100 years ago, the proletariat made the ruling class tremble

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“100 Years ago, the proletariat made the ruling class tremble”. This title may sound odd today because this immense historical event has more or less been consigned to oblivion. The bourgeoisie has succeeded in erasing it from the memory of the working class. And yet in 1918, all eyes were on Germany – a source of hope for the proletariat, and of fear for the bourgeoisie.

The working class had just taken power in Russia. 1917. The Bolsheviks. The soviets. The insurrection. Or as Lenin put it: “The Russian revolution is only one of the contingents of the international socialist army, on the action of which the success and triumph of our revolution depends. This is a fact which none of us lose sight of. We likewise bear in mind that the vanguard role of the Russian proletariat in the working-class movement is not due to the economic development of the country. On the contrary, it is the backwardness of Russia, the inability of what is called our native bourgeoisie to cope with the enormous problems connected with the war and its cessation that have led the proletariat to seize political power and establish its own class dictatorship” (Speech to the conference of factory committees in the Moscow province, July 23 1918)

Germany was the bolt on the door between East and West. A victorious revolution here would open the way to the revolutionary class struggle throughout the old continent of Europe. None of the bourgeoisies wanted to see this door unbolted. This is why the bourgeoisie was to direct all its hatred, and all its most sophisticated manoeuvres, against it. The revolution in Germany would determine the success or failure of the world revolution which had begun in Russia.

The power of the working class

1914: The world war breaks out. It brought 4 years in which the working class was subjected to the worst butchery in the history of humanity. The trenches. Poison gas. Famine. Millions of dead. Four years in which the trade unions and the social democratic parties took advantage of their glorious proletarian past – which they betrayed in 1914 by supporting the bourgeoisie’s war effort - and the confidence they were accorded by the workers to impose all kinds of sacrifices and to justify the war. But during these four years the working class, little by little, began to fight back. Strikes in a succession of cities. Unrest in the army. And of course, faced with this, the bourgeoisie did not remain inert. It reacted ferociously. “Ringleaders” in the factories, fingered by the unions, were arrested. Soldiers were shot for indiscipline or desertion.

1916. On the First of May Karl Liebknecht[1] raised the cry: “Down with the war! Down with the government!”  Rosa Luxemburg was jailed, alongside other revolutionary socialists - Meyer, Eberlein, Mehring (who was then 70 years old)[2]. Karl Liebknecht was sent to the front. But the repression wasn’t enough to silence the discontent. On the contrary: it gave rise to growing agitation in the factories.

1917: the unions came under more and more criticism. The “Obleute” appeared in the factories – the “Men of Confidence”, essentially rank and file union delegates who had broken with the union leadership. Above all, the workers of Germany were inspired by the courage of their class brothers and sisters in the East. The echo of the October revolution was being heard far and wide.

1918. The German bourgeoisie was becoming aware of the danger and it realised that it needed to extricate itself from the war. But the most backward part of the ruling class, linked to the old aristocracy, and especially the military aristocracy, didn’t understand what was at stake and rejected any idea of peace or any talk of defeat. Concretely, in November, the naval command based in Kiel insisted on one final battle to save its “honour” – using the rank and file sailors as cannon fodder of course. But on several ships the sailors mutinied and raised the red flag. The order was given to the ships that hadn’t been “infected” to fire on them. The mutineers surrendered, refusing to fire on their own class comrades.  As a result, they faced the death penalty. But in solidarity with those who had been condemned, a wave of strikes broke out among the workers of Kiel. Inspired by the October revolution, the working class took charge of its struggle and created the first workers’ and soldiers’ councils. The bourgeoisie then called in one of its most loyal guard-dogs: social democracy. The SPD leader Gustav Noske, the specialist in military matters and in “maintaining troop morale” was dispatched to the spot to stifle the danger. But he arrived too late. The workers’ and soldiers’ councils were already spreading to other ports and the great working class centres of the Ruhr and Bavaria. Faced with this geographic extension of the movement, Noske could not attack it head on. On 7 November the Kiel workers’ council called for revolution, proclaiming “power is in our hands”. On 8 November, practically the whole of north-west Germany was under the control of the councils. In Bavaria, Saxony, local princes abdicated. Workers’ councils spread to all the cities of the Empire, from Metz to Berlin.

It was precisely the generalisation of this mode of political organisation that made the bourgeoisie tremble. The unification of the class in workers’ councils, with delegates elected by assemblies and revocable at any moment, is an extremely dynamic form of organisation. The councils are a real expression of the revolutionary process, the place where the working class comes together, debates the goals of its struggle, takes control of social life. After the experience of 1917, the bourgeoisie understood this very well. This is why it focused on undermining the councils from within, taking advantage of the considerable illusions the working class still had in its old party, the SPD. Thus Noske was elected to the head of the workers’ council in Kiel. This weakness of our class would have tragic consequences in the weeks that followed. We will come back to this. But for now, on the morning of 9 November, the struggle was still developing. In Berlin, the workers demonstrated outside the barracks to rally the soldiers to their cause and freed their class comrades from prison. The bourgeoisie then understood that the war had to end right away and that the Kaiser had to go. It was drawing the lessons from the mistakes made by the Russian bourgeoisie. On 9 November 1918 Kaiser Wilhelm abdicated. On 11 November, the armistice was signed.

The struggle of the workers of Germany had hastened the end of the war, but it was the bourgeoisie which signed the peace treaty and was to use this event to act against the revolution.

The Machiavellianism of the bourgeoisie

A brief summary of the balance of forces at the beginning of the civil war in November 1918:

  • On the one hand, an extremely combative working class. It had spread the workers’ councils across the whole country and with great rapidity. But it held on to major illusions in its former party, the SPD. It allowed these traitors to assume the highest responsibilities within the councils, as in the case of Noske in Kiel. The revolutionary organisations, the Spartacists and other groups of the left were engaged in a political battle, carrying out the role of providing an orientation for the struggle. They put forward the necessity to create a bridge to the working class in Russia; they unmasked the manoeuvres and sabotage of the bourgeoisie, they understood the fundamental role of the workers’ councils.
  • On the other hand, the German bourgeoisie, an extremely experienced and organised ruling class, conscious of the efficacy of its major anti-working class weapon, the SPD. Heeding the warning of the events in Russia, it clearly identified the danger of continuing the war and the threat posed by the workers’ councils. The whole work of sabotage carried out by the SPD was aimed at diverting the revolutionary process towards the cage of bourgeois democracy. To achieve this, the bourgeoisie was to attack on all fronts: from the most slanderous propaganda to the most savage repression, via a whole series of provocations.

The SPD thus took up one of the slogans of the revolution “end the war” while at the same time speaking up for “party unity” and wiping out the memory of its key role in the march to war. By signing the peace treaty, the SPD removed what was most unbearable from the workers, while at the same time injecting it with democratic poison. And to justify all this it found a useful scapegoat for the war and the famine: the monarchy and the military aristocracy.

Recuperating the councils

But the greatest danger for the bourgeoisie remained then councils and the slogan “all power to the soviets” which had come from Russia. The revocability of the delegates posed a real problem for the bourgeoisie, since it made it possible for the councils to constantly renew and radicalise themselves. This is why the councils were assailed by faithful representatives of the SPD, whether or not they were well-known figures like Noske in Kiel or Ebert in Berlin. The councils were gangrened from the inside, emptied of their substance. The whole aim of this manoeuvre was to convince the councils to renounce their own power in favour of the newly formed constituent assembly. The national congress of councils held in Berlin on 16 December 1918 was the clearest example of this.

  • The soldiers’ delegates were over-represented in relation to workers’ delegates (I for every 100,000 soldiers, 1 for every 200,000 workers), since the workers tended to be well to the left of the soldiers.
  • Access to the congress was forbidden to the Russian delegation. Exit internationalism!
  • Access to the congress was forbidden to non-workers, i.e. every member appeared on the basis of their job. Thus members of the Spartacist League including Luxemburg and Liebknecht were denied entry. Exit the revolutionary left! Even under the pressure of 250,000 demonstrators outside the doors, the congress did not budge
  • In the same logic, the SPD got the Congress to vote the call for the election of a constituent assembly for the 19th January 1919.

The system of councils is an affront to capitalism and its democratic apparatus. The bourgeoisie was well aware of this. But it also knew that time was not on its side and that the image of the SPD as a workers’ party was getting very thin. It thus had to precipitate events, while the proletariat needed time to mature, to grow politically.

Parallel to these ideological manoeuvres, from 9 November on, Ebert and the SPD were making secret agreements with the army to crush the revolution. They multiplied provocations, lies and slanders to pave the way to a military confrontation. Their calumnies were directed against the Spartakusbund in particular, accusing it of “assassinations, pillage, calling on the workers to shed their blood again”. They called for a pogrom against Liebknecht and Luxemburg. They created a “White Army” – the Freikorps, composed of soldiers traumatised by the war and motivated by blind hatred.

Beginning 6 December, a huge counter-revolutionary offensive was launched:

  • Attack on the headquarter of the Spartacist paper, Die Rote Fahne
  • Attempts to arrest members of the executive organ of the workers’ councils
  • An attempted assassination of Liebknecht
  • Systematic skirmishes during workers’ demonstrations
  • A media campaign and military offensive against the People’s Naval Division, composed of armed sailors who had played an important role in spreading the revolution and acting in its defence

But far from scaring off the proletariat, such actions only increased its anger. Demonstrations were armed to defend themselves against provocations. This class solidarity culminated in the biggest demonstration since 9 November being held on December 25. Five days later, the KPD, the Communist Party of Germany, was founded in Berlin.

Again the bourgeoisie learned quickly and acted fast. By the end of December 1918 it had realised that frontally attacking the great figures of the revolution only strengthened class solidarity. It then decided to accentuate the rumours and the calumnies, while avoiding direct armed confrontations and manoeuvre around less well-known personalities. So it targeted Eichhorn, who had been elected to the head of a soldiers’ committee in Berlin and had been put in charge of the local police forces. He was removed from his post and the provocation worked very well. This was immediately perceived by the Berlin workers as an act of aggression. The Berlin workers responded massively: on 5 January 1919, 150,000 were in the street, which surprised even the bourgeoisie. But this would not prevent the working class from falling into the trap of a premature insurrection. Even though the movement had not been followed elsewhere in Germany where Eichhorn was not so well-known, revolutionary leaders like Pieck and Liebknecht, pulled along by the excitement of the moment, decided that evening to launch the armed insurrection. This went against the decisions of the KPD Congress, and the consequences of this improvisation were dramatic: having come out onto the streets, the workers remained there without any precise objective and in the greatest confusion. Worse still, the soldiers refused to take part in the insurrection, which ensured its defeat. Facing this error in analysis and the dangerous situation that resulted from it, Rosa Luxemburg and Leo Jogiches defended the only possible position that could avoid a blood-bath:  continue the mobilisation by arming the workers and calling on them to encircle the barracks until the soldiers came out in favour of the revolution. This position was argued by the correct analysis that while the political balance of forces was not in the proletariat’s favour at the beginning of January 1919, the military balance of forces was, at least in Berlin.

But instead of trying to arm the workers, the “Revolutionary Committee” began to negotiate with the government which it had just declared overthrown. From now on time was no longer on the side of the proletariat, but of the counter-revolution.

On 10 January 1919 the KPD called for the resignation of Liebknecht and Pieck from the Revolutionary Committee. But the damage had been done. There followed the bloody week, the so-called “Spartacist Week”. The “Communist putsch” was put down by the “heroes of freedom and democracy”. The White Terror was unleashed. The Freikorps hunted down revolutionaries all over the town and summary executions became systematic. On the evening of 15 January, Luxemburg and Liebknecht were kidnapped and then assassinated. In March 1919 it would be the turn of Leo Jogiches and hundreds of other militants of the revolutionary left.

The democratic illusions of the working class and the weaknesses of the KPD.

What was the cause of this dramatic failure? The events of January 1919 contained all the elements which had led to the defeat of the revolution: on the one hand an intelligent bourgeoisie, manoeuvring very skilfully, and on the other hand a working class still weighed down by illusions in social democracy and a communist party that was insufficiently organised, lacking a solid programmatic base upon which it could develop a clear analysis of the situation. The KPD was somewhat disorientated, it was young and inexperienced (it was made up of many young comrades, since a lot of the older ones had died in the war or the repression). It lacked unity and was unable to give a clear orientation to the working class.

Unlike the Bolsheviks who had maintained an organisational continuity since 1903, and had been through the experience of the 1905 revolution and the soviets, the revolutionary left in Germany, after the betrayal of the SPD in August 1914, had to reconstruct itself hastily, in the heat of the events. The KPD was founded on 30 December 1918 with the fusion of the Spartakusbund and the International Communists of Germany, the IKD. During this conference, the majority of delegates took a clear position against participation in bourgeois elections and rejected the trade unions. But the organisational question was largely underestimated and pushed to the bottom of the list. The question of the party was not grasped at the level demanded by what was at stake.

This underestimation of programmatic questions would result in the decision by Liebknecht and others  to call for the insurrection without waiting for a new analysis by the party, without a lucid method for assessing the balance of forces between the classes. The centralisation of decisions was not seen as a priority. It was these weaknesses of the party that would have such dramatic results. At one moment time was on the side of the proletariat. In a few hours the balance had changed and now the bourgeoisie was able to unleash the white terror.

All the same, strikes continued. From January to March 1919, the mass strike emerged in a spectacular manner. But the bourgeoisie also continued its work: executions, slanders, rumours….little by little the terror overwhelmed the proletariat. In February, while massive strikes were breaking out all over Germany, the Berlin proletariat, the heart of the revolution, was no longer able to take part, having been crushed by the January defeat. When it finally returned to the struggle, it was too late. The struggles in Berlin and the rest of Germany didn’t manage to unite. At the same time, the KPD had been “decapitated” and had been forced into illegality. In the wave of strikes between February and April, it was not able to play a decisive role. Its voice had been more or less smothered by capital. If the KPD had been able to unmask the provocation of the bourgeoisie and prevent the workers from falling into the trap, the movement would surely have had a different outcome. The working class thus paid the price for the organisational weaknesses of the party, which now became the target for the most brutal repression. Everywhere communists were being hunted down. The lines of communication between what was left of the central organs and the local or regional delegates were continually being broken. At the national conference of 29 March 1919, it was pointed out that “the local organisations are stuffed with agents provocateurs”.

In conclusion

The German revolution was above all the mass strike movement of the working class, extending geographically, countering capitalist barbarism with class solidarity, re-appropriating the lessons of October 1917 through the formation of workers’ councils. The German revolution was also the lesson about the necessity for an internationally centralised party, built on clear organisational and programmatic foundations. Without such an organ the working class will not be able to expose the Machiavellian tricks of the bourgeoisie. But the German revolution was also the capacity of the bourgeoisie to unite against the proletariat, to use manoeuvres, lies and manipulations of all kinds. It was the noxious stench of a dying order which refuses to give up. It was the deadly trap of illusions in democracy and the destruction of the workers’ councils from within.

 Even though the events of 1919 proved decisive, the flames of the revolution in Germany were not extinguished for several years. But on the scale of history, the consequences of this defeat would be very grave for humanity as a whole: the rise of Nazism in Germany, of Stalinism in Russia, the march towards the second world war under the banners of anti-fascism – these nightmarish events can all be traced to the failure of the revolutionary wave which, between 1917 and 1923, shook the bourgeois order without being able to topple it once and for all.

And yet the revolution in Germany in 1918 remains a source of inspiration and lessons for the future struggles of the proletariat. As Rosa Luxemburg wrote on the eve of her murder by troops dispatched by social democracy:

“What does the entire history of socialism and of all modern revolutions show us? The first spark of class struggle in Europe, the revolt of the silk weavers in Lyon in 1831, ended with a heavy defeat; the Chartist movement in Britain ended in defeat; the uprising of the Parisian proletariat in the June days of 1848 ended with a crushing defeat; and the Paris commune ended with a terrible defeat. The whole road of socialism – so far as revolutionary struggles are concerned – is paved with nothing but thunderous defeats… Where would we be today without those “defeats,” from which we draw historical experience, understanding, power and idealism? Today…we stand on the foundation of those very defeats; and we can’t do without any of them, because each one contributes to our strength and understanding...

To date, revolutions have given us nothing but defeats. Yet these unavoidable defeats pile up guarantee upon guarantee of the future final victory.

There is but one condition. The question of why each defeat occurred must be answered…

“Order prevails in Berlin!” You foolish lackeys! Your “order” is built on sand. Tomorrow the revolution will “rise up again, clashing its weapons,” and to your horror it will proclaim with trumpets blazing:

I was, I am, I shall be!”[3]

ICC, 1 November 2018



[1] Along with Rosa Luxemburg, one of the two best known and most persecuted leaders of the Spartacist League.

[2] All three were part of the minority of the SPD which refused to vote for war credits and joined the Spartacist League

[3] Rote Fahne, 14 January 1919


Revolution in Germany