The German Revolution, Part II: The Start of the Revolution

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In the article in the last International Review we showed that the working class' response developed more forcefully as the First World War went on. At the beginning of 1917 - following two and a half years of barbarism - the working class managed to develop an international balance of forces that subjected the bourgeoisie to increasing pressure. In February 1917 the workers in Russia rose up and overthrew the Tsar, but they could only put an end to the war after they had deposed the bourgeois government and seized power in October 1917. Russia had shown that it was impossible to bring peace without overthrowing the ruling class. The victorious seizure of power was to encounter a powerful echo in the working class in other countries. For the first time in history the working class had managed to take power in a country. This was bound to act as a beacon for the workers of other countries, in particular those of Austria, Hungary and the whole of central Europe, and above all in Germany.

In fact, after the initial wave of patriotic chauvinism, the working class in Germany struggled increasingly against the war. Spurred on by the revolutionary development in Russia and in the wake of several precursory movements, a mass strike broke out in April 1917. In January 1918 about a million workers threw themselves into a new strike movement and formed a workers' council in Berlin. Under the influence of the Russian events combativity on the military fronts crumbled more and more throughout the summer of 1918. The factories were at boiling point; more and more worker gathered in the streets to strengthen the response to the war. The ruling class in Germany was aware that the Russian revolution was reaching out toward the workers and did their utmost to raise a barrier against the extension of the revolution - in order to save their own hides.

Learning from the revolutionary events in Russia, when faced with a very strong movement of workers' struggles, the army forced the Kaiser to abdicate (at the end of September) and installed a new government. But the working class' combativity forged ahead and there was no let-up in the agitation.

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

The ruling class, and also the revolutionaries, prepared for the decisive phase in the confrontations. The revolutionaries prepared for the uprising. Although the majority of the Spartakist leaders (Liebknecht, Luxemburg, Jogiches) were in prison, and in spite of the fact that the party's illegal printing press had been paralyzed for some time by a police raid, the revolutionaries nevertheless continued to prepare the insurrection around the Spartakus group.

At the beginning of October the Spartakists held a conference with the Linksradikale of Bremen and other towns. This conference recognized the beginnings of open revolutionary confrontations, drafted an appeal and distributed it widely throughout the country as well as at the front. The main ideas defended in it were: the soldiers have begun to free themselves from their yoke, the army is crumbling; but this first step of the revolution meets with a counter-revolution that is ready at its post, As the means of repression of the ruling class was weakening, the counter-revolution tried to staunch the movement by reconciling the "democratic" pseudo-right wing. The aim of parliamentarianism and the new voting system was to make the proletariat go on putting up with its situation.

"During the discussion on the international situation it was pointed out that the Russian revolution had given a fundamental moral support to the movement in Germany. The delegates decided to convey their gratitude, solidarity and fraternal sympathy to their comrades in Russia and promised to confirm that solidarity not in words but in deeds that followed the Russian example.

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

We can see that from the beginning of these revolutionary confrontations the Spartakists also exposed the political maneuvers of the ruling class. They stripped bare the lie of democracy and unhesitatingly identified the steps that were vital if the movement were to advance: to prepare the insurrection was to support the working class in Russia not only in words but also in deeds. They understood that the solidarity of the working class in this new situation could not be restricted to declarations, that it was necessary for the workers to go into struggle themselves. This lesson forms a red thread throughout the history of the workers' movement and its struggles.

The bourgeoisie too refurbished its arms. On 3rd October 1918 they deposed the Kaiser and replaced him with a new prince, Max von Baden; they also included the SPD in the government.

The leadership of the SPD (a party that was founded in the previous century by the working class itself) had betrayed in 1914 and had excluded the internationalists, regrouped around the Spartakists and the Linksradikalen, as well as the centrists. From that time on the SPD harbored no proletarian life whatsoever within it. From the beginning of the war it supported an imperialist policy. It was also to act against the revolutionary upsurge of the working class.

For the first time the bourgeoisie included in the government a party that came from the working class and had recently passed into the camp of capital, in order to protect the capitalist state in this revolutionary situation. Although many workers still had illusions, the revolutionaries immediately understood the new role that fell to the social-democracy. In October 1918 Rosa Luxemburg wrote: "By entering the ministry, governmental socialism is putting itself forward as capitalism's defender and is barring the way to the mounting proletarian revolution".

From January 1918, when the first workers' council appeared during the mass strike in Berlin, the "revolutionary Delegates" (Revolutionare Oblate) and the Spartakists met regularly and secretly. The Delegates were very close to the SPD. On the basis of the growing combativity, the disintegration of the front and the fact that the workers were pushing for action, at the end of October they began to discuss concrete plans for an insurrection in the context of an action committee formed after the conference mentioned above.

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

After the German government had expelled the members of the Russian embassy from Berlin at the insistence of the SPD, and after the demonstrations of support for the Russian revolution organized by the revolutionaries, the action committee met to discuss the situation. Liebknecht insisted on the need for the general strike and mass, armed demonstrations. At the "Delegates" meeting of 2nd November he even proposed a date - the 5th - with the slogan: "Peace at once and the removal of the state of siege, the socialist German republic, the formation of a government of workers' and soldiers' councils" (Drabkin, pg 104).

The "Delegates" who thought that the situation was not ripe enough pleaded that it was necessary to wait longer. During this time the members of the USPD in the various towns waited for new instructionsbecause no one wanted to go into action before Berlin. However the news of an imminent uprising spread to other towns of the Reich. All this was to be accelerated by the events in Kiel.

When on 3rd November the fleet in Kiel was to go to sea to continue the war, the sailors mutinied. Soldiers' councils were created and workers' councils followed in the same wave. The army high command threatened to bomb the town but, realizing that they could not stem the mutiny through violence, they sent for their Trojan horse, the SPD leader Noske. The latter turned up there and succeeded fraudulently in getting himself onto the workers' council.

But this movement of workers' and soldiers' councils had already sent out a signal to the whole proletariat. The councils formed massive delegations of workers and soldiers that made their way to other towns. Enormous delegations were sent to Hamburg, Bremen, Flensburg, to the Ruhr and even as far as Cologne. They addressed assemblies of workers and called for the formation of workers' and soldiers' councils. Thousands of workers travelled from towns in the north of Germany to Berlin and other towns in the provinces. A number of them were arrested by soldiers remaining loyal to the government (more than 1,300 arrests in Berlin alone on 6th November) and were retained in the barracks - where they continued agitating however.

Within a week workers' and soldiers' councils appeared in the main towns in Germany and the workers themselves took control of the extension of their movement. They did not leave it in the hands of the unions or parliament. They no longer fought by branch, isolated from each other, with demands specific to their sector; on the contrary in each town they united and formulated common demands. They acted on their own initiative and sought to unite with workers in other towns[1].

Less than two years after their brothers in Russia, the German workers demonstrated their capacity to direct their struggle themselves. Up until 8th November workers' and soldiers' councils were set up in almost every city, except Berlin.

On 8th November the "men of confidence" of the SPD made this report: "It is impossible to stop the revolutionary movement; if the SPD were to try and oppose the movement it would be swept away by the current".

When the first news from Kiel reached Berlin on 4th November, Liebknecht made a proposal to the executive committee for an insurrection on 8th November. Although the movement was spreading spontaneously throughout the country it was clear that an uprising in Berlin (the seat of government) made it necessary for the working class to have an organized trajectory and be clearly oriented towards one objective: to gather together all its forces. But the executive committee continued to hesitate. It was only after the arrest of two of its members who were in possession of the proposal for the insurrection that it decided in favor of action for the following day. On 8th November 1918 the Spartakists published the following appeal:

"Now that the moment to act has arrived there must be no hesitation. The same "socialists" who have spent four years supporting the government and in its service (...) are now doing all they can to weaken your struggle and undermine the movement.

Workers and soldiers! What your comrades have managed to do in Kiel, Hamburg, Bremen, Lubeck, Rostock, Flensburg, Hanover, Magdeburg, Brunswick, Munich and Stuttgart you too must do. Because the victory of your brothers there, and the victory of the proletariat of the whole world depends on the height that your struggle is able to reach, its tenacity and success. Soldiers! Do what your comrades of the fleet have done; unite with your brothers in workmen's clothes. Don't let yourselves be used against your brothers, don't obey the orders of your officers, don't fire on those who are fighting for freedom. Workers and soldiers! The immediate aims of your struggle must be:

1) The freeing of all civilian and military prisoners.

2) The abolition of all states and the elimination of all dynasties.

3) The election of workers' and soldiers' councils, the election of delegates in all factories and all military units.

4) The immediate establishing of relations with other workers' councils and German soldiers.

5) The government to be controlled by the commissars of the workers' and soldiers' councils.

6) Immediate liaison with the international proletariat and particularly with the Russian Workers' Republic.

Long live the socialist Republic!
Long live the International!"

The "International" group (Spartakus group), 8th November.

The events of 9th November

In the early hours of 9th November the revolutionary uprising began in Berlin.

"Workers, soldiers, comrades!

The moment of decision has come! We must be up to our historic task...

We aren't simply demanding the abdication of one man, we're demanding the republic!

The socialist republic and all that it entails. Forward with the struggle for peace, freedom and bread.

Come out of the factories! Come out of the barracks! Hold out your hands! Long live the socialist republic" (Spartakus leaflet).

Hundreds of thousands of workers answered the call of the Spartakus group and the executive committee, stopped work and surged towards the city center in huge processions. At their head marched groups of armed workers. The great majority of the troops united with the demonstrating workers and fraternized with them. By midday Berlin was in the hands of the revolutionary workers and soldiers. A column of demonstrators made their way to the residence of the Hohenzollern. Liebknecht addressed them: "Capitalist domination, that has transformed Europe into a cemetery, is now broken. (...) We mustn't think that our task is finished because the past is dead. We must use all our strength to build the workers' and soldiers' government (...) We hold out our hands to the workers of the whole world and invite them to make the world revolution (...). I proclaim the free socialist republic of Germany" (Liebknecht, 9th November).

In addition he warned the workers not to make do with what they had achieved, and called on them to seize power and for the international unification of the working class.

The old regime did not use force on 9th of November to defend itself. However this was not because it hesitated to shed blood (it had millions of dead on its conscience) but because the revolution had disorganized the army by withdrawing a large number of soldiers who could have fired on the people. Just as in Russia in February 1917, when the soldiers sided with the workers in struggle, the reaction of the German soldiers was an important factor in the balance of class forces. But it was only because the working class organized itself, came out of the factories to "occupy the street" and unified en masse that the crucial question of the workers in uniform could be resolved. By convincing them of the need to fraternize the workers showed that it was they who had the leading role!

In the afternoon of 9th November thousands of delegates met at Cirque Busch. R. Muller, one of the main leaders of the revolutionary "Delegates" made an appeal that "the election of workers' and soldiers' councils be organized in every factory and military unit on 10th November. The councils elected must hold an assembly at Cirque Busch at 17:00 hours to elect a provisional government. The factories must elect one member to the workers' council for every 1,000 workers (male and female). Likewise the soldiers must elect one member to the soldiers' council per battalion. The smaller factories (less than 500 workers) must each elect a delegate. The assembly insists that an organ of authority be nominated by the assembly of councils".

In this way the workers took the first steps to create a situation of dual power. Would they manage to go as far as their class brothers in Russia?

The Spartakists, for their part, were in favor of strengthening the pressure and initiatives emanating from the local councils. The living democracy of the working class, the active participation of the workers, general assemblies in the factories, the designation of delegates who are responsible to these and are revocable; this is what the practice of the working class must be!

The revolutionary workers and soldiers occupied the print works of the Berliner-Lokal-Anzeiger on the evening of 9th November and printed the first issue of the newspaper Die rote Fahne; which promptly warned that: "There is no community of interests with those who have betrayed you for the last four years. Down with capitalism and its agents! Long live the revolution! Long live the International!".

The question of the seizure of power by the working class: the bourgeoisie stands to its guns

The first workers' and soldiers' council in Berlin (called the Executive) soon saw itself as an organ of authority; in its first proclamation on 11th November it declared itself to be the supreme unit of control over the whole of the public administration of the districts, the Lander and the Reich as well as the military administration.

But the ruling class did not cheerfully cede territory to the working class. On the contrary, it was to put up a most bitter resistance.

In fact, when Liebknecht declared the socialist republic in front of the Hohenzollern residence, the prince Max von Baden abdicated and handed over government affairs to Ebert as chancellor. The SPD proclaimed the "free republic of Germany".

So the SPD took official charge of governmental affairs; they called "for calm and order" and announced the holding of early ''free elections"; they realized that they could only oppose the movement by sapping it from within.

They set up their own workers' and soldiers' council that was composed entirely of SPD functionaries and upon which no-one had conferred any sort of legitimacy. Following this the SPD announced that the movement would be directed by itself and the USPD in unison.

Since then this tactic of encircling the movement and destroying it from within has been re-used constantly by the leftists with their bogus, self-proclaimed strike committees and their co-ordinations. Social-democracy and its successors, the groups on the extreme left of capital, specialize in placing themselves at the head of the movement and giving the impression that they are its legitimate representatives.

While trying to cut the ground from beneath the feet of the Executive by acting directly within it, the SPD announced the formation of a government including the USPD. The latter accepted but the Spartakists (who were still members of the USPD at the time) declined the offer. Although the difference between the USPD and the Spartakists was not very clear to the vast majority of workers, the Spartakists nevertheless were correct on the formation of the government. They sensed the trap and understood that you should not get into the same boat as the class enemy.

The best way to combat the workers' illusions in the left parties is not, as the Trotskyists and other leftists repeat unceasingly today, to put them into power and let them unmask themselves. What is necessary for the development of the class' consciousness is an absolutely clear and strict demarcation between classes, nothing less.

On the evening of 9th November the SPD and the leadership of the USPD proclaimed themselves the people's commissars and the government invested by the Executive Council.

The SPD demonstrated all its dexterity. It could now act against the working class from the government benches as well as in the name of the Executive of the councils. Ebert was both chancellor of the Reich and commissar of the people elected by the Executive of the councils; in this way he could seem to be on the side of the revolution. The SPD already had die confidence of the bourgeoisie but to succeed so skillfully in winning that of the workers, it demonstrated its ability to maneuver and mystify. There is a lesson for the working class here too: about the deceitful way the left forces of capital work.

Let us examine more closely how the SPD worked, specifically at the assembly of the workers' and soldiers' council on 10th November where there were about 3, 000 delegates present. No control over the mandates was exercised which meant that the soldiers' representatives were in the majority.

Ebert was the first to speak. According to him "the old fratricidal dispute" had ended now that the SPD and the USPD had formed a common government, it was now a matter of "undertaking the development of the economy together on the basis of socialist principles. Long live the unity of the German working class and the German soldiers". In the name of the USPD Haase celebrated "the refound unity": "We want to consolidate the victories of the great socialist revolution. The government will be a socialist government".

"Those who only yesterday were against the revolution are no longer against it" (E. Barth, 10th November 1918). "Everything must to done to prevent the coming of a counter-revolution".

So while the SPD did all in its power to mystify the working class, the USPD helped serve as a cover for its maneuvers. The Spartakists were aware of the danger; during this assembly Liebknecht stated: "I must water down the wine of your enthusiasm. The counter-revolution is already on the march, it's already in action ... I tell you this: the enemy is all around you! (He listed the counter-revolutionary aims of social-democracy). I realize how disagreeable this disturbance is to you, but even if you shoot me I'll say what I think it's essential to say".

So the Spartakists warned against the presence of the class enemy and insisted on the need to overthrow the system. For them what was at stake was not a change of personnel but the overthrow of the system itself.

On the other hand the SPD, with the USPD in its wake, worked to keep the system in place, pretending that by changing the leaders and installing a new government the working class had obtained a victory.

Here too the SPD have provided a lesson for the defenders of capital; a lesson on how to turn to anger of the workers against individual leaders in order to prevent it from being directed against the system as a whole. This way of working has been constantly used since then[2].

The SPD hammered this home in its newspaper of 10th November where it wrote, under the title "Unity and not a fratricidal struggle":

"Since yesterday the world of labor feels the need to make internal unity burn brightly. In nearly every town, in every Lander, in every state of the federation we hear that the old Party and the Independents have found each other once more on the day of the revolution and are re-united in the old Party (...) The task of reconciliation must not fail because of some bitterness, because we have not the strength to overcome the old rancours and forget them. Following such a magnificent triumph [over the old regime],are we now to present to the world the spectacle of the world of labor tearing itself apart in an absurd fratricidal struggle?" (Vorwarts, 10th November 1918).

Capital's two weapons of political sabotage

From this moment on, the SPD threw a whole arsenal of weapons into the campaign against the working class. Alongside the "call to unity", it injected the poison of bourgeois democracy. According to the SPD, the introduction of "universal, direct, equal and secret suffrage for all men and women was presented both as the revolution's most important political conquest, and as the means to transform the order of capitalist society into socialism, by the will of the people and following a methodical plan". The SPD made believe that the goal had been reached, with the proclamation of the republic and the appointment of its own ministers; and that the Kaiser's abdication and Ebert's nomination as Chancellor meant the creation of a free People's State. In reality, all that had happened was the elimination of an unimportant anachronism, since the bourgeoisie had long been the politically dominant class; now the head of state was no longer a monarch, but a bourgeois. That did not change things much ... Moreover it is clear that the call for democratic elections was aimed directly against the workers' councils. The SPD bombarded the working class with an intensive, lying and criminal propaganda:

"Whoever wants bread, must want peace. Whoever wants peace, must want the Constituant, the freely elected representation of the whole German people. Whoever goes against the Constituant, or hesitates, is taking peace, bread and liberty away from you, is robbing you of the immediate fruits of the victory of the revolution: he is a counter-revolutionary.

Socialization will and must take place (...) by the will of the working people who, fundamentally, want to abolish this economy driven by the individual search for profit. But it will be a thousand times easier to impose if it is decreed by the Constituant, than ordered by the dictatorship of some revolutionary committee or other (...)

The call for the Constituant is the call to creative, constructive socialism which increases the well-being of the people, raises the happiness and freedom of the people, which is alone worthy of struggle. German unity demands a National Assembly. Only under its protection will we be able to develop the new German culture, which has constantly been the goal and at the heart of our national will. The conquests of the revolution are so firmly anchored in the will of the whole people, that only cowards can suffer from nightmares at the thought of counter-revolution" (SPD leaflet).

If we cite the SPD at such length, it is only to get an idea of the cunning and specious arguments used by Capital's left wing.

This reveals a classic characteristic of the bourgeoisie's action against the class struggle in highly industrialized countries: when the proletariat expresses its strength and aspires to its own unification, it is always the left forces who intervene with the most adroit demagogy. It is they who pretend to act in the interest of the workers, and try to sabotage the struggle from the inside, preventing the movement from taking its decisive steps.

In Germany, the revolutionary working class confronted a far stronger adversary than had the Russian workers. To deceive the class, the SPD adopted a radical language, supposedly in the interest of the revolution, and took the head of the movement when in reality it was the main agent of the bourgeois state. It acted against the working class, not as a party outside the state, but as its spearhead.

The first days of revolutionary confrontation had already shown the general nature of the class struggle in highly industrialized countries: a bourgeoisie versed in every cunning ruse confronted a strong working class. It would be an illusion to think that the class could gain a victory so easily.

As we will see later, the unions acted as Capital's second pillar, and collaborated with the bosses immediately after the movement's outbreak. After organizing military production during the war, they intervened with the SPD to defeat the movement. A few concessions were made, including the eight-hour day, in order to prevent any further radicalization of the working class.

But even political sabotage and the SPD's undermining of the working class' consciousness were not enough: the traitor party simultaneously made an agreement with the army for military action.


General Groener, the army Chief of Staff, who had collaborated daily with the SPD and the unions throughout the war, explained:

"We allied ourselves to fight Bolshevism. It was impossible to restore the monarchy (...) I had advised the Feldmarschall not to combat the revolution by force, because given the state of mind of the troops, it was to be feared that such a method would end in failure. I proposed that the military high command should ally with the SPD, since there was no party with enough influence among the people, and the masses, to rebuild a governmental force with the military command. The parties of the right had completely disappeared, and it was out of the question to work with the radical extremists. In the first place, we had to snatch power from the hands of the Berlin workers' and soldiers' councils. An undertaking was planned with this aim in view. Ten divisions were to enter Berlin. Ebert agreed (...) We had worked out a program which planned, after the arrival of the troops, to clean up Berlin and disarm the Spartakists. This was also agreed with Ebert, to whom I was especially grateful for his absolute love for the fatherland (...) This alliance was sealed against the Bolshevik danger and the system of councils" (October-November 1925, Zeugenaussage).

With this aim in view, Groener, Ebert and their accomplices maintained a daily telephone contact between 11: 00 at night and 1:00 in the morning, on secret telephone lines, and met to concert their action.

Contrary to October in Russia, where power fell into the workers' hands with scarcely a drop of blood shed, the German bourgeoisie immediately prepared, alongside its political sabotage, to unleash civil war. For the very first day, it began gathering the means necessary for military repression.

The intervention of revolutionaries

To evaluate the intervention of revolutionaries, we need to examine their ability to analyses correctly the movement of the class, the evolution of the balance of class forces, what had been achieved, and their ability to put forward the clearest perspectives. What were the Spartakists saying?

"The revolution has begun. What is called for now is not jubilation at what has been accomplished, not triumph over the beaten foe, but the strictest self-criticism and iron concentration of energy in order to continue the work we have begun. For our accomplishments are small and the foe has not been beaten.

What has been achieved? The monarchy has been swept away, supreme governing power had been transferred into the hands of the workers' and soldiers' representatives. But the monarchy was never the real enemy; it was only a facade, the frontispiece of imperialism (...)

The abolition of the rule of capitalism, the realization of the social order of socialism

- this and nothing less is the historical theme of the present revolution. This is a huge work which cannot be completed in the twinkling of an eye by a few decrees from above; it can be born only of the conscious action of the mass of workers in the cities and in the country, and brought successfully through the maze of difficulties only by the highest intellectual maturity and unflagging idealism of the masses of the people.

The path of the revolution follows clearly from its ends, its method follows from its task. All power in the hands of the working masses, in the hands of the workers' and soldiers' councils, protection of the work of the revolution against its lurking enemies - this is the guiding principle of all measures to be taken by the revolutionary government.

Every step, every act by the government must, like a compass, point in this direction:

- re-election and improvement of the local workers' and soldiers' councils so that the first chaotic and impulsive gestures of their formation are replaced by a conscious process of understanding the goals, tasks and methods of the revolution;

- regularly scheduled meetings of these representatives of the masses and the transfer of real political power from the small committee of the Executive Council into the broader basis of the workers' and soldiers' councils;

- immediate convocation of the national council of workers and soldiers in order to establish the proletariat of all Germany as a class, as a compact political power, and to make them the bulwark and impetus of the revolution;

- immediate organization, not of the "farmers ", but of the agrarian proletariat and smallholders who, as a class, have until now been outside the revolution;

- formation of a proletarian Red Guard for the permanent protection of the revolution, and training of a workers' militia in order to prepare the whole proletariat to be on guard at all times;

- suppression of the old organs of administration, justice and the army of the absolutist militarist police state;

- immediate confiscation of dynastic property and possessions, and of landed property as initial temporary measures to guarantee the people's food supply, since hunger is the most dangerous ally of the counter-revolution;

- immediate convocation of a World Labour Congress in Germany in order to emphasize clearly and distinctly the socialist and international character of the revolution, for only in the International, in the world revolution of the proletariat, is the future of the German revolution anchored" (Rosa Luxemburg, "The Beginning", Die Rote Fahne, 18th November 1918).

Destruction of the counter-revolution's positions of political power, erection and consolidation of the proletarian power, these were the two tasks that the Spartakists put to the fore with remarkable clarity.

"The result of the first week of the revolution is as follows: in the state of the Hohenzollerns, not much has basically changed; the workers' and soldiers' government is acting as the deputy of the imperialist government that has gone bankrupt. All its acts and omissions are governed by fear of the working masses (...)

The reactionary state of the civilized world will not become a revolutionary people's state within twenty-four hours. Soldiers who yesterday, were murdering the revolutionary proletariat in Finland, Russia and the Ukraine, and workers who calmly allowed this to happen, have not become in twenty-four hours supporters of socialism or clearly aware of their goals" (Luxemburg, op cit).

The Spartakists' analysis, that this was no bourgeois revolution but the counter-revolution already on the march, their ability to analyze the situation clearly and with a grasp of the overall situation, show how vital for the class' movement are its revolutionary political organizations.

The workers' councils, spearhead of the revolution

As we have said above, in the great cities workers' and soldiers' councils were formed everywhere during the first days of November. Although the councils appeared "spontaneously", this came as no surprise to the revolutionaries. They had already appeared in Russia, and also in Austria and Hungary. As Lenin said in March 1919, speaking for the Communist International: "This form is the Soviet regime with the dictatorship of the proletariat: these words were "Greek" to the masses until recently. Now, thanks to the system of Soviets, this Greek has been translated into all the world's modern languages; the practical form of the dictatorship has been discovered by the working masses" (Speech at the opening of the first Congress of the Communist International).

The appearance of the workers' councils reflects the determination of the working class to take its own destiny in hand. The workers' councils can only appear when there is a massive activity throughout the class, and a massive and profound development of class consciousness is under way. This is why the councils are no more than the spearhead of a profound global movement within the class, and why they are so strongly dependent on the activity of the class as a whole. If the class' activity in the factories weakens, if its combativity and its consciousness retreat, this necessarily affects the life of the councils. They are the means of centralizing the class struggle; they are the lever whereby the class lays claim to and imposes its power in society.

In many towns, the councils did indeed begin to take measures to oppose the bourgeois state. As soon as the councils came into existence, the workers tried to paralyze the bourgeois state apparatus, to take decisions themselves in the place of the bourgeois government, and to put them into practice. This was the beginning of the period of dual power, just as it had been in February 1917 in Russia. This happened everywhere, but it was most visible in Berlin, the seat of government.

Bourgeois sabotage

Because the workers' councils are the lever for centralizing the workers' struggle, because all the initiative of the masses converges within them, it is vital for the class to keep control of them.

In Germany, the capitalist class used a real Trojan horse against the councils, thanks to the SPD. A workers' party up until 1914, the SPD fought the councils, then sabotaged them from inside and turned them away from their real objective, all in the name of the working class.

The SPD used every trick imaginable to get its own delegates into the councils. The Berlin Executive Council was at first composed of six delegates each from the SPD and USPD, and a dozen soldiers' delegates. And yet, in Berlin the SPD used the pretext of a necessary parity of votes and unity of the working class to introduce many of its own men into the Executive Council, without any decision being taken by any kind of workers' assembly. Thanks to this tactic of insisting on "parity of votes between the parties", the SPD received more delegates than its real influence in the class warranted. In the provinces, things were much the same: out of 40 major cities, about 30 workers' and soldiers' councils were under the dominant influence of the SPD and USPD leaders. Only in those towns where the Spartakists had more influence did the workers' councils take a more radical direction.

As far as the councils' tasks were concerned, the SPD tried to sterilize them. Whereas the councils by their very nature tend to act as a counter-power to that of the bourgeois state, and even to destroy the latter, the SPD managed to weaken the class' organs, and subject them to the bourgeois state. It did so by spreading the idea, first that the councils should consider themselves as transitional organs, until the elections for the national assembly, but also, to strip them of their class character, that they should be opened to the whole population, to all strata of the population. In many towns, the SPD created "committees of public safety", which included all sections of the population - from peasants and small shopkeepers to the workers - with the same rights in these organisms.

From the outset, the Spartakists pushed for the formation of Red Guards, to impose the councils' decisions by force if necessary. The SPD torpedoed this initiative in the soldiers' councils on the pretext that it "expressed a lack of confidence in the soldiers".

In the Berlin Executive Council, there were constant confrontations on the measures to be adopted and the direction to be taken. Although it cannot be said that all the workers' delegates were sufficiently clear or determined on every question, the SPD did everything it could to undermine the council's authority from both inside and out:

- as soon as the Executive Council gave one set of orders, others would be imposed by the Council of People's Commissars (led by the SPD);

- the Executive never disposed of its own press, and had to beg for space in the bourgeois press in order to publish its own resolutions. The SPD delegates did everything to keep it this way;

- when, in November and December, strikes broke out in the Berlin factories, the Executive Committee under the influence of the SPD took position against them, although they expressed the strength of the working class, and could have made it possible to correct the errors of the Executive Council;

- finally, the SPD - as a leading force in the bourgeois government - used the threat of the Allies, supposedly ready to intervene militarily and occupy Germany to prevent its "Bolshevization", to make the workers hesitate, and put a break on the movement. For example, they put it about that if the workers' councils went too far, then the USA would stop the delivery of food supplies to the starving population.

Whether through the threat of outside intervention, or by internal sabotage, the SPD used every possible means against the working class in movement.

From the outset, the SPD did everything in its power to isolate the councils from their base in the factories.

In every enterprise, the councils were made up delegates elected by the general assemblies, and responsible to them. If the workers were to lose their power of decision in the general assemblies, or if the councils became detached from their roots, their base in the factories, then they would themselves be weakened and would inevitably fall victim to the bourgeois counter-offensive. This is why, from the outset, the SPD pushed for the councils to be constituted by sharing out seats proportionally among the political parties. The assemblies' power to elect and revoke their delegates is no formal principle of workers' democracy, but the lever whereby the proletariat can - from its most basic component - direct and control its struggle. The experience in Russia had already shown how essential was the activity of the factory committees. If the workers' councils were no longer required to account for themselves before the class, before the assemblies which elected them, and if the class is no longer capable of exercising its control over them, then this means that its movement is weakening, and that power is slipping from its hands.

In Russia, Lenin had made this clear:

"To control, it is necessary to hold power (...) If I put control to the fore, masking this fundamental condition, then I am telling an untruth and playing the game of the capitalists and imperialists (...) Without power, control is a hollow petty-bourgeois phrase which hinders the march and development of the revolution" (Lenin, "Report on the Present Situation" to the April Conference).

Whereas in Russia, from the very first weeks the councils based on the workers and soldiers disposed of real power, the Executive of Berlin Councils had none. As Rosa Luxemburg rightly said: "The Executive of the united Russian councils is - whatever may be written against it - something else again from the Berlin executive. One is the head and brain of a powerful revolutionary proletarian organization, the other is the fifth wheel on the carriage of a crypto-capitalist governmental clique; the first is the inexhaustible fountain of total proletarian power, the other is without strength and without orientation; the first is the living spirit of the revolution, the other is its tomb" (Rosa Luxemburg, 12th December 1918).

The national Congress of councils

On 23rd November, the Berlin Executive called a national congress of councils, to be held ill Berlin on 16th December. This initiative was supposed to unite all lie forces of lie working class: in fact, it would be used against them. The SPD imposed the election, in the different regions of the Reich, of one worker delegate per 200,000 inhabitants and one soldier delegate per 100,000 soldiers, whereby the workers' representation was diminished, while that of the soldiers was increased. Instead of reflecting the strength and activity of the class in the factories, this congress, under the impetus of the SPD, was to slip from the workers' control.

Moreover, according to these same saboteurs, only "workers' delegates", of the "workers by hand or brain" should be elected. All the SPD bureaucrats were present, under the pretext of their original trades; by contrast, the members of the Spartakus League, who appeared in the open, were excluded. By pulling every imaginable string, the forces of the bourgeoisie managed to impose themselves, whereas the revolutionaries who acted openly were prevented from speaking.

When the Congress of councils met on 16th December, it began by rejecting the participation of delegates from Russia. "The general assembly meeting on 16th December does not deal with international deliberations, but only with German affairs in which foreigners cannot of course participate (...) The Russian delegation is nothing other than a representative of the Bolshevik dictatorship". This was the justification given in Vorwarts (no 340, 11th December 1918). By getting this decision adopted, the SPD immediately stripped the conference of what should have been its most fundamental character: as an expression of the world proletarian revolution which had begun in Russia.

In the same logic of sabotage and derailment, the SPD got the Congress to vote the call for the election of a constituent assembly for the 19th January 1919.

The Spartakists understood the maneuver, and called for a mass demonstration in front of the Congress. More than 250,000 demonstrators gathered under the slogan: "For the workers' and soldiers' councils, no to the national assembly!".

As the Congress acted against the interests of the working class, Liebknecht addressed the demonstrators: "We demand that the Congress take all political power into its hands to bring in socialism, and that it should not transfer it to the constituent assembly, which will not be in any way a revolutionary organ. We demand that the Congress of councils stretch out its hand to our class brothers in Russia, for them to join in the work of this Congress. We want the world revolution and the unification of all the workers in every country, in the workers' and soldiers' councils" (17th December 1918).

The revolutionaries understood the vital necessity of mobilizing the working masses, of putting pressure on their delegates, of electing new ones, of developing the initiative of the general assemblies in the factories, of defending the councils' autonomy against the bourgeois national assembly, and of insisting on the international unification of the working class.

Yet even after this massive demonstration, the congress continued to refuse the participation of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, on the pretext that they were not workers, while the bourgeoisie had already managed to get its own men into the councils. During the Congress, the SPD representatives took the defense of the army, to prevent its further disintegration by the soldiers' councils. The congress also decided not to receive any more delegations from workers and soldiers, so as not to be put under pressure by them.

At the end of its sessions, the congress made the confusion still worse by blathering on about the so-called first measures of socialization, when the workers had not even taken power. "Carrying out socio-political measures in isolated, individual companies is an illusion, as long as the bourgeoisie still hold political power in its hands" (IKD, Der Kommunist). The central questions of disarming the counter-revolution and overthrowing the bourgeois government were pushed aside.

What should the revolutionaries do against such a development?

On 16th December in Dresden, Otto Ruhle - who had meanwhile moved towards councilism - threw in the towel as soon as the town's social-democrats got the upper hand in the local workers' and soldiers' councils. The Spartakists, however, did not abandon the battlefield to the enemy. After denouncing the national congress of councils, they called for the initiative of the working class: "The congress of councils has overstepped its powers, it has betrayed the mandate it was given by the workers' and soldiers' councils, it has cut away the ground on which its existence and authority were based. The workers' and soldiers' councils must henceforth develop their power and defend their right to exist with tenfold energy. They will declare null and void the counter-revolutionary work of their unworthy men of confidence" (Rosa Luxemburg, Ebert's Janissaries, 20th December 1918).

The revolution's lifeblood is the activity of the masses

The Spartakists' responsibility was to push forward the masses' initiative, to intensify their activity. This is the orientation that they were to put forward ten days later at the founding Congress of the KPD. We will deal with the work of this congress in a later article.

The Spartakists had understood that the pulse of the revolution beats in the councils; the proletarian revolution is the first to be carried out by the great majority of the population, by the exploited class. Unlike the bourgeois revolutions which could be carried out by minorities, the proletariat can only be victorious if the revolution is constantly fed and pushed forward by the activity of the whole class. The councils, and the council delegates, are not a separate pan of the class which can isolate themselves from the rest, or even protect themselves from it, or maintain the rest of the class in a state of passivity. No, the revolution can only advance through the conscious, vigilant, active and critical activity of the entire class.

For the working class in Germany, this meant entering into a new phase, where it would have to increase the pressure coming from the factories. As for the Communists, the absolute priority was their agitation in the local councils. The Spartakists thus followed the policy that Lenin had already advocated in April 1917, when the situation in Russia was comparable to that now in Germany:

"The masses must be made to see that the Soviets of Workers' Deputies are the only possible form of revolutionary government, and that therefore our task is, as long as this government yields to the influence of the bourgeoisie, to present a patient, systematic, and persistent explanation of the errors of their tactics, an explanation especially adapted to the practical needs of the masses.

As long as we are in the minority we carry on the work of criticizing and exposing errors and at the same time we preach the necessity of transferring the entire state power to the Soviets of Workers' Deputies, so that the people may overcome their mistakes by experience" (Lenin, April Theses no 4).

We cannot properly understand the dynamic in the councils unless we analyze closely the role of the soldiers.

The class' revolutionary movement had been started by the struggle against the war. But fundamentally, it was the resistance movement of the workers in the factories which "contaminated" the millions of proletarians in uniform at the front (the percentage of workers amongst the troops was far greater in the German army than in the Russian). Finally, the soldier' mutinies, and the workers' risings in the factories reared a balance of forces that forced the bourgeoisie to bring the war to an end. As long as the war lasted, the workers in uniform were the best allies of the workers in struggle at the rear. It was thanks to their growing resistance that a favorable balance of force was created on the home front; as

Liebknecht reported: "this had the effect of destabilizing the army. But as soon as the bourgeoisie put an end to the war, a split appeared within the army. The mass of soldiers is revolutionary against militarism, against the war and against the open representatives of imperialism. With regard to socialism, they are still undecided, hesitant and immature" (Liebknecht, 19th November 1918). While the war continued and the troops remained mobilized, soldiers' councils were formed.

"The soldiers' councils are the expression of a mass composed of all the classes in society, within which the proletariat is by far the largest, but certainly not the proletariat conscious of its aims and ready for the class struggle. Often they are formed directly from above, on the initiative of officers and circles of the high nobility, who by adapting adroitly seek to keep their influence over the soldiers by getting themselves elected as the latter's representatives" (Liebknecht, 21st November 1918).

As such, the army is a classic instrument of repression and imperialist conquest, controlled and led by officers under the exploiting state. In a revolutionary situation, where thousands of soldiers are in effervescence, where normal hierarchical relations are no longer respected, but where the workers in uniform take decisions collectively, all this can lead to the disintegration of the army, especially since they are armed. But to arrive at such a situation, it is necessary that the working class, by its activity, should provide a sufficiently strong reference point for the soldiers.

This dynamic existed during the final phase of the war. And this is why the bourgeoisie, feeling the danger rising, stopped the war to prevent a still further radicalization in the army. The new situation that was thus created allowed the ruling class to "calm" the soldiers and to separate them from the revolution, while the movement of the working class was not itself strong enough to attract the majority of the soldiers to its own side. This allowed the bourgeoisie all the better to manipulate the soldiers in its own favor.

The weight of the soldiers was important during the movement's ascendant phase - and indeed was vital in putting an end to the war; but their role was to change when the bourgeoisie began its counter -offensive.

The revolution can only be carried out internationally

The capitalists had fought for four years, sacrificing millions of human lives, but no sooner had the revolution broken out in Russia, and above all when the German proletariat began to move, than they all united against the working class. The Spartakists understood the danger that could result from the isolation of the working class in Germany and Russia. On 25th November, they raised the following call: "To the proletarians of all countries! The hour has struck to settle accounts with capitalist rule. But this great task cannot be carried out by the German proletariat alone. It can only struggle and win by calling on the solidarity of the proletarians of the entire world. Comrades of the belligerent nations, you know our situation. You know that your governments, because they have gained the victory, are blinding many elements of the people with the sparkle of victory (...) Your victorious capitalists are ready to drown in blood our revolution, which they fear as much as yours'. "Victory" has not made you more free, it has only enslaved you more. If your ruling classes succeed in stifling the revolution in Russia and Germany, they will turn against you with redoubled ferocity (...) Germany is giving birth to the social revolution, but only the international proletariat can build socialism" (To the proletarians of all countries, Spartakusbund, 25th November 1918).

While the SPD did everything it could to separate the German workers from those in Russia, the revolutionaries committed all their strength to unify the working class.

In this respect, the Spartakists were aware that "Today there naturally reigns among the peoples of the Entente a strong intoxication of victory; and the jubilation at the ruin of German imperialism and the liberation of France and Belgium makes so much noise that we cannot expect for the moment a revolutionary echo from the working classes in those countries which were our enemies until yesterday" (Liebknecht, 23rdDecember 1918). They knew that the revolution had created a serious split in the ranks of the working class. Capital's defenders, and in particular the SPD, began to set the workers in Germany against those in other countries. They even brandished the threat of foreign intervention. All this has often been used since by the ruling class.

The bourgeoisie learnt the lessons of Russia

Under the SPD's leadership, the bourgeoisie signed the armistice putting an end to the war on 11th November for fear that the working class would continue its radicalization, and go down "the Russian road". This ushered in a new situation.

As R Muller, one of the leading revolutionary "Delegates", put it: "The whole war policy, with all its effects on the workers' situation, the Sacred Union with the bourgeoisie, everything that had provoked the workers' anger, was forgotten".

The bourgeoisie had learnt its lesson from Russia. If the Russian bourgeoisie had put an end to the war in April of March 1917, the October Revolution would certainly have been either impossible, or at the least far more difficult. It was therefore necessary to stop the war, in the hope of cutting the ground from under the feet of the revolutionary class movement. Here also, the German workers faced a different situation from that confronting their class brothers in Russia.

"If we place ourselves on the terrain of historical development, then we cannot expect, in a Germany which has given us the frightful spectacle of 4th August and the four years that followed, a sudden upsurge, the 9th November 1918, of a grandiose class revolution conscious of its goals; what we experienced on 9th November, was three quarters the collapse of the existing imperialism, rather than the victory of a new principle. It was simply that for imperialism, a colossus with feet of clay, rotten from within, its time had come, it had to collapse; what followed was a more or less chaotic movement, without any battle plan, and with very little consciousness; the only coherent link, the only constant and liberating principle was summed up in one slogan: creation of workers' and soldiers' councils" (R Luxemburg at the founding Congress of the KPD).

This is why we should not confuse the beginning of the movement with its final goal, for "no proletariat in the world, not even the German proletariat, can rid itself overnight of the stigmata of thousands of years of servitude. The proletariat's situation does not reach its highest level, either politically or spiritually, on the first day of the revolution. It is only the struggle of the revolution that will, in this sense, raise the proletariat to its complete maturity" (R Luxemburg, 3rd December 1918).

The weight of the past

The Spartakists were right to seek the causes of these great difficulties of the class, in the weight of the past. The confidence that many workers still had in the policies of the SPD was a serious weakness. There were many who thought that the party's war policy had been due to a passing confusion. Worse, many saw the war being solely due to the ignoble machinations of the governmental clique which had just been overthrown. Remembering the more or less tolerable situation prior to the war, they hoped to escape soon and for good, from the misery of the present. Moreover, US President Wilson's promises of the unity of nations and democracy seemed to offer guarantee against new wars. The democratic republic they were "offered" appeared, not as the bourgeois republic, but as the soil where socialism could blossom. In short, the pressure of democratic illusions, and the lack of experience in confronting the sabotage of the unions and the SPD were determining.

"In all previous revolutions, the combatants confronted each other openly, class against class, program against program, shield against sword (...) [Beforehand] it was always the supporters of the system under threat or overthrown who took counter-revolutionary measures in the hope of saving it (...) In the revolution today the troops defending the old order are drawn up, not under their own flag and in the uniform of the ruling class, but under the flag of the social-democratic party (...) Bourgeois class rule is today fighting its last historic world struggle under a foreign flag, under the flag of the revolution itself. It is a socialist party, in other words the most original creation of the workers' movement and the class struggle, which has transformed itself into the most important instrument of the bourgeois counter-revolution. The basis, the tendency, the politics, the psychology, the method, are all capitalist to the core. All that remains is the flag, the apparatus and the phraseology of socialism" (R Luxemburg, A Pyrrhic VIctory, 21st December 1918).

The SPD's counter-revolutionary character could not be more clearly described.

This is why the Spartakists defined the next stage of the movement as follows:

"The passage from the predominantly soldiers' revolution of 9th November 1918 to a specifically workers' revolution, the passage from a superficial, purely political upheaval, to the long-term process of a general economic confrontation between Capital and Labor, demands of the working class quite another degree of political maturity, education and tenacity than that which has sufficed for the first phase of the beginning" (R Luxemburg, 3rd January 1919).

Certainly, the movement at the beginning of November was not solely a "soldiers' revolution", for without the workers in the factories the soldiers would never have reached such a level of radicalization. The Spartakists saw the perspective of a real step forward when in late November and early December, strikes broke out in the Ruhr and Upper Silesia. This revealed the activity of the working class in the factories and a diminution in the weight of the war and the role of the soldiers. With the end of hostilities, the economic collapse led to a still greater deterioration in the working class' living conditions. In the Ruhr many miners stopped work, and to impose their demands they would travel to other mines to seek the solidarity of their class brothers, and so build a powerful front. The struggles were thus to develop, then retreat, then go forward again with new strength.

"In today's revolution, the strikes which have just broken out (...) are the very beginning of a general confrontation between Capital and Labor, they herald the beginning of a powerful and direct class struggle, whose outcome can be nothing other than the abolition of wage relations and the introduction of the socialist economy. They are the unleashing of the living social force of the present revolution: the revolutionary class energy of the proletarian masses. They open a period of immediate activity by the widest masses".
This is why, as Luxemburg rightly emphasized: Following the first phase of the revolution, that of the mainly political struggle, comes the phase of strengthened, intensified and essentially economic struggle (...) In the revolutionary phase to come, not only will the strikes spread further and further, but they will be found at the center, at the vital point of the revolution, pushing back the purely political questions" (R Luxemburg at the KPD's founding Congress).

Once the bourgeoisie had put an end to the war under the pressure of the working class, and had passed onto the offensive to counter the proletariat's first attempts to take power, the movement entered a new phase. Either the factory workers were to prove capable of developing a new thrust, to pass to a "specifically workers' revolution", or the bourgeoisie would be able to continue its counter-offensive.

In the next article, we will look at the question of the insurrection, the fundamental conceptions of the workers' revolution, the role that revolutionaries must and did, play in it.


[1] The revolutionary movement was especially strong in Cologne. Within the space of 24 hours, on 9th November, 45,000 soldiers refused to obey their officers and deserted. On 7th November the revolutionary soldiers from Kiel were already on the way to Cologne. The future chancellor K. Adenauer, who was at that time the city's mayor, and the leadership of the SPD took measures to "calm the situation".

[2] From that time on capital has repeatedly used the same tactic: in 1980, when Poland was in the grip of a workers' mass strike, the bourgeoisie changed the government. The list of examples, where the dominant class has changed personnel to prevent the workers' anger being directed against capitalist domination, is endless.


History of the workers' movement: