1918-1919: The proletarian revolution put an end to the imperialist war

Printer-friendly versionSend by email

The bourgeoisie recently celebrated the end of the First World War. Obviously, there have been many emotional declarations about the terrible tragedy of this war. But in all these commemorations, in the declarations of the politicians and in the newspapers and on the TV, the events which actually led the governments to put an end to the war are never mentioned. Reference is made to the military defeat of the central empires, Germany and its Austrian ally, but the decisive element which led the latter to ask for an armistice is carefully avoided: the revolutionary movement which developed in Germany at the end of-1918. Neither has there been any question of identifying the real responsibilities for this butchery - and this is quite understandable. Of course, the "specialists" have pored over the archives of the different governments to conclude that it was Germany and Austria who pushed hardest for war. The historians have also shown that the war aims of the Entente were quite specific. However, in none of their "analyses" is the real cause of the war pointed out: the capitalist system itself. And this is again perfectly understandable: only marxism can explain why it wasn't the "will" or the "rapacity" of this or that government which lay at the root of the war, but the very laws of capitalism. For our part, the anniversary of the end of the First World War is an occasion to return to the analyses made by revolutionaries at the time, and to the struggle they waged against the war. We will base ourselves in particular on the writings and attitude of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, for we are also commemorating the 80th anniversary of their murder by the bourgeoisie. This is the best homage we can give to these two magnificent fighters for the world proletariat[1] at a time when the bourgeoisie is seeking in all sorts of ways to kill their memory.

The war which broke out in Europe in August 1914 had been preceded by numerous other wars on this continent. We can recall, for example (if we limit ourselves to the 19th century) the Napoleonic wars and the war between Prussia and Prance in 1870. However there are fundamental differences between the conflict of 1914 and all the previous ones. The most obvious one was the carnage and barbarity it inflicted on the continent of "civilisation", Today, after the much greater barbarity of the Second World War, what happened in World War I appears almost modest. But in the Europe of the turn of the century, when the last military conflict of any importance had been in 1870, and when there was still a glow from the last embers of the "belle époque", the epoch of the zenith of the capitalist mode of production which had allowed the working class to make significant improvements in its living conditions, the brutal plunge into mass slaughter, into the daily horror of the trenches and a poverty not seen for half a century, was seen as an incomparable summit of barbarism, especially by the exploited. On both sides, among the main belligerents, Germany and France, the soldiers and the population had heard from their forebears about the war of 1870 and its cruelty. But what they were going through had little in common with that episode. The conflict of 1870 had only lasted a few months, and had involved a far smaller number of victims (some hundred thousand); neither did it result in the ruin of either victor or vanquished. With the First World War, the numbers of the dead, mutilated and wounded had to be counted in millions[2]. The daily hell suffered at the front and at the rear lasted more than 4 years. At the front, this horror took the form of an underground existence, of living in mud and filth, with the stench of corpses, in permanent fear from shells and machine gun fire, and of the spectacle that awaited the survivors: mutilated corpses, the wounded lying for days in shell craters. At the rear, the majority faced backbreaking labour to supply the troops and produce ever more weapons; they faced price rises which slashed their wages two or five times, interminable queues in front of empty shops; hunger; the permanent anguish of learning of the death of a husband, a brother, a father or a son; the pain and despair, the broken lives, when the terrible news arrived, as it did millions of times.

The other clear and unprecedented feature of this war, and which explains its massive barbarism, is that it was a total war. The whole power of industry, the entire workforce was subjugated to a single goal: the production of armaments. All males from the end of adolescence to the beginning of old age were mobilised. It was also total from the point of view of the damage it did to the economy. The countries which had been the actual fields of battle were destroyed; the economies of the European countries were ruined by the war; it was the end of their centuries-old power and the beginning of their decline to the benefit of the USA. It was total, finally, because it was not restricted to the original belligerents: practically all the European countries were dragged in and it swept over other continents, with war fronts in the Middle East, with the mobilisation of the colonial troops and with the entry into the war on the Allied side of Japan. the USA, and several countries of Latin America.

In fact, the scale of the barbarism and the destruction that it provoked itself shows the 1914-18 war was a tragic illustration of what marxists had foreseen: the entrance of the capitalist mode of production into its period of decline. of decadence. It strikingly confirmed the alternative predicted Marx and Engels in the previous century: socialism or a collapse into barbarism.

 

But it is also the task of marxism and marxists to give a theoretical explanation of this new phase in the life of capitalist society.

The fundamental causes of the World War

The aim of the book that Lenin wrote in 1916, Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism was to identify the fundamental causes of the war; but it fell to Rosa Luxemburg, in her book The Accumulation of Capital, written in 1912, two years before the world war broke out, to make the most profound analysis of the conditions that were about to hit capitalism in this new period of its existence.

 
"The existence and development of capitalism requires an environment of non-capitalist forms of production ... Capitalism needs non-capitalist social strata as a market for its surplus value, as a source of supply for its means of production and as a reservoir of labour power for its wage system ... Their means of production and their labour power no less than their demand for surplus products is necessary to capitalism. Yet the latter is fully determined to undermine their independence as social units, in order to gain possession of their means of production and labour power and to convert them into commodity buyers. This method is the most profitable and gets the quickest results, and so it is also the most expedient for capital. In fact, it is invariably accompanied by a growing militarism ... " (The Accumulation of Capital, 'The struggle against natural economy', RKP 1951, p368- 3 I)

"Imperialism is the political expression of the accumulation of capital in its competitive struggle for what remains still open of the non-capitalist environment ... With the high development of the capitalist countries and their increasingly severe competition in acquiring non-capitalist areas, imperialism grows in lawlessness and violence, both in aggression against the non-capitalist world and in ever more serious 'conflicts among the competing capitalist countries. But the more violently, ruthlessly and thoroughly imperialism brings about the decline of non-capitalist civilisations, the more rapidly it cuts the very ground from under the feet of capitalist accumulation. Though imperialism is the historical method for prolonging the career of capitalism, it is also a sure means of bringing it to a swift conclusion. This is not to say that capitalist development must be actually driven to this extreme: the mere tendency towards imperialism of itself takes forms which make the final phase of capitalism a period of catastrophe" (ibid, 'Protective Tariffs and Accumulation', p 446).

"The more ruthlessly capital sets about the destruction of non-capitalist strata at home and in the outside world, the more it lowers the standard of living for the workers as a whole, the greater also is the change in the day to day history of capital. It becomes a string of political and social disasters and convulsions, and under these conditions, punctuated by periodical economic catastrophes or crises, accumulation can go on no longer.

 

But even before this natural economic impasse of capital 's own creating is properly reached it becomes a necessity for the international working class to revolt against the rule of capital.

 

Capitalism is the first mode of economy with the weapon of propaganda, a mode which tends to engulf the entire globe and to stamp out all other economies, tolerating no rival at its side. Yet at the same time it is also the first mode of economy which is unable to exist by itself, which needs other economic systems as a medium and soil. Although it strives to become universal, and, indeed, on account of this tendency, it must break down - because it is immanently incapable of becoming a universal form of production. In its living history it is a contradiction in itself, and its movement of accumulation provides a solution to the conflict and aggravates it at the same time. At a certain stage of development there will be no other way out than the application of socialist principles. The aim of socialism is not accumulation hut the satisfaction of toiling humanity's wants by developing the productive forces of the entire globe. And so we find that socialism is by its very nature an harmonious and universal system of economy" (ibid, 'Militarism as a province of accumulation', p 467).

After the outbreak of the war, in the Anticritique, written in 1915 in response to the criticisms her book had provoked, Luxemburg updated her analysis:

 

"What distinguishes imperialism as the last struggle for capitalist world domination is not simply the remarkable energy and universality of expansion but - and this is the specific sign that the circle of development is beginning to close - the return of the decisive struggle for expansion from those areas which are being fought over back to its home countries. In this way, imperialism brings catastrophe as a mode of' existence back from the periphery of capitalist development to its point of departure. The expansion of capital, which for four centuries had given the existence and civilisation of all non-capitalist peoples in Asia, Africa, America and Australia over to ceaseless convulsions and general and complete decline, is now plunging the civilised peoples of Europe itself into a series of catastrophes whose final result can only be the decline. of civilisation or the transition to the socialist mode of production " (in Monthly Review Press, 1972, p 147). 

At the same time Lenin's book, in defining imperialism, insisted on one of its particular aspects - the export of capital from the developed countries to the backward countries in order to counter-act the tendency for the rate of profit to fall, the result of the rise in the proportion of constant capital (machines, raw materials) in relation to variable capital (wages), which is alone able to create profit.

 

For Lenin, the rivalries between the industrialised countries to grab hold of the less developed zones and export their capital there had led to the confrontation between the great powers.

 

However, even if there are differences in the analyses elaborated by Luxemburg, Lenin and other revolutionaries of the day, they all converged on an essential point: this war was not the result of the bad policies or the ill will of this or that governing clique; it was the ineluctable consequence of the development of the capitalist mode of production. In this sense, these two revolutionaries denounced with the same energy any "analysis" which sought to make the workers think that there was an "alternative" to imperialism, militarism and war within capitalism. Thus Lenin demolished Kautsky's thesis about the possibility of a "super-imperialism" which could establish an equilibrium between the great powers and eliminate their military conflicts. He also destroyed all the illusions about "international arbitration" which men of "good will" and the pacifist sectors of the bourgeoisie presented as the means to reconcile the antagonists and put an end to the war. This is exactly what Luxemburg put forward in her book:

"Seen in this light, the position of the proletariat with regard to imperialism leads to a general confrontation with the rule of capital. The specific rules of its conduct are given by that historical alternative [ie between the ruin of civilisation and the arrival of socialist production].

 

According to official 'expert' marxism, the rules are quite different. The belief in the possibility of accumulation in an 'isolated capitalist society', the belief that capitalism is conceivable even without expansion, are the theoretical formula of a quite distinct tactical tendency. The logical conclusion of this idea is to look to imperialism not as a historical necessity, as the decisive conflict for socialism, but as the wicked invention of a small group of people who profit from it. This leads to convincing the bourgeoisie that, even from the point of view of their capitalist interests, imperialism and militarism are  harmful, thus isolating the alleged small group of beneficiaries of this imperialism and forming a bloc of the proletariat with broad sections of the bourgeoisie in order to 'moderate' imperialism, starve it out by 'partial disarmament' and 'draw its claws '! ... The final confrontation between proletariat and capital to settle their world-historic contradiction is converted into the utopia of a historical compromise between proletariat and bourgeoisie to 'moderate' the imperialist contradictions between capitalist states" (ibid, p147-8).

Finally, Luxemburg and Lenin used the same terms to explain why it was Germany which played the role of sparking off the World War (the big idea of those who are looking for the country responsible for the war) while at the same time treating the two camps in exactly the same way:

 
"Against the Anglo-French group, another capitalist group was pitted, even more rapacious, even more bandit-like, one which had come to the capitalist banquet late, when all the places had been taken up already, and bringing with it the latest processes of capitalist production, more developed techniques and incomparably superior business organisation ... therein lies the key to the economic and diplomatic history of the last few decades, which are known to all. It alone indicates to you the solution to the problem of the war and conclusion that the present war is the product

of the policies of the two colossi which, well before the present hostilities, had extended the tentacles of their financial exploitation all over the world and had divided it up economically. They had to clash with each other, because from the capitalist point of view, a new division of the world had become inevitable" (Lenin, The war and the revolution).

 
"In a discussion of the general causes of the war, and of its significance, the question of the 'guilty party' is completely beside the point. Germany certainly has not the right to speak of a war of defence, but France and England have little more justification. They too, are protecting, not their national, but their world-political existence, their old imperialistic possessions, from the attacks of the German upstart. Doubtless the raids of German and Austrian imperialism in the Orient started the conflagration, but French imperialism, by devouring Morocco, and English imperialism, in its attempts to rape Mesopotamia, and all the other measures that were calculated to secure its rule of force in India, Russia's Baltic policies, aiming towards Constantinople, all of these factors have carried together and piled up, brand for brand, the firewood that feeds the conflagration. lf capitalist armaments have played an important role as the mainspring that times the outbreak of the catastrophe, it was a competition of armaments in all nations" (Rosa Luxemburg, April 1915, The Junius Pamphlet (originally entitled The Crisis in the German Social Democracy, Merlin Press. p100-101).

This unity in the analysis of the causes of the war coming from revolutionaries originating from countries in opposing camps also applied  to the policy they put forward for the proletariat and to their denunciation of the social democratic parties who had betrayed the class.

The role of revolutionaries during the war

When the war broke out, the role of revolutionaries, of those who had remained loyal to the proletarian camp, was obviously to denounce it. In the first place they had to unmask the lies of the bourgeoisie and those who had become its lackeys, the social democratic parties, lies used to justify the war, to mobilise the workers and send them off to the slaughter. In Germany, a few leading socialists who had remained faithful to proletarian internationalism, like Karl Liebknecht, met in Luxemburg's flat and began to organise resistance against the war. While the entire social-democratic press had offered itself up for the service of government propaganda, this little group was to publish a journal, The International, as well as a series of leaflets which were signed "Spartakus". In parliament, at the meeting of the social-democratic fraction of 4th August, Liebknecht was firmly opposed to voting for war credits, but submitted to the majority out of party discipline. This was a mistake he was not to repeat when the government demanded votes for supplementary credits. In the vote of 2nd December 1914 he was the only one to vote against and it was not until August and December 1915 that he was joined by other social democratic deputies (who, however, on this occasion, made a declaration based on the fact that Germany was not waging a defensive war because it had occupied Belgium and part of France, an explanation whose centrism and cowardice Liebknecht denounced).
 

However difficult it was for the revolutionaries to carry out their propaganda at a time when the bourgeoisie had installed a real state of siege, preventing any expression of a proletarian voice, this action by Rosa and her comrades was an essential preparation for the future. Although she was imprisoned in April 1915 she wrote The Crisis in German Social Democracy which was "the spiritual dynamite to turn the bourgeois order upside down" as Clara Zetkin, a close comrade of Rosa, wrote in her preface of May 1919.

This book is pitiless charge-sheet against the' war itself and against every aspect of bourgeois propaganda; the best homage we can render to Rosa Luxemburg today is to publish a few (too) short extracts from it.

 

At a time when in all belligerent countries, all the different mouthpieces of bourgeois propaganda were trying to outdo each other in their nationalist frenzy, she began the book by denouncing the chauvinist hysteria which had seized hold of the population.

 

"The excesses of a spy-hunting populace, the singing throngs, the coffee-shops with their patriotic songs ... the violent mobs, ready to denounce, ready to persecute women, ready to whip themselves into a delirious frenzy over every wild rumour ... the atmosphere of ritual murder, the Kishinev (pogrom) air that left the policeman at the comer as the only remaining representative of human dignity" (Junius Pamphlet, p4).

Then, she exposes the reality of this war:

 

"Shamed, dishonoured, wading in blood and dripping with filth, thus capitalist society stands. Not as we usually see it, playing the roles of peace and righteousness, of order, of philosophy, of ethics - but as a roaring beast, as an orgy of anarchy, as a pestilential breath, devastating culture and humanity - so it appears in all its hideous nakedness" (ibid, p5). Thus, from the very start, Rosa goes to the heart of the question: against the pacifist illusions which pined for a bourgeois society "without its excesses", she pointed the finger at the real guilty party: capitalism as a whole. And immediately she took care to denounce the role and content of capitalist propaganda, whether it came from the traditional bourgeois parties or from Social-Democracy:

"War is methodical, organised, gigantic murder. But in normal human beings this systematic murder is possible only when a state of intoxication has been previously created. This has always been the tried and proven method of those who make war. Bestiality of action must find a commensurate bestiality of thought and senses; the latter must prepare
and accompany the former"
(p 20).

 
A good part of the pamphlet is devoted to systematically dismantling all the lies, exposing the government propaganda aimed at enrolling the masses for the slaughter[3]. Thus Rosa analysed the war aims of all the belligerent countries, and in the first place of Germany, to demonstrate the imperialist character of this war. She analysed the whole chain of events which, from the June 28th assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo, led to the main countries of Europe entering the war - Germany, Russia, France, Britain and Austria-Hungary. She showed that this whole slide into war was in no way the result of fate or of the specific responsibilities of one 'bad guy', as the official and social democratic propaganda of the countries at war would have it, but that it had been gestating for a long time in the womb of capitalism:
 

"The world war that began officially on 4th August 1914 was the same world war toward which German imperialism had been driving for decades, the same war whose coming the social democracy had prophesied year after year. This same war has been denounced by social democratic parliamentarians, newspapers and leaflets a thousand times as a frivolous imperialistic crime, as a war that is against every interest of culture and against every interest of the nation" (ibid, p 67).

 

Obviously, she made a particularly sharp critique of German Social-Democracy, which had been the beacon of the Socialist International, and whose treason had made the work of enrolling the proletariat so much easier for the government, in Germany but also in the other countries. She concentrated her fire against the social-democrat argument that on the German side the aim of the war was to defend "civilisation" and the "freedom of the peoples" against Tsarist barbarism.

In particular she denounced the justifications of Neue Zeit, the theoretical organ of the party, which appealed to the old analysis of Marx and Engels which had stigmatised Russia as the "prison-house of peoples" and the main bulwark of reaction in Europe.

 

"After the Social-Democratic [parliamentary] group had stamped the war as a war of defence of the German nations and European culture, the Social-Democratic press proceeded to hail it as the 'saviour of the oppressed nations '. Hindenberg became the executor of Marx and Engels" (ibid, p72).

 

In denouncing the lies of social democracy, Rosa pointed out the real role it was playing:

"In refuting the existence of the class struggle, the Social-Democracy has denied the very basis of its own existence.. It has thrown aside the most important weapon it possessed, the power of criticism of the war from the peculiar point of view of the working class. Its only mission now is to play the role of gendarme over the working class under a state of military rule" (ibid, p87).

 

Finally, one of the most important aspects of Rosa's book is the perspective it puts forward for the proletariat: putting an end to the war through revolutionary action. Just as she affirmed (and she cited bourgeois politicians who were very clear about this) that the only force that could have prevented the outbreak of the war bad been the struggle of the proletariat. So she went back to the resolution of the 1907 congress of the International, confirmed by the 1912 congress (the extraordinary congress held in Basle):

 

"Should war nevertheless break out, it shall be the duty of the social democracy to work for a speedy peace, and to strive with every means in its power to utilise the industrial and political crisis to accomplish the awakening of the people, thus hastening the overthrow of capitalist class rule".

Rosa based herself on this resolution to denounce the treason of social democracy, which did exactly the opposite to what it had committed itself to do. She called for the united action of the world proletariat to put an end to the war while underlining the danger that the war represented for the future of socialism.

 

"But here is proof also that the war is not only grandiose murder, but the suicide of the European working class. The soldiers of socialism, the workers (if England, of France, of Germany, of Italy, of Belgium are murdering each other at the bidding of capitalism, are thrust in cold, murderous irons into each other's breasts, are toile ring over their graves, grappling in each other's death-bringing arms ...

 

This madness will not stop, and this bloody nightmare of hell will not cease until the workers of Germany, of France, of Russia and of England will wake up out their drunken sleep; will clasp each other's hands ill brotherhood and will drown the bestial chorus of war agitators and the hoarse cry of capitalist hyenas with the mighty cry of labour: "Workers of the world, unite!"" (ibid, pI34) .

It should be noted that in her hook, Rosa Luxemburg, like the rest of the left or the party which firmly opposed the war (unlike the "marxist centre" animated by Kautsky, which with all sorts of contortions justified the policy of the leadership) did not draw all the consequences of the Basle resolution by putting forward the slogan which Lenin expressed very clearly: "turn the imperialist war into a civil war". And it was for this reason that at the Zimmerwald conference of September 1915, the representatives of the current around Luxemburg and Liebknecht were on the "centrist" position represented by Trotsky and not the position of the left around Lenin. It was only at the Kienthal conference in April 1916 that this current joined the Zimmerwald left.

 

However, even with these insufficiencies, there is no question that Luxemburg and her comrades carried out a considerable work in this period, which was to bear fruit in 1918.

 

But before going on to this last period, we must highlight the extremely important role played by Rosa's comrade, assassinated on the same day by the bourgeoisie: Karl Liebknecht.

While sharing her political positions, Liebknecht lacked the theoretical depth of Rosa and her talent for writing articles (this is why, for lack of space, we haven't cited his writings here). But his determined and courageous attitude, his extremely clear denunciations of the imperialist war, of all those who justified it, whether openly or in a roundabout way, as well as his denunciation of pacifist illusions, made Liebknecht during this period the symbol of the proletarian struggle against the imperialist war. Without going into details about his activities (see our article "Revolutionaries in Germany during the First World War", in International Review no.81), we will recall here a significant episode: his participation, on 1 May 1916, in a demonstration in Berlin of 10,000 workers against the war, where he made a speech and raised the slogan "Down with the war, down with the government", which led to his immediate arrest. This in turn resulted in the first political mass strike in Germany, which broke out at the end of May. We should also note that before the military tribunal which sat in judgement over him on 28th June, he fully defended his action, knowing that this attitude could only make his punishment more severe, and he used the platform of the tribunal to make another denunciation of the imperialist war, of capitalism which was responsible for it; and he once again called the workers to the struggle. From then on, in all the countries of Europe, the name and example of Liebknecht became one of the rallying flags of all those who were fighting against the imperialist war and for the proletarian revolution, not least Lenin himself.

The proletarian revolution and the end of the war

The perspective outlined in the Basle resolution was concretised for the first time in February 1917 in Russia, with the revolution that overthrew the Tsarist regime. After three years of nameless butchery and misery, the proletariat began to raise its head, overturning the old regime and advancing towards the socialist revolution. We will not go back over the events in Russia which we have examined recently in this Review[4]. But it is important here to say that it was not only in Russia that the year 1917 saw the workers in uniform revolting against the barbarism of the war. Not long after the February revolution massive mutinies broke out in a number of armies at the front. Thus, the three other main countries of the Entente - Britain, France and Italy - faced major mutinies which led their governments to exert a ferocious repression. In Prance, around 40,000 troops collectively disobeyed orders and a part of them even attempted to march on Paris where there were workers' strikes going on in the arms factories. This convergence between the class struggle in the rear and the revolt of the soldiers is probably one of the reasons why the repression carried out by the French bourgeoisie was relatively moderate: out of 554 condemned to death by military courts martial, only 50 were shot. This "moderation" had no place in the British and Italian armies, where there were 306 and 750 executions respectively.

 

Last November, during the celebrations of the end of the First World War, the bourgeoisie. and the particularly the social-democratic parties which form the government in the majority of European countries today, have given us a new angle on their hypocrisy about the mutinies of 1917, new proof of their desire to destroy the memory of the working class. In Italy, the minister of defence made it known that we should "render honour" to the shot mutineers, and in Britain they have been paid "public homage". As for the chief of the French "Socialist" government, he decided to "fully reintegrate into the collective national memory" those who had been "shot as an example". "Comrade" Jospin is a front runner in the hypocrisy stakes, for who were the ministers of munitions and of war at the time the mutineers were shot? The "Socialists" Albert Thomas and Paul Painleve.

In fact, what these "Socialists" who make all kinds of pacifist speeches and who are so moved by the atrocities of the First World War forget to say is that in 1914, in the main European countries, they were in the front lint' for the task of mobilising the workers and sending them to the slaughter. By trying to reintegrate the mutineers of the First World War "into the collective national memory", the left wing of the bourgeoisie is trying to make us forget that they really belong to the memory of the world proletariat[5].

 

As for the official interpretation of the politicians and tame historians, that the revolts of 1917 were only directed against an incompetent command, it does not stand up to the fact that these movements took place in both camps all along the different fronts. Are we to believe that World War I was entirely led by incompetents'} Moreover, these revolts began when the first news of the Russian revolution reached the other countries[6]. In fact, what the bourgeoisie is trying to hide is the undeniably proletarian content of the mutinies and the fact that the only real opposition to the war came from the working class.

During the same period, the mutinies hit the country with the most powerful proletariat and whose soldiers were in direct contact with the Russian soldiers on the eastern front: Germany. The events in Russia were greeted with a great deal of enthusiasm among the German troops and there were frequent outbreaks of fraternisation on this front[7]. The mutinies began in the fleet during the summer of 1917. The fact that it was the sailors who led these movements is significant: nearly all of them were workers in uniform (whereas there were a lot more peasants among the footsoldiers). The revolutionary groups, especially the Spartakists, had an important influence on the sailors and this was growing. The Spartakists put forward a clear perspective for the whole working class:

 
"The victorious Russian revolution united with the victorious German revolution will be invincible. The day when the German government and German militarism fall under the revolutionary blows of the proletariat will be the dawn of a new era: an era in which wars, exploitation and capitalist oppression will disappear forever" (Spartakist leaflet, April 1917).

"Only through revolution and the conquest of the people's republic in Germany can the genocide be ended and generalised peace installed. And this is also the only way that the Russian revolution can succeed. Only the world proletarian revolution can liquidate the world imperialist war" (Spartakus letter no. 6, August 1917).

 

And it was this programme that was to come alive through the growing struggles of the working class in Germany. In the framework of this article we cannot go into these struggles in detail (see our series in the International Review, beginning with 11.0.81), but it is necessary to recall that one of the reasons that pushed Lenin and the Bolsheviks to consider in October 1917 that the conditions were ripe for the seizure of power by the proletariat in Russia was precisely the development of the struggle amongst the workers and soldiers in Germany.

What we have to highlight is how the intensification of the workers' struggles and the soldiers' revolts on a proletarian terrain was the decisive element that pushed the German ruling class to ask for an armistice, and so brought the war to an end.

 

"Spurred on by the revolutionary developments in Russia and in the wake of several precursory movements, a mass strike broke out in April 1917. In January 1918 about a million workers threw themselves into a new strike movement and formed a workers' council in Berlin. Under the influence of the Russian events the military fronts crumbled more and more throughout the summer of 1918, the factories were at boiling point: more and more workers gathered in the streets to strengthen the response to war ... " ("The German Revolution, Part II", International Review no.82).

In October 1918, the bourgeoisie changed the Chancellor. Prince Max von Baden replaced Count Georg Hertling, and brought the Social-Democratic Party (SPD) into government. The revolutionaries immediately understood the role that social-democracy was to play. Rosa Luxemburg wrote: "By entering the ministry, government socialism is putting itself forward as capitalism's defender and is barring the way to the mounting proletarian revolution".

 

During this same period the Spartakists held a conference with other revolutionary groups which launched an appeal to the workers:

 

"We must support in every way the mutinies of the soldiers, go on to the armed insurrection, broaden the armed insurrection into a struggle to transfer power to the workers and soldiers and ensure victory through the workers' mass strikes. This is the task of the coming days and weeks".

"On 23rf October Liebknecht was freed from prison. More than 20,000 workers came to greet him when he arrived in Berlin ...

 

On 28th October there began in Austria, in the Czech and Slovak provinces as well as in Budapest, a wave of strikes which led to the overthrow of the monarchy. Workers' and soldiers' councils in the image of the Russian soviets sprang up everywhere ...

 

When on 3rd November the fleet in Kiel was to go to sea to continue the war, the sailors mutinied. Soldiers' councils were created and workers' councils followed in the same wave ...

 
The councils formed massive delegations of workers and soldiers that made their way to other towns. Enormous delegations were sent to Hamburg, Bremen, Flensburg, to the Ruhr and even as far as Cologne. They addressed assemblies of workers, and called for the formation of workers' and soldiers' councils. Thousands of workers travelled from towns in the north of Germany, to Berlin and other towns in the provinces ... Within a week, workers' and soldiers' councils appeared in the main towns in Germany and the workers themselves took control of the extension oftheir movement" (ibid, pp15-16).

The Spartakists produced an appeal to the workers of Berlin on 8 November which went as follows:

 

"Workers and soldiers! What your comrades have managed to do in Kiel, Hamburg, Bremen, Lubeck, Rostock, Flensburg, Hanover, Magdeburg, Brunswick, Munich and Stuttgart you too must do. Because the victory of your brothers there, and the victory of the proletariat of the whole world, depends on the height that your struggle is able to Teach, its tenacity and success ... Workers and soldiers! The immediate aims of your struggle must be ...

 

- the election of workers and soldiers councils, the election of delegates in all factories and all military units

 

- the immediate establishing of relations with other workers' councils in Germany

- the government to be controlled by the commissars of the workers' and soldiers' councils

 

- immediate liaison with the international proletariat and particularly with the Russian workers' republic.

Long live the socialist republic!
Long live the International!"

On the same day, a Spartakist leaflet called on the workers to come out onto the streets:

"Come out of the factories! Come out of the barracks! Hold out your hands! Long live the socialist republic!"

"In the early hours of 9th November the revolutionary uprising began in Berlin ... Hundreds of thousands of workers answered the call of the Spartakus group and the executive committee, stopped work and surged towards the city centre in huge processions. At their head marched groups of armed workers. The great majority of the troops united with the demonstrating workers and fraternised with them. By midday Berlin was in the hands of the revolutionary workers and soldiers" (ibid).
 
Liebknecht spoke in front of the Hohenzollern palace:
 
"We must use all our strength to build the workers' and soldiers' government ... We hold out our hands to the workers of the whole world and invite them to make the world revolution ... I proclaim the free socialist republic of Germany".

That evening, the revolutionary workers and soldiers occupied the printing press of a bourgeois newspaper and published the first issue of Die Rote Fahne (The Red Flag), the daily paper of the Spartakists, which immediately warned against the SPD: "There is no community of interests with those who have betrayed you for the last four years. Down with capitalism and its agents! Long live the International!".

 

On the same day, faced with the rising tide of revolution, the bourgeoisie took steps. It forced the abdication of Kaiser Wihelm II, proclaimed the Republic, and named a Social-Democrat leader, Ebert, as chancellor. The latter also received the blessing of the executive committee of the councils which contained a number of social democratic functionaries. A "Council of People's Commissars" was nominated, composed of members of the SPD and the USPD (ie the "centrists" expelled from the SPD in February at the same time as the Spartakists). In fact, behind this very "revolutionary" title (the same as that of the soviet government in Russia) hid a perfectly bourgeois government which was to do everything it could to prevent the proletarian revolution and to prepare the massacre of the workers.

The first measure taken by the government was to sign the armistice the day after it was set up (and while German troops were still occupying enemy territory). After the experience of the revolution in Russia, where the continuation of the war had been a decisive factor in the mobilisation of the proletariat and the development of its consciousness up to the point where it overthrew the bourgeois regime in October 1917, the German bourgeoisie knew quite well that it had to stop the war immediately if it did not want to end up like the Russian bourgeoisie.

 

Although today the spokesmen of the ruling class carefully hide the role of the proletarian revolution in putting an end to the war, it is a reality which has not escaped serious and scrupulous historians (whose writing is reserved for a small minority):

"Having decided to continue negotiations despite Ludendorff, the German government was soon forced to do so. First of all, the capitulation of Austria had created a new and terrible threat to the south of the country. Then, and most importantly, the revolution broke out in Germany (...) [the German delegation] signed the armistice on 11th November, at 05:20, in Foch's famous railway carriage. It signed in the name of the new government, which was urging it to make haste (...) The German delegation won some meagre advantages, which according to Pierre Renouvin, "all had the same aim: to leave the German government with the means to fight Bolshevism ". In particular, the army gave up 30,000 machine guns instead of 25,000. It was allowed to remain in occupation of the Ruhr, the heart of the revolution, instead of it being "demilitarised?" (Jean-Baptiste Duroselle, in Le Monde, 12th November 1998[8]).

 

Once the armistice was signed; the social democratic government developed a whole strategy to hold back the proletarian movement and to smash it. In particular, it worked on the divisions between the soldiers and the advanced workers, since the majority of the soldiers saw no need to carry on the struggle once the war" was over. At the same time, the social democracy was to rely on the illusions which a good pan of the working class still had in it, in order to isolate the Spartakists from the great majority of the workers.

We will not go into details here about the period from the armistice to the events which led to the murder of Luxemburg and Liebknecht (this period is examined in nos 82 and 83 of our Review). However, the public writings a few years later by general Groener, commander in chief of the army from the end of 1918 to the beginning of 1919 are extremely edifying as regards the policies carried out by Ebert, who was in daily contact with him:

 
"We were allied to fight against Bolshevism (...) I had advised the Feldmarschall not to fight the revolution with weapons, because given the state of the troops it was quite possible that such a method would have failed. I proposed to him that the military high command should ally with the SPD given that there was no other party which had enough

influence with the people and the masses and able to reconstruct a governing force along with the military command (...) In the first place the issue was to take the power out of the hands of the workers' and soldiers' councils of Berlin. An enterprise was undertaken with this aim. Ten divisions were to enter Berlin. Ebert agreed (...) We elaborated a programme which envisaged, after the entry of the troops, the cleaning up of Berlin and the disarmament of the Spartakists. This was also agreed with Ebert, whom I recognised for his absolute love of his country (...) This alliance was sealed against the Bolshevik danger and the council system" (October-November 1925, Zeugenaussage).

 

In January 1919 the government delivered a decisive blow against the revolution. Having amassed 80,000 soldiers around Berlin, on 4th January it launched a provocation by dismissing the prefect of police, Eichorn, a member of the USPD. Huge demonstrations responded to this provocation. Although the founding congress of the Communist Party of Germany, led by Luxemburg and Liebknecht, had four days earlier estimated that the situation was not yet ripe for insurrection, Liebknecht allowed himself to be drawn into the trap and took part in an Action Committee which called precisely for the insurrection. This was a real disaster for the working Class. Thousands of workers, and particularly the Spartakists, were massacred. Luxemburg and Liebknecht, who did not want to leave Berlin, were arrested on 15th January and coldly executed without trial by the soldiery, on the pretext of "trying to escape". Two months later, Leo Jogisches, Rosa's former partner and also a leader of the Communist Party, was murdered in jail.

Today we can understand why the bourgeoisie, and especially its "socialist" parties, try to throw a veil over the events which put an end to the World War.

 

In the first place, the "democratic" parties, and above all the "socialists", have no wish to have their role in the massacre of the working class exposed, a role which today is supposed to be only carried out by "Fascist or Communist dictatorships" .

 
In the second place, it is vital to hide from the proletariat the fact that its struggle is the only real obstacle to imperialist war. At a time when massacres are being carried out all over the world, it is absolutely necessary for the bourgeoisie to keep the workers feeling powerless to affect the situation. They must be prevented at any cost from understanding that their struggles against the growing attacks provoked by a crisis that has no solution are the only way to prevent the present imperialist conflicts generalising and subjecting humanity to a new outbreak of barbarism like those we have seen twice this century. The workers must be turned away from the idea of revolution, which is presented as the font of all the evils of the century, whereas in fact it was the crushing of the revolution which allowed this century to be the most bloody and barbarous in history, and it is the revolution that.is the only hope for humanity.

Fabienne

 


[1] We should recall that, a few weeks after their murder, the first session of the first congress of the Communist International began by paying homage to these two militants and that afterwards the organisations of the workers' movement have regularly saluted their memory.

 

[2] For a country like France, 16.8% of those mobilised were killed. The proportion is not much lower for Germany: 15.4%, but it goes up to 22% for Bulgaria, 25% for Romania, 27% for Turkey, 37 % for Serbia. Certain categories of combatants went through an even more terrible decimation: thus, for France, 25 % of the infantry were killed and a third of the young men who were 20 in 1914. In this country, it was not until 1950 that the population return to its August 1914 level. Moreover, we should not forget the human tragedy of all those injured and mutilated. Some mutilations were particularly atrocious: on the French side alone there were some 20,000 gueules cassees (lit., "broken faces "). soldiers so hideously disfigured that they were incapable of reintegrating into society and ended their days in the ghetto of special institutions. Then there were the hundreds of thousands of young men who returned from war completely insane, and whom the authorities generally preferred to treat as malingerers.

[3] On both sides, the lies of the bourgeois press competed in grossness and infamy. "In August 1914, the Allies were already denouncing the "atrocities" committed by the invaders against the populations of Belgium and northern France: children's hands cut off rape, hostages shot and villages burned "to set an example" (...) Meanwhile, the German press published daily accounts of the "atrocities" committed by Belgian civilians against German troops: eyes put out, fingers cut off prisoners burnt alive" ("Realite et propagande: la barbarie allemande", in L'Histoire, November 1998).

 

[4] See nos. 88-91 of the International Review.

 

[5] The French prime minister cited in his speech a verse from the "Chanson de Craonne" composed after the mutinies. But he carefully avoided citing the passage which says:

"Ceux qu'ontle pognon, ceux la reviendront,
Car c'est pour eux qu'on creve.

Mais c'est fini, car les troujjions

Vont tous se mettre en greve"

("Those with the money will return/we're getting killed for them but it's all finished, for the infantry/ will all go out on strike")

[6] Following the mutinies in the French army, ten thousand Russian soldiers who had been fighting on the western front alongside the French soldiers were withdrawn from the front and spent the rest of the war in the camp of La Courtine. It was vital that the enthusiasm they were expressing for the revolution evolving in their country should not contaminate the French soldiers.

 

[7] It should be noted that fratemisation on the front began only a few months after the beginning of the war, and the first departures for the front with flowers in the guns and the slogans "A Berlin!" or "Nach Paris!". "25th December 1914: no enemy activity. During the night and the day of the 25", communication established between the French and Bavarians, from trench to trench (conversations, cigarettes and flattering notes sent by the enemy ... , even visits by some soldiers to the German trenches)" (Log book of the 139th Brigade). One general writes to another on 1st January 1915: "It should be noted that when the men stay too long in the same place, they end up too familiar with their neighbours opposite; the result is conversations and sometimes even visits which usually have inconvenient consequences". This continued throughout the war, especially in 1917. In a letter written in November 1917 and intercepted by the postal censorship, a French soldier writes to his brother-in-law: "We are only 20 metres from the Boches, but they are pretty decent since they send us cigars and cigarettes, and we send them our bread" (quotations taken from L'Histoire, January 1998).

[8] Jean-Baptiste Duroselle and Pierre Renouvin are widely respected historians who specialise in this period.

See also :