Once again on the slogan of a Constituent Assembly: The Lessons of the German Revolution of 1918

Earlier this year, Alan Woods wrote an article on the slogan of the constituent assembly being put forward by a number of revolutionary groups in Argentina. The article explained that this was a bourgeois-democratic slogan, applicable to a country without democratic rights or parliament, and that in the present circumstances it could sow dangerous illusions. Rob Sewell looks as the lessons of the German Revolution of 1918.

Earlier this year, Alan Woods wrote an article analysing the slogan of a Constituent Assembly that was being put forward by a number of revolutionary groups in Argentina. The article explained that the slogan of a Constituency Assembly was a bourgeois-democratic slogan, which was applicable to a country without democratic rights or parliament. Clearly, this slogan was not applicable to present day Argentina, where these rights and parliament already exist.

The article not only concluded that this slogan was not appropriate to the Argentine revolution, but, in fact, it could play a dangerous role as events unfolded. There is a danger that this slogan could be taken up by the bourgeoisie as a means of diverting the attention of the masses away from the tasks of the socialist revolution. When necessary, the bourgeoisie will use any measure to confuse and disorientate the masses. If the revolution could be sidetracked by calling a Constituent Assembly, then such a means will be employed.

The class character of the revolution in Argentina is a socialist one. It is the task of the working class to take power into its hands, and eradicate the old ruling class by nationalising the banks and key sectors of the economy. The organs of workers' power are the emerging popular assemblies and committees, which are in reality embryo soviets. The assemblies need to be spread to every factory and neighbourhood, and should be linked together locally, regionally and nationally. The revolutionary forces must fight for the transfer of all power to the popular assemblies.

As we see it, the slogan of the Constituent Assembly is at best an irrelevance in Argentina, at worst a serious detraction from the real tasks of the revolution, threatening to play into the hands of the counter-revolution.

The experience of the German Revolution of 1918 has important lessons for the revolutionary forces in Argentina, as elsewhere. This is precisely an example of where a socialist revolution was betrayed through the calling of a Constituent Assembly.

Under the electrifying impact of the Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917 and the experience of the horrors of the first world war, the German working class rose up and carried through a revolution in November 1918.

The spark for the revolution came when the desperate German general staff decided to launch a hopeless naval battle in the North Sea. This provoked a mutiny in the fleet. Officers were arrested as crews seized control and sailors' councils were established. It was a spontaneous movement that quickly spread to other sections of the working class. Red flags flew over every ship in the fleet. The revolution spread like wild fire. On November 6, sailors', soldiers' and workers' councils took power in Hamburg, Bremen and Luebeck. On November 7 and 8, Dresden, Leipzig, Chemnitz, Magdeburg, Brunswick, Frankfurt, Cologne, Stuttgart, Nuremberg and Munich all followed suit. On November 9, workers' and soldiers' councils were established in the capital, Berlin.

The monarchy and the old Prussian government were suspended in mid-air. When the Kaiser called for troops to put down the uprising, General Groener told him: "Sire, you no longer have an army." Power was in the hands of the working class. All they needed to do was to follow the Russian example and to set up a government based on the revolutionary councils. Unfortunately, there was no mass Bolshevik Party in Germany. The revolutionary wing, the Spartacist League, was very small and Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht had only just been released from prison.

The masses, which held the power in their hands, now looked to the leaders of the traditional workers' organisations, especially the social democrats. Scheidemann, for instance, exclaimed with absolute horror that he "was carried shoulder-high by soldiers decorated with the Iron Cross!"

These "leaders" wanted only one thing: to stop the revolution in its tracks. They were lackeys and advisers to the bourgeoisie. The head of the government Prince Max Von Baden approached social democratic leader Ebert and asked: "If I should succeed in persuading the Kaiser [to abdicate], do I have you on my side in the battle against the social revolution?" Ebert replied: "If the Kaiser does not abdicate the social revolution is inevitable. I do not want it - in fact, I hate it like sin."

The ruling class was prepared to sacrifice the Kaiser to save their skins. But that was not enough! As the revolution swept through Berlin, Von Baden was forced to appoint "socialist" leader Ebert Chancellor (prime minister). "The revolution is on the verge of winning," stated Von Baden. "We cannot crush it but perhaps we can strangle it…if Ebert is presented to me from the streets as the people's leader, then we will have a republic; if Liebknecht, then Bolshevism." He knew full well that the revolution on the streets was a socialist revolution as in Russia. He had no illusion on this score. But how to strangle it? - that was the question. Interestingly, he states: "Perhaps it will be possible to divert the revolutionary energies into legal channels of an election campaign."

In face of revolution, the old ruling class will be prepared to go to any lengths to save their position. They will promise elections, higher wages, shorter hours, and a republic - anything - as long as the workers are stopped from taking power. In face of the mass movement, the German industrialists temporarily conceded an eight-hour day. The bourgeoisie, who yesterday supported the autocracy, now came forward as ardent "democrats". That was their only chance under the circumstances.

The key thing was to stop the revolution. Typically, the social democratic leaders appealed for "law and order". While the left-wing Spartacists looked to the calling of a national congress of workers' and soldiers' councils as the basis for a genuine socialist republic, the SPD leaders saw the calling of a Constituent Assembly as the way out.

Following the lead of the SPD leaders, the bourgeois parties put their full weight behind the calling of a Constituent Assembly as a means of undermining the position of the workers' councils.

It is true, that in the struggle with the ruling autocracy, the demand for a Constituent Assembly had long been part of the programme of the German SPD. The same was true, incidentally, of the Russian social democracy. This was a bourgeois democratic demand that arose from the absence of any genuine parliamentary body. Under these circumstances, the revolutionary party needs to champion democratic demands and link them with the socialist demands.

However, even this is not a principled question. Truth is concrete, and every slogan needs to be assessed in the actual concrete situation. In April 1917 Lenin discarded the long-held slogan of the "democratic dictatorship of proletariat and peasantry" as completely out of date and totally inappropriate. The old slogan had come into conflict with the needs of the unfolding revolution. It was ditched who Lenin brought forward the slogan of "All Power to the Soviets!"

Likewise in Germany, the slogan of the Constituent Assembly had come into conflict with the needs of the revolution. While there was no democratic parliament, and it was part of the programme of social democracy, Lenin and the Bolsheviks correctly opposed this demand for Germany at this time. This democratic demand, as are all democratic demands, was subordinate to the needs of the socialist revolution. The November Revolution had thrown up another power in the form of workers' and soldiers' councils, which, as in Russia, were the basis of workers' rule. It was a classic case of dual power. Under the circumstances, the slogan of a Constituent Assembly could only play a counter-revolutionary role. Had a powerful Bolshevik Party existed in Germany, it would have rested on the workers' councils to take power. That was the task of the hour!

On November 11, the Russian Soviet government issued an appeal to "all German workers', soldiers' and sailors' councils". It explained: "We have heard by radio from Kiel that Germany's workers, soldiers, and sailors have taken power. The Russian Soviet government congratulates you with all our heart and joins you in mourning those who have fallen in the glorious struggle for the workers' liberation."

It went on to urge the workers to complete the revolution: "Workers, soldiers, and sailors of Germany: so long as you tolerate a government consisting of princes, capitalists, and Scheidermanns, then you do not really have power. The Scheidermanns together with the Erzbergers will sell you out to capital. In the armistice agreement they will arrange with the English and French capitalists for you to surrender your weapons. Soldiers and sailors, do not give up your arms, or the united capitalists will rout you."

The Bolsheviks took a clear line in regard to the national assembly that was being proposed. "It is essential that you genuinely take power everywhere, arms in hand, and build a workers', soldiers', and sailors' government headed by Liebknecht. Do not allow them to foist a national assembly upon you. You know what the Reichstag got you.

"Only the workers', soldiers', and sailors' councils and a workers' government will inspire the trust of the workers and sailors of other countries…Long Live the German Soviet republic!"

Lenin and the Bolsheviks saw no role for the national assembly in Germany except as a counter-revolutionary force. This was also the view of Liebknecht and Luxemburg. The attempt to convene a national assembly, stated Rosa Luxemburg, would be to create "a bourgeois counterweight to the workers' and soldiers' power, shunting the revolution onto the rails of a bourgeois revolution, and conjuring away the socialist goals of the revolution."

She continued: "From the Deutsche Tageszeitung, the Vossische Zeitung, and Vorwarts to the Independent's Freiheit; from Reventlow, Erzberger, and Scheidermann to Hasse and Kautsky resounds a unanimous call for the national assembly and an equally unanimous cry of fear at the idea of working class power…

"So what is gained through this cowardly detour called the national assembly? The bourgeoisie's opinion is strengthened, the proletariat is weakened and bewildered with empty illusions, time and energy are dissipated and lost in 'discussions' between wolf and lamb. In a word, it plays into the hands of all those elements whose good intentions is to cheat the proletarian revolution of its socialist aims and to castrate it into a bourgeois-democratic revolution…

"The national assembly is an outdated legacy of the bourgeois revolutions, an empty shell, a stage prop from the time of petty-bourgeois illusions of a 'united people', of the bourgeois state's 'liberty, equality and fraternity'.

"Those who resort to the national assembly are consciously or unconsciously turning the revolution back to the historical stage of bourgeois revolutions. They are disguised agents of the bourgeoisie or unconscious ideologues for the petty bourgeoisie.

"The fight for the national assembly is being conducted under the battle cry: democracy or dictatorship. Obedient socialist leaders are adopting this slogan of the counter-revolutionary demagogues without noticing that this alternative is a demagogic fraud.

"The question today is not democracy or dictatorship. The question that history has put on the agenda reads: bourgeois democracy or socialist democracy."

The argument was clearly repeated in the Spartacists' paper Rote Fahne: "The national assembly is a device with which to cheat the proletariat out of its power, paralyse its class energy, and make its final goals vanish into thin air. The alternative is to put all power into the hands of the proletariat, develop this incipient revolution into a mighty class struggle for a socialist order, and to this end establish the political supremacy of the working masses, the dictatorship of the workers' and soldiers' councils. For or against socialism, for or against the national assembly. There is no third choice!"

Unfortunately, the Spartacists were a tiny minority with little influence within the workers' and soldiers' councils. Although Rosa Luxemburg correctly called the national assembly a "cowardly detour" and "an empty shell", the workers' councils were dominated politically by the SPD and the Independent Socialists, who favoured the calling of a national assembly.

The centrist muddle heads Karl Kautsky and Hilferding at the time put forward a "theoretical" justification for the calling of a national assembly, by offering a third way. They saw the national assembly not as a threat to the revolution, but a virtue. They argued that it was necessary for the workers' councils to combine with the national assembly, and that the workers' councils be given a certain place in the constitution! This would guarantee some kind of "pure" democracy, as opposed to the Bolshevik kind. This simply avoided the question of dual power or the impossibility of reconciling the class interests involved in such a utopian scheme. Either the workers' and soldiers' councils would consolidate their position and lay the basis for workers' democracy, or the German ruling class would re-establish its position and rebuild its state apparatus. There was no middle path.

"To reconcile, to unite the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie and the dictatorship of the proletariat! How simple! What a brilliantly philistine idea!" ridiculed Lenin.

Nevertheless, on December 16 the National Congress of Workers' and Soldiers' Councils, under the influence of the social democratic leaders, came out in favour of the convening of the National Assembly and brought forward its opening to January 19.

After the revolution in early November, power was in effect in the hands of the workers' and soldiers' councils, but the proletariat was not conscious of its power or role, and it slipped from their hands. They simply handed power over to the social democrats, who in turn handed it over to the bourgeoisie. In fact, the social democratic leaders not only handed over the power, but also forged a counter-revolutionary alliance with the military high command to crush the Revolution in blood.

The Constituent Assembly served to derail the German Revolution, and prepared the way for bloody reprisals against the working class.

Unfortunately, while the Spartacists had correctly understood the nature of the National Assembly, when elections were called to the Assembly, they adopted a completely ultra-left approach. They simply boycotted the elections and talked about its forcible dispersal! "We must continually stimulate the living politics of the street," stated the leading Sparticist Otto Ruehle. "…it will be our task to try to break it [the National Assembly] up by force." Such adventurist moods played into the hands of the Noskes and Scheidemanns, and led to the debacle of the Spartacist Uprising in January.

The boycott of the National Assembly by the Spartacists (renamed the Communist Party) once it had been established was completely wrong. In general, you do not boycott an assembly or parliament unless you are strong enough to overthrow it. Otherwise it is an impotent adventure. This abstentionist position was strongly opposed by Luxemburg and Liebknecht, but they were in a minority. The boycott was also criticised by Lenin and Trotsky, but the damage had already been done.

In the National Assembly elections, despite the calls for boycott, millions turned out to vote. Some 83% of those eligible to vote voted, which exposed the hollow slogan of a boycott. The result was that the SPD polled 11.5 million votes and the Independent Socialists just under 2.5 million. In all, the two workers' parties, which formally stood for Marxism and socialism, polled around 45% of the total vote. The right-wing parties scored 15%.

The SPD formed a coalition with the Democrats and Centre Party, which not only agreed to participate in the government but also even accepted the programme of socialisation! As the revolutionary tide ebbed, the workers' councils began to dissolve away. Behind the backs of the coalition government the counter-revolution prepared to install a military government as the only real means of teaching the working class a lesson. This subject, however, will have to be left for another time.

Under the concrete conditions of the German Revolution, the slogan of a Constituent Assembly played a counter-revolutionary and fateful role. It served to rally around all the counter-revolutionary forces to block the unfolding proletarian revolution.

In Germany, with a truncated Reichstag and the rule of the autocracy, the emergence of the idea of a Constituent Assembly was inevitable. However, under revolutionary conditions, the slogan was exploited by reaction to serve the immediate needs of the counter-revolution. In Argentina, there is no need for such dangerous complications. There is at present no dictatorship and a bourgeois parliament already exists.

The revolutionary forces must avoid providing our class enemies with weapons or arguments that may be used against the proletarian movement in the future. In Argentina, the popularisation of the Constituent Assembly is a mistake, which will play into the hands of our opponents, and can be used in the future to shipwreck the socialist revolution. We must lean from history; if not we will be doomed to repeat its mistakes, with all the tragic consequences that go with it.