revolutionary wing of the Russian Social Democracy until 1912, and history shows that the Communist parties did not arise out of the blue sky but from massive splits in the old Social Democracies. When the masses begin to move they do it through their traditional organisations.
The mistake of Luxemburg was, as Rob Sewell explains in his book Germany: from revolution to counterrevolution, that she did not build a well-organised and homogenous tendency inside the SPD earlier. The Internationale group was not established until early 1916 and was, like the Spartacists, a loose federation of individuals and groups. It was in the last days of her life that Rosa Luxemburg began to realise the need of a revolutionary party.
For a socialist revolution
It is now 90 years since the first German revolution was defeated. Today we live in a world with war, economic crisis and hunger. Factories are closed and millions thrown into dole queues while at the same time we need schools, hospitals and good homes. There is no doubt that there is a need to create a socialist society, a society where the working class, the great majority, has control. As we saw in the German workers' councils, the working class possesses an enormous courage and ability to organise.
In the next period the working class will move again and again to take power. It is up to all of us to do what we can to build those forces that can give the working class a conscious revolutionary leadership. It is necessary to build the International Marxist Tendency within the labour movement. It is up to us to learn from the German revolution and make sure that its sacrifices were not in vain!
- Ninety years after the murder of Rosa Luxemburg: Lessons of the life of a revolutionary by Patrick Larsen (January 15, 2009)
- The German Revolution suffers its first defeat by Niklas Albin Svensson (December 22, 2008)
- German Revolution ends the horror of war by Niklas Albin Svensson (November 13, 2008)
- Order Prevails in Berlin by Rosa Luxemburg (1919)
- The Main Enemy Is At Home! by Karl Liebknecht (May 1915)
- Liebknecht’s Protest Against the War Credits by Karl Liebknecht (1914)
- Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg by Leon Trotsky (1919)
- Hands Off Rosa Luxemburg! by Leon Trotsky (June 1932)
- Germany: from Revolution to Counter-Revolution by Rob Sewell