Luxemburg, Liebknecht and the German Revolution

To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the death of Rosa Luxemburg, we share this article by Marie Frederiksen, author of The Revolutionary Heritage of Rosa Luxemburg (available for pre-order in Danish from Forlaget Marx). Marie explains how the Spartacist Uprising of 1919 was defeated due to the weakness and mistakes of the young German Communist Party, ultimately resulting in Luxemburg’s execution. These events are also explored in Germany 1918-1933: Socialism or Barbarism, available now from WellRed Books.

The German Revolution of November 1918 encompassed millions of people, most of whom had never previously been political. As happened in Russia, the majority of those who had lately entered the political scene turned to the parties they already knew. In Russia, after February, power passed to the Mensheviks and the Social Revolutionaries. In Germany, the masses began with the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and, to a lesser extent, the Independent Social Democrats (the USPD). Only through practical experience could the broader masses learn that neither the leaders of the SPD nor the USPD could solve their problems.

In a revolution, the consciousness of the masses quickly changes, but in order for them to take power, history has shown that a revolutionary party is necessary to provide them with leadership. Luxemburg was facing a difficult task. What had taken the Bolsheviks two decades to build, she was trying to build in a few months. It is near-impossible to assemble a revolutionary organisation in the midst of a revolution. Nevertheless, it was the task facing her.

Listen to Marie discuss the revolutionary ideas of Rosa Luxemburg on the IMTV radio podcast:

Luxemburg was ultimately sceptical of whether it was a good idea to form a new party and Leo Jogisches was directly opposed to the idea. Luxemburg eventually became convinced, but she was still against calling the party “communist”. According to her, it was better to call the party “socialist” because, in her opinion, it would make it easier to win members of the socialist parties in the Second International. She was afraid that the name “Communist Party” would connect the new party too closely to the Russians and frighten people away. She was still far more cautious and orientated towards the members of the old international than Lenin, who argued that there was a need for a clean break with social chauvinism in all its forms and that “communist” was therefore the best banner. Luxemburg’s proposal was voted down in the leadership of the Spartacists, the Zentrale, which decided that the party should be called “communist”. On 29 December 1918, the Spartacists voted 80 for and 3 against leaving the USPD and becoming an independent party.

The next day, on 30 December 1918, 129 delegates met from the Spartacists, the Free Socialist Youth Organisation and the International Communist (the IDK), and founded the German Communist Party, known as the KPD. However, the name of the Spartacists also endured.

In “Our Programme and the Political Situation,” Luxemburg laid out the party’s political programme and analysed the objective conditions. She began by explaining the new party’s connection to Marx and Engels and the “Communist Manifesto”, as well as arguing that the SPD was degenerate and divorced from this revolutionary basis. According to her, it was time to deal with the legacy of the SPD.

“Our programme is deliberately opposed to the standpoint of the Erfurt Program; it is deliberately opposed to the separation of the immediate, so-called minimal demands formulated for the political and economic struggle from the socialist goal regarded as a maximal programme. In this deliberate opposition [to the Erfurt Program] we liquidate the results of seventy years’ evolution and above all, the immediate results of the World War, in that we say: For us there is no minimal and no maximal programme; socialism is one and the same thing: this is the minimum we have to realise today.” (“Our Programme and the Political Situation”, Political Writings, p. 288)

Bundesarchiv Bild 183 18594 0045 Berlin Novemberrevolution Image public domainLuxemburg believed the first phase of the revolution, which began on 9 November, was over. The workers would soon begin to lose their illusions in the new government and the class struggle would sharpen / Image: public domain

According to Luxemburg, the first phase of the revolution was over. This phase began on 9 November, when the workers’ and soldiers’ councils emerged. The workers’ and soldiers’ councils showed a way forward, but because of the weakness of the revolution, they had allowed half of their power to slip away. The first phase was characterised by illusions: among proletarians and soldiers about “unity under the so-called socialism banner”; in the bourgeoisie; and in the view that the Ebert-Scheidemann government could keep the workers suppressed by using the soldiers. These illusions were now dispelled:

“Such were the multifarious illusions which explain recent events. One and all, they have now been dissipated into nothingness. It has been shown that the union between Haase and Ebert-Scheidemann under the banner of ‘socialism’ serves merely as a fig leaf for the veiling of a counter-revolutionary policy.” (“Our Programme and the Political Situation”, Political Writings p. 292)

According to Luxemburg, it was positive that the illusions were dispelled. It opened up the way for a new phase, where the government would increasingly lose its support, not only among the workers, but also among the petty bourgeoisie and the soldiers. And the bourgeoisie would, at the same time, lose confidence in the government. In the next phase, the government would, therefore, according to Luxemburg, go over to the counter-revolution:

“When you read these gentlemen’s new programme, you will see that they are sailing under full steam into the second phase, that of the declared counter-revolution, or, as I may even say, that of the restoration of the earlier pre-revolutionary conditions.” (“Our Programme and the Political Situation”, Political Writings, p. 295)

This would only sharpen the class struggle.

“The circumstances will force Ebert and Scheidemann to the expedient of dictatorship, with or without the declaration of a state of siege. But this, however, as an outcome of the previous development, by the mere logic of events and through the operation of the forces which control Ebert and Scheidemann, will imply that during the second act of the revolution a much more pronounced opposition of tendencies and a greatly accentuated class struggle will take place. This intensification of conflict will arise, not merely because the political influences I have already enumerated, dispelling all illusion, will lead to a declared hand-to-hand fight between the revolution and the counter-revolution; but rather because the flames of a new fire are spreading upward from the depths of the totality, the flames of economic struggles.” (Our Programme and the Political Situation”, Political Writings, p. 296)

In her speech at the Founding Congress of the Communist Party, Luxemburg did much to warn against the belief that victory would be easy. She was absolutely right about the impending counter-revolutionary opposition. She tried to instil in the young Communists a sense of reality for the difficulties they would encounter. The old ruling class would, with the help of the state apparatus and the SPD, do whatever they could to ward off the revolution. And yet the Communists were far from having the ear of the masses. The workers in the towns were probably radicalised, but in the countryside the revolution had not yet begun.

“In the form that I depict it, the process may seem rather more tedious than one had imagined it at first. It is healthy, I think, that we should be perfectly clear as to all the difficulties and complications of this revolution. For I hope that, as in my own case, so in yours also, the description of the difficulties of the accumulating tasks will paralyse neither your zeal nor your energy. On the contrary, the greater the task, the more will we gather all of our forces. And we must not forget that the revolution is able to do its work with extraordinary speed. I make no attempt to prophesy how much time will be needed for this process. Who among us cares about the time; who worries, so long only as our lives suffice to bring it to pass!” (Our Programme and the Political Situation”, Political Writings, p. 308)

Ultra-left Tendencies

The majority of delegates at the founding congress of the Communist Party were young. Three quarters were under 35 years old and only one (Leo Jogisches) was over 50. Half were industrial workers. The young members of the new Communist Party were characterised by ultra-left tendencies. Frølich described the composition:

“The Spartacus League was a loose organisation of a few thousand members only. Its core was the old Left Wing of Social Democracy, a Marxist elite schooled in Rosa Luxemburg’s tactical ideas. The majority of the Socialist Youth joined forces with the League, which then recruited additional supporters amongst the many young people who had been driven to the left wing of the working-class movement by their opposition to war. During the war years, all these elements had run risks and incurred dangers quite new to the working-class movement in Western Europe. They were all enthusiastic adherents of the Revolution, though many of them still had very romantic ideas about it.” (Frølich, Rosa Luxemburg, p. 310)

When Karl Radek arrived in Germany in the middle of December 1918, he was shocked by the Spartacists’ ultra-leftism:

“I bought a copy of Rote Fahne newspaper. As I drove to the hotel, I scrolled through the newspaper. I was seized by alarm! On the tone of the newspaper, it sounded like the final conflict was upon us. It could not be more skewed. If only they can avoid overdoing it!...

“It was the question of how to relate to the Constituent Assembly that sparked controversy... It was a very tempting idea to counterpose the slogan of the councils to that of a constituent assembly. But the congress of councils itself was in favour of the constituent assembly. You could hardly skip over that stage. Rosa and Liebknecht recognised that... But the Party youth were decidedly against it, ‘we will break it up with machine guns.’” (Quoted in Debates on Soviet Power, pp. 159 and 162)

One of the first debates at the founding congress concerned participation in the National Assembly elections. Paul Levi presented the leadership’s position: the German bourgeoisie wanted to use the National Assembly to liquidate the revolution with the help of the SPD, but nevertheless, the Communists had to participate. The elections would mean that the masses’ attention would be directed at the National Assembly for months, and the Communists had to exploit the opportunity. There was widespread disagreement on the proposal of participating in the election among the young delegates, who repeatedly interrupted Levi by heckling.

Radek Image public domainKarl Radek was shocked by sharply and critical of the Spartacists’ ultra-leftism / Image: public domain

Luxemburg, who had otherwise strongly condemned the National Assembly as a detour opposed to the workers’ and soldiers’ councils, agreed with Levi and the rest of the leadership that, after the councils had decided to convene elections to the National Assembly, it was necessary to participate in and use them to convey the Communist’s political programme, and thereby try to reach the masses.

But Luxemburg and the rest of the leadership were unable to convince the majority of the members that this was the correct tactic. The leadership’s proposal to participate in the elections to the National Assembly was voted down. Luxemburg’s response to the congress was as follows:

“We understand and value the motives from which stems the opposition to the executive’s point of view. Our pleasure is, however, not wholehearted. Comrades, you take your radicalism rather too easily. With all our stormy impatience we must not lose the necessary seriousness and the need for reflection. The Russian example against the Constituent [Assembly] does not apply. When the Constituent [Assembly] was driven out, our Russian comrades already had a Trotsky-Lenin government. We still have Ebert-Scheidemann.” (Cited in Nettl, Rosa Luxemburg, p. 474)

On the surface, it seemed that the young Spartacists followed the revolutionary Russian example: did the Bolsheviks not dissolve the Constituent Assembly? The difference was, as Luxemburg pointed out, that the Bolsheviks did this after they had already won the majority of Soviets through the uprising, and after the Soviet Congress had taken power. In Germany, at the turn of the year 1918/19, a majority of the masses still supported the SPD and USPD, and saw the call for a National Assembly as a step forward. The task of the Communists was still to gain support from a majority of the workers. The young Spartacists did go through the same experiences as the Bolsheviks. Lenin summarised these experiences in Left-wing Communism:

“At the beginning of the period mentioned [Feb-October 1917], we did not call for the overthrow of the government but explained that it was impossible to overthrow it without first changing the composition and the temper of the Soviets. We did not proclaim a boycott of the bourgeois parliament, the Constituent Assembly, but said—and following the April (1917) Conference of our Party began to state officially in the name of the Party—that a bourgeois republic with a Constituent Assembly would be better than a bourgeois republic without a Constituent Assembly, but that a workers’ and peasants’ republic, a Soviet republic, would be better than any bourgeois-democratic, parliamentary republic. Without such thorough, circumspect and long preparations, we could not have achieved victory in October 1917, or have consolidated that victory [...] In the first place, contrary to the opinion of such outstanding political leaders as Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, the German ‘Lefts’, as we know, considered parliamentarianism ‘politically obsolete’ even in January 1919. We know that the ‘Lefts’ were mistaken.” (Lenin,  Left-Wing Communism: an Infantile Disorder, pp. 21 and 46)

The Communists’ boycott of the National Assembly meant that they isolated themselves from the masses, who took part in and supported the elections, not least because of the introduction of universal suffrage. While the Communists boycotted the election, 83 percent of the population, the largest share ever in Germany’s history, participated. Even after this experience, a wing of the Communist Party held its position. Lenin answered them:

“How can one say that ‘parliamentarianism is politically obsolete’, when ‘millions’ and ‘legions’ of proletarians are not only still in favour of parliamentarianism in general, but are downright ‘counter-revolutionary’!? It is obvious that parliamentarianism in Germany is not yet politically obsolete. It is obvious that the ‘Lefts’ in Germany have mistaken their desire, their politico-ideological attitude, for objective reality. That is a most dangerous mistake for revolutionaries to make.” (Lenin, Left-Wing Communism: an Infantile Disorder, p. 47)

Also, on the issue of the government, the young Communists took an ultra-left position. According to them, the Communist Party should raise the slogan that the Ebert-Scheidemann government had to be overthrown. Luxemburg warned them at the congress against believing this would solve anything. The government could not just be overthrown, but had to be undermined by the masses from below. Simply raising the slogan of overturning the government without being in a position to replace it with something else would not lead the movement to victory, as became clear a few weeks later.

It is hard to entirely condemn the young Spartacists for their ultra-left position. Luxemburg had a very hard stance against the convening of the National Assembly and against the government in her articles, and she had not done much to educate the young communists in understanding how to connect with the masses. But she understood this need and that the Communists had to have a flexible approach both to the government and the National Assembly.

The ultra-left trends were also expressed at the congress in two motions proposing that union membership was incompatible with membership of the Communist Party. According to the proposers, the Communists should opt out of the unions and do what they could to resist them, because there was a Social-Democratic majority in the unions. The Communist Party’s leadership managed to avoid a vote by transferring the issue to a discussion in a union commission.

The leadership of the party realised that a boycott of the unions would seriously isolate them from the masses. Just as in Russia in 1905 (as Rosa described), the revolutionary movement in Germany meant that the masses, newly awakened to political life, flowed into the unions: the most basic organisational form of the workers’ movement. Before the revolution, there had been 1.5 million members in the trade unions. At the end of December 1918, the number had risen to 2.2 million and then to 7.3 million by the end of 1919. According to the Communist Party’s leadership, it was the task of the Communists to work in the unions, thereby connecting with the masses and drawing them away from the political influence of Social Democrats. But because of the opposition among the members, a full year passed before the KPD decided to work in the SPD-dominated trade unions.

During the whole congress, negotiations were held with representatives of the revolutionary shop stewards, but they were concerned about the ultra-left tendencies of the Communists. They therefore raised a number of demands for joining them, including that the decision to boycott the election be dropped; that the programme commission would have equal representation; and that any reference to the Spartacists should be removed from the party name. As Pierre Broué wrote, these were not requirements the old Bolsheviks, and probably the old Spartacists, would have opposed:

“But, to the majority of the Congress, they were not acceptable, and their ironic attitude towards these negotiations was, moreover, one of the symptoms that Radek found most alarming.” (Broué, The German Revolution, p. 224)

The revolutionary shop stewards chose to stay outside the new Communist Party, and joined the USPD. It was a huge blow that seriously weakened the Communists. The revolutionary shop stewards were the group that had the best connection with the workers in the factories in Berlin. Without them, the Communists had nothing really established among the industrial working class. At the same time, it meant that the most radical workers in Berlin’s factories were deprived of a revolutionary political leadership and were left under the sway of the politically divided left-wing of the USPD.

Luxemburg could see the problems, but she was not especially worried. She compared the situation to a new-born child that screams when it is born. She described the leadership’s defeat in the vote on participation in the constitutional assembly to Clara Zetkin:

“Our ‘defeat’ was merely the triumph of a somewhat childish, half-baked, narrow-minded radicalism. In any case that happened at the beginning of the conference. Later contact between us [the executive] and the delegates was established… an entirely different atmosphere [Resomanz] than at the start... Spartakisten are a fresh generation, free from the cretinous traditions of the ‘good old party’... We all decided unanimously not to make the matter into a cardinal question [Kabinettsfrage] and not to take it too seriously.” (Cited in Nettl p. 475)

Despite the weaknesses of the young Communist Party, its formation was of major importance internationally. The Russian party hoped it would finally break the isolation of the young Soviet power. Also, there was now a party that clearly took a position in favour of the Russian Revolution: “In this hour, socialism is the only salvation for humanity. Over the conspicuous walls of the capitalist society, the words of the Communist manifesto shine like a fiery menace: socialism or demise in barbarism! “(Political Writings, p. 270)

With this phrase – “socialism or barbarism” – Luxemburg and the Communists formulated the choice that humanity faced.

The party was founded, but was still far from ready to lead the working class to power. Luxemburg and the rest of the leadership could do nothing but wait and hope that events would show that they had been right and that the young members would learn through their own experiences and abandon their ultra-left tendencies. The problem was that the revolution had just begun, but the Communists did not have time on their side. The counter-revolution in Germany, led by the Social Democrats, was far better-organised and more experienced than its Russian counterpart had been in 1917. The counter-revolution did not wait, and the new party faced a crucial test immediately after its formation.

The Spartacist Rebellion

The ruling class and the top of the SPD had become impatient. The revolutionary turmoil had lasted long enough, and it was time to launch the counter-revolution. But the workers, especially in Berlin, had also become impatient: they felt that the power was slipping through their fingers. This growing impatience on both sides was the backdrop to what later became known as the ‘Spartacist Week’, even though the Spartacists had neither initiated nor organised the movement.

The situation was critical at the beginning of January. The USPD had just withdrawn from the government, and there were rumours that a military coup was being prepared, while the witch-hunt against the Spartacists continued. The general staff and the Social Democratic ministers planned a bloody showdown with the Spartacists who, since the formation of the KPD, had campaigned to overturn the government. The goal was to deal with the revolution and prepare the way for a military “solution”. The new defence minister, Noske (a Social Democrat) was prepared to lead the counter-revolutionary troops in the attack.

The government found the excuse to attack over a secondary question: the disposal of Emil Eichhorn, the leftist police chief of Berlin. Eichhorn was from the USPD and was seen by the government as a threat because he had organised a leftist police force of 2,000 workers and soldiers who were loyal to the revolution. If they removed him, they would not just dispense with the leftist Eichorn as police chief, but his resignation could also act as a red rag to the leftist workers in Berlin. This would provoke a revolt, and they could then move the military in to crush the uprising.

The government invented a number of false accusations against Eichhorn and he was notified on 4 January that he should resign. But Eichhorn refused, on the grounds that he had the support of the masses, he was inspired by the revolution and would only withdraw if the revolution required it.

In the evening of 4 January, the leadership of the KPD held a meeting to determine its response to the government’s provocation. They knew that it would be insane in this situation to move to overthrow the government, and instead they suggested a general strike. Broué quotes an unnamed Communist who was present at the meeting:

“There was complete agreement on how to appreciate the situation. Everyone present thought that it would be senseless to try to take over the government: a government supported by the proletariat would not have lasted for more than a fortnight. Consequently, the members of the Zentrale [the elected leadership] all agreed that they had to avoid any slogans which necessarily would have meant overthrowing the government of that time.” (Cited in Broué, p. 240)

Luxemburg’s attitude was that, even if one managed to overturn the Ebert government, it would be pointless, because the provinces were not prepared to follow the workers in Berlin. It was a situation that in many ways resembled the July Days in Russia. In January 1919, the workers in Berlin were running ahead of the rest of the country.

Spartacist Snip Image public domainGrowing impatience on the side of both the workers and ruling class was the backdrop to the ‘Spartacist Week', although the Spartacists had neither initiated nor organised the movement / Image: public domain

When the USPD Executive Committee for Berlin heard about Eichhorn’s dismissal, they immediately adopted a resolution supporting him. They met with representatives of the revolutionary shop stewards and the leaders of the KPD to discuss joint action. The three groups decided to convene a demonstration on 5 January. Hundreds of thousands of workers went to the streets and marched to the police headquarters.

At the same time, armed groups of workers had occupied the Vorwärts editorial offices: they had still not forgiven SPD for “stealing” their newspaper. They were persuaded to abandon the occupation, but soon the office was occupied again, as were the editorial offices of other newspapers. The workers also occupied other buildings, including some a short distance from the Reichstag. The events were not organised by the Spartacists, although many of those who participated were Spartacists. There were of course also provocateurs who took part in the week’s events, but there is no doubt that the situation also reflected the frustrations of the Berlin workers.

The next day, 500,000 came onto the street, many of them armed. At many factories, the workers went on strike. It was one of the greatest demonstrations in the history of the revolution. The situation was reaching its culmination. The Social Democratic Minister Gustav Noske wrote later:

“Great masses of workers… answered the call to struggle. Their favourite slogan ‘Down, down, down’ (with the government) resounded once more. I had to cross the procession at the Brandenburg Gate, in the Tiergarten, and again in front of general staff headquarters. Many marchers were armed. Several trucks with machine guns stood at the Siegessaule. Repeatedly, I politely asked to be allowed to pass, as I had an urgent errand. Obligingly, they allowed me to cross through. If the crowds had had determined, conscious leaders, instead of windbags, by noon that day Berlin would have been in their hands.” (Cited in Debate on Soviet Power, p.248)

While the masses were on the streets, representatives from the leadership of the USPD, KPD (Pieck and Liebknecht) and the revolutionary trustees in Berlin met to discuss what should happen. They had no plan and no idea in what direction to lead the masses.

The same Communist cited above, described the situation as follows:

“The masses were there 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 the 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 was 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.” (Cited in Broué, p. 242)

At the meeting, a “revolutionary committee” was established with representatives from the USPD, KPD and the Revolutionary Confederates, led by Georg Ledebour, Karl Liebknecht and Paul Scholze.

The leaders were overwhelmed by the massive movement and felt that time was against them. They were told that they could count on military support from several quarters, based on information that later proved to be questionable. On this basis, they adopted a resolution to remove the government, but it was never issued. Liebknecht was affected by the mood and supported the proposal. The only concrete thing that came out of this committee was the call for another demonstration on 6 January. On that day, however, the revolutionary enthusiasm was cooled by the committee. It became clear that the majority of Berlin workers were ready to strike and demonstrate, but not yet to launch an armed insurgency. And on the evening of 6 January, the movement was too slow. Both the Workers’ and Soldiers’ Central Committee and the Executive Committee for the Berlin Council approved the firing of Eichhorn. Social Democrat Noske was installed in the Freikorps headquarters and prepared the counterattack. The momentum of the movement had ebbed and the opportunity was missed by the workers’ leaders.

In the Revolutionary Committee there was a consensus on open negotiations with the government, but Liebknecht was against. The USPD even started the negotiations on the night of 6 January. The USPD’s goal was to achieve a ceasefire so the occupied buildings could be evacuated. The government became stronger hour by hour as the movement weakened, and it dragged out the negotiations as long as possible. Liebknecht visited the workers who had occupied the Vorwärts offices and declared that the USPD had betrayed the movement by opening negotiations: the only choice now was to fight to the end. On 8 January, negotiations broke down and the government announced that it would meet violence with violence. In the Reichstag building, a “social-democratic” army unit was organised with two regimes of six companies each. On the side of the revolution, a League of Red Soldiers was set up, urging the armed workers to go to the street. The situation was on the verge of civil war. On the streets of Berlin there were violent clashes. But at the meetings in the factories there was an overwhelming majority in favour of stopping the fighting.

During 8-9 January, the government’s forces took back more of the occupied buildings and besieged Vorwärt’s offices with the intention of, if necessary, taking it by force. In the evening of 10 January, while the negotiations were still ongoing, one of the negotiators, Ledebour from the USPD, was arrested together with Spartacist leader Ernst Meyer.

Karl Liebknecht Image public domainLiebknecht was affected by the revolutionary mood and supported a proposal to remove the government / Image: public domain

In the morning of 11 January, government troops began to attack the Vorwärts building. After two hours, the occupiers flew the white flag and sent a delegation to negotiate surrender. The members of the delegation were immediately arrested. The rest were given 10 minutes to surrender. Several prisoners were murdered on the spot.

In the ranks of the Communists there was a crisis. Radek spoke for the party to beat an orderly retreat and appeal to the workers to return to work and start a campaign for re-election to the workers’ councils. Luxemburg agreed that retreat was necessary but this did not mean that the Communists could say it openly, as this would push the USPD’s leadership towards surrendering to the government.

Luxemburg assessed the uprising critically. According to her, it was positive that “the broadest masses of the proletariat in Berlin and the main centres of revolution beyond the kingdom” had realised that the choice was between abandoning socialism or chasing the Ebert-Scheidemann government from power. But the movement also showed weaknesses: how to continue the fight? On 8 January 1919 she wrote:

“But what is yet far from clear, in which the weakness and immaturity of the revolution is still evident, is the question of how the struggle to get rid of the Ebert government should be carried out, how one translates the inner maturity that the revolution has already reached into deeds and power relations. Nothing has revealed these weaknesses and deficiencies as clearly as the last three days.” (“Neglected Duties”, Papers, p. 310)

She criticised in sharp terms the bodies that had been at the head of the masses during the January uprising. Specifically, she condemned the revolutionary shop stewards and the leadership of the USPD in Greater Berlin for leaving the masses to themselves and entering into negotiations with the government, with which they were struggling without consulting the masses. The masses were, according to Luxemburg, out on the street, but there was a need for leadership, which they did not receive:

“When the masses have been called on the streets and are on alert, you must clearly tell them what to do or at least what is being done and planned by friend and foe. In times of revolutionary crisis, the masses should of course be on the street. They are the only host, the only security for the revolution. When the revolution is at risk – and it is now more than ever! – then it is the duty of the proletarian mass to be on duty where their power is expressed: on the street! Their presence, their mutual contact, is already a threat and a warning to all evident and hidden enemies of the revolution: Beware!” (“Forgiven duty”, Writings, p. 312)

Luxemburg’s call was for action rather than words: “The experience of the last three days is loudly calling on the leaders of the workers’ movement: don’t talk! Don’t consult endlessly! Do not negotiate! Take action!” (“Neglected Duties”, Political Writings, p. 313)

She did not criticise the KPD’s own representatives, who had also been part of “leaders of the workers’ movement”. But the story goes that when Luxemburg subsequently met Liebknecht at the party office after a meeting of the revolutionary executive committee, she said furiously: “But Karl, how could you? And what about our programme?” (Nettl, p.482)

Radek strongly criticised the KPD. In a letter to the party’s leadership, written on 9 January, he pointed out that the party (quite correctly) in its programme, “What Does the Spartacus League Want?” had written that they would only take power if they had the majority of the workers behind them, but that was not the case yet. He sharply criticised the party’s representatives in the revolutionary committee:

“In this situation, the action on which the revolutionary delegates decided on Saturday as a reply to the attack by the social-patriotic government upon the police headquarters should have had the character only of an act of protest. The proletarian vanguard, exasperated by the policy of the government and badly led by the revolutionary delegates, whose political inexperience made them unable to grasp the relation of forces in the Reich as a whole, has in its zeal transformed the movement of protest into a struggle for power. This permits Ebert and Scheidemann to strike a blow at the movement in Berlin which can weaken the movement as a whole.”(Cited in Broué, p. 251)

Radek insisted that the Communists had to inform the masses honestly and openly of their retreat, and thereby limit the damage.

“The only force able to call a halt and to prevent this disaster is you, the Communist Party. You have enough perspicacity to know that this struggle is hopeless. Your members Levi and Duncker have told me that you know this… Nothing can stop him who is weaker from retreating before a stronger force. In July 1917, we were infinitely stronger than you are today, and we held back the masses with all our might, and, when we did not succeed, with a tremendous effort we then led a retreat from a hopeless struggle.” (Cited in Broué, page 251)

But the leaders of the KPD assessed the situation differently, as did Luxemburg. In what would turn out to be her last article, “Order prevails in Berlin,” she evaluated the movement. She wrote that it was natural that the movement ended in defeat. The defeat was mainly due to the political immaturity of the masses of soldiers, which in itself was a “symptom of the common immaturity of the German revolution.” But at the same time, she said the workers could not have acted differently given the provocation of the government.

“[...] Faced with the brazen provocation by Ebert-Scheidemann, the revolutionary workers were forced to take up arms. Indeed, the honour of the revolution depended upon repelling the attack immediately, with full force in order to prevent the counter-revolution from being encouraged to press forward, and lest the revolutionary ranks of the proletariat and the moral credit of the German revolution in the International be shaken.” (“Order Prevails in Berlin”, Political Writings, p. 316)

Although the KPD and Luxemburg had judged that time was not yet ready to overthrow the government, Luxemburg’s articles contained not only a sharp attack on the government, but also posed the greatest obstacle for the revolution moving forward.

According to Luxemburg, the workers could have done nothing other than take up arms and resist the provocative challenge to the revolution, it was a matter of saving the “honour of the revolution” and not encouraging the counter-revolution to take new steps forward. According to Luxemburg, the revolution could only move forward. For her, there could not be a tactical, temporary defensive action. The final victory would be prepared through a series of defeats.

“Now, it is one of the fundamental, inner laws of revolution that it never stands still, it never becomes passive or docile at any stage, once the first step has been taken. The best defence is a strong blow. This is the elementary rule of any fight but it is especially true at each and every stage of the revolution.” (“Order prevails in Berlin”, Political Writings, p. 317)

Here, Luxemburg was opposed to Radek’s advice and the tactics of Bolsheviks. In July 1917, the Bolsheviks had attempted to convince the workers of Petrograd not to take to the streets for fear of being isolated. When they failed, they participated in the demonstrations, side by side with the workers, and had attempted to make them as organised and disciplined as possible. And when it became apparent that they could not stand against the counter-revolution, they organised the retreat in as orderly a fashion as possible. Radek wrote to the KPD Central Committee to convince them that a withdrawal organised by the party was far less demoralising than if the party encouraged further struggle that would only end in defeat.

Rosa Luxemburg could not allow herself to retreat, although it was obvious to her that the struggle could not be won for now. According to Luxemburg, the defeat was due not only to the lack of maturity of the revolution, but also to the leadership of the movement. She was convinced, however, that the masses would correct these shortcomings:

“The leadership failed. But a new leadership can and must be created by the masses and from the masses. The masses are the crucial factor. They are the rock on which the ultimate victory of the revolution will be built. The masses were up to the challenge, and out of this ‘defeat’ they have forged a link in the chain of historic defeats, which is the pride and strength of international socialism. That is why future victories will spring from this ‘defeat.’” (“Order prevails in Berlin”, Political Writings, p. 319)

The Murders

The SPD and the counter-revolutionary troops had stepped up the witch-hunts against Luxemburg and Liebknecht, which meant they could no longer sleep at home, but had to sleep at different hotels and with friendly support. On 13 January, the SPD’s newspaper Vorwärtz printed a poem accusing the Spartacist leaders of being cowards, hiding while workers were killed:

“Many hundreds of corpses in a row,


“Karl, Rosa and Co.,

“Not one of them is there,


(Cited in Nettl, p. 484)

Although they were aware of the danger, Luxemburg and Liebknecht refused to leave Berlin and go into hiding. They felt it was their duty to stay with the workers. This would prove fatal. Luxemburg was well aware of the imminent danger. On 25 December, she wrote to Clara Zetkin that she had received “Immediate warning” from official sources “that the assassins are looking for Karl and myself and we wouldn’t sleep at home...” (cited in Nettl, p. 475)

After the July Days in Russia, the Bolsheviks were in a similar situation: the party was banned and there were arrest warrants out on several of the party leaders. Lenin wanted to appear in court and use the trial to represent the political views of the Bolsheviks. But his fellow party members persuaded him to hide in Finland. This had nothing to do with cowardice: it was a practical necessity.

Countless examples throughout history have shown that the presence of a revolutionary party is crucial in a revolutionary situation and, within that, party leadership is paramount. Individuals cannot create a revolution. But when the masses move, individuals can play a decisive role in whether the revolution falls one way or the other. Lenin was crucial to the outcome of the Russian Revolution. In October, when the Bolsheviks were deciding on whether to launch an uprising, there was still resistance from parts of the leadership. It was Lenin who, with his organisational and political authority in the party, overcame this. It was not authority in a military sense, but a moral and political authority built over decades, during which Lenin’s ideas and analysis had been tested in practice. Luxemburg was undoubtedly the highest political authority in the new German Communist Party and perhaps the only one who could overcome ultra-left trends in the party. But that was not to be.

On 12-13 January, Luxemburg and Liebknecht resided in an apartment in Neukölln, Berlin, and then with a sympathiser in Wilmersdorf. This was where they were arrested on the evening of 15 January, together with Pieck, who was also in the apartment. They were taken to Hotel Eden, the Freikorps headquarters, where they both endured rough treatment. Liebknecht was brought out first. On the way out, he got a blow in the back with a rifle belonging to a soldier named Runge. He was driven to the Tiergarten park, where he was shot. Afterwards, the soldiers’ said he had been killed “during an escape attempt”.

Rosa 2 Image public domain“I was, I am, I shall be! “ / Image: public domain

Luxemburg was next. She also got a blow to the head from the butt of a rifle, and after she had been taken into a waiting car she was shot in the head. Her body was thrown into the Landwehr Canal in Tiergarten and wasn’t found until late May.

The main leaders of the German Revolution were murdered in cold blood. The counter-revolution had severed the head of the revolutionary movement.

No one was seriously held responsible for the murders. In May, a parody of a trial was held for the guilty. During the trial, the soldier named Pflugk-Hartung admitted that he had shot Liebknecht “while trying to escape”. Pflugk-Hartung was acquitted with great applause. Vogel, who was responsible for the entire operation, admitted that he had thrown Rosa Luxemburg’s body in the canal in Tiergarten, but claimed that another had shot her. The jury could not decide if she had already died from the blow to the head, and Vogel faced only two years and four months in jail. But he escaped from prison and fled to Holland, where he stayed until the heat had passed and he could return to Germany as a free man. The soldier Runge, who had slaughtered the prisoners, was sentenced to two years in prison.

The Communists directed political responsibility for the murders towards the SPD and they became forever a dividing line between Social Democrats and Communists. Whether the order came from the top of the SPD has not been established, but there is no doubt that they helped create a mood where those who performed the murders did not doubt the government’s attitude. The soft penalties confirm this. Political responsibility was entirely in the hands of SPD’s leadership. They betrayed the revolution and they were responsible for the murders of Liebknecht and Luxemburg.

“[...] no direct responsibility of any Social-Democratic leader can be established. But their moral responsibility is overwhelming. Two days before, Vorwärts had published what was nothing less than a call for the murder of ‘Karl, Rosa and partners, not one dead, not one, amongst the dead’. It was men gathered, armed, and in the end protected by Noske and the Social-Democratic ministers who carried out the assassinations. Scheidemann was to say: ‘You see how their own terrorist tactic has done for them themselves!’” (Broué, p. 257)

The murder was met with anger and shock. During a meeting that same day, Berlin’s workers’ and soldiers’ council expressed its profound disgust at the murders and protested the government’s excessive use of terror in the wake of its victory over the Communists. The revolutionary movement did not end on 15 January with the murders. The government initiated a terrorist campaign where several leaders were arrested and murdered and demonstrations and uprisings were crushed with great brutality. Many thousands of workers were killed in struggles with the army and Freikorps under the SPD’s leadership.

The counter-revolution had stopped the revolution for now and murdered its leaders, but the apparent order was only temporary. Luxemburg’s final article proved almost prophetic to the revolutionary struggles of the coming years:

“‘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! “

(“Order prevails in Berlin”, Political Writings, p. 319)

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