1990s >> 1998 >> no-1131-november-1998

Germany, November 1918

The German revolution of 80 years ago was the only ever nation-wide workers’ revolt in an advanced capitalist society. It overthrew the Kaiser but not capitalism. It didn’t and couldn’t have done this as there was no majority for socialism amongst the workers.

Last Autumn saw the spectacle of Trotskyists and other assorted Leninists remembering the 80th Anniversary of the Russian revolution with great enthusiasm. The Trotskyist “Marxist” Party held a meeting for the occasion round my way. When asked by myself at a stall promoting the revolution meeting (with some very pretty looking flyers, it must be said) what exactly their platform was, their reply was “well, you know the Russian revolution?”. I indicated that I was aware of its existence. “Well, we, er, well, we think it was a good thing”. Great, nice platform, well thought out, mate. Likewise our local SWP enthusiast exhorted me to come to their big meeting on the Russian revolution and “see Tony Cliff before he dies”, which struck me as insufficient incentive to attend what would doubtless have been a very tedious evening.

All of this inevitably led me into numerous dog-fights with these sort of people, about quite why the Russian revolution isn’t the best thing that’s ever happened, including one very nasty and terrifying encounter with a bloody-thirsty professional revolutionary from the SWP head office (“The Cheka were necessary, to stop counter-revolutionaries,” she said, and I contemplated suicide, despairing over the condition of a human race that produced such a “socialist”). Inevitably, whenever I elucidated the crimes of the Bolsheviks, pointed out the many failings of the revolution, demonstrated how even Nice and Shiny Mr Lenin perpetrated the sorts of crimes they normally said only started with that Evil Mr Stalin, they had one last line of defence: “The Russian Revolution turned rotten because of invasion by umpteen foreign countries, and the failure of the German Revolution.”

The point about invasion largely makes a mockery of their whole support for the victorious revolution, if in fact it wasn’t victorious, and so can be dismissed. But their second point is worth a closer look. It is true that Lenin was probably predicating the success of his revolution upon a successful socialist revolution in Germany as well and hoping that it would spread world-wide from there. Fine and dandy, but all this changes Lenin from instead of being a dangerous man who thought he could lead the world to socialism, to a dangerous gambler who thought he could lead the world to socialism. Further, the proponents of such a thesis seem remarkably capable of over-looking the obvious conclusion to which this line of defence points—that Russia was really the side-show, an historical footnote, to the only ever attempted workers’ revolution in an advanced capitalist state; and that all their celebrations of Russia and desire to follow its model are flawed, because Germany is the real case history that bears examination.

At the time of the first world war, Germany was the second biggest industrial economy in the world. This was despite having a full third of the population still living as feudal peasantry, and still retaining a quasi-feudal government under an autocratic hereditary ruler. It also had one of the largest workers’ movements in Europe (despite socialism having been a criminalised creed for many years in Germany). The Social-Democratic Party of Germany (the SPD) had over a million members and some 4½ million voters, along with numerous papers, affiliated social groups, etc.

The SPD still talked of—and reckoned itself as—being a radical socialist party, though over the years running up to the war it drifted further and further towards outright reformism, partly because it had become so institutionalised. Running its own papers and allied with unions, it was very much a part of the fabric of society. Despite this, a small section of revolutionary socialists remained within the SPD, typified by Rosa Luxemburg, and who numbered some three to four thousand.

The true colours of the SPD were shown during the war, when nearly all of its members in the Reichstag openly backed the war, and the party spread propaganda to the effect that the war was necessary to stop the threat of tyranny from Russia. This slowly led to a split in the SPD, three ways, with the eventual formation of the Independent Social-Democratic Party (USPD) within the parliamentary party and then more slowly within the membership itself. The “far-left” contingent formed themselves into the Spartakusbund (Spartacist League) with Karl Leibknecht and Rosa Luxemburg as prominent members. However, they remained within the official ranks of the USPD.

By September 1918 it was clear that Germany had already lost the war. The most the ruling class could expect was to preserve their state more or less intact. They were desperate to avert a repetition of events in Russia and the massive upheaval there. The powerful generals in the army proposed a way of saving the German state by liberalising it and bringing some of the more obliging elements of the SPD into the government. These latter accepted and joined a government under Prince Max von Baden as Chancellor.

Workers’ Councils

Under this regime events deteriorated. Long suffering workers began to vent their frustration at the grind and penury they faced after four years of draconian war-time restrictions. More and more workers and disenchanted soldiers and sailors began to strike and mutiny. By late October insurrection was spreading, as workers throughout the country rose up against the government. Beginning in the northern port of Kiel workers’ councils began to be formed all across the country. By 5 November, Hamburg (one of the biggest cities in the country) became subject to control by a workers’ council. By the 8th so had many of the great cities of Germany, Munich, Cologne, Frankfurt and even Berlin.

The outcome of the uprising was that the leader of the SPD, Erbert, took power, and his colleague Scheidemann unilaterally declared Germany a republic, in a bid to appease the rebels by ending the rule of the German aristocracy. The Kaiser went into exile. Whilst this part of the revolt was successful, it in fact merely finished the job begun by the revolutions of 1848, in establishing a fully bourgeois republic in Germany.

Very few of the German working class were revolutionary socialists. The vast majority of workers supported the SPD as a matter of course, including its general programme of the reform of capitalism. On the other hand, the revolutionary workers were tiny in number. When in February 1919 the Spartakusbund renounced its links with the USPD and formed a German Communist Party (KPD) it recognised this problem: “Socialism cannot be created by decrees; nor can it be established by any government. Socialism must be created by the masses themselves, by every proletarian”. Their problem was that not enough proletarians wanted socialism. The November uprisings had been a reaction to hardship and tyranny, not a coherent wish to establish socialism. Contrary to what the SWP’s Chris Harman writes in his book The Lost Revolution, in which he patronisingly claims that the workers were “confused” by the splits within the “socialist movement”, what most workers wanted was for the SPD to end their hardship. The Spartacists recognised that the mass support needed to establish socialism was lacking and that socialism was not on the agenda at that time, and so they resolved to oppose the calling of a constituent assembly which they felt would help consolidate the German state and instead to try and make socialists within the workers’ councils.

Some hot-headed elements of the German left (in the USPD and another group called the Socialist Shop-Stewards) were not satisfied with this reality, and 5 January 1919 mounted the misnamed Spartacist uprising (“Spartacist” within SPD circles had become was a catch-all for anyone vaguely disagreeing with the leadership, much as “Trot” has become in the modern Labour Party—the Spartacists, including Rosa Luxemburg, actually opposed an uprising, realising as they did that mass support for socialism just wasn’t there). These elements led the workers of Berlin in a putsch to try and seize power, with the hope of it spreading nation-wide. It failed. Lacking any plan the workers who had followed the glorious revolutionaries stood around waiting to be told what to do, and when they were told it was a mish-mash of confused orders and muddle. On 11 January 1919 the SPD government sent in the troops, the notorious Freikorps, which very effectively crushed the abortive putsch. By 17 January both Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg had been murdered by Freikorps troops, and Berlin was under government control once more.

Crushed by the state

This was a pattern that was to be repeated in many parts of the country, as any struggles and gains by the workers were brutally crushed by military might. The workers discovered too late the danger of following leaders, and, much as the Bolsheviks crushed all independent working class activity in Russia to establish their dominance, so too did the SPD in Germany to preserve the German capitalist state. The workers discovered to their cost the impossibility of fighting against a co-ordinated and well-armed state, and if little blood was spilt in the initial revolt much was spilt when it was put down.

The workers of Germany persistently followed their old leaders, believing these would solve their problems for them, and even bring about socialism, and for a while they believed the lip-service the SPD government gave to “socialisation” of industry. In the end, however, they had to learn the hard way the folly of following leaders. The German revolution shows, not as Chris Harman believes, that if the KPD had had more discipline (read had it enacted the Leninist principle of “democratic-centralism” and obedience to the leadership) it might have controlled events more and thus been able to lead the workers to successful revolution (on Russian lines). It was that where the working class does not have the resolve to establish socialism, it will not, and trying to make socialists in the heat of an ongoing quasi-civil war is almost impossible. No amount of leadership but only a majority of socialist-minded workers could have made the revolution in Germany. The bloody defeat of the putsch and the uprisings showed how violence, especially by a minority, is suicidal against an existing organised state. History shows it is not the state that gets “smashed” but the revolutionaries and many innocent workers too.


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