The incomplete 1918 German revolution was, at the time, second only to the victorious Russian revolution a year previously. In a sense, for the workers’ movement today, an examination of the processes involved in the German revolution is as important as examining the mighty Russian revolution – the greatest event in human history.
In Germany, unlike Russia, the immense power of the organised working class was overwhelming. Also, the German capitalists were much more powerful than the weak Russian landlords and capitalists.
Yet faced with the stirrings of revolt in the war-weary German masses, the capitalists – whose system was crowned by the semi-dictatorial regime of the Kaiser (emperor) – felt the ground tremble beneath their feet. They sought at first to deploy force and repression against the threatening revolution.
In the 40 years up to 1910, the proportion of the German population living in cities had doubled to two thirds. There were almost nine million industrial workers, making up 67% of the total population. Alongside them were 3.3 million agricultural workers, labouring on large estates.
In these facts was posed the possibility of an alliance between the urban working class, the poor peasants and the rural working class. Moreover, the German working class – certainly on the eve of the First World War – was not as impoverished or culturally deprived as it was in the economically backward countries, even Russia itself.
It had built up the most powerful working class organisation in the world, formally standing under the banner of Marxism and the second socialist workers’ international.
The Social Democratic Party (SPD) had more than a million members in 1914. It had 90 daily newspapers and about 15,000 full time party workers, a “virtual state within a state”.
And yet it is an irony of history that this colossal machine, because of its leadership at a decisive moment, acted as a huge obstacle to the evident desire of the masses to overthrow capitalism and establish a socialist workers’ and peasants’ republic, as their Russian brothers and sisters had done.
It was the ‘long boom’ in the decades before World War One that, while organisationally strengthening German social democracy, had rotted its ideological foundations.
The leadership and their supporters acquired the habit of compromise and negotiation within the framework of capitalism: not a sharp break, but the ‘inevitability of gradualism’ was the way to achieve socialism.
Something similar also happened in the last few decades to all parties like the Labour Party in Britain and the German SPD. From workers’ parties at the bottom, albeit with pro-capitalist leaderships, they have been transformed into outright capitalist parties. The SPD in 1918 still formally adhered to the aim of socialism.
But in the revolution it acted as an enormous bulwark against this. Faced with revolution, the German capitalists, utterly discredited by the slaughter of the war, were forced to lean on the social democrat leaders to derail the revolution again and again.
Not able to use their own power and forces, the capitalist counter-revolution took a ‘democratic’ form buttressed by the killing of workers by the police, army and right-wing nationalist and fascist murder gangs.
The great Marxist Rosa Luxemburg – even before Lenin – recognised the political degeneration of the SPD leadership and the role it was likely to play. She politically opposed them within the SPD, counterposing their heavy conservatism to the actual movement of the working class as spectacularly revealed in the 1905-07 Russian revolution.
Tragically however, while emphasising the ‘spontaneous’ movement of the working class as the mainspring of the revolution, she neglected to form a separate and distinct Marxist organisation in opposition to the SPD leaders. This was fatal both before but particularly after the floodgates of revolution opened in November 1918.
The ‘mole of revolution’ burrowed below the surface during World War One. The German social-democratic leadership had shamefully abandoned their class and international duty by voting for ‘war credits’ on the infamous 4 August 1914, therefore supporting the ruling class and taking responsibility for the carnage that followed.
Not so the immortal Karl Liebknecht, who voted against (although initially he had not done so) on 2 December 1914. He was to be joined by Otto Ruhle in March 1915, which meant that only two of the original 110 SPD Reichstag (parliament) representatives voted against the war.
For this, Liebknecht was persecuted, slandered and jailed but this only served to enhance his attraction to the working class, both in the trenches and in Germany itself. His famous aphorism, “the enemy is at home”, resounded throughout the working class, in Germany, Russia and elsewhere. It acquired particular resonance as the suffering of the working class and the mound of corpses grew.
Soon, the pro-war hysteria evaporated as the working class was called on to pay a terrible price for what the SPD called ‘war socialism’. Rationing of butter, meat and eggs was introduced. The food allocation to workers was an estimated one third of the necessary calories. This led, as in Russia, to mass demonstrations, both for peace and against the starvation rations meted out by the authorities.
The SPD leaders were up to their necks in support for the war, which led to mounting opposition within the SPD. Some of the ‘left’ leaders, like Karl Kautsky and Paul Hilferding, had opportunistically not opposed the war and were hostile to Liebknecht and Luxemburg for refusing to ‘respect’ the SPD constitution.
Liebknecht was condemned as an incorrigible ‘sectarian’. But Liebknecht and Luxemburg, who although in ill health was also jailed, reflected the historic interests of the German working class at the outbreak of war.
Nevertheless, under mass pressure, leaders like Kautsky were compelled to oppose the SPD leadership in a half-hearted fashion, and then were forced out of its ranks. This led to the formation in 1917 of the USPD (Independent SPD) which took an estimated 120,000 members with it, compared to 170,000 that stayed under the SPD banner.
The USPD leaders had a halfway-house political position, sometimes using very radical, ‘revolutionary’ phraseology, but were passive in deeds, refusing to go the whole way in the struggle against capitalism. When such a formation develops, it comes into being usually against the wishes of those who are compelled to lead it. They are forced to reflect the increased radicalisation of the working class in their programme and phraseology, but in an imprecise ‘centrist’ fashion.
The signs of the coming storm were evident in 1916. Between February and December, a quarter of a million soldiers fell during the battle of Verdun. Great discontent was reinforced by strikes for better food in Berlin and elsewhere.
Lenin, Trotsky and other Bolsheviks in Russia looked enthusiastically to the imminent German revolution. From a thousand platforms they declared both before and after their October revolution that the only salvation for Russia was a successful revolution in Germany. They supported the forces that were driving in this direction.
Between March and November 1918, when the German revolution broke out, 192,447 German people were killed in the war, over 400,000 were missing or captured and 860,000 were wounded. Added to this were 300,000 civilian deaths. The desire to put an end to the slaughter fuelled the demands for revolution. This is why Marxists sometimes describe war as the ‘midwife of revolution’.
The revolutionary wave rose ever higher. Leo Jogiches, one of the leaders of the Sparticists – the left organisation around Rosa Luxemburg – described the situation in early 1918: “Civil war could be sensed in the air… Like a revolutionary breeze, a certain readiness but no-one knew what to do. After each clash with the police, we heard people saying: ‘Comrades, we should come back with arms tomorrow'”.
Capitalist writers who inveigh against the idea of social revolution ignore the monstrous costs which revolutions bring an end to. In Russia and Germany, the numbers killed in the revolutions were small compared to the slaughter of World War One – five million workers and peasants in Russia alone killed or injured – which the Russian revolution ended.
Weighed on the scales of humanity and history, there is no doubt that a fundamental change in society – socialist revolution – is less ‘costly’ than a continuation of capitalism, with its countless victims of war and economic catastrophe, especially if the working class has a clear, farsighted leadership and party.
If the glorious opportunities, at least four or five, between 1917 and 1923 had been seized in Germany, the working class and humanity would have been saved terrible suffering. A democratic workers’ state in Germany with its immense industrial and cultural resources would have linked up with the young workers’ state in Russia.
Revolution would have spread to central Europe while resoundingly knocking at the doors of other European countries as well. A socialist united states of Europe would have prevented the rise of the Nazis and of Stalinism which flowed from the isolation of the Russian revolution, in particular because of the subsequent defeat in Germany.
The unmistakeable signs of approaching revolution were clearly unfolding in September 1918. The spark that lit the fire, however, came in October with the uprising of the sailors of the North Sea fleet. An earlier uprising had been met with repression with two sailors’ leaders being shot.
It is not an accident that in a number of revolutions, the navy is to be found in the vanguard. This was so in the 1905-07 Russian revolution, the Spanish revolution and even in Britain with the Invergordon mutiny because of pay cuts following the crisis of 1929-31.
The ‘virus’ of revolution can often strike there first because navy ships are often ‘floating factories’. They are very hierarchical, with rigid class division – from the bridge down to the engine rooms. This, married to brutal discipline, can provide the seedbed for revolution.
The sailors’ revolt resulted in a revolutionary wave sweeping from one end of Germany to the other, which compelled the Kaiser to bolt over the border to the Netherlands, thereby relegating the German monarchy to history.
Some commentators today, joined by shallow ‘left’ historians, argue that the chances of a successful German revolution were faint and that the workers’ councils which were created were nothing of the kind and did not bear comparison to the soviets created in Russia. This is totally false. Indeed, as Pierre Broué pointed out, the chances for a German revolution appeared on 9 November 1918 to be “more serious than those of the Russian soviet revolution of February 1917”.
The left – revolutionaries, left independents, international communists and the Sparticists – had significant support in many of the councils and a period of dual power ensued. Alongside the social democrats was also a powerful trade union apparatus not present on the same scale in Russia.
In Berlin, the workers’ councils elected one delegate per thousand votes in the big factories and one delegate per part of a thousand elsewhere.
These councils, unlike in Russia between February and October 1917, were not sustained for the whole revolutionary period. This is because the social-democratic leaders learnt from Russia and did everything to prevent a similar situation.
As an alternative to the slogan: ‘All power to the soviets’, they counterposed: ‘All power to the whole people’, attempting to undermine the power of the working class. In practice, this meant that the power that the working class had conquered in November was effectively handed back to the cowering German capitalists hiding behind these ‘leaders’.
They proposed electing a ‘national assembly’ (parliament) instead of the idea of a ‘council-type’ republic. Army chief General Groener later declared: “There existed no other party [other than the SPD] which had enough influence upon the masses to enable the re-establishment of governmental power with the help of the army.”
Nor were the ‘centrist’ USPD leaders prepared to go the whole way despite their initially extremely radical, if not ‘revolutionary’, terminology.
The German revolution in its first period developed at breathtaking speed – more frenetic even than the Russian revolution. Such was the sweep of events that Lenin and Trotsky – mistakenly as it later proved – believed that the colossal movement of the German working class would conquer, even without a mass communist party at its head.
The capitalists were initially forced to make concessions, for instance granting an eight-hour working day, an amnesty for political offences, the right of women to vote and lifting the state of siege and censorship. But they were preparing to strike back.
Hundreds of thousands of leaflets and countless newspaper articles vilified the left leaders – particularly Rosa Luxemburg, ‘bloody Rosa’, and Karl Liebknecht. Their ideas were maliciously distorted, but Karl Liebknecht turned his back on the parliamentary babblers and went to the working class who massively supported his and Rosa Luxemburg’s ideas.
There were, as Trotsky pointed out, many similarities between the German and Russian revolutions. But there were also big differences, not just in tempo but in the absence in Germany of that priceless weapon which the Russian workers had, a mass revolutionary party – the Bolsheviks – with a clear and farsighted leadership.
Heroic efforts were made to create such a party in the heat of the revolution, which culminated after many cul-de-sacs and mistakes, in the formation of a mass communist party following a split in the USPD at its Halle congress in October 1920.
But this only came after defeats and setbacks, notably the uprising of January 1919. Unfortunately, Karl Liebknecht – but not Rosa Luxemburg – mistakenly went along with that uprising.
What inevitably followed was defeat, repression, an orgy of bloodletting and, in particular and most tragically, the beheading of the German revolution through the assassination of Rosa Luxemburg – the ‘brain’ of the revolution – and Karl Liebknecht, its most heroic figure.
This was not the end of the revolution, but it was the end of the first phase. From this, Germany was plunged into an incredible process of revolution and counter-revolution.
By Peter Taaffe