The German Revolution, Part 1 - Revolutionaries in Germany during World War 1

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In August 1914, the First World War broke out. It was to claim 20 million victims. The determining responsibility of the trades unions, and above all the social-democracy, in the slaughter was clear to all.

In the German Reichstag, in SPD (Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands) voted unanimously in favour of war credits. At the same time, the unions called for the “sacred union”, banning all strikes and declaring themselves for the mobilisation of all the nation’s forces for war.
This is how the social-democracy justified the vote in favour of war credits by its parliamentary group: “In the time of danger, we will not abandon our fatherland. In this, we feel we are in accord with the International, which has always recognised the right of every people to national independence and self-defence, just as we are in agreement with it in condemning all wars of conquest. Inspired by these principles, we vote the war credits that are demanded”. The fatherland in danger, national defence, a people’s war for civilisation and liberty, were the “principles” on which social-democracy’s parliamentary representatives took their stand.

This was the first great betrayal by a proletarian party in the history of the workers’ movement. As an exploited class, the working class is an international class. This is why internationalism is the most fundamental principle for any proletarian revolutionary organisation; for any organisation to betray this principle leads it inevitably into the enemy camp: the camp of Capital.

German capital could never had started the war had it not been certain of the support of the unions and the leadership of the SPD. While their treachery was thus hardly a surprise for the bourgeoisie, it provoked a terrible shock in the workers’ movement. Even Lenin could not at first believe that the SPD had really voted for war credits. On first hearing the news, he thought that this was black propaganda aimed at dividing the workers’ movement[1] .

Indeed, given the years of increasing imperialist tensions, the IInd International had intervened very early against the preparations for imperialist war. At the Congress of Stuttgart in 1907and of Basle in 1912 – and even right up to the last days of July 1914 – it had taken position against the ruling class’ war-mongering, against the bitter resistance of an already powerful right-wing.

  • “Should war nonetheless break out, it is the duty of the social-democracy to bring it swiftly to an end, and use all its strength to exploit the economic and political crisis created by the war to stir up the people and so to hurry the abolition of capitalist domination” (Resolution of the International adopted in 1907, and repeated in 1912).
  • “The situation is dangerous, world war looms! The ruling classes which in peace time strangle, despise and exploit you, want to turn you into cannon-fodder. Everywhere there must sound in the despots’ ears: We refuse the war! Down with war! Long live the international fraternisation of peoples!” (Appeal of the SPD central committee on 25the July 1914, only ten days before they approved the war, on 4th August).

The SPD MPs voted for war as representatives of Europe’s greatest workers’ party, the product of decades of labour (often in the most unfavourable conditions, for example in the period of the anti-socialist laws, when the party was banned). The party owned dozens of both daily and weekly publications. In 1899, the SPD possessed 73 papers, whose overall circulation had reached 400,000 copies; 49 of them came out six times a week. In 1900, the party had more than 100,000 members.

The treachery of the SPD leadership thus confronted the revolutionary movement with a fundamental question: could this mass working class organisation be allowed to pass, bags and baggage, into the enemy camp?

The leadership of the German SPD was not alone in its treachery. In Belgium, Vandervelde, the International’s president, became a minister in a bourgeois government, as did socialist Jules Guesde in France. The French Socialist Party declared unanimously in favour of war. In Britain, where there was no conscription, the Labour Party took on the organisation of recruiting. In Austria, although the Socialist Party did not formally vote for war, it conducted a frantic campaign in its favour. In Sweden, Norway, Switzerland and Holland, the socialist leaders all voted for war credits. In Poland, the Socialist Party took the position for the war in Galicia and Silesia, but against it in Russian Poland. In Russia, the picture was uneven: the old leaders of the workers’ movement like Plekhanov or the anarchist Kropotkin, but also a handful of Bolsheviks in exile in France, called for defence against German militarism. In Russia itself, the social-democrat fraction in the Duma made a declaration against the war. This was the first official declaration against the war by a parliamentary group in one of the main warring countries. The Italian Socialist Party took position against the war from the outset. In December 1914, the party excluded a group of renegades who, under the leadership of Benito Mussolini, aligned themselves with the pro-Entente bourgeoisie, and made propaganda in favour of the war. The Bulgarian Social Democratic Workers’ Party (Tesniaks) also adopted a firm internationalist position.

The International, the pride of the working class, disintegrated in the flames of the World War, to be transformed, in Rosa Luxemburg’s words, into a “heap of wild beasts in the grip of nationalist fury, tearing each other apart for the greater glory of bourgeois order and morality”. The SPD became a “stinking corpse”. Only a few groups in Germany – Die Internationale, Lichtstrahlen, the Bremen Left – the group around Trotsky and Martov, some of the French syndicalists, the Dutch De Tribune group around Gorter and Pannekoek, and the Bolsheviks, resolutely defended the internationalist standpoint.

Alongside this decisive betrayal by most of the II International’s parties, the working class was subjected to an ideological battering which succeeded in injecting it with a fatal dose of nationalist poison. In 1914, it was not just the petty-bourgeoisie which was enrolled behind Germany’s expansionist aims: whole sectors of the working class were also galvanised by nationalism. Moreover, bourgeois propaganda maintained the illusion that the war would be finished “in a few weeks, by Christmas at the latest”, and everybody would be able to go home.

On the eve of war, despite the extremely unfavourable conditions, the minority of revolutionaries who stood firm on the principle of proletarian internationalism did not give up the struggle.

Revolutionaries and their stand against the war

With the vast majority of the working class still intoxicated with nationalism, on the eve of 4th August 1914, the main representatives of the social-democratic left organised a meeting in Rosa Luxemburg’s flat; present were Käthe and Herman Duncker, Hugo Eberlein, Julian Marchlewski, Franz Mehring, Ernst Meyer, Wilhelm Pieck. They were few, but their activity during the next four years was to have an immense influence.

Several vital questions were on the meeting’s agenda:

  • the evaluation of the balance of class forces;
  • the evaluation of the balance of forces within the SPD;
  • the aims of the struggle against the treason of the party leadership;
  • the perspectives and methods of this struggle.

The general situation was obviously very unfavourable. That was no reason for resignation for these revolutionaries. Their attitude was not to reject the organisation, but on the contrary to continue and develop the struggle within it; and to fight determinedly to preserve its proletarian principles.

Within the social-democratic parliamentary group in the Reichstag, the vote in favour of the war credits was preceded by an internal debate where 78 MPs declared themselves for the vote, and 14 against. The 14, including Liebknecht, followed party discipline and voted for the credits. This was kept secret by the SPD leadership.

There was a lot less apparent unity in the party at the local level. Many local sections (Orstvereine) immediately sent protests to the leadership. On 6th August, a crushing majority in the Stuttgart local section defied the parliamentary fraction. The left even managed to exclude the right from the party, and to take control of the local paper. In Hamburg, Laufenberg and Wolfheim rallied the opposition; in Bremen, the Bremerbürger Zeitung intervened determinedly against the war; protests also came from the Braunschweiger Volksfreund, the Gothaer Volksblatt, the Duisburg Der Kampf and from papers in Nuremberg, Halle, Leipzig and Berlin, reflecting the opposition of large sections of the party rank and file. During a meeting at Stuttgart on 21st September 1914, Liebknecht’s attitude was criticised. He himself was to say later that to have acted as he did, under fraction discipline, had been a disastrous mistake. Since every paper was subject to censure from the outbreak of the war, the expressions of protest were immediately reduced to silence. The SPD opposition thus relied on making itself heard abroad. The Swiss Berner Tagwacht became the voice of the SPD left wing; the internationalists also found expression in the review Lichtstrahlen, edited by Borchardt from September 1913 to April 1916.

An examination of the situation inside the SPD shows that although the leadership had betrayed, the organisation as a whole had not been enrolled in the war. This is why the perspective appeared clearly: to defend the organisation, we cannot abandon it to the traitors; we have to exclude them and break clearly with them.

During the meeting at Luxemburg’s flat, the question was posed of leaving the party, either as a mark of protest or out of disgust at its treachery. This idea was unanimously rejected on the grounds that the organisation should not be abandoned, since this would mean offering it on a plate to the ruling class. It was impossible to leave the party, built at the cost of such immense efforts, like rats leaving a sinking ship. This was why fighting for the organisation did not mean leaving it but fighting to reconquer it.

At that moment, nobody thought of leaving the organisation. The balance of forces did not oblige the minority to do so .Nor for the time being was it a matter of building a new, independent organisation. This attitude of Rosa Luxemburg and her comrades set them among the most committed defenders of the need for organisation.

The fact is that the internationalists had begun the combat long before the working class recovered from its intoxication. As a vanguard, they did not wait for the reactions of the working class as a whole, but took the lead in the class’ combat. While the nationalist poison continued its work on the class, which was under the ideological and physical fire of imperialist war, the revolutionaries – in the most difficult conditions of illegality – had already unmasked the conflict’s imperialist nature. Here again, in their work against the war, the revolutionaries did not simply wait for wider fractions of the proletariat to come to consciousness by themselves. The internationalists assumed their responsibilities as revolutionaries, as members of a proletarian political organisation. Not a day passed during the war when the future Spartakists were not working to defend the organisation and lay the foundations for the break with the traitors. This was a far cry from the so-called spontaneism of Rosa Luxemburg and the Spartakists.

The revolutionaries immediately entered into contact with internationalists in other countries. As their best-known representative, Liebknecht was sent abroad and made contact with the Socialist Parties in Belgium and Holland.

The struggle against the war was fought at two levels: first, in Parliament, which the Spartakists could still use as a tribune; and second, more importantly, through the development of a network of resistance at local level in the party and in direct contact with the working class.

It was thus that in Germany, Liebnecht was to become the standard-bearer of the struggle.

Within Parliament, he succeeded in drawing more and more deputies to him. Clearly at first, fear and hesitation dominated. But on 22nd October 1914, five SPD deputies left the chamber in protest; on 2nd December, Liebknecht was alone in voting against war credits, but in March 1915 about 30 deputies left the chamber, and a year later in August 1916, 36 deputies voted against the credits.

Of course the real centre of gravity lay in the activity of the working class itself, on the one hand at the roots of the workers’ parties and on the other in the workers’ mass actions, both in the streets and in the factories.

Immediately after the outbreak of war, the revolutionaries had clearly and energetically taken a position on its imperialist nature [2]. In April 1915, the first and only issue of Die Internationale was published; 9,000 copies were printed and 5,000 were sold on the first evening (hence the name of the group “Die Internationale”).

The first illegal anti-war leaflets were distributed during the winter of 1914-15, including the most famous of them: “The main enemy is in our own country”.

Propaganda material against the war circulated in many local meetings of militants. Liebknecht’s refusal to vote for war credits was well-known and quickly made him the most famous adversary of the war, first in Germany and then in the neighbouring countries. All the positions taken up by the revolutionaries were considered as “highly dangerous” by the bourgeois security services. In the local meetings of militants, representatives of the traitorous party leaders denounced militants who distributed propaganda material against the war. Often the latter would be arrested following the meeting. The SPD was split to the core. Hugo Eberlein was to report, during the KPD’s founding Congress on 31st December 1918, that links existed with more than 300 towns. To put an end to the growing anti-war resistance in party ranks, the leadership decided in January 1915, in agreement with the military High Command, to silence Liebknecht definitively by drafting him into the army. This meant he could no longer speak freely or take part in meetings of militants. On 18th February, Rosa Luxemburg was imprisoned until February 1916; in July she was arrested again and remained in prison until October 1918. In September 1915, Ernst Meyer, Hugo Eberlein and the 70-year-old Franz Mehring, were all imprisoned, with many others.

Even in these extremely difficult conditions they continued to work against the war and did everything they could to continue their organisational work.

Meanwhile, the reality of war was beginning to sober more and more workers from their nationalist intoxication. The offensive in France had broken down and had been replaced by a long trench war. By the end of 1914, 800,000 soldiers had already died. In the spring of 1915, the war in the trenches of France and Belgium cost hundreds of thousands of lives. On the Somme, 60,000 soldiers died in one day. Disillusionment spread rapidly at the front, but above all the working class on the home front was plunged into dire misery. Women were mobilised into armaments factories while food prices rose terribly, to be followed by rationing. March 18 1915 saw the first women’s demonstration against the war. On 15th and 18th October there were bloody confrontations between police and demonstrators against the war in Chemnitz. In November 1915, some 15,000 demonstrators marched in Berlin against the war. The working class was stirring in other countries too. In Austria, numerous wildcat strikes broke out, against the orders of the unions. In Britain, 250,000 miners from the South Wales coalfields went on strike; in Scotland, strikes broke out among the engineers of the Clyde Valley. In France, there were strikes in the textile industry.

Slowly, the working class began to emerge from the fog of nationalism and to show its readiness to defend its interests as an exploited class. Everywhere, the “sacred union” began to tremble.

The reaction of revolutionaries internationally

An epoch ended with the outbreak of World War I and the treason of the parties of the IInd International. The International died because several of its member parties no longer represented an internationalist orientation. They had ranged themselves alongside their respective national bourgeoisies. An International made up of different national member parties does not betray as such; it dies and no longer has any part to play for the working class. It can no longer be corrected as such.

But the war had clarified things within the international workers’ movement: on the one hand were the traitor parties; on the other the revolutionary left which continued to defend class positions coherently and inflexibly, but which formed at first a small minority. Between the two stood a centrist current, oscillating between the traitors and the internationalists, constantly hesitating to take unambiguous positions, and refusing to break clearly with the social-patriots. In Germany itself, opposition to the war divided into several groups:

  • the hesitant, most of whom belonged to the social-democratic parliamentary fraction in the Reichstag: Haase and Ledebour were the best known;
  • the group around Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, Die Internationale, which from 1916 took the name Spartakusbund;
  • the groups around the Bremen Left (the Bremerbürger Zeitung was published from July 1916) headed by Johann Knief and Karl Radek, the group around Julian Borchardt (Lichstrahlen), with some other towns (in Hamburg around Wolfheim and Laufenburg; in Dresden around Otto Rhüle). At the end of 1915, the Bremen Left merged with the Borchardt group to form the Internationale Sozialisten Deutschlands (ISD).

After a first phase of disorientation and lost contacts, from the spring of 1915 onwards, international conferences of Socialist Women (26-28th March) and Young Socialists (5-7th April) were held in Bern. After several adjournments, from 5-8th September, 37 delegates from 12 European countries met in Zimmerwald (not far from Bern). The biggest delegation from Germany, with 10 delegates from three opposition groups: the centrists, the Die Internationale group (Meyer, Thalheimer), and the ISD (Borchardt). Whereas the centrists called for an end to the war without any social upheaval, the left made the link between war and revolution the central question. After bitter discussion, the Zimmerwald conference broke up, adopting a Manifesto calling on the workers in every country to struggle for the emancipation of the working class and the goal of socialism, by the most intransigent proletarian struggle. By contrast, the centrists refused to include any reference to the need for an organisational break with social-chauvinism, or to the call to overthrow one’s own imperialist government. Nonetheless, the Zimmerwald Manifesto had a huge echo in the working class and among the troops. Despite being a compromise, criticised by the left because the centrists still hesitated in the face of clear cut positions, the Manifesto was nonetheless a decisive step in the unification of revolutionary forces.

In a previous article in the International Review, we have already criticised the Die Internationale group, which at first hesitated over the need to transform the imperialist war into a civil war.

The balance of forces begins to change

The revolutionaries thus gave an impetus to their process of unification and their intervention encountered and ever greater echo.

On 1st May 1916, some 10,000 workers demonstrated against the war. Liebknecht spoke, to shout out “Down with the war! Down with the government!” At these words, he was arrested, which sparked off a huge wave of protest. Liebknecht’s courageous intervention served as a stimulus and orientation for the workers. The revolutionaries’ determination to struggle against the social-patriotic current, to continue the defence of proletarian principles, did not lead them into greater isolation, but encouraged the rest of the working class to enter the struggle.

In May 1916, the Beuthen miners struck for a wage increase. In Leipzig, Brunswick and Koblenz, workers demonstrated against hunger and the cost of living. A state of siege was decreed in Leipzig. The action of the revolutionaries, and the fact that despite the censorship and banning of meetings, news about the growing resistance to the war began to spread, gave further impetus to the combativity of the working class as a whole.

On 27th May 1916, 25,000 Berlin workers demonstrated against Liebknecht’s arrest. The next day, 55,000 workers began the first political mass strike against his imprisonment. In Brunswick, Bremen, Leipzig and many other towns, there were solidarity meetings and demonstrations against food shortages. Workers’ meetings were held in a dozen towns. Here we have a clear concretisation of the relationship between revolutionaries and the working class. The revolutionaries are neither outside nor above the working class, they are simply its clearest and most determined part, gathered together in political organisations. But their influence depends on the receptivity of the working class as a whole. Even if the number of elements organised in the Spartakist movement was still small, hundreds of thousands of workers nonetheless followed their slogans. More and more, they were the spokesmen for the spirit of the masses.

Consequently, the bourgeoisie did everything it could to isolate the revolutionaries from the class, by a wave of repression. Many members of the Spartakist League were placed in preventative detention. Rosa Luxembourg and almost the entire Spartakus central committee were arrested during the second half of 1916. Many Spartakists were denounced by SPD bureaucrats for having distributed leaflets in the SPD’s meetings; the police gaols filled up with Spartakist militants.

While the massacres on the Western front (especially at Verdun) claimed more and more victims, the bourgeoisie demanded more and more of the workers on the home front, in the factories. No war can be fought unless the working class is ready to sacrifice its entire life for the profit of capital. Now, the ruling class was encountering an increasingly strong resistance.

Protests against hunger developed constantly (the population was only receiving a third of its needs in calories). During the autumn of 1916, protests and demonstrations took place almost daily in the great towns: September in Kiel, November in Dresden, a movement of the Ruhr miners in January 1917. The balance of forces between capital and labour was little by little being overturned. Within the SPD, the social-patriotic leadership encountered more and more difficulties. Despite its collaboration with the police, which arrested and sent to the front any oppositional worker, and despite its ability to keep a majority in the votes within the party through manipulation, the leadership was unable to put down the growing resistance to its attitude. Bit by bit, the revolutionary minority began to gain influence within the party. From the autumn of 1916, more and more of the local sections (Orstvereine) refused to pay their dues to the leadership.

By unifying its forces, the opposition from this moment on tried to eliminate the central committee in order to take control of the party.

The SPD central committee could see clearly that the balance of forces was beginning to go against it. Following the meeting of a national conference of the opposition, on 7th January 1917, the central committee decided to expel the entire opposition. The split had come. An organisational break was inevitable. Internationalist activity, and the political life of the working class, could hence forth no longer develop within the SPD but only outside it. Following the expulsion of revolutionary minorities, all proletarian life in the SPD was extinguished. Work within the SPD was no longer possible: the revolutionaries had to organise outside[3] .

The opposition was henceforth confronted with a question: what sort of organisation? Suffice it to say here, that during this period of spring 1917 the different currents in the German Left went in different directions.

In a future article we will go, at greater depth, into an appreciation of the organisational work at that time.

The Russian Revolution: the beginning of the revolutionary wave

At the same time, internationally, the pressure of the working class was going beyond a decisive threshold. In February (March by the Western calendar), the workers and soldiers in Russia once again, as they had done in 1905, created their workers’ and soldiers councils. The Tsar was overthrown. A revolutionary process began which was very soon to spread to neighbouring countries and throughout the world. The event gave birth to an immense hope in the workers’ ranks.

The struggle’s further development can only be understood in the light of the Russian Revolution. The fact that the working class had overthrown the ruling class in one country, that it had begun to shake the foundations of capitalism, acted as a beacon showing the direction to follow. And the working class throughout the world began to look in this direction.

The working class’s struggle in Russia met a powerful echo, and above all in Germany.

A wave of strikes broke out in the Ruhr between 16-22nd February 1917. Mass actions took place in many German towns. Not a week passed without some important act of resistance, demands for higher wages or better provisions. Disorders due to problems of food supply were reported in almost all the great cities. When a new reduction in food rations was announced in April, the workers’ anger overflowed. From 16th April, a great wave of mass strikes broke out in Berlin, Leipzig, Magdeburg, Hanover, Brunswick and Dresden. The army chiefs of staff, the main bourgeois politicians, and the leaders of the SPD and the unions all worked together to try to control the strike movement.

More than 300,000 workers in 30 factories were on strike. This was the second great mass strike after the struggles in July 1916 over Liebknecht’s arrest.

  • “Innumerable meetings took place in halls, or in the open air, speeches were made and resolutions adopted. The state of siege was broken and reduced to nothing in an instant, as soon as the masses entered into movement and took determined possession of the street” (Spartakusbriefe, April 1917).

The working class in Germany thus followed closely in the steps of its class brothers in Russia, who were confronting capital in a gigantic revolutionary struggle.

They fought with exactly the methods described by Rosa Luxemburg in her pamphlet The Mass Strike, written after the struggles of 1905: mass meetings, demonstrations, discussions and common resolutions in the factories, factory assemblies, right up to the formation of workers’ councils.

Since the unions had been integrated into the state in 1914, they had served as a rampart against the reaction of the working class. They sabotaged the struggle by every means available. The proletariat had to act by itself, organise by itself and unify by itself. No organisation created in advance could spare it this task. And the workers in Germany, the most developed country of its time, showed that they could organise themselves. Contrary to all the speeches we hear today, the working class is perfectly capable of entering massively into struggle and of organising to do so. In this perspective, the struggle could no longer take place within the union and reformist framework, that is by industrial branch, separated from each other. The working class showed that henceforth, it is capable of uniting irrespective of trade or industry, and of entering into action for demands shared by all: bread and peace, and the liberation of its revolutionary militants. Everywhere the demand went up for Liebknecht’s liberation.

Struggles can no longer be carefully prepared in advance, as if by a general staff, as they were in the previous century. The task of the political organisation is not to organise the workers but to assume the role of political leadership.

During the 1917 strike wave in Germany, the workers confronted the unions directly for the first time. Although the latter had been created by the class itself during the previous century, from the outset of the war they had become the defenders of capital in the factories and henceforth formed an obstacle to proletarian struggle. The workers in Germany were the first to discover that they could only go forward by going against the unions

The beginning of the Russian Revolution had its first effects among the soldiers. The revolutionary events were discussed with immense enthusiasm; fraternisation between German and Russian troops was frequent on the Eastern front. In the summer of 1917, the first mutinies took place in the German fleet. Here too bloody repression could stifle the first flames but it could no longer put a halt to the revolutionary movement in the long term.

The partisans of Spartakus and the Bremen Linksradikalen had a strong influence among the sailors.

In the industrial towns, the working class counter-attack continued to develop from the Ruhr to central Germany, from Berlin to the Baltic, everywhere the working class confronted the bourgeoisie. On 16th April, the workers of Leipzig published a call to the workers of other towns to unite with them.

The intervention of revolutionaries

The Spartakists were to be found in the forefront of these movements. From the spring of 1917 they recognised the significance of the movement in Russia and extended a bridge in the direction of the Russian working class, putting forward the perspective of the international extension of the revolutionary struggles. In their pamphlets, in their leaflets, in their polemics towards the working class they intervened ceaselessly against the centrists who with their oscillation and hesitations avoided taking clear positions. They contributed to an understanding of the new situation, ceaselessly exposed the betrayal of the social-patriots and showed the working class how to rediscover the path onto its own class terrain.

In particular, the Spartakists constantly put forward the positions that:

  • if the working class developed an adequate balance of forces it would be able to end the war and push back the capitalist class;
  • in the context of this perspective it was necessary to take up the revolutionary flame that the working class in Russia had lit.

At this level, the proletariat in Germany occupied a central and decisive position!

  • “In Russia the workers and peasants (…) have overthrown the old czarist government and taken control of their own destiny. Strikes and work stoppages of such unity and tenacity as there are now ensure not only small victories but an end to the genocide and the overthrow of the German government and of the domination of the exploiters (…) Throughout the period of the war the working class has never been so powerful as now when it displays unity and solidarity in its action and in its combat; the ruling class never so mortal (…) Only the German revolution can bring to all peoples the peace that is so fiercely desired, and freedom. The victorious Russian revolution together with the victorious German revolution are invincible. From the day that the German government collapses – and with it German militarism – under the revolutionary blows of the proletariat, a new era will be opened up: an era in which capitalist wars, exploitation and oppression will disappear for ever” (Spartakist leaflet, April 1917).
  • “We must break the domination of the reaction and of the imperialist classes in Germany if we want to put an end to the genocide (…) it’s only through the struggle of the masses, through the uprising of the masses through mass strikes that halt all economic activity and the whole of the war industry, it’s only through the revolution and the conquest of the people’s republic in Germany that the genocide can be stopped and that peace can be generally established. And it’s also only in this way that the Russian revolution can be saved.”
  • “The catastrophic situation internationally can only serve to break the international proletariat. Only the world proletarian revolution can end the world imperialist war” (Spartakusbriefe no 6, August 1917).

The radical left was aware of its responsibility and fully understood what was at stake if the revolution in Russia remained isolated: “…On the fate of the Russian revolution: it will attain its objective only if it is a prologue to the European revolution of the proletariat. If on the other hand the European, German workers go on behaving as if they were spectators at this fascinating drama, gawping at it, then the power of the Russian soviets awaits the same destiny as the Paris Commune (that is, bloody defeat)” (Spartakus, January 1918).

That is why it was necessary for the proletariat in Germany, which was in a key position to extend the revolution, to become conscious of its historic role. “The German proletariat is the most faithful, the surest ally of the Russian revolution and of the international proletarian revolution” (Lenin)

A look at the content of the Spartakists’ intervention shows us that it was clearly internationalist and that it gave a correct orientation to the workers’ struggles: the overthrow of the bourgeois government with the perspective of the international overthrow of capitalist society; the exposure of the sabotaging tactics of those forces that were in the service of the bourgeoisie.

The vital necessity for the extension of the revolution to the central countries of capitalism

Although the revolutionary movement that began in Russia in February 1917 was mainly directed against the war it did not have the strength of itself to end that war by itself. To do that it was absolutely vital that the working class in the large industrial bastions of capitalism enter onto the scene. And it was with a profound awareness of this necessity that when the soviets seized power in October 1917, the Russian proletariat launched an appeal to all the workers of the belligerent countries:

  • “The government of workers and peasants created by the revolution of 24/25 October and with the soviets of workers, soldiers and peasants as its base, proposes that all peoples of the belligerent countries and their governments participate in negotiations for a fair and democratic peace” (26 November, 1917)

For its part the world bourgeoisie was aware of the danger to its domination posed by such a situation. That is why it was bound at that moment to do all in its power to stifle the flame that had been lit in Russia. That is why the German bourgeoisie, with the general blessing of all, continued its war offensive against Russia even after it had signed a peace agreement with the soviet government at Brest-Litovsk in January 1918. In their leaflet entitled “The moment of decision”, the Spartakists published a warning to the workers about this:

  • The decisive moment is now at hand for the German proletariat! Be on your guard! Because the aim of the German government is to throw dust in the eyes of the people with these negotiations, to prolong and increase the misery and distress of the genocide. The government and the German imperialists are simply following their old aims with new means. Under cover of the right of nations to self-determination they have set up puppet states in the occupied Russian provinces which are condemned to a pseudo-existence, being economically and politically dependent on their German ‘liberators’ who will then of course, swallow them up at the first favourable opportunity”.

However another year was to pass before the working class in the industrial centres was sufficiently strong to push back the murderous arms of imperialism.

But from 1917 onwards the reverberations of the victorious revolution in Russia on the one hand and the imperialists’ intensification of the war on the other pushed the workers more and more to want to put an end to the war.

The revolutionary flame did in fact spread to other countries.

  • In Finland, January 1918, a workers’ executive committee was formed to prepare the seizure of power. These struggles were to be defeated militarily on March 1918. The German army alone mobilised more than 15,000 soldiers. The number of workers massacred was to rise to more than 25,000 dead.
  • 15th January 1918 saw a political mass strike in Vienna which spread to almost the entire Hapsburg empire. Huge demonstrations for peace took place in Brunn, Budapest, Graz, Prague, Vienna and other cities.
  • A workers’ council was formed to unite the various actions of the working class. On 1st February 1918 the sailors of the Austro-Hungarian fleet rose up in the naval port of Cattaro against the continuation of the war and fraternised with the striking workers of the arsenal.
  • In the same period strikes were taking place in England, France and Holland (see the article on this in the International Review no 80,

The January struggles: the SPD as the bourgeoisie’s spearhead against the working class

As the German offensive continued against the young workers’ revolutionary power in Russia, the anger within the workers’ ranks overflowed. On 28th January 400,000 workers, mainly in the armaments factories, went on strike in Berlin. On 29th January the number of strikers rose to as many as 500,000. The movement spread to other cities: in Munich a general assembly of strikers launched the following appeal: “The workers of Munich send their fraternal greetings to the Belgian, French, English, Italian, Russian and American workers. We feel at one with them in their determination to put an end to the world war … We want to impose world peace in solidarity … Proletarians of all countries, unite!” (Quoted by R Müller, p 148 [of his 3-volume history of the German Revolution]).

During the mass movement, the most important of the war, the proletarians formed a workers’ council in Berlin. A Spartakist leaflet addressed them thus:

  • “We must create a freely-elected organ on the Russian and Austrian model to represent us whose task is to direct this and the future struggles. Each factory to elect one man of confidence for 1,000 workers”. In all, more than 1800 delegates met. Elsewhere the leaflet says: “union officials, governmental socialists and other pillars of the war effort should in no way be elected onto these delegations … These men of straw and voluntary agents of the government, these mortal enemies of the mass strike, have no business among the workers in struggle! … At the time of the mass strike in April 1917 they broke the back of the strike movement in the most perfidious way by exploiting the confusions of the masses and orienting the movement towards false paths … These wolves in sheep’s clothing are a much more serious threat to the movement than are the police of imperial Prussia”.
    At the heart of the demands we find: peace, the adherence of workers’ representatives in all countries to the peace negotiations… The assembly of workers’ councils for its part stated: “We address the present appeal to the workers in Germany and to those of all the belligerent countries and call on them to enter simultaneously into mass strike, as our comrades in Austria-Hungary have already done successfully because only the solidarity of the international class struggle can bring peace, freedom and bread definitively.”

Another Spartakist leaflet stresses: “We must speak Russian in response to the reaction.” They called for street demonstrations in solidarity.

Given that the struggle had involved a million workers the ruling class was to chose a tactic that it would subsequently employ again and again against the working class. It was the SPD that was the bourgeoisie’s spearhead in torpedoing the movement from within. By taking advantage of the still-significant influence that it enjoyed among the workers this treacherous party managed to send three of its own representatives into the action committee, into the leadership of the strike, who did all they could to break the movement. They acted as saboteurs from within. Ebert clearly recognises this: “I went into the leadership of the strike with the deliberate intention of rapidly finishing it and saving the country from any harm … It was the ultimate duty of the workers to support their brothers and fathers at the front and supply them with the best arms. The workers of France and England don’t miss an hour’s work that can help their brothers at the front. Obviously, all Germans wish for victory,” (Ebert, 30th January, 1918). The workers were to pay a very high price for their illusions in social democracy and its leaders.

In 1914 the SPD had mobilised the workers for war, now they did all in their power to block the strikes. This shows the clear-sightedness and survival instinct of the ruling class, its awareness of the danger that the working class represents to it. The Spartakists for their part denounced long and loud the deadly danger that social-democracy represented and warned the proletariat against it. To the perfidious methods of social-democracy the ruling class added direct and brutal interventions against the strikers with the help of the army. A dozen workers were cut down and several tens of thousands were forcibly enlisted… although the latter contributed to the destabilisation of the army by agitating within it in the following months.

The strikes were finally broken on 3rd February.

We can see that the working class in Germany used exactly the same means of struggle as it did in Russia: mass strikes, workers’ councils, elected and revocable delegates, massive street demonstrations … and these have subsequently constituted the “classic” weapons of the working class.

The Spartakists developed a correct orientation for the movement but did not yet have a decisive influence. “There were a number of our militants among the delegates but they were dispersed, had no plan of action and were lost among the masses,” (Barthel, p591)

This weakness on the part of the revolutionaries, together with social democracy’s work of sabotage, were the decisive factors that led to the impasse that the movement of the class experienced at that moment.

  • “If we had not gone into the strike committee I’m sure that the war and everything with it would have dissipated in January. There was the danger of a total collapse and the eruption of a situation like that in Russia. Because of our action the strike was soon ended and order restored” (Scheidemann).

The movement in Germany came up against a much stronger enemy than in Russia. The capitalist class here had in fact already learnt its lesson in order to do all in its power against the working class. Already at this time the SPD proved its ability to set traps to break the movement by taking the lead in it. In later struggles this was to prove even more destructive.

The defeat in January 1918 gave the capitalist forces the possibility to continue their war for a few more months. During 1918 the army was to engage in other offensives. For Germany alone and in 1918 only, this cost 550,000 deaths and almost a million wounded.

The workers’ combativity had still not been broken after the events of January 1918, in spite of everything. Under the pressure of the worsening military situation, a growing number of solders deserted and the front began to disintegrate. From the summer onwards, not only did the willingness to struggle begin to develop again in the factories but the army chiefs were also forced to acknowledge that they were unable to keep the soldiers at the front. For the bourgeoisie, a cease-fire consequently became an urgent necessity.

The ruling class thus showed that it had drawn the lessons of what had happened in Russia.

Although in April 1917 the German bourgeoisie had let Lenin cross Germany in a sealed train in the hope that the action of the Russian revolutionaries would lead to a development of chaos in Russia and so facilitate the realisation of Germany’s imperialist aims (the German army did not foresee at the time that what would ensue was the proletarian revolution of 1917), now they had at all costs to avoid an identical revolutionary development as that in Russia.

So the SPD entered the newly-formed bourgeois government to act as a brake on the movement. “In the circumstances if we refuse to collaborate we must expect a very serious danger … that the movement will overreach us and a Bolshevik regime momentarily appears at home too” (G Noske, 23.09.18)

At the end of 1918 the factories were once more in ferment, strikes broke out constantly in different places. It was just a matter of time before the mass strike movement was spread over the whole country. The growing combativity supplied the soil to nourish the action of the soldiers. When the army ordered a new offensive of the fleet in October, mutinies broke out. The sailors at Kiel and other Baltic ports refused to go to sea. On 3rd November a wave of protests and strikes took place against the war. Workers and soldiers councils were created everywhere. In the space of a week the whole of Germany was “submerged” by a wave of workers’ and soldiers councils.

In the period after February 1917 in Russia it had been the continuation of the war by the Kerensky government that had given a decisive push to the struggle of the proletariat, to the point that the government was driven from power in October so that a definitive end could be made to the imperialist butchery. In Germany the ruling class was better armed than the Russian bourgeoisie and did all it could to maintain its power.

So on 11 November, just a week after the development of workers’ struggles and their lightening extension and after the appearance of workers’ councils, the German bourgeoisie signed the armistice. Drawing the lessons of the Russian experience they did not make the mistake of provoking a fatal radicalisation of the proletarian wave by continuing the war at all costs. By ending it they tried to cut the ground from beneath the feet of the movement and so block its extension. Moreover they introduced into the campaign their most important piece of artillery: the SPD with the unions at its side.

  • “By entering the ministry, governmental socialism has set itself up as the defender of capitalism and bars the road to the growing proletarian revolution. The proletarian revolution will walk over its corpse,” (Spartakusbriefe no. 12, October 1918).

At the end of December Rosa Luxemburg stated: “In all previous revolutions the opponents confronted each other in an open way, class against class, sword against shield … In today’s revolution the troops that defend the old order are not drawn up under their own flag and in the uniform of the ruling class … but under the flag of the revolution. It is a socialist party that has become the most important instrument of the bourgeois counter-offensive”.

In a future article we will go into the counter-revolutionary role of the SPD when confronted with the further development of the struggles.

The end of the war made possible by the action of revolutionaries

The working class in Germany would never have been able to develop its capacity to put a stop to the imperialist butchery without the constant participation and intervention of revolutionaries within its ranks. The transformation from the situation of nationalist intoxication in which the working class was steeped in 1914 to the uprising of November 1918 which put an end to the war was possible only by the virtue of the tireless activity of revolutionaries. It was not pacifism that made the end of the massacres possible but the revolutionary uprising of the proletariat.

If from the beginning the internationalists had not courageously exposed the betrayal of the social patriots, if they had not raised their voices loud and clear in the assemblies, factories, in the streets, if they had not determinedly unmasked the saboteurs of the class struggle, the working class response could not have developed and could still less have reached a climax.

By casting a clear glance at this period in the history of the workers’ movement and assessing it from the point of view of the work of revolutionaries we can draw out the crucial lessons for today.

The handful of revolutionaries who continued to defend internationalist principles in August 1914 did not allow themselves to be intimidated or demoralised by their reduced numbers and the enormity of the task they had to accomplish. They maintained their confidence in their class and continued to intervene resolutely, in spite of the immense difficulties, to try and reverse the balance of class forces which was particularly unfavourable. In the party’s sections the revolutionaries rallied their forces as rapidly as possible and never turned their back on their responsibilities.

By defending excellent political orientations before the workers on the basis of a correct analysis of imperialism and the balance of forces between classes they showed the real perspective with the greatest clarity and they served to orient their class politically.

Their defence of the political organisation of the proletariat was also consistent. They did so as much when the point was not to abandon the SPD in the hands of the traitors without a struggle as when it was necessary to build a new organisation. In the next issue we will go into the main elements of this combat.

From the beginning of the war the revolutionaries intervened to defend proletarian internationalism, the international unification of revolutionaries (Zimmerwald and Kienthal) as well as that of the working class as a whole.

Because they realised that the war could not be ended by pacifist means but only through class war, civil war, and that it was therefore necessary to overthrow capitalist domination to free the world from barbarism, they intervened concretely to go beyond capitalist society.

This political work could not have been possible without the theoretical and programmatic clarification carried out before the war. Their fight, led by Rosa Luxemburg and Lenin, was in continuity with the positions of the Left within the Second International.

We can say that although the number of revolutionaries and their impact was small at the beginning of the war (Rosa Luxemburg’s apartment had room to hold the main militants of the left on 4th August 1914; all the delegates at Zimmerwald were able to get into three taxis), their work was to prove decisive. Even though at the beginning only small numbers of their press were circulated, the positions and orientations that they contained were crucial for the further development of the consciousness and the combat of the working class.

All this must serve as an example and open our eyes to the importance of the work of revolutionaries. In 1914 the class still needed four years to get over its defeat and present a massive opposition to the war. Today the workers of the industrial centres are not tearing each other to pieces in an imperialist butchery; they must defend themselves against more and more wretched living conditions that capitalism in crisis imposes upon them.

But in the same way as at the beginning of the century when they would never have been able to put an end to the war if the revolutionaries among them and not fought clearly and decisively, to carry out its struggle today and carry out its responsibilities as a revolutionary class, the working class urgently needs its political organisations and their intervention. We will concretise this point in future articles.  DV

International Review 81, 2nd Quarter 1995

[1] “But no, it’s a lie! A falsification of those imperialist gentlemen! The real Vorwärts has very probably been sequestrated,” (Zinoviev writing about Lenin)

[2] Anton Pannekoek: Socialism and the great European war; Mehring: On the nature of the war; Lenin: The collapse of the IInd International, Socialism and the war, The tasks of revolutionary social-democracy in the European war; C. Zetkin and K Dunker: Theses on the war; R. Luxemburg: The crisis of social-democracy (also known as the “Junius Pamphlet”); K Liebnecht: The main enemy is at home.

[3] From 1914 to 1917 the membership of the SPD went from one million to about 200,000.

History of the workers' movement: 


German Revolution