1918: The programme of the German Communist Party

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The ruling class cannot entirely bury the memory of the October 1917 revolution in Russia, where for the first time in history an exploited class took power at the level of an entire and immense country, Instead, as we have shown on numerous occasions in this International Review[1], it uses all the considerable means at its disposal to distort the meaning of this epochal event by conjuring up a great fog of lies and slanders. It is rather different with the German revolution of 1918-23. Here it has applied the policy of the historical blackout. Thus, casting a glance at the standard school history books, we will find that the October revolution is dealt with up to a point (with a hefty stress on its Russian peculiarities). The German revolution, however, is normally restricted to a few lines about "hunger riots" at the end of the war, or, at most, about the efforts of a shadowy band called the "Spartacists" to seize power here and there. This silence will probably be all the louder during the 80th anniversary of the outbreak of revolution in the Kaiser's Germany. The majority of the world's working class has probably never heard that there was a revolution in Germany at this time, and the bourgeoisie has very good reasons for maintaining this ignorance. Communists, on the other hand, the heirs of those "Spartacist fanatics", have no hesitation in saying loud and clear that these "unknown" events were so crucial that they determined the entire subsequent history of the 20th century.


When the Bolsheviks urged the Russian proletariat to take power in October 1917, it was not at all with the intention of making a purely "Russian" revolution. They understood that if revolution was possible in Russia, it was only because it was the product of a world-wide movement of the working class against the imperialist war, which had opened up an epoch of social revolution. And the insurrection in Russia could only prevail if it was the first act of the world-wide proletarian revolution.

 
Far from being a vague prospect for the distant future, the world revolution was seen as being imminent, palpably brewing all across war-tom Europe. And Germany was clearly identified as being the key to its extension from Russia to the industrialised west. Germany was the most powerful industrial nation in Europe, its proletariat the most concentrated; the political traditions of the German workers' movement were among the most advanced in the world; it was also the country whose proletariat was suffering most abjectly as a result of the war and which, apart from Russia, had seen the most important stirrings of proletarian revolt since 1916. So it was much more than a pious hope for the Bolsheviks and the Russian workers to see the German revolution as their saviour. When the German revolution actually did commence, in November 1918, with the mutiny of the sailors in Kiel and the rapid formation of workers' and soldiers' councils in many other cities, the workers of Russia celebrated with enormous enthusiasm, knowing full well that this was the only way they could be delivered from the terrible siege that world capitalism had mounted against them from the moment they had taken power.

The German revolution, then, was proof that the revolution was and could only be worldwide. The ruling class itself understood this very well: if Germany fell to "Bolshevism", the terrible disease would spread rapidly throughout Europe. It was proof that the working class struggle not only knows no national boundaries, but is the only antidote to the nationalist, imperialist frenzy of the bourgeoisie. Its "least" achievement was that it ended the slaughter of the first world war, because as soon as the revolutionary movement broke out, the world bourgeoisie recognised at once that it was time to stop its bickering and unite against a far more dangerous enemy, the revolutionary working class. The war was rapidly terminated and the German bourgeoisie - though almost stripped naked by the terms of the peace treaty - obtained from the other bourgeoisies all the means it required to deal with the enemy within.

 
A contrario, the defeat of the German revolution vindicated the marxist thesis - defended most lucidly of all by German communists like Rosa Luxemburg - that in the absence of the proletarian alternative, decadent capitalism can only plunge humanity into barbarism. All the horrors that descended upon the world in the ensuing decades were the direct result of this defeat. Isolated and increasingly strangled by the combined forces of the international counter-revolution, the proletarian bastion in Russia degenerated from within and was replaced by a counter-revolutionary regime of a new type - one which dealt the death blow to the revolution in the name of the revolution, built a capitalist war economy in the name of socialism, and waged imperialist war in the name of proletarian internationalism. In Germany itself, the ferocity of the counter-revolution - embodied in the Nazi terror - was, as with Stalinism in Russia, commensurate with the scale of the revolutionary threat that had preceded it. And both Stalinism and Nazism, with their extreme militarisation of social life, were the most obvious expressions of the fact that the defeat of the proletariat opens the way to world imperialist war.

Communism was possible and it was necessary in 1917. If the communist movement had been successful then, the world proletariat would still no doubt have faced gigantic tasks in constructing a new society. It would no doubt have made many mistakes that later generations of the working class can avoid thanks to bitter experience. But at the same time, it would not have had to undo the accumulating effects of capitalist decadence, with its dreadful legacy of terror and destruction, of material and ideological poisoning.

 
A new human society could have emerged out of the ruins of the First World War, instead, the defeat of the revolution engendered a century of nightmares and monsters. Germany was the turning point. 80 years ago - not long in historical terms, only a single life- time - armed workers took to the streets of Berlin, Hamburg, Bremen, Munich, proclaiming their solidarity with the Russian revolution and announcing their intention to follow its example. For a few short but glorious years the world ruling class was shaking in front of the spectre of communism. Small wonder that today's bourgeoisie is so keen to bury the memory of all this, lest new generations of proletarians come to understand that they are part of an international class whose struggle determines the course of history; that the world proletarian revolution is not a utopia but a concrete possibility brought about by the inner disintegration of the capitalist mode of production.

Founding Congress of the KPD: revolution, not reform

The grandeur and tragedy of the German revolution is in many ways encapsulated in Rosa Luxemburg's speech to the founding congress of the Communist party of Germany (KPD) in late December 1918.

 

In our on-going series on the German revolution[2], we have already written about the importance of this congress from the point of view of the organisational questions facing the new party - above all, the necessity for a centralised organisation capable of speaking with one voice throughout Germany. We have also touched upon some of the general programmatic issues which were hotly debated at this congress, in particular the parliamentary and trade union questions. We have seen that while Luxemburg and the Spartacus group - the real nucleus of the KPD - did not always defend the clearest position on questions of the latter type, she did tend to embody marxist clarity on the problem of organisation, as opposed to some of the more left wing strands who often expressed a distrust of centralisation. And in her speech - on the adoption of the party's programme - this same clarity shines through despite the secondary weaknesses that can be found within it. The profound political content of this speech was a reflection of the strength of the proletariat in Germany as a vanguard in the worldwide movement of the class. And at the same time, the fact that this towering speech was also her last, that the young KPD was soon to be decapitated following the failure of the Berlin uprising a mere two weeks later, also expresses the tragedy of the German proletariat, its inability to assume the gigantic historical tasks imposed upon it.

The reasons for this tragedy are, however, beyond the scope of this article. Our aim in this series is to show how the historical experience of our class has deepened its understanding both of the nature of communist society and the road towards it. In other words, it is to trace a history of the communist programme. The programme of the KPD, generally known as The Spartacus Programme, since it was originally published under the title ''What does Spartacus want?" in Die Rote Fahne, 4 December 1918[3] was a highly significant landmark in this history, and it was certainly no accident that the task of introducing it to the congress was conferred upon Luxemburg, given her unrivalled status as a marxist theoretician. Her opening words plainly affirm the importance of the adoption by the new party of a clear revolutionary programme in a historical juncture which was nothing if not revolutionary:

 

"Comrades: our task today is to discuss and adopt a programme. In undertaking this task we are not actuated solely by the consideration that yesterday we founded a new party and that a new party must formalise a programme. Great historical movements have been the determining causes of today's deliberations. The time has arrived when the entire socialist programme of the proletariat has to be established upon a new foundation "("On the Spartacus Programme", published as a pamphlet along with "What does Spartacus want?" by Merlin Press, London, 1971).

In order to establish what this new foundation has to be, Luxemburg then reviews the previous efforts of the workers' movement to formalise its programme. Arguing that "We are faced with a position similar to that which was faced by Marx and Engels when they wrote the Communist Manifesto seventy years ago ", she recalls that, at that moment, the founders of scientific socialism had considered the proletarian revolution to be imminent, but that the subsequent development and expansion of capitalism had proved them wrong - and, because their socialism was scientific, Marx and Engels had realised that a long period of organisation, of education, of fighting for reforms, of building the proletarian army was necessary before the communist revolution could be put on the agenda of history. From this realisation came the period of social democracy, in which a distinction was established between the maximum programme of social revolution and the minimum programme of reforms attainable within capitalist society. But as social democracy gradually accommodated itself to what appeared to be an eternally ascending bourgeois society, the minimum programme first detached itself from the maximum, and then more and more began to replace it altogether. This divorce between the immediate and the historical goals of the class was to a large extent already embodied in the Erfurt Programme of 1891, and - precisely at the time when the material possibility of winning durable reforms from capitalism was beginning to wear thin - reformist illusions of various shades increasingly took hold over the workers' party. Indeed, as we have seen in a previous article in this series[4], it is in this very speech that Luxemburg demonstrates that even Engels was not immune to the growing temptation to believe that with the conquest of universal suffrage, the working class could come to power through the bourgeois electoral process.

 

The imperialist war and the outbreak of proletarian revolution in Russia and Germany had definitively put paid to all illusions in a gradual, peaceful transition from capitalism to socialism. These were the "great historical movements" that required the socialist programme to be "established upon a new foundation". The wheel had gone full circle:

"let me repeat then, that the course of historical development has led us back to the point at which Marx and Engels stood in 1848 when they first hoisted the flag of international socialism. We stand where they stood, but with the advantage that seventy additional years of capitalist development lie behind us. Seventy years ago, to those who reviewed the errors and illusions of 1848, it seemed as if the proletariat had still an interminable distance to traverse before it could hope to realise socialism, I need hardly say that no serious thinker has ever been inclined to fix upon a definite date for the collapse of capitalism; but after the failures of 1848, the day for that collapse seemed to be in the distant future, We are now in a position to cast up the account, and we are able to see that the time has really been short in comparison with that occupied by the sequence of class struggles throughout human history. The progress of large-scale capitalist development during seventy years has brought us so far that today we can seriously set about destroying capitalism once and for all. Nay, more; not merely are we today in a position to perform this task, not merely is its performance a duty towards the proletariat, but our solution offers the only means of saving human society from destruction .... Matters have reached such a pitch that today mankind is faced with two alternatives: it may perish amidst chaos; or it may find salvation in socialism. As the outcome of the Great War it is impossible for the capitalist classes to find any issue from their difficulties while they maintain class rule. We now realise the absolute truth of the statement formulated for the first time by Marx and Engels as the scientific basis of socialism in the great charter of our movement, in the Communist Manifesto. Socialism will become an historical necessity. Socialism is inevitable, not merely because the proletarians are no longer willing to live under the conditions imposed by the capitalist class, but, further, because if the proletariat fails to fulfil its duties as a class, if it fails to realise socialism, we shall crash down together in a common doom ".

The onset of capitalist decadence, signalled by the great imperialist war, and the proletariat's revolutionary rising against the war, necessitated a definitive break with the old social democratic programme; "Our programme is deliberately opposed to the leading principle of the Erfurt programme; it is deliberately opposed to the separation of the immediate and so-called minimum demands formulated for the political and economic struggle, from the socialist goal regarded as the maximal programme. It is in deliberate opposition to the Erfurt programme that we liquidate the results of seventy years' evolution; that we liquidate, above all, the primary results of the war, saying we know nothing of minimal and maximal programmes; we know only one thing, socialism; this is the minimum we are going to secure ".

 

In the remaining part of her speech, Luxemburg does not go into details about the measures put forward in the draft programme. Instead, she focuses on the most urgent task of the hour: the analysis of how the proletariat can bridge the gap between its initial spontaneous revolt against the privations of war and the conscious implementation of the communist programme. This requires above all a ruthless critique of the weaknesses of the revolutionary mass movement of November 1918.

This critique was not at all tantamount to dismissing the heroic efforts of the workers and soldiers who had paralysed the imperialist war machine. Luxemburg recognised the crucial importance of the formation of workers' and soldiers' councils across the length and breadth of the land in November 1918. "That was the key notion in this revolution which ... immediately gave it the stamp of a proletarian socialist revolution." And since the "alphabet" of this revolution, the call for workers' and soldiers' councils was learned from the Russians, its international and internationalist nature was also established from the fact that "the Russian revolution created the first watchwords for the world revolution ". But contrary to so many of her critics, even some of her "friendliest", Luxemburg was far from being a worshipper of the instinctive spontaneity of the masses. Without a clear class consciousness, the first spontaneous resistance of the workers cannot help but succumb to the wiles and manoeuvres of the class enemy. "It is characteristic of the contradictory aspects of our revolution, characteristic of the contradictions which attend every revolution, that at the very time when this great, stirring and instinctive cry was being uttered, the revolution was so inadequate, so feeble, so devoid of initiative, so lacking in clearness as to its own aims, that on November 10th our revolutionists allowed to slip from their grasp nearly half the instruments of power they had seized on November 9th ". Luxemburg denounced above all the workers' illusions in the slogan of "socialist unity" - the idea that the SPD, the Independents and the KPD should bury their differences and work together for the common cause. This ideology obscured the fact that the SPD had been placed in government by the German bourgeoisie precisely because it had already demonstrated its loyalty to capitalism during the war, and was now in fact the only party that could deal with the revolutionary danger; it also obscured the treacherous role of the Independents, who served mainly to provide a radical cover to the SPD and prevent the masses from making a clear break with it. The net result of these illusions was that the councils were almost immediately handed over to their worst enemies - the Ebert-Noske-Scheidemann counter-revolution, which garbed itself in the red robes of socialism and claimed to be the councils' surest defender.

The working class would have to wake up from such illusions and learn to soberly distinguish its friends from its enemies. The repressive, strike-breaking policies of the new "socialist" government would certainly educate it in this regard, opening the door to an open conflict between the working class and the pseudo-workers' government. But it would be another illusion to think that merely toppling the social democratic government at its focal point could secure the victory of the socialist revolution. The working class would not be ready to take and hold political power until it had passed through an intensive process of self-education by its own positive experience - through the tenacious defence of its economic interests, through mass strike movements, through the mobilisation of the rural masses, through the regeneration and extension of the workers' councils, through a patient and systematic combat to win them away from the nefarious influence of social democracy and over to the understanding that they were true instruments of proletarian power. The development of this process of revolutionary maturation would be such that, "the overthrow of the Ebert-Scheidemann or any similar government will be merely the final act in the drama ".

This part of Luxemburg's perspective for the German revolution has frequently been criticised for making concessions to economism and gradualism. These charges are not entirely without foundation. Economism - the subordination of the political tasks of the working class to the struggle for its immediate economic interests - was to prove itself a real weakness of the communist movement in Germany[5], and it can already be discerned in certain passages of Luxemburg's speech, as for example when she claims that as the revolutionary movement develops, "strikes will become the central feature and the decisive factors of the revolution, thrusting purely political questions into the background". Luxemburg was of course right to argue that the immediate politicisation of the struggle in November had not been a guarantee of its real maturity, and that the struggle would certainly have to flow back onto the economic terrain before it could reach a higher political level. But the experience in Russia had also shown that once the movement did begin to reach the point where the question of power was really being posed in the most important battalions of the working class, then strikes tended to be "thrust into the background" in favour of "purely political questions". It appears at this point that Luxemburg is forgetting her own analysis of the dynamic of the mass strike, in which she argues that the movement passes from economic to political questions and vice-versa in a continuous ebb and flow.

More serious is the charge of gradualism: In his text Allemagne: de 1800 aux "annees rouges" (1917- 23), December 1997, Robert Camoin writes that "the programme (of the KPD) seriously evades the question of the insurrection; the destruction of the state is formulated in localist terms. The conquest of power is presented as a gradual action, little by little wresting parcels of state power "(P63). And he quotes that section of Luxemburg's speech which argues that "for us, the conquest of power will not be affected at one blow. It will be a progressive act, for we shall progressively occupy all the positions of the capitalist state, defending tooth and nail each one that we seize ".

 
It cannot be denied that this is a misleading way of presenting the conquest of power, since however much the councils in the pre-insurrectionary period vie for influence and authority with the official state organs, the actual seizure of power is indeed a key moment which has to be planned and organised in a centralised manner, and the dismantling of the bourgeois state cannot precede this crucial insurrectionary moment. But Camoin and other critics of Luxemburg are wrong to claim that she "founded everything on the concept of the spontaneity of the masses ", that she ignored the role of the party. If Luxemburg goes too far in insisting on the revolution not as a single act but as a whole process, her fundamental intention remains perfectly valid: to insist that it is through the development and maturation of the class movement, through the emergence of dual power, that revolutionary class consciousness can be generalised - and that without such a generalisation, the movement would be doomed to defeat. Here events were to prove her tragically right, because the failure of the of the Berlin uprising - and her own death - were precisely the result of the illusion that it would be enough to overthrow the government in the capital city without first building up the confidence, consciousness and self-organisation of the masses. An illusion which powerfully affected the communist vanguard itself, in particular a revolutionary like Karl Liebknecht who was not the least of them, walking right into the trap laid by the bourgeoisie and pushing for a premature uprising. Luxemburg had opposed this adventure from the start and her criticisms of Liebknecht had nothing to do with "spontaneism". On the contrary, she had already drunk deeply from the experience of the Bolshevik party, which had shown in practice the real role of a communist party in the revolutionary process - to be capable of providing a sure political compass at all stages of the movement, to act within the mass organs of the class with the aim of winning them over to the revolutionary programme, to warn the workers against falling for bourgeois provocations, to identify the moment when the insurrectionary blow has to be struck. At the height of the revolutionary wave, what stands out is not the differences, but the profound convergence which existed between Luxemburg and Lenin.

What Spartacus wanted

A revolutionary party needs a revolutionary programme. A small communist group or fraction, which does not have a decisive impact on the class struggle, can be defined around a platform of general class positions. But while a party certainly requires these class principles as the foundation stone of its politics, it also needs a programme which translates these general principles into practical proposals for the overthrow of the bourgeoisie, the establishment of the proletarian dictatorship, and for the initial steps towards a new society. In a revolutionary situation, the immediate measures for the establishment of proletarian power obviously take on a primary importance. As Lenin wrote in his "Greetings to the Bavarian Soviet Republic", in April 1919:

"We thank you for your message of greeting and in turn we heartily salute the Soviet Republic of Bavaria. We would immediately like you to inform us more often and more concretely about the measures you have taken in your struggle against the bourgeois executioners, Scheidemann and Co: if you have created soviets of workers and household servants in the districts of the town; if you have armed the workers and disarmed the bourgeoisie; if you have made use of the warehouses of clothes and other articles as widely and as immediately as possible, to help the workers and above all the day-labourers and small peasants; if you have expropriated the factories and goods of the Munich capitalists as well as the capitalist agricultural enterprises in the surrounding area; if you have abolished the mortgages and rent of small peasants; if you have tripled the wages of day-labourers and workmen; if you have confiscated all the paper and print-works in order to publish leaflets and newspapers for the masses; if you have instituted the six hour day with two or three hours dedicated to the study of the art of state administration; if you have crowded the bourgeoisie together in order to immediately install workers in the rich apartments; if you have taken overall the banks; if you have chosen hostages from among the bourgeoisie; if you have established a food ration which gives more to workers than to members of the bourgeoisie; if you have mobilised all the workers at once for defence and for ideological propaganda in the surrounding villages. The most rapid and widespread application of these measures as well as other similar measures, carried out on the initiative of the soviets of workers and day-labourers and, separately, of small peasants, must reinforce your position."

 

The document "What does Spartacus want", offered as the draft programme for the new KPD, goes in the same direction as Lenin's recommendations. It is presented by a preamble which reaffirms the marxist analysis of the historic situation facing the working class: the imperialist war has confronted humanity with the choice between world proletarian revolution, the abolition of wage labour and the creation of a new communist order, or a descent into chaos and barbarism. The text does not underestimate the magnitude of the task facing the proletariat: "the establishment of the socialist order of society is the greatest task that ever fell to the lot of a class and of a revolution in the course of human history. This task involves the complete reconstruction of the state and an entire change in the social and economic foundations of society ". This change cannot be accomplished "by a decree issued by some officials, committee, or parliament". Previous revolutions could be carried through by a minority, but "the socialist revolution is the first revolution which can secure victory for and through the great majority of the workers themselves ". The workers, organised in their councils, had to take this whole immense social, economic, and political transformation into their own hands.

Furthermore, while calling for the "iron hand" of an armed and self-organised working class to put down the plots and resistance of the counter-revolution, the preamble argues that terror is a method alien to the proletariat: "the proletarian revolution requires no terror for the realisation of its aims: it looks upon manslaughter with hatred and aversion. It has no need for such means because the struggle it conducts is not against individuals but against institutions ". This critique of the "Red Terror" has itself been much criticised by other communists then and now. Rosa Luxemburg, who wrote the draft, and who made similar criticisms of the actual Red Terror in Russia, has been accused of pacifism, of advocating policies that would disarm the proletariat in the face of the counter-revolution. But the preamble shows no naive illusions in the possibility of making the revolution without encountering and indeed suppressing the ferocious resistance of the old ruling class, who "will sooner turn the country into a smoking heap of ruins than voluntarily relinquish its power to exploit the working class ". What the draft programme does do, however, is enable us to make the distinction between class violence - based on the massive self-organisation of the proletariat - and state terror, which is necessarily carried out by specialised minority bodies and always contains the danger of turning against the proletariat. We will return to this question later on, but we can certainly say here, in line with the arguments put forward in our text "Terrorism, terror and class violence"[6], that the experience of the Russian revolution has indeed confirmed the validity of this distinction.

 

The immediate measures that follow the preamble are the concretisation of its general perspective. We reprint them in full here:

"I. As Immediate Means for Making the Revolution Secure.

 

The disarming of the entire police force, of all officers, as well as of the non-proletarian soldiers.

 

The seizure of all supplies of arms and ammunition, as well as of all war industries, by the workers' and soldiers' councils.

 

The arming of the entire adult male population as the workers' militia. The formation of a red guard of the workers as the active part of the militia, for the effective protection of the revolution against counter-revolutionary plots and risings;

 
Abolition of the commanding power of the officers and non-commissioned officers. The substitution of the voluntary discipline of the soldiers for the old brutal barrack discipline. Election of all superiors by the rank and file, with the right to recall these superiors at any time. Abolition of courts-martial.

The removal of all officers and ex-officers from the soldiers' councils.

 

Substitution of authorised representatives of the workers' and soldiers' councils for all political organs and authorities of the old regime.

 

Creation of a revolutionary tribunal to try the men chiefly responsible for the war and its prolongation, namely, the two Hohenzollems, Ludendorff, Hindenberg, Tirpitz, and their fellow criminals, as well as all conspirators of the counter-revolution.

 

Immediate seizure of all means of subsistence to secure provisions for the people.

 
0n the Political and Social Field.

Abolition of all separate states; a united German Socialist Republic.

 

Removal of all parliaments and municipal councils, their functions to be taken over by the workers' and soldiers' councils and by the committees and organs of the latter bodies;

 

Election of workers' councils all over Germany by the entire adult working population of working people, of both sexes, in cities and rural districts, along the lines of industries, and election of soldiers' councils by the soldiers, excluding the officers and ex-officers. The right of workers and soldiers to recall their representatives at any time;

 
Election all over Germany of delegates from the workers' and soldiers' councils to the General Council of the workers' and soldiers' councils; the Central Council to elect the Executive Council as the highest organ of legislative and executive power. For the present the Central Council is to be convened at least every three months - the delegates to be re-elected each time -for the constant control of the activity of the Executive Council and for the establishment of a living contact of the bulk of workers' and soldiers' councils in the country with their highest organ of government. The right of local workers' and soldiers' councils at any time to recall their representatives on the Central Council and send new ones in their stead in case the former do not act in accordance with the will of their constituents. The right of the Executive Council to appoint or remove the people's representatives as well as the central authorities of the land.

Abolition of all class distinctions, titles, and orders; complete legal and social equality of the sexes.

 

Radical social legislation, reduction of working hours to avoid unemployment and to conform to the physical exhaustion of the working class occasioned by the world war; limitation of the working day to six hours.

 

Immediate, thorough change of the policy with regard to food, housing, health, and education in the spirit of the proletarian revolution.

 

Further Economic Demands.

Confiscation of all crown estates and revenues for the benefit of the people.

Annulment of the state debts and other public debts, as well as all war loans, except those subscribed within a certain limited amount, this limit to be fixed by the Central Council of the workers' and soldiers' councils.

 

Expropriation of the land held by all large and medium sized agricultural concerns; establishment of socialist agricultural cooperatives under a uniform central administration all over the country. Small peasant holdings to remain in possession of their present owners, until they voluntarily decide to join the socialist agricultural cooperatives.

 

Nationalisation by the Republic of Councils of all banks, ore mines, coal mines, as well as all large industrial and commercial establishments.

 

Confiscation of all property exceeding a certain limit, the limit to be fixed by the Central Council.

 
The Republic of Councils to take over all public means of transport and communication.

Election of administrative councils in all enterprises, such councils to regulate the internal affairs of the enterprises in agreement with the workers' councils, regulate the conditions of labour, control production, and, finally, take over the administration of the enterprise.

 

Establishment of a Central Strike Committee which, in constant cooperation with the industrial councils, shall secure for the strike movement throughout the country uniform administration, socialist direction, and most effective support by the political power of the workers' and soldiers' councils.

 

International Problems.

 

Immediate establishment of connections with the sister parties abroad in order to place the socialist revolution upon an international basis and to secure and maintain peace through international brotherhood and the revolutionary rising of the international working class."

 
These measures, in their essentials, remain valid guidelines for the revolutionary period of the future, when the proletariat is once again on the verge of taking power. The programme is perfectly correct to emphasise the priority of the political tasks of the revolution, and within those, the absolute urgency of

arming the workers and disarming the counter-revolution. Equally important is its insistence on the fundamental role of the workers' councils as organs of proletarian political power, and on the centralised character of this power. In calling for the power of the councils and the dismantling of the bourgeois state, the programme is already the fruit of the gigantic proletarian experience in Russia; at the same time, on the question of parliament and municipal councils, the KPD takes one step further than the Bolsheviks had in 1917, when there was still confusion in the party about the possible coexistence of the soviets with the Constituent Assembly and municipal dumas. In the KPD programme, all these organs of the bourgeois state are to be dismantled without delay. Similarly, the KPD programme sees no role at all for the trade unions: alongside the workers' councils and red guards, the factory committees are the only other workers' organs it mentions. Although there were differences in the party on these latter two questions, the clarity of the 1918 programme was a direct expression of the revolutionary élan that animated the class movement at that time.

 
The programme is also strikingly clear on the immediate social and economic measures demanded of a proletarian power: expropriation of the basic apparatus of production, distribution and communication; organisation of supplies to the population; reduction of the working day, etc. Though its first tasks are fundamentally political, the victorious proletariat is straight away faced with the necessity to operate on the social and economic terrain as well, since it alone is capable of saving society from the disintegration and chaos that results from the collapse of capitalism.

Inevitably, some of the elements in the programme were specific to the form that this collapse took in 1918: the imperialist war and its aftermath. Hence the importance of the questions of soldiers' councils, the reorganisation of the army, and so on - questions that would not have the same significance in a situation where the revolutionary situation is the direct result of the economic crisis, as is most likely in the future. More importantly, it was inevitable that a programme formulated at the commencement of a great revolutionary experience should contain weaknesses and lacunae precisely because so many crucial lessons. could only have been learned by living through that very experience; and it is worth noting that these weaknesses were common to the whole international workers' movement and were not, as is so often claimed, limited to the Bolshevik party which, because it alone faced the concrete
problems of the organisation of the proletarian dictatorship, suffered most cruelly from the consequences of these weaknesses.

 
Thus, if the programme talks about "nationalisation", and if Luxemburg in her introductory speech seems to imply that the economic measures outlined in the Communist Manifesto remain valid starting points for the socialist transformation[7], this is certainly because the bitter experience of the Russian revolution had not yet put paid to the illusion that state capitalism could somehow be moulded into socialism. Neither could the programme have resolved the problem of the relationship between the workers' councils and the state organs of the transition period. The necessity to make a distinction between the two was only drawn by the left communist fractions after deep reflection on the lessons of the degeneration of the revolution. The same goes for the question of the party. Contrary to the assertion of Robert Camoin cited earlier, the programme by no means ignores the role of the party. To begin with, on the more positive side, it is a "party political" document from beginning to end, expressing a real, practical understanding of the role of the party in the revolution. And on the negative side, despite all of the programme's repeated emphasis that the dictatorship of the proletariat and the construction of socialism could only be the work of the masses themselves, the final section of the programme shows that the KPD, like the Bolsheviks, had not yet gone beyond the parliamentary notion that the party takes power in the name of the class: "The Spartacus Union refuses to share government power with the lackeys of the capitalist class, the Scheidemann-Ebert element. The Spartacus Union will also refuse to take over the power of government merely because the Scheidemann-Ebert element has completely discredited themselves, and the Independent Socialist Party, though cooperation with them, has reached a blind alley. The Spartacus Union will never take over the power of government otherwise than by a clear manifestation of the unquestionable will of the great majority of the proletarian mass of Germany. It will only take over the power of government by the conscious approval by the mass of the workers of the principles, aims, and tactics of the Spartacus Union".

This passage is imbued with the same proletarian spirit that runs through the work of Lenin between April and October 1917: the rejection of putsch ism, the absolute insistence that the party cannot call for the seizure of power until the mass of the proletariat has been won to its programme. But along with the Bolsheviks, the Spartacists also held the mistaken view that the party which has a majority on the councils then becomes the governing party - a conception that was to have very serious consequences once the revolutionary tide went into reflux.

But perhaps most striking of all is the paucity of the section dealing with the international revolution. The section "International Problems" almost has the air of being tacked on as an afterthought, and is extremely vague about the proletarian attitude to imperialist war and to the international extension of the revolution, even though without such an extension, any revolutionary rising in one country is doomed to defeat[8].

For all their importance, none of these weaknesses were critical, and could have been overcome if the revolutionary dynamic had continued to advance. What was critical was the immaturity of the German proletariat, the chink in its armour which rendered it vulnerable to the sirens of social democracy, and thus to be picked off in a series of isolated uprisings rather than concentrate its forces for a centralised assault on bourgeois power. But that is a story that we have taken up elsewhere.

 

The next article in this series takes us to the year 1919, the zenith of the world revolution, and to an examination of the platform of the Communist International and of the programme of the Communist Party in Russia, where the dictatorship of the proletariat was not merely a demand but a practical reality.

CDW

 


[1] See the article "The great lie: communism = Stalinism = Nazism in International Review 92

[2] For our series on the German revolution, see International Review nos 81-86 and 88-90 and this issue.

[3] The text was presented as a draft to the founding congress, and was adopted formally at the Berlin congress of December 1919.

[4] "1895-1905: Parliamentary illusions hide the perspective of revolution", International Review 88)

[5] see for example our book on the German and Dutch communist left)

[6] International Review 15

[7] For an analysis both of the strengths and the historically conditioned limitations of the Communist Manifesto see the article in the first volume of this series, International Review 72.

[8] It is worth pointing out that this weakness, along with some others, was substantially rectified in the 1920 programme of the KAPD: its section of revolutionary measures begins with the proposal that a council republic in Germany should immediately fuse with Soviet Russia.