Germany 1918-19 (iv): Civil War

In the series Germany 1918-19

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In the first three parts of our series on the German Revolution of 1918-19 we showed how, after the collapse of the Socialist International faced with World War I, the tide turned in favour of the proletariat, culminating in the November Revolution of 1918, which, like the October Revolution in Russia the previous year, was the high point of an uprising against the imperialist war. Whereas October represented the first mighty blow of the working class against the "Great War", it was the action of the German proletariat which finally brought it to an end.

According to the history books of the ruling class, the parallel between the movements in Russia and Germany ends here. The revolutionary movement in Germany was only that of November 1918, directed against the war. As opposed to Russia, in Germany there was never a revolutionary socialist mass movement directed against the capitalist system as such. The "extremists", who fought for a "Bolshevik" revolution in Germany, would pay with their lives for not having understood this. So it is claimed.

However, the ruling class of the time did not share the nonchalance of the present day historians regarding the unshakeable character of capitalist rule Their programme of the day was: Civil War!

"Dual Power" and the council system

This orientation was motivated by the presence of a situation of dual power resulting from the November Revolution. If the ending of the imperialist war was the main result of November, its principle product was the system of workers' and soldiers' councils, which, as in Russia and Austria-Hungary, covered the whole country.

The German bourgeoisie, in particular Social Democracy, immediately drawing the lessons from what had happened in Russia, intervened from the outset to turn these organs of the revolution into empty shells. In many cases, they imposed the election of delegates on the basis of party lists, divided up between the SPD and the wavering, conciliatory USPD, effectively excluding revolutionaries from these organs. At the first national congress of the workers' and soldiers' councils in Berlin the left wing of capital prevented Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg from speaking. Above all, it pushed through a motion declaring the intention to hand over all power to a coming parliamentary government.

Such successes of the bourgeoisie still constitute the basis of the myth that in Germany, as opposed to Russia, the councils were not revolutionary. But this forgets that in Russia too, at the beginning of the Revolution, the councils did not follow a revolutionary course, that most of the delegates initially elected were not revolutionaries, and that the "soviets" there had also initially been in a hurry to give up their power.

After the November Revolution, the German bourgeoisie had no illusions about the supposed harmlessness of the council system. While claiming power for themselves, these councils continued to allow the bourgeois state apparatus to coexist alongside them. On the other hand the council system was by its very nature dynamic and elastic, its composition, attitude and mode of action capable of adjustment to each turn and radicalisation of the movement. The Spartakists, who had immediately understood this, had begun ceaseless agitation for the re-election of delegates, which would concretise a sharp left turn of the whole movement.

Nobody understood the potential danger of this "dual power" situation better than the German military leadership. General Groener, appointed to lead the operations of reaction, immediately activated the secret telephone connection 998 to the new chancellor, the Social Democrat Ebert. And just as the legendary Roman senator Cato, two thousand years before, had concluded every speech with the words "Carthage [(the mortal enemy of Rome] must be destroyed", Groener was obsessed with the destruction of the workers' and above all the soldiers' councils. Although, during and after the November Revolution, the soldiers' councils had partly represented a conservative dead weight holding back the workers, Groener knew that the radicalisation of the revolution would reverse this tendency, with the workers' councils beginning to draw the soldiers behind them. The ambition of the soldiers' councils was above all to impose its own command and to break the rule of the officers over the armed forces. This amounted to nothing less than the arming of the revolution. No ruling class has ever voluntarily accepted having its monopoly of armed force called into question. In this sense, the very existence of the council system put civil war on the agenda.

More than this: The bourgeoisie understood that in the aftermath of the November Revolution, time was no longer on its side. The spontaneous tendency of the whole situation was towards the radicalisation of the working class, the loss of its illusions regarding Social Democracy and "Democracy" and the swelling of its own self confidence. Without the slightest hesitation the German bourgeoisie immediately embarked on a policy of systematically provoking military clashes. Its goal: imposing decisive confrontations on its class enemy before the revolutionary situation could mature. More concretely: the "decapitation" of the proletariat through a bloody defeat of the workers in the capital Berlin, the political centre of the German workers' movement, before the struggles in the provinces could react a "critical" stage.

The open struggle between two classes, each determined to impose its own power, each with its own organisations of class rule, cannot but be a temporary, instable, untenable state of affairs. "Dual power" ends in civil war.

The Forces of Counter-Revolution

As opposed to the situation in Russia in 1917, the German Revolution was faced with the hostile forces of the whole world bourgeoisie. The ruling class was no longer split into two rival camps by the imperialist war. As such, the revolution had to confront not only the German bourgeoisie, but also the forces of the Entente, which gathered on the west bank of the Rhine, ready to intervene militarily should the German government lose control of the social situation. The United States, a relative newcomer to the world political stage, played the card of "democracy" and "the right of nations to self determination", presenting itself as the sole guarantor of peace and prosperity. As such it tried to formulate a political alternative to revolutionary Russia. The French bourgeoisie, for its part, obsessed by its own chauvinistic thirst for revenge, was burning to march deeper into German territory and to drown the revolution in blood in the process. It was Great Britain, the major world power of the day, which assumed the leadership of this counter-revolutionary alliance. Instead of lifting the embargo it had imposed on Germany during the war, it reinforced it. London was determined to starve out the population of Germany as long as that country had not installed a political regime approved by His Majesty's government.

Within Germany itself, the central axis of the counter-revolution was the alliance between two major forces: Social Democracy and the military. Social Democracy was the Trojan Horse of the white terror, operating behind the lines of the class enemy, sabotaging the revolution from within, using the remaining authority of a former workers' party (and the trade unions) to create a maximum of confusion and demoralisation. The military supplied the armed forces, but also the ruthlessness, audacity and strategic capacity which are its hallmarks.

What a wavering, half hearted lot the Russian socialists around Kerensky in 1917 were compared with the cold blooded counter-revolutionaries of the German SPD! What an unorganised mob the Russian officers were compared with the grim efficiency of the Prussian military elite![1]

In the days and weeks after the November Revolution, this alliance of death set out to solve two major problems. Given the disintegration of the imperial armies, it had to weld together the hard core of a new force, a white army of terror. It drew its raw material from two main sources, from the old officers' corps, and from uprooted individuals driven mad by the war, who could no longer be integrated into "civilian" life. Themselves victims of imperialism, but broken victims, these former solders were in search of an outlet for their blind hatred, and of someone who would pay for this service. Out of these desperados the aristocratic officers - politically supported and covered by the SPD - recruited and trained what became the Freikorps, the mercenaries of counter-revolution, the nucleus of what was later to be the Nazi movement.

These armed forces were backed up by a whole series of spy rings and agents provocateurs, coordinated by the SPD and the army staff.

The second problem was how to justify to the workers the deployment of the white terror. It was the Social Democracy which resolved this problem. For four years it had preached imperialist war in the name of peace. Now it preached civil war in the name of... preventing civil war. We don't see anybody here who wants bloodshed, it declared - except Spartakus! Too much workers' blood has already been spilled in the Great War - but Spartakus thirsts for more!

The mass media of the day spread these shameless lies: Spartakus is murdering and plundering and hiring soldiers for the counter revolution and collaborating with the Entente and getting money from the capitalists and preparing a dictatorship. The SPD was accusing Spartakus of what it was doing itself!

The first great manhunt of the 20th century in one of the highly "civilised" industrial nations of Western Europe, was directed against Spartakus. And whereas the capitalists and military top brass, offering enormous awards for the liquidation of the Spartakus leaders, preferred to remain anonymous, the SPD openly called for the assassination of Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg in its party press. Unlike their new bourgeois friends, the SPD were motivated in this campaign, not only by (bourgeois) class instinct and strategic thinking, but by a hatred no less boundless than that of the Freikorps.

The German bourgeoisie did not let itself be fooled by the superficial and fleeting impression of the moment; that Spartakus was only a small, sideline group. It knew that the heart of the proletariat was beating there, and got ready to strike its mortal blow.

December 1918: First Victories for the Proletariat

The counter-revolutionary offensive began on 6th December in Berlin with a three-pronged attack. The headquarters of the Rote Fahne, the paper of the Spartakusbund, was raided. Another group of soldiers tried to arrest the leaders of the executive organ of the workers' councils, who were in session. The intention to eliminate the councils as such was clear enough: Around the corner, another group of soldiers was obligingly calling on Ebert to outlaw the Executive Council. And a demonstration of Spartakus was ambushed near the city centre, at the Chausseestrasse: 18 dead, 30 injured. Proletarian bravery and ingenuity was able to prevent the worst. The leaders of the council executive were able to talk the soldiers out of this action, while a group of Russian prisoners of war, coming from behind along the Friedrichstrasse, were able to surprise and overpower the machine gunners from the Chausssestrasse with their bare hands.[2]

The following day an attempt was made to arrest (kidnap) and murder Karl Liebknecht in the offices of the Rote Fahne. His own cool headedness saved his life on this occasion.

These actions provoked the first gigantic solidarity demonstrations of the Berlin proletariat with Spartakus. From now on, all the demonstrations of the Spartakusbund were armed, led by lorries bearing batteries of machine guns. At the same time, the gigantic strike wave which had broken out at the end of November, centred in the heavy industrial areas of Upper Silesia and the Ruhr, intensified in face of such provocations.

The next target of the counter-revolution was the Volksmarinedivision, armed sailors who had come to the capital from the coastal ports to spread the revolution. Its very presence was a provocation to the authorities, all the more so since they had occupied the palace of the hallowed Prussian Kings.[3]

This time the SPD prepared the ground more carefully. They awaited the results of the national council congress, which came out in favour of handing over power to the SPD government and a future national assembly. A media campaign accused the sailors of marauding and plundering. Criminals, Spartakists!

On the morning of 24th December, Christmas Eve, the government presented an ultimatum to the 28 sailors in the palace and their 80 colleagues in the Marstall (Arsenal)[4]: Unconditional surrender. The badly armed garrison vowed to fight to the last man. Exactly ten minutes later (there was not even time to evacuate women and children from the buildings) the roar of artillery began, awakening the great city.

"That would have been, despite all the tenacity of the sailors, a lost battle, since they were so badly armed - had it taken place anywhere else. But it took place in the centre of Berlin. During battles, it is well known, rivers, hills, topographical difficulties play and important role. In Berlin the topographical difficulties were human beings.

When the canons began to roar, proudly and big mouthed, they woke civilians out of their sleep, who immediately understood what the canons were saying." [5]

Unlike Britain or France, Germany had not been a long standing centralised monarchy. Unlike London or Paris, Berlin did not become a world metropolis under the guidance of a government plan. Like the Ruhr valley, it sprawled like a cancerous growth. The result was that the government district ended up being surrounded on three sides by a "red belt" of gigantic working class districts.[6] Armed workers rushed to the scene to defend the sailors. Working class women and children stood between the guns and their target, armed only with their courage, humour and capacity of persuasion. The soldiers threw away their weapons and disarmed their officers.

The following day, the most massive demonstration in the capital since November 9 took possession of the city centre - this time against the SPD in defence of the revolution. The same day, groups of workers occupied the offices of Vorwärts, the daily paper of the SPD. There is little doubt that this action was the spontaneous result of the profound indignation of the proletariat. For decades, Vorwärts had been a mouthpiece of the working class - until the SPD leadership stole it during the World War. Now it was the most shameless and dishonest organ of the counter-revolution.

The SPD immediately saw the possibility of exploiting this situation for a new provocation, beginning a campaign against the alleged "attack against freedom of the press". But the Obleute, the revolutionary delegates, rushed to the Vorwärts headquarters, persuading the occupation group of the tactical wisdom of temporarily withdrawal to avoid a premature confrontation.

The year thus ended with another demonstration of revolutionary determination: the burial of the 11 dead sailors from the Marstall battle. The same day the USPD left the coalition government with the SPD. And while the Ebert government toyed with the idea of fleeing the capital, the founding congress of the KPD began.

The Eichhorn affair and the second Vorwärts occupation

The events of December 1918 revealed that a profound consolidation of the revolution had begun. The working class won the first confrontations of the new phase, either through the audacity of its reactions, or through the wisdom of its tactical retreats. The SPD had at least begun to expose its counter-revolutionary nature in the eyes of the class as a whole. It quickly turned out that the bourgeois strategy of provocation was difficult and even dangerous.

With its back to the wall, the ruling class drew lessons from these first skirmishes with remarkable lucidity. It realised that the direct and massive targeting of symbols and identified figures of the revolution - Spartakus, the leadership of the workers' councils or the sailors' division - could prove to be counter-productive, provoking the solidarity of the whole working class. Better to attack minor figures, who would win the support of only part of the class, thus possibly dividing the workers in the capital, and isolating them from the rest of the country. Such a figure was Emil Eichhorn, who belonged to the left wing of the USPD. A quirk of fate, one of the paradoxes which every great revolution produces, had made this man the president of the Berlin police. In this function, he had begun to distribute arms to workers militias. As such, he was a provocation for the ruling class. Targeting him would help to galvanise the forces of the counter-revolution, still reeling from their first reverses. At the same time, the defence of a chief of police was an ambiguous cause for the mobilisation of the revolutionary forces!

But the counter-revolution had a second provocation up its sleeve, no less ambiguous, with no less potential to divide the class and make it hesitate. It had not gone unnoticed by the SPD leadership that the brief occupation of the Vorwärts offices had shocked social democratic workers. Most of these workers felt ashamed for the content of this paper. What worried them was something else: the spectre of military conflict between social democratic and communist workers - painted in gaudy colours by the SPD - that might result from such occupation actions. This concern weighed all the heavier - the SPD leadership knew this well - because it was motivated by a real proletarian concern to defend the unity of the class.

The whole machinery of provocation was again flung into motion.

Torrent of lies: Eichhorn is corrupt, a criminal, payed by the Russians, preparing a counter-revolutionary putsch!

Ultimatum: Eichhorn must immediately resign, or be removed by force!

Display of brute force: This time, 10,000 troops were posted in the city centre, 80,000 more drawn together in the vicinity. These included the highly disciplined elite divisions of General Maercker, infantry troops, an "iron brigade" from the coast, militias from the bourgeois districts, and the first Freikorps. But they also included the "Republican Guard", an armed militia of the SPD, and important troop contingents which directly sympathised with Social Democracy.

The trap was ready to close. 

The fatal trap of January 1919

As the bourgeoisie expected, the attack against Eichhorn did not mobilise those troops in the capital who sympathised with the revolution. Nor did it arouse the workers in the provinces, where the name Eichhorn was unknown[7].

But there was one component of the new situation which took everyone by surprise. This was the massive extent and the intensity of the reaction of the proletariat of Berlin. On Sunday, January 5, 150,000 followed the call of the Revolutionäre Obleute[8] to demonstrate in front of the police headquarters at Alexanderplatz. The following day, over half a million workers downed tools and took possession of the city centre. These workers were ready to fight and to die. They had immediately understood that not Eichhorn, but the defence of the revolution was the real issue.

Although taken aback by the power of this response, the counter-revolution was cold blooded enough to go ahead with its plans. Once again Vorwärts was occupied, but also other press offices in the city centre. This time, agents provocateurs from the police had taken the initiative.[9]

The young KPD immediately warned the working class. In a leaflet, and in front page articles in the Rote Fahne, it called on the proletariat to elect new delegates to its councils and to arm itself, but also to realise that the moment for armed insurrection had not yet come. Such an insurrection required a centralised leadership at the level of the whole country. This could only be provided by workers' councils in which the revolutionaries held sway.

On the evening of January 5 the revolutionary leaders came together for consultations in the headquarters of Eichhorn. Around 70 Obleute were present, of whom roughly 80% were supporters of the left of the USPD, the rest supporters of the KPD. The members of the central committee of the Berlin organisation of the USPD turned up, as well as two members of the central committee of the KPD: Karl Liebknecht and Wilhelm Pieck..

At first, the delegates of the workers' organisations were unsure as to how they should respond. But then the atmosphere was transformed, indeed electrified, by reports coming in. These reports concerned the armed occupations in the newspaper district and the alleged readiness of different garrisons to join an armed insurrection. Liebknecht now declared that, under these circumstances, not only the repulsion of the attack against Eichhorn, but armed insurrection had become necessary.

The eye-witness reports of this dramatic meeting indicate that Liebknecht's intervention constituted the fatal turning point. Throughout the war, he had been the political compass and the moral conscience of the German and even the world proletariat. Now, at this crucial moment of the revolution, he lost his head and his bearings. Above all, he prepared the way for the Unabhängigen, the Independents, who were still the dominant political force. Lacking clearly defined principles, a clear long term perspective and a more profound confidence in the cause of the proletariat, this "independent" current was condemned to vacillate constantly under the pressure of the immediate situation, and thus to compromise with the ruling class. But the reverse side of the coin of this "centrism" was the strongly felt need to participate whenever unclear "action" is on the agenda, not least in order to put one's own revolutionary determination on the record.

"The Independent Party had no clear political programme; but nothing lay further beyond its intentions than the idea of toppling the Ebert-Scheidemann government. At this conference, decisions lay in the hands of the Independents. And here it became clear that in particular those wavering figures who were sitting in the Berlin party committee, who normally did not like to put themselves in danger, but at the same time always wanted to participate in everything, turned out to be the wildest bawlers, presenting themselves in the most ‘revolutionary' manner possible."[10]

According to Richard Müller, the situation thus escalated into a kind of competition between the USPD leadership and the KPD delegation.

"Now the Independents wanted to show courage and consequence by outbidding the goals proposed by Liebknecht. Could Liebknecht, in face of the ‘revolutionary' fire of these ‘wavering and hesitant elements' restrain himself? That did not lie in his nature." (ibid).

Warnings, such as those of soldiers' delegates who expressed doubts about the readiness of the troops to fight, were not listened to.

"Richard Müller spoke out in the sharpest possible terms against the proposed goal of the struggle, the toppling of the government. He declared that neither the political nor the military preconditions existed. The movement throughout the country was growing from day to day, so that very soon the political, military and psychological preconditions for the struggle for power would be achieved. A premature, isolated action in Berlin could put the further development of the revolution in danger. Only with difficulty could he present his attitude of rejection in face of objections from all sides.

Pieck as representative of the central committee of the KPD spoke sharply against Richard Müller and demanded in very definite terms an immediate vote and the commencement of struggle."[11]

Three major decisions were voted and adopted. The call for a general strike was taken unanimously. The two other decisions, the calls to topple the government and to maintain the occupation of the press offices, were adopted by a large majority, but with six votes against.[12]

A "provisional revolutionary action committee" was then formed, with 53 members and three chairmen: Liebknecht, Ledebour, Scholze.

The proletariat was now caught in the trap.

The so-called Spartakus Week

There now ensued what was to become a bloody week of fighting in Berlin. The bourgeoisie called this the "Spartakus Week": The foiling of a "communist putsch" by the "heroes of freedom and democracy". The fate of the German and the World Revolution was largely decided in this week, from January 5 to 12.

On the morning after the formation of the revolutionary committee, the strike in the city was almost total. Even more workers poured into the city centre than the previous day, many of them armed. But by midday all the hopes of active support from the garrisons had been dashed. Even the sailors' division, a living legend, declared itself neutral, going as far as to arrest its own delegate Dorrenbach for what they considered his irresponsible participation in the call for insurrection. The same afternoon, the same Volksmarinedivision turned the revolutionary committee out of the Marstall, where it had sought protection. Similarly, the concrete measures taken to remove the government were foiled, or even ignored, since there was no visible armed power behind them![13]

Throughout the day the masses were in the streets, awaiting further instructions from their leaders. But such instructions were not forthcoming. The art of the successful execution of mass actions consists in the concentration and direction of energy towards a goal which goes beyond the point of departure, which advances the general movement, which gives the participants the feeling of collective success and strength. In the given situation, the mere repetition of the strike and mass demonstrations of the previous days was not enough. Such a step forward would have been, for instance, the encirclement and agitation of the barracks in order to win the soldiers over to the new stage of the revolution, disarming the officers, beginning a broader arming of the workers themselves[14]. But the self-appointed revolutionary committee did not propose such measures, not least because it had already put forward a course of action which was much more radical, but sadly unrealistic. Having called for nothing less than armed insurrection, more concrete but far less spectacular measures would have appeared as a disappointment, an anti-climax, a retreat. The Committee, and with it the proletariat, was the prisoner of a misguided, empty radicalism.

The leadership of the KPD was horrified when it received news of the proposed insurrection. Rosa Luxemburg and Leo Jogiches in particular accused Liebknecht and Pieck of having abandoned, not only the decisions of the party congress of the previous week, but the party programme itself.[15]

But these mistakes could not be undone, and as such were not (yet) the question of the hour. The turn of events placed the party before a terrible dilemma: How to lead the proletariat out of the trap it was already caught in?

This task was much more difficult that that mastered by the Bolsheviks during the famous "July Days" of 1917 in Russia, when the party succeeded in helping the class to side-step the trap of a premature military confrontation.

The astonishing, paradoxical response which the party, under the impetus of Rosa Luxemburg's urging found, was as follows. The KPD, the most determined opponent of an armed revolution up till then, must now become its more fervent protagonist. This for a single reason. Taking power in Berlin was the only way of preventing the bloody massacre which was now looming, the decapitation of the German proletariat. Once this danger had been averted, the Berlin proletariat could tackle the problem of holding out or of retreating in good order until the revolution was ripe in the country as a whole.

Karl Radek, the emissary of the Russian Party in hiding in Berlin, proposed an alternative course of action: immediate retreat while keeping their weapons, but if necessary surrendering them. But the class as a whole still had no arms. The problem was that the appearance of an "undemocratic" communist "putsch" gave the government the pretext it needed for a bloodletting. No retreat of the combatants could undo this.

The course of action proposed by Luxemburg was based on the analysis that the military balance of forces in the capital was not unfavourable to the proletariat. And indeed: if January 6th immediately dashed the hopes of the revolutionary committee in "its" troops, it soon became clear that the counter-revolution had miscalculated also. The Republican Guard and those troops who sympathised with the SPD now refused, for their part, to use force against the revolutionary workers. In their accounts of events, both the revolutionary Richard Müller and the counter-revolutionary Gustav Noske later confirmed the correctness of the analysis of Rosa Luxemburg: From the military point of view, the balance of forces at the beginning of the week was in favour of the proletariat.

But the decisive question was not the military but the political balance of forces. And this weighed against the proletariat for the simple reason that the leadership of the movement was still in the hands of the "centrists", the wavering elements, and not yet those of the consequent revolutionaries. According to the Marxist "art of insurrection" the armed rising is the last step in the process of enforcing the revolution, which merely sweeps away the last posts of resistance.

Realising the trap into which it had manoeuvred itself, the provisional committee, instead of arming the proletariat, began to negotiate with the government it had just declared to be ousted, and without even knowing what it wanted to negotiate. Given this attitude of the committee, on 10th January the KPD obliged Liebknecht and Pieck to resign from it. But the damage was already done. The policy of conciliation paralysed the proletariat, bringing all its doubts and hesitations to the surface. The workers of a whole series of major plants came out with declarations condemning the SPD, but also Liebknecht and the "Spartakists", calling for re-conciliation between the "socialist parties".

At this moment, when the counter-revolution was reeling, the Social Democrat Noske saved the day. "Somebody has to be the bloodhound. I am not afraid of the responsibility" he declared. While pretending to "negotiate" in order to gain time, the SPD now openly summoned the officers, the students, the bourgeois militias to drown the workers resistance in blood. With the proletariat divided and demoralised, the way was now open for the most savage white terror. These atrocities included the shelling of buildings with artillery, the murdering of prisoners and even of negotiation delegates, the lynching of workers, but also of soldiers who shook hands with revolutionaries, the molesting of women and children in the workers districts, the desecration of dead bodies, but also the systematic hunting down and murdering of revolutionaries such as Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg. We will return to the nature and significance of this terror in the last article of this series.

Revolutionary mass strike, January-March 1919

In a famous article published in the Rote Fahne on 27th November 1918 entitled "The Acheron in Motion" Rosa Luxemburg announced the beginning of a new phase in the revolution: that of the mass strike. This was soon confirmed in a resounding manner. The material situation of the population did not improve with the end of the war. The contrary was the case. Inflation, redundancies and mass unemployment, short term work and falling real wages created new misery for millions of workers, state functionaries, but also for large layers of the middle classes. Increasingly, material misery, but also bitter disappointment with the results of the November Revolution, obliged the masses to defend themselves. Their empty stomachs were a powerful argument against the alleged benefits of the new bourgeois democracy. Successive strike waves rolled across the country above all in the first quarter of 1919. Far beyond the traditional centres of the organised socialist movement like Berlin, the coastal ports or the concentrations of the engineering and high technology sectors,[16]politically less experienced parts of the proletariat were swept into the revolutionary process. These included what Rosa Luxemburg in her Mass Strike pamphlet of 1906 had called the "helot layers"[17] These were particularly downtrodden sectors of the class, who had hardly benefited from socialist education, and who as such were often looked down on by pre-war Social Democratic and trade union functionaries. Rosa Luxemburg had predicted that they would play a leading role in a future struggle for socialism.

And now, there they were. For instance the millions of miners, metal and textile workers in the industrial districts of the lower Rhine and Westphalia.[18] There, the defensive workers struggles were immediately confronted with a brutal alliance of the employers and their armed factory guards, the trade unions and the Freikorps. Out of these first confrontations crystallised two main demands of the strike movement, formulated at a conference of delegates from the whole region at the beginning of February in Essen: All power to the workers' and soldiers' councils! Socialisation of the factories and mines!

The situation escalated when the military tried to disarm and dismantle the solders councils, sending 30,000 Freikorps to occupy the Ruhr. On 14th February the workers' and soldiers' councils called for a general strike and armed resistance. In some areas the determination of the workers' mobilisation was so great that the white mercenary army did not even dare to attack. The indignation against the SPD, which openly supported the military and denounced the strike, was indescribable. To such an extent that on 25th February the councils - supported by the Commuist delegates - decided to end the strike. Unfortunately at just that very moment it was beginning in central Germany! The leadership was afraid that the workers would flood the mines or attack Social Democratic workers.[19] In fact, the workers demonstrated a high degree of discipline, with a large minority respecting the call to return to work -although not agreeing with it.

A second, gigantic mass strike broke out towards the end of March, lasting several weeks despite the repression of the Freikorps.

"It soon became clear that the Social Democratic Party and the Trade Union leaders had lost their influence over the masses. The power of the revolutionary movement of the months of February and March did not lie in the possession and use of military arms, but in the possibility of taking away the economic foundation of the bourgeois-socialist government through paralysing the most important areas of production (...) The enormous military mobilisation, the arming of the bourgeoisie, the brutality of the military, could not break this power, could not force the striking workers back to work."[20]

The second great centre of the mass strike was the region known as central Germany (Mitteldeutschland)[21]. There, the strike movement exploded in mid-February, not only in response to pauperisation and repression, but also in solidarity with the victims of repression in Berlin and with the strikes on the Rhine and Ruhr. As in the latter region, the movement drew its strength from being led by the workers' and soldiers' councils, where the Social Democrats were fast losing influence.

But whereas in the Ruhr area the employees in heavy industry dominated, here the movement engulfed not only miners, but almost every profession and branch of industry. For the first time since the beginning of the revolution, the railway workers joined in. This was of particular significance. One of the first measures of the Ebert government at the end of the war was to substantially increase wages on the railways. The bourgeoisie needed to "neutralise" this sector in order to be able to move its counter-revolutionary brigades from one end of Germany to the other. Now, for the first time, this possibility was put in question.

No less significant was that the soldiers in the garrisons came out in support of the strikers. The National Assembly, which had fled from the Berlin workers, went to Weimar to hold its constitutive parliamentary session. It arrived in the midst of acute class struggle and a hostile soldiery, and was forced to meet behind an artillery and machine gun barrier.[22]

The selective occupation of cities by Freikorps provoked street fighting in Halle, Merseburg and Zeitz, explosions of masses "enraged to the point of madness" as Richard Müller put it. As on the Ruhr, these military actions were unable to break the strike movement.

The call of the factory delegates for a general strike on February 24 was to reveal another enormously significant development. It was supported unanimously by all the delegates, including those from the SPD. In other words: Social Democracy was losing its control even over its own membership.

"From the very onset the strike spread to a maximum degree. A further intensification was not possible, unless through an armed insurrection, which the strikers rejected, and which appeared pointless. The only way to make the strike more effective would be through the workers in Berlin."[23]

It was thus that the workers summoned the proletariat of Berlin to join, indeed to lead the movement which was flaming in central Germany and on Rhine and Ruhr.

And the workers of Berlin responded, as best they could, despite the defeat they had just suffered. There, the centre of gravity had been transformed from the streets to the mass assemblies. The debates which took place in the plants, offices and barracks produced a continuous shrinking of the influence of the SPD and the number of its delegates in the workers' councils. The attempts of Noske's party to disarm the soldiers and liquidate their organisations only accelerated this process. A general assembly of the workers' councils in Berlin on 28th February called on the whole proletariat to defend its organisations and to prepare for struggle. The attempt of the SPD to prevent this resolution was foiled by its own delegates.

This assembly re-elected its action committee. The SPD lost its majority. At the next elections to this organ, on 19th April, the KPD had almost as many delegates elected as the SPD. In the Berlin councils, the tide was turning in favour of the revolution.[24]

Realising that the proletariat could only triumph if led by a united, centralised organisation, mass agitation began in Berlin for the re-election of the workers' and soldiers' councils in the whole country, and for the calling of a new national congress of this organisation. Despite the hysterical opposition of the government and the SPD to this proposal, the soldiers' councils began to declare themselves in favour of this proposal. The Social Democrats played for time, fully aware of the practical difficulties of the hour in realising such plans.

But the movement in Berlin was confronted with another, very pressing question: The call for support from the workers in central Germany. The general assembly of the workers' councils of Berlin met on 3rd March to decide on this question. The SPD, knowing that the nightmare of the January Week stilled haunted the proletariat of the capital, was determined to prevent a general strike. And indeed the workers hesitated at first.. The revolutionaries, agitating for solidarity with central Germany, gradually turned the tide. Delegations from all the main plants of the city were sent to the assembly of the councils to inform it that the mass assemblies at the work places had already decided to down tools. It became clear that there, the Communists and Left Independents now had the majority of workers behind them.

In Berlin too, the strike was almost total. Work continued only in those plants which had been designated to do so by the workers' councils (fire brigade, water, electricity and gas supplies, health, food production). The SPD and its mouthpiece Vorwärts immediately denounced the strike, calling on those delegates who were party members to do likewise. The result: these delegates now declared themselves against the position of their own party. Moreover, the printers, who, under strong social democratic influence, had been among the few professions which had not joined the strike front, now did so - in protest against the attitude of the SPD. In this way, an important part of the counter-revolutionary hate campaign of was silenced.

Despite all these signs of ripening, the trauma of January proved fatal. The general strike in Berlin came too late, just when it was ending in central Germany. Worse still, the Communists, traumatised indeed by the January defeat, refused to participate in the strike leadership alongside Social Democrats. The unity of the strike front began to decompose. Division and demoralisation spread.

This was the moment for the Freikorps to invade Berlin. Drawing lessons from the January events, the workers assembled in the factories instead of the streets. But instead of immediately attacking the workers, the Freikorps marched first against the garrisons and the soldiers' councils, to begin with against those regiments which had participated in suppressing the workers in January; those who enjoyed the least sympathy of the working population. Only afterwards did it turn on the proletariat. As in January, there were summary executions on the streets, revolutionaries were murdered (among them Leo Jogiches), corpses flung into the river Spree. This time, the white terror was even more horrific than in January, claiming well over a thousand lives. The workers' district of Lichtenberg, to the east of the city centre, was bombed by the air force.

Concerning the January-March struggles, Richard Müller wrote: "This was the most gigantic uprising of the German proletariat, of the workers, employees, civil servants and even parts of the petty bourgeois middle classes, on a scale never previously reached, and thereafter only once more attained, during the Kapp-Putsch. The popular masses stood in general strike not only in the regions of Germany focused on here: in Saxony, in Baden and Baveria, everywhere the waves of social revolution pounded against the walls of the capitalist production and property order. The working masses were striding along the path of the continuation of the political transformation of November 1918."[25]


"The curse of the January action still weighed on the revolutionary movement. Its pointless beginning and its tragic consequences were tearing the workers of Berlin asunder, so it took weeks of dogged work to render them capable of re-entering the struggle. If the January putsch had not taken place, the Berlin proletariat would have been able to come to the assistance of the combatants in Rhineland-Westphalia and in central Germany in good time. The revolution would have successfully been continued, and the new Germany would have been given a quite different political and economic face."[26]

Could the revolution have triumphed?

The failure of the world proletariat to prevent World War I created difficult conditions for the triumph of the revolution. In comparison with a revolution primarily in response to an economic crisis, a revolution against world war has considerable drawbacks. Firstly, the war killed or mained millions of workers, many of them experienced and class conscious socialists. Secondly, unlike an economic crisis, the bourgeoisie can bring such a war to a halt when it sees that its continuation menaces its system. This happened in November 1918. It created a division within the working class in each country between those satisfied with a ceasefire  and those for whom only socialism could resolve the problem. Thirdly, the international proletariat was divided, first by the war itself, and then between workers in the "defeated" and in the "victorious" countries. It is no coincidence that a revolutionary situation arose where the war had been lost (Russia, Austria-Hungary, Germany) - not among the main powers of the Entente (Great Britain, France, the United States).

But does this mean that a successful proletarian revolution, under such circumstances, was an impossibility from the outset? We recall that this was one of the main arguments advanced by Social Democracy to justify its counter-revolutionary role. But in reality, this was far from being the case.

Firstly, although the "Great War" physically decimated and psychologically weakened the proletariat, this did not prevent the class from unleashing a powerful revolutionary assault against capitalism. The carnage imposed was immense, but less than that inflicted by World War II; no comparison to what a Third World War with thermonuclear weapons would signify.

Secondly, although the bourgeoisie could bring the war to a halt, this does not mean that it could eliminate its material and political consequences. To these consequences belonged the exhaustion of the productive apparatus, the disorganisation of the economy and the overexploitation of the working class in Europe. In the defeated countries in particular, the ending of the war did not lead to a rapid restoration of the pre-war standard of living of the mass of the population. The contrary was the case. Although the demand for the "socialisation of industry" contained the danger of diverting the class away from the struggle for power towards the kind of self management projects favoured by anarchism and syndicalism, in 1919 in Germany the main driving force behind this demand was the concern for the physical survival of the proletariat. The workers, more and more convinced of the inability of capitalism to produce enough foodstuffs, coal etc at affordable prices to get the population through the winter, began to realise that an undernourished and exhausted work force, periled by an explosion of disease and infection, would have to take these questions into its own hands - before it was too late.

In this sense, the struggle against the war did not end with the war itself. Moreover, the impact of the war on the consciousness of the class was profound. It robbed modern warfare of its heroic image.

Thirdly, the breach between the workers in the "defeated" and the "victorious" countries was not insurmountable. In Great Britain in particular, there had been powerful strike movements both during and at the end of the war. The most striking aspect of 1919, the "year of revolution" in central Europe, was the relative absence of the French proletariat from the scene. Where was that sector of the class, which from 1848 to the Paris Commune of 1871 had been the vanguard of proletarian insurrection? To a large extent it had been infected by the chauvinist frenzy of the bourgeoisie, which promised "its" workers a new era of prosperity on the basis of the reparations it would impose on Germany. Was there no antidote to such nationalist poison? Yes, there was. The victory of the proletariat in Germany would have been this antidote.

In 1919 Germany was the vital link between the revolution in the East and the slumbering class consciousness in the West. The European working class of 1919 had been educated by socialism. Its conviction as to the necessity and possibility of socialism had not yet been undermined by the Stalinist counter-revolution. The victory of the revolution in Germany would have weakened illusions in the possibility of a return to the apparent "stability" of the pre-war world. The resumption by the German proletariat of its leading role in the class struggle would have enormously strengthened confidence in the future of socialism.

But was the triumph of the revolution in Germany itself ever a realistic possibility? The 1918 November Revolution revealed the power and the heroism of the class, but also enormous illusions, confusions and vacillations. But this was no less the case in February 1917 in Russia. In the months which followed, the course of the Russian Revolution reveals a progressive ripening of an immense potential, leading to victory in October. But in Germany, from November 1918 onwards - despite the ending of the war - we see a very similar ripening. In the first quarter of 1919, we have seen the development of the mass strike, the drawing into combat of the whole class, a growing role of the workers' councils, and of revolutionaries within them, the beginnings of the effort to create a centralised organisation and leadership of the movement, the progressive exposure of the counter revolutionary role of the SPD and the trade unions, as well as the limits of the effectiveness of state repression.

In the course of 1919, local risings and "council republics" in the coastal cities, in Bavaria and elsewhere, were liquidated. These episodes are full of examples of proletarian heroism and of bitter lessons for the future. For the outcome of the Revolution in Germany, they were not decisive. The determining centres lay elsewhere. The first was the enormous industrial concentration in what today is the province of North-Rhine-Westphalia. In the eyes of the bourgeoisie, this area was populated by a sinister species from a kind of underworld, which never saw the light of day, which lived beyond the bounds of civilisation. It was horrified when it saw this enormous grey army in sprawling cities, where the sun rarely shone, and where the falling snow was black, emerge from the mines and furnaces. Horrified, even more horrified, when it became acquainted with the intelligence, the human warmth, the sense of solidarity and discipline of this army, no longer the cannon fodder of imperialist wars and production battles, but the protagonists of its own class war. Neither in 1919 nor in 1920 was the combined brutality of the military and the Freikorps able to crush this foe on its own terrain. It was only vanquished when, after repelling the Kapp Putsch in 1920, these workers made the mistake of sending their "Red Army of the Ruhr" out of the cities and the coal stacks to fight a conventional battle.

The second lay in central Germany with its very old, highly qualified working class steeped in socialist traditions.[27] Before and during the World War, ultra-modern industries such as chemicals, and aircraft production were established there, attracting tens of thousands of young workers, inexperienced, but combative, radical, full of a sense of solidarity. This sector too, would engage in further massive struggles in 1920 (Kapp) and 1921 (March Action).

But if Rhine and Ruhr and central Germany were the lungs, the heart and the digestive organs of the revolution, Berlin was the brain. The third largest city in the world (after New York and London), Berlin was something like the silicon valley of Europe of the day. The basis of its economic rise was the ingenuity of its highly skilled work force. The latter also had a long-standing socialist education, it was the heart of the process of the formation of the class party.

The conquest of power was not yet on the agenda in the first quarter of 1919. The task of the hour was to gain time for the maturation of the revolution in the whole class, while avoiding a decisive defeat. Time, at this decisive moment, was on the side of the proletariat. Class consciousness was deepening. The proletariat was striving to create its necessary organs of victory - the party, the councils. The main battalions of the class were joining the struggle.

But through the defeat of January 1919 in Berlin time switched, going over to the side of the bourgeoisie. The Berlin defeat came in two parts: January and March-April 1919. But January was decisive because it was a moral and not only a physical defeat. The unification of the decisive sectors of the class in the mass strike was the force capable of foiling the strategy of the counter-revolution and opening a pathway leading towards insurrection. But this process of unification - similar to what took place in Russia at the end of the summer 1917 in face of the Kornilov Putsch - depended above all on two factors: The class party and the workers in the capital. The bourgeoisie succeeded in its strategy of pre-emptively inflicting serious wounds on these decisive elements. The failure of the Revolution in Germany in face of its "Kornilov Days" was above all the result of its failure in face of the German version of the July Days.[28]

The most striking difference to Russia is the absence of a revolutionary party capable of formulating and defending a coherent and lucid policy in face of the inevitable storms of revolutions and the divergences in its own ranks. As we said in the previous article, the revolution could triumph in Russia without the constitution of a world class party - but not in Germany.

This is why we devoted a whole article of this series to the founding congress of the KPD. This congress understood many questions, but not the most burning issues of the hour. Although it formally adopted the analysis of the situation presented by Rosa Luxemburg, in reality too many delegates underestimated the class enemy. Although insisting heavily on the role of the masses, their vision of revolution was still influenced by examples from the bourgeois revolutions of the past. The bourgeoisie's seizure of power was but the last act of its coming to power, prepared in advance by the ascent of its economic might. Since the proletariat, as an exploited class without property, cannot accumulate wealth, it must prepare its victory by other means. It must accumulate consciousness, experience, organisation. It must become active, learning to take its fate into its own hands.[29]

Time economy of the revolution

The capitalist mode of production determines the nature of the proletarian revolution. The proletarian revolution reveals the secret of the capitalist mode of production. Going through the stages of cooperation, manufacture and industrialisation, capitalism brings forth the productive forces which are the precondition for classless society. It does this through the establishment of associated labour. This "collective labourer", the creator of this wealth, is enslaved by capitalist property relations, by the private, competitive, anarchic appropriation of the fruits of associated labour. The proletarian revolution abolishes private property, bringing the mode of appropriation into line with the associated character of production. Under the command of capital, the proletariat has from the onset been creating the material conditions for its own liberation. But the gravediggers of capitalist society can only complete their historic mission if the proletarian revolution itself is the product of the "associated labourer"; of the workers of the world acting so to speak as a single person. The collective of toil of wage labour must become the conscious collective association of struggle.

This welding together in struggle both of the class as a whole, and of its revolutionary minorities, takes time. In Russia it took over a dozen years, from the struggle for a "new kind of class party" in 1903, through the mass strikes of 1905-06 and on the eve of World War One, to the heady days of 1917. In Germany, in the Western countries as a whole, the context of world war and the brutal acceleration of history it embodies granted little time for this necessary maturation. The intelligence and determination of the bourgeoisie after the armistice of 1918 further reduced the time available.

We have repeatedly spoken in this series about the shaking of the self confidence of the class and its revolutionary vanguard through the collapse of the Socialist International faced with the outbreak of war. What did this mean?

Bourgeois society conceives of this question of self-assurance as the confidence of the individual in his or her own powers. This conception forgets that mankind, more than any other known species, depends on society for its survival and development. This is all the more true for the proletariat, associated labour, which produces and struggles not individually but collectively, which brings forth not individual revolutionaries but revolutionary organisations. The powerlessness of the individual worker - which is much more extreme than that of the individual capitalist or even the individual small property owner - reveals itself in struggle as the real, hidden strength of this class. Its dependence on the collective prefigures the nature of the future communist society, where the conscious affirmation of the community will for the first time permit the development of full individuality. Self-confidence of the individual presupposes confidence of the parts in the whole, the mutual confidence of the members of the community of struggle.

In other words, it is only by welding a unity in struggle that the class can develop the courage and confidence necessary for victory. Only in a collective manner can its theoretical and analytical weapons be sufficiently sharpened. The mistakes the delegates of the KPD made at the decisive moment in Berlin were in reality the product of the still insufficient maturity of this collective strength of the young class party as a whole.

Our insistence on the collective nature of the proletarian struggle in no way denies the importance of the role of the individual in history. Trotsky, in his History of the Russian Revolution, wrote that, without Lenin, the Bolsheviks in October 1917 might have been too late in recognising the right moment for insurrection. The Party came close to missing its "rendezvous with history". Had the KPD sent these clear sighted analysts Rosa Luxemburg and Leo Jogiches to the headquarters of Emil Eichhorn on 5th January, instead of Karl Liebknecht and Wilhelm Pieck, the historic outcome might have been different.

We do not deny the importance of Lenin or Rosa Luxemburg in the revolutionary struggles of the time. What we deny is that their role was above all the product of their individual genius. Their importance flowed above all from their capacity to be collective, to concentrate and direct like a prism all the light radiated by the class and the party as a whole. The tragic role of Rosa Luxemburg in the German Revolution, the fact that her influence on the party at the decisive moment was not great enough, is linked to fact that she embodied the living experience of the international movement at a moment when the movement in Germany still suffered from its isolation from the rest of the world proletariat.

We want to insist that history is an open process, and that the defeat of the first wave of world revolution was not a foregone conclusion. It is not our intention to tell the story of "what might have been". There is never a way back in history. There is only a way forward. With hindsight, the course taken by history is always "inevitable". But here we forget that the determination - or lack of determination - of the proletariat, its capacity to draw lessons and to unite its forces internationally, are part of this equation. In other words, that which becomes "inevitable" depends also on us. Our efforts towards a conscious goal are an active component of the equation of history.

In the next, concluding chapter of this series, we will examine the enormous consequences of the defeat of the German Revolution and consider the relevance of these events for today and tomorrow. 


[1] This alliance between the military and the SPD, which proved decisive for the victory of the counter-revolution, would itself not have been possible without the support of the British bourgeoisie. The smashing of the power of the Prussian military caste was one of London's war goals. This goal was abandoned in order not to weaken the forces of reaction. In this sense, it would be no exaggeration to speak of an alliance between the German and the British bourgeoisie as the pillar of the international counter-revolution of the day. We will return to this question in the last part of this series.

[2] Thousands of Russian and other prisoners of war were still held by the German bourgeoisie and condemned to forced labour, despite the end of the war. They participated actively in the revolution alongside their German class brother and sisters.

[3] This monumental baroque building, which survived World War II, was blown up by the GDR and replaced by the Stalinist "Palace of the Republic". The balcony where Liebknecht had proclaimed the Socialist Republic on the day of the November Revolution, was removed beforehand and integrated into the adjacent façade of the "State Council of the GDR". In this way, the spot where Liebknecht summoned to World Revolution was transformed into a symbol of the nationalist "Socialism in one country".

[4] This building, located behind the palace, still exists.

[5] This is the formulation of the author Alfred Döblin in his book Karl and Rosa, the last part of his novel in four volumes: November 1918. As a sympathiser of the left wing of the USPD, he was an eye witness of the revolution in Berlin. His monumental account was written in the 1930s, and is marked by the confusion and despair of the triumphant counter-revolution.

[6] In the course of rebuilding in the city centre after the Berlin Wall fell, escape tunnels of different governments of the 20th century were excavated, unmarked on any official map, monuments to the fear of the ruling class. It was not reported if new tunnels have been built.

[7] There were sympathy strikes, demonstrations and occupations of buildings in a number of cities, including Hamburg, Stuttgart and Düsseldorf.

[8] Revolutionary delegates in the factories (see the previous articles in this series).

[9] This development, already amply documented by Richard Müller in his history of the German Revolution, written in the 1920's, is today an accepted fact among historians.

[10] Volume 3 of Müllers History of the German Revolution: Civil War in Germany. pp35, 36.

[11] Müller ibid p33. Richard Müller was one of the most experienced and talented leaders of the movement. There are certain parallels between the role Müller played in Germany and that of Trotsky in 1917 in Russia. Both were chairman of the action committee of the workers' councils in the capital city. Both went on to become the historian of the revolution they directly participated in. It is painful to see the summary way in which Wilhelm Pieck brushed aside the warnings of such an experienced and responsible leader.

[12] The six opponents were Müller, Däumig, Eckert, Malzahn, Neuendorf and Rusch.

[13] The case of Lemmgen, a revolutionary sailor, is legendary, but unfortunately true. After the failure of his repeated attempts to confiscate the state bank, the Reichsbank (a civil servant called Hamburger disputed the validity of the signatures under his order), poor Lemmgen was so demoralised that he went home and crept into his bed.

[14] Precisely this course of action was proposed in public by the KPD, in particular in its central press organ the Rote Fahne.

[15] In particular the passage of the programme which declared that the party would assume power only with the support of the great mass of the proletariat

[16] Such as Thuringia, the Stuttgart area or the Rhine valley, long standing bastions of the Marxist movement.

[17] The helots were an unfree population group that formed the main population of Laconia and the whole of Messenia (areas of Sparta). Tied to the land, they worked in agriculture as a majority and economically supported the Spartan citizens. They were ritually mistreated, humiliated and even slaughtered: every autumn, during the crypteia, they could be killed by a Spartan citizen without fear of repercussion.

[18] Centred around the rivers Ruhr and Wupper.

[19] On 22nd February communist workers in Mülheim on the Ruhr attacked a public meeting of the SPD with machine guns.

[20] R.Müller Vol. 3. pp141, 142.

[21] The provinces of Saxony, Thuringia and Saxon-Anhalt. The centre of gravity was the city of Halle and the near by chemical belt around the giant Leuna plant.

[22] The term "Weimar Republic", covering the period of German history from 1919 to 1933, originates from this episode.

[23] Müller, ibid. p146.

[24] In the first weeks of the revolution, the USPD and the Spartakusbund between them were backed by only a quarter of all delegates. The SPD dominated massively. The party membership of the delegates voted in Berlin at the beginning of 1919 was as follows.

February 28th: USPD 305; SPD 271; KPD 99; Democrats:95.

April 19 th: USPD 312; SPD 164; KPD 103; Democrats 73.

It should be noted that the KPD during this period could only operate in secrecy, and that a considerable number of the USPD delegates in reality sympathised with the Communists and were soon to join their ranks.

[25] Müller ibid p161

[26] Ibid p154.

[27] No coincidence that the childhood of the Marxist movement in Germany is associated with the names of Thüringian cities: Eisenach, Gotha, Erfurt.

[28] The July Days of 1917 were one of the most important moments, not only of the Russian revolution but in the history of the workers' movement. On 4th July an armed demonstration, half a million strong, besieged the leaders of the Petrograd Soviet, calling on them to take power, but dispersed peacefully in the evening in response to an appeal from the Bolsheviks. On 5th July counter-revolutionary troops retook the city and began hunting down the Bolsheviks and the most militant workers. However, by avoiding a premature struggle for power when the class as a whole was not yet ready for it, the proletariat as a whole kept its revolutionary forces intact. This made it possible for the workers to draw the essential lessons from events, in particular their understanding of the counter-revolutionary nature of bourgeois democracy and the new left of capital: the Mensheviks and Social-Revolutionaries, who had betrayed the cause of the workers and poor peasants and passed into the enemy camp. Never was the danger greater than during these dramatic 72 hours, of a decisive defeat for the proletariat and the liquidation of the Bolshevik Party. At no other time was the profound confidence of the proletariat's most advanced battalions in their class party, the communist vanguard, of such importance.

After the workers' defeat in July, the bourgeoisie thought they could put an end to the nightmare of revolution. Thanks to a division of labour between Kerensky's "democratic" bloc and the openly reactionary bloc of the army leader Kornilov, between August and early September the ruling class organised the latter's coup d'Etat which tried to use the Cossack and Caucasian regiments which still seemed to be reliable, against the Soviets. The attempt was a fiasco. The massive reaction of the workers and soldiers, their firm organisation by the Committee for the Defence of the Revolution - which was later to become the Petrograd Soviet's Military Revolutionary Committee in charge of the October insurrection - meant that Kornilov's troops either surrendered without even mobilising, or more often deserted to the side of the workers and soldiers.

[29] Unlike Luxemburg, Jogiches or Marchlewski, who were in Poland  (then part of the Russian Empire ) during the revolution of 1905-06, most of the those who founded the KPD, lacking direct experience of the mass strike, had difficulties  understanding its indispensability for the victory of the revolution.