1918-1919: seventy years ago On the Revolution in Germany

Printer-friendly version


70 years ago the proletariat in Germany threw itself into the most important experience of its history. It undertook the task of carrying forward the flame of the revolution, which the Russian proletariat had lit in 1917, and of spreading it to Western Europe.

Everywhere in Germany workers' and soldiers' were founded in the first days of November. The example of the workers in Russia, which was also taken up by the workers in Aus­tria and in Hungary, and to a certain extent in Italy as well, was to serve as a magnificent stimulus.

Revolutionaries had put all their hopes on Germany, because, more than any other section of the proletariat, the working class there, due to its key position in Europe, could come to the help of the isolated workers in Russia, by smashing the capitalist class in Germany and thus opening up the road towards world revolution.

The fate of the international working class, even of the whole of humanity, lay in the hands of the working class in Germany. Its capacity to push through a victorious revolution, to conquer power and to maintain it was to be decisive for the further course of the struggles in Russia, in the centre of Europe and on a world scale.

But as gigantic as the responsibility and the task of the working class in Germany were, just as tremendous were the obstacles that it had to push aside, because the proletariat was facing a capitalist class which was well-experienced and well-equipped in facing the working class. As, a ruling class of an industrialized country it was capable of mounting a much fiercer resistance than the bourgeoisie in  Russia, which had been chased away by the proletariat relatively rapidly without any bloodshed.

All the revolutionaries were aware of this. Thus Lenin wrote on 23.7.1918: "For us it was easier to start the revolution, but it is extremely difficult for us to continue and accom­plish it. And the revolution has tremendous dif­ficulties in coming about in such a highly industrialized country as Germany, in a country with such a well-organize bourgeoisie" (Lenin, Speech at a Moscow Conference of delegates of the factory committees, 23.7.1918).

And seeing what was at stake, revolutionaries in Russia in particular were ready to come to the help of the workers in Germany. Well before the actual outbreak of the workers' rising, Lenin wrote on Oct.1.1918: "For the German working masses we are preparing ... a fraternal alliance, bread and military aid. We will all put our life at risk, in order to help the German workers push forward the revolution which has started in Germany" (Lenin, 1.10.1918, letter to Sverdlov, in: Lenin, On Germany and the German Workers' Movement, Berlin, 1957, p. 448).

But the German bourgeoisie also got the support of the ruling class of the other countries, in particular of the ‘winners' of the First World War, who were scared by the specter of the spread of the proletarian world revolution. Whereas before the various national bourgeoisies had been trying to rip off each others' territories on the battlefields of the imperialist war at the expense of more than 20 million dead and an uncountable number of injured, they were now ready to close their ranks vis-a-vis a working class fighting on its class terrain. Once again it turned out to be true that the ruling class, divided by its very nature, can unify in a revo­lutionary situation in order to stand up against the working class. The ruling class in Germany had also started quickly learning the lessons of the revolution in Russia, in order to fight against the working class on the basis of this experience.

The onslaught of the working class in Germany against the capitalist regime was blocked by the bourgeoisie. More than 20,000 workers were massacred and more injured between 1918 and the begenning of the 1920s. The bourgeoisie in Germany managed to decapitate the leadership of the proletariat. Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht were killed by the SPD-organized Freikorps in the January rising of 1919. Even though the KPD, which had been founded in the heat of the strug­gles in Dec .1918/Jan.1919 was one of the first to declare itself against the unions and parlia­ment, it stepped into these struggles with in­sufficiently elaborated programmatic positions, was organizationally ill-prepared, and split up a short time after its foundation. Politically weakened, the proletariat was not able to over­come these weaknesses in the course of its struggles.

The attempts to extend the revolutionary wave beyond the Russian borders were blunted through the defeat of the working class in Germany. This was to have catastrophic consequences for the international working class, since, as a result of the defeat of the struggles in Germany, the bourgeoisie was able to begin a worldwide offensive against the working class. This placed the workers in Russia in an even more isolated situation in face of the attacks of the White Armies. The smashing of the revolutionary strug­gles in Germany, and through this the isolation of the workers in Russia, thus accelerated the defeat of the revolution in Russia, where the backbone of an isolated proletariat could also be broken.

The struggles in Germany and Russia: the same force dynamized them, the same perspective united them

The struggles in Germany were stimulated by the same driving force as the struggles of the working class in Russia.

After the mobilization of the working class in Germany on the battlefield for the imperial­ist war aims of the German bourgeoisie, which had been facilitated through the betrayal of the parliamentary fraction of the SPD in August 1914, and after the unions had maintained a relative calm in the factories and in the working class as a whole in the first years of the war, the working class, from 1916 on, slowly began raise its head. The wave of wildcat strikes which from winter 1917 on began to shake the armaments industry, the growing resistance against war and its miseries. These workers' strug­gles, which were clearly under the influence of the Russian revolution, showed that in Germany too the working class, despite a significant weakening through the war, was not yet defeated. On the contrary, it was in the process of stand­ing up against the policy of ‘burgfrieden', class peace on the home front. This strike wave thus smashed the social peace which the unions and capital had agreed on at the beginning of the war. This agreement not only irreversibly brought the unions over into the camp of the bourgeoisie, but also constituted an irreplace­able pillar of the domination of capital.

The movement of Nov. 1918 put forward the same demands as had been raised a year before by the workers in Russia: bread and peace. The movement against the war began not at the front, but in the factories.

Its central unifying point was therefore the struggle against hunger, against the continua­tion of the war. It was necessary to bring down the ruling class in order to satisfy these de­mands.

That's why the Spartakists and Rosa Luxemburg summed up the goal and the first measures which would have to be taken in the following terms:

"The goal of the revolution (the abolition of the rule of capital, the achievement of the so­cialist order of society), clearly indicates its path, the task dictates the method. All power in the hands of the working masses, in the hands of the workers' and soldiers' councils, securing the work of the revolution in face of its cower­ing enemies: this is the orientation for all the measures of the revolutionary government:

-- the further development and the re-election of the local workers' and soldiers' councils in order that the first chaotic and impulsive ges­ture of their emergence can be replaced through the conscious process of self-understanding about the goals, tasks and the path of the revo­lution,

-- the permanent coming together of these rep­resentatives of the masses and the handing over of real political power from the tiny committee of the Vollzugsrat (executive council) to the broad foundation of the workers' and soldiers' councils,

-- formation of a proletarian red guard,

-- the immediate call for a world workers'congress in Germany in order to sharply and clearly stress the socialist and international character of the revolution. The international, the world r evolution of the proletariat is the sole anchor-point of the future of the German revolution" (‘The Beginning', 18.11.1918, R. Luxemburg, Selected Works, vol. 4, East-German Edition, p. 398).

Everywhere the workers were in the centre of the struggles. The workers came together in workers' and soldiers' councils in almost every big city. The trade unions, which during the war showed themselves to be the best bulwark of cap­ital, lost influence during this initial phase. As Lenin had pointed out, the workers' and sol­diers' councils proved themselves to be the finally discovered form for the organization of the workers' revolution. The workers came together in demonstrations in order to close their ranks as one class, in order to show their true force in society. Countless demos took place in Nov-Dec. in most big German cities. They were the point of unification of the working class beyond all factory and district limits. That's why the communists emphasized them so much in their agitation: "In times of revolutionary cri­sis, the masses belong as a matter of course out on the streets. They are the sole haven, the sole security of the revolution ... Their very presence, their contact with each other is a menace and a warning against all open and hidden enemies of the revolution" (‘Unaccomplished du­ties', R. Luxemburg, Jan. 8, 1919, Vol. 4, p , 524).

Just like in Russia the workers held meetings in the factories where resolutions were passed, delegations appointed, and measures taken against the state institutions.

The forms of struggle, which in the decadence of capitalism were to become the typical weapons of the proletariat, were applied: wildcat strikes, the formation of workers' and soldiers' councils as unitary organs of the class, mass demonstrations bringing together all workers, regardless of their profession, whether or not they were employed, the self-initiative of the workers themselves. As the workers' councils themselves and the revolutionaries at their head had proclaimed in Russia, the perspective of this movement consisted at once in the immediate extension of the revolution and the construction of a communist society.

" ... the moment of the final reckoning with capitalist class domination has come. But this great task cannot be fulfilled by the German proletariat alone. It can only struggle and win if it calls for the solidarity of the proletarians of the entire world" (‘To the Proletarians of All Countries', Nov.25, 1918, Spartakusbund).

The workers had massacred each other as cannon fodder in favor of each national capital in the imperialist war. The working class in Eu­rope was divided through this nationalist poi­son. Particularly in the ‘victorious' countries like France, the bourgeoisie was able to use this ‘victory' to keep chauvinism and national­ism alive in the working class. The Spartakists, taking into consideration this weakness of the international proletariat, and convinced as they were of the necessity of the extension of the revolution, thus proclaimed:

"Remember. Your victorious capitalists are prepared to bloodily suppress our revolution which they fear as much as their own, You yourselves have not become any freer through ‘victory', you have become only all the more enslaved. Should your ruling classes succeed in strangling the proletarian revolution in Germany and in Russia, they will turn against you with doubled ferocity ...

Elect workers' and soldiers' councils every­where in order to seize political power and to establish peace together with us ..." (ibid.).

The working class in Russia succeeded in top­pling the bourgeois government after months of the polarization of power between the soviets and the Provisional Government, in order to seize power itself through the soviets. The Provisional Government could be brought down with­out much bloodshed. The workers' and soldiers' councils were able to rapidly exercise a real control over the country. It was only some time after the successful taking of power through the workers' and soldiers' councils that the bour­geoisie could begin an effective counter-offen­sive which threw the country into a civil war. This in turn drained the blood of the workers and peasants and eventually resulted in depriv­ing them of any real power.

Although the movement in Germany was carried by the working class, which put forward the same perspectives as the struggles of the workers in Russia, the workers in Germany did not succeed in bringing down the capitalist class. The bour­geoisie torpedoed the power of the workers' and soldiers' councils from the very beginning. It never allowed for the formation of a new centre of the rule of the workers. It provoked prema­ture military confrontations at a moment when the working class was not yet ripe for the in­surrection. It immediately sought armed con­frontation and inflicted devastating blows against the workers on a military terrain after having politically prepared this terrain. The most important aspect of this was the political disarming and then the political destruction of the Berlin workers' and soldiers' councils, which survived in name only (and whose very name was employed by capital against the revolution).

The social democrats' grip on the councils, the transformation of the latter into organs controlled by the bourgeois state, had the ef­fect of destroying the councils from within. From being proletarian organs for the class organization of the proletariat and the destruc­tion of the bourgeois state, they became a cover for the social democratic state before being definitively suppressed by the setting up of the National Assembly. Strengthened by its control over the councils, social democracy could organize the provocation of 1919 in Berlin to decapi­tate the proletarian movement and the Spartakist party.

The ascent of the movement in Nov./Dec. was broken in the first months of 1919. With the help of the Freikorps, a counter-revolutionary military force set up in the wake of the disso­lution of the regular army at the end of the war with the aid of the SPD government, the bourgeoisie succeeded in massacring the workers in Berlin in January, in Bremen in February, in March in Central Germany and on the Ruhr, in April/May in Munich; one after the other, town by town, region by region, in one packet after another, crushing the backbone of the movement.

Although this did not put an end to the com­bativity of the working class, which kept, re­turning to the path of struggle up until 1923 (from the rising against the Kapp-Putsch in 1920 up until the rising in Central Germany and in Hamburg in 1923), in fact the movement was in retreat from the first months of 1919 on.

The origins of the defeat at the heart of the revolutionary wave

Just as with the failure of the previous most important workers' insurrections, 1848, 1871, 1905, the defeat of the 1917-23 revolutionary wave was not simply the result of the mistakes or even the absence of a revolutionary vanguard. In the same way, the defeat of the working class in Germany cannot simply be explained through the weak influence of the Communist Party. The relatively weak influence of the KPD reflected in its turn a deeply rooted weakness of the working class itself: the difficulty in under­standing the fundamental change in the communist perspective brought about by the beginning of a new historic period, that of the decadence and decomposition of the capitalist mode of produc­tion.

It's true that the delay in the formation of revolutionary fractions in Germany before the war was to hold back the communist minority's capacity to deal with the revolutionary situation at the end of the war. The Communist Party was formed too late and too hastily under the pressure of the November revolution, without a long tradition of struggles and of combat against the bourgeoisie and the bourgeois fract­ions in social democracy, whose counter-revolutionary policies were clearly revealed in 1914.

However, what also has to be understood is that the war was not the best condition for the victorious outcome of the revolution.

Indeed, although both the Paris Commune and the mass strike of 1905 in Russia broke out at moments when war was taking place, the marxist movement had generally expected that the revolu­tion would be triggered off, not in reaction to war, but as the final consequence of the prole­tariat's resistance to the economic crisis.

The rapid fall of capitalism into the blood­bath of First World War made it incomparably more difficult for the working class to develop a full consciousness about the real gravity and significance of this war. Since the workers had witnessed above all the bestial slaughter of the war, they were conscious mainly of the consequences of this war, without yet being aware of the other consequences of capitalist decadence.

This fact already led Luxemburg to draw the following conclusion:

"Departing from the basis of historical de­velopment, one cannot expect that a Germany which has presented the terrible picture of Au­gust 4 (1914) and the four years which followed could suddenly on Nov. 9 1918 experience a magnificent class conscious revolution, fully aware of its goals. What we have lived through on Nov. 9 1918 was three quarters more a col­lapse of the existing imperialism than the vic­tory of a new principle. The moment had quite simply come at which this imperialism, like a giant with feet of clay, rotten from within, just had to collapse. What followed that was a more or less chaotic, unplanned, not highly con­scious movement, in which the sole link and the remaining saving principle was summarized only in the slogan: formation of workers' and sol­diers' councils" (Founding Congress of the KPD, 1918/1919, Collected Works, Volume 4, page. 497).

Although capitalism at that time had entered its decadent phase, this did not automatically and mechanically lead the working class to understand all the implications of the change of the period. The working class still suffered from the weight of reformism and was not able to draw all the lessons of this new epoch as quickly as the events themselves evolved.

This is why the illusion of a return to the prosperity of the 19th century was reinforced the moment the bourgeoisie conceded the demand for peace.

(To be continued)

Dino, Summer 1988

History of the workers' movement: