The German Revolution: The Premature Insurrection

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This third article devoted to the revolutionary struggle in Germany between 1918 and 1919[1] deals with one of the most difficult questions of the proletarian struggle: the preconditions for, and timing of the insurrection. Although negative, the German experience is a rich vein of lessons for the revolutionary struggle to come.

The premature insurrection

When it made its insurrection in November 1918 the working class forced the bourgeoisie in Germany to end the war. In order to sabotage the radicalization of the movement and prevent a repeat of the "Russian events" the capitalist class used the SPD[2] within the struggles as a spearhead against the working class. Thanks to a particularly effective policy of sabotage the SPD, with the help of the unions, did all it could to sap the strength of the workers' councils.

In the face of the explosive development of the movement with soldiers' mutinying everywhere and going over to the side of the insurrectionary workers, the bourgeoisie could not possibly envisage an immediate policy of repression. It had first to act politically against the working class and then go on to obtain a military victory. We went over the details of the political sabotage it carried out in International Review no. 82.

However the preparations for military action were made from the very beginning. It was not the right wing parties of the bourgeoisie which organized this repression but rather the one that still passed for "the great party of the proletariat", the SPD, and it did so in tight collaboration with the army. It was these famous "democrats" who went into action as capitalism's last line of defense. They were the ones who turned out to be the most effective rampart of capital. The SPD began by systematically setting up commando units as the companies of regular troops infected by the "virus of the workers' struggles" were less and less inclined to follow the bourgeois government. These companies of volunteers, privileged with special pay, would act as auxiliaries for the repression.

The military provocations of 6th & 24th December 1918

Just one month after the start of the struggles the SPD ordered the police to enter by force the offices of Spartakus' newspaper, Die Rote Fahne. K. Liebnecht, R. Luxemburg and other Spartakists, but also members of the Berlin Executive Council, were arrested. At the same time troops loyal to the government attacked a demonstration of soldiers who had been demobilized or had deserted; fourteen demonstrators were killed. In response several factories went on strike on 7th December; general assemblies were held everywhere in the factories. For the first time on 8th December there was a demonstration of workers and armed soldiers in which more than 150.000 participated. In the towns of the Ruhr like Mulheim, workers and soldiers arrested some industrialists.

Confronted with these provocations from the government, the revolutionaries did not push for an immediate insurrection but called for the massive mobilization of the workers. The Spartakists made the analysis that the conditions were not yet ripe for the overthrow of the bourgeois government, particularly in so far as the capacities of the working class were concerned[3].

The national Congress of the council that took place in the middle of December 1918 showed that this was in fact the case and the bourgeoisie profited from the situation (see the last article in the International Review 82). The delegates to this Congress decided to submit their decisions to a National Assembly that was to be elected. At the same time a "Central Council" (Zentralrat) was set up that was composed exclusively of members of the SPD who pretended to speak in the name of the workers' councils and the soldiers in Germany. The bourgeoisie realized that they could use this political weakness of the working class by unleashing another military provocation following the Congress: on 24th December the commando units and the governmental troop went onto the offensive. Eleven sailors and several soldiers were killed. Once more there was great indignation among the workers. Those of the "Daimler motor company" and several other Berlin factories formed a Red Guard. On 25th December powerful demonstrations took place in response to this attack. The government was forced to retreat. Now that the governing team was being increasingly discredited, the USPD[4], which up to then had participated in it along with the SPD, withdrew.

The bourgeoisie did not give way however. It continued to push for the disarmament of the proletariat which was still armed in Berlin and it made preparations to deliver it up to the decisive blow.

The SPD calls for death to the Communists

In order to set the population against the class movement, the SPD became the mouth piece of a shameful and powerful campaign of slander against the revolutionaries and even went so far as to call for death to the Spartakists in particular: "You want peace? Then you must all see to it that the tyranny of Spartakus' people is stopped! You want freedom? Then get the armed loafers of Liebknecht out of harm's way! You want famine? Then follow Liebknecht! You want to become the slaves of the Entente? Liebknecht will see to it! Down with the anarchist dictatorship of Spartakus! Only violence can oppose the brutal violence of this band of criminals!" (Leaflet of the municipal council of Greater Berlin, 29th December 1918).

"The shameful actions of Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg sully the revolution and put all its gains in danger. The masses must not tolerate for one minute more that these tyrants and their partisans paralyze the republic in this way. (...) It is by means of lies, slander and violence that they overturn and knock down every obstacle that dares oppose them.

We made the revolution to end the war! Spartakus wants a new revolution to start a new war" (leaflet of the SPD, January 1919).

At the end of December the Spartakus group left the USPD and joined with the IKD[5] to form the KPD. And so the working class possessed a Communist Party that was born in the heat of the movement and which was the target of attacks from the SPD, the main defender of capital.

For the KPD the activity of as large a number as possible of the working masses was indispensable if this tactic of capital was to be opposed. "After the initial phase of the revolution, that of the essentially political struggle, there opens up a phase of strengthened, intensified and mainly economic struggle." (R. Luxemburg at the founding Congress of the KPD). The SPD government "won't approach the lively flames of the economic class struggle." (Ibid). That is why capital, with the SPD at its head, did all it could to prevent any extension of the struggles on this terrain by provoking premature armed uprisings of the workers and then repressing them. They needed to weaken the movement at its center, Berlin, in the early days in order to then go on to attack the rest of the working class.

The trap of the premature insurrection in Berlin

In January the bourgeoisie reorganized its troops stationed in Berlin. In all they had more than 80,000 soldiers throughout the city, of which 10,000 were storm troops. At the beginning of the month they launched another provocation against the workers in order to disperse them militarily. On 4th January the prefect of police in Berlin, Eichhorn, who had been nominated by the workers in November, was relieved of his functions by the bourgeois government. This was seen as an attack by the working class. In the evening of 4th January the "revolutionary men of confidence"[6] held a meeting which Liebknecht and Pieck attended in the name of the newly formed KPD. A "Provisional Revolutionary Committee", which was based on the "delegates" circle, was formed. But at the same time the executive Committee of the Berlin councils (Vollzugsrat) and the central committee (Zentralrat) nominated by the national congress of councils - both nominated by the SPD - continued to exist and to act within the class.

The Committee for revolutionary action called for a protest gathering for Sunday 5th January. About 150,000 workers attended following a demonstration in front of the prefecture of police. On the evening of 5th January some of the demonstrators occupied the offices of the SPD paper, Vorwaerts, and other publishing houses. These actions were probably incited by agent provocateurs; at any rate they took place without the knowledge or approval of the committee.

But the conditions were not ripe for overthrowing the government and the KPD made this clear in a leaflet they put out at the beginning of January:

"If the Berlin workers dissolve the National Assembly today, if they throw the Ebert-Scheidemanns in prison while the workers of the Ruhr, Upper Silesia and the agricultural workers on the lands east of the Elba remain calm, tomorrow the capitalists will be able to starve out Berlin. The offensive of the working class against the bourgeoisie, the battle for the workers' and soldiers' councils to take power must be the work of all working people throughout the Reich. Only the struggle of the workers of town and country, everywhere and permanently, accelerating and growing until it becomes a powerful wave that spreads resoundingly over the whole of Germany, only a wave initiated by the victims of exploitation and oppression and covering the whole country can explode the capitalist government, disperse the National Assembly and build on the ruins the power of the working class which will lead the proletariat to complete victory in the ultimate struggle against the bourgeoisie. (...)

Workers, male and female, soldiers and sailors! Call assemblies everywhere and make it clear to the masses that the National Assembly is a bluff. In every workshop, in every military unit, in every town take a look at and check whether your workers' and soldiers' council has really been elected, whether it doesn't contain representatives of the capitalist system, traitors to the working class such as Scheidemann's men, or inconsistent and oscillating elements such as the Independents. Convince the workers and get them to elect the Communists. (...) Where you are in the majority in the workers' councils get these workers' councils to immediately establish relations with the other workers' councils in the area. (...) If this program is realized (...) the German republic of councils together with the Russian workers' republic of councils will draw the workers of England, France, Italy to the flag of the revolution ..." It follows from this analysis that the KPD saw clearly that the overthrow of the capitalist class was not yet immediately possible and that the insurrection wasn't yet on the agenda.

After the huge mass demonstration on 5th January another meeting of the "delegates" was held the same evening, attended by delegates from the KPD and the USPD as well as representatives of the garrison troops. Carried away by the powerful demonstration that day, those present elected an action committee (Aktionsauscuss) of 33 members led by Ledebour as president, Scholze for the revolutionary "delegates" and K. Liebknecht for the KPD. They decided on a general strike and another demonstration for the following day, 6th January.

The action committee distributed a leaflet calling for insurrection with the slogan: "Fight for the power of the revolutionary proletariat! Down with the Ebert-Scheidemann government!"

Soldiers came to declare their solidarity with the action committee. A delegation of soldiers declared that they would take the side of the revolution as soon as the bankruptcy of the current Ebert-Scheidemann government was declared. At that, K. Liebknecht for the KPD, Scholze for the revolutionary "delegates" signed a decree declaring that it was bankrupt and that government affairs would be taken in hand by the revolutionary committee. On 6th January about 500,000 people demonstrated in the street. Demonstrations and gatherings took place in every sector of the city; the workers of Greater-Berlin demanded their weapons back. The KPD demanded the arming of the proletariat and the disarming of the counter-revolutionaries. Although the action committee had produced the slogan "Down with the government" it took no serious initiative to carrying out this orientation. In the factories no combat troops were organized in the factories, no attempt was made to take the affairs of the state in hand and paralyze the old government. Not only did the action committee have no plan of action but also on the 6th January the navy forced it to leave its headquarters, and it did in fact do so!

The mass of demonstrating workers awaited directions in the streets while their leaders were disabled. Although the proletarian leadership held back, hesitated, had no plan of action, the SPD-led government for its part rapidly got over the shock caused by this initial workers' offensive. Help came to rally round it on all sides. The SPD called for strikes and supporting demonstrations in favor of the government. A bitter and perfidious campaign was launched against the communists: "Where Spartakus reigns all freedom and safety of the individual is abolished. The most serious danger threatens the German people and particularly the German working class. We will not let ourselves be terrorized any longer by these wild criminals. Order must finally be restored in Berlin and the peaceful establishment of a new revolutionary Germany must be guaranteed. We call upon you to stop work in protest at the brutality of the Spartakist gangs and to immediately assemble in front of the government building of the Reich." (...)

"We must not rest until order had been restored in Berlin and until the enjoyment of the revolutionary gains has been guaranteed for the whole of the German people. Down with the murderers and criminals! Long live the socialist republic!" (Executive committee of the SPD, 6th January 1919).

The work cell of the Berlin students wrote:

"Citizens, leave off your torpor and side with the socialist majority!" (Leaflet of 7/8th January 1919).

For his part Noske cynically declared on 11th January:

"The government of the Reich has transferred the command of the republican soldiers to me. So a worker is at the head of the forces of the socialist Republic. You know me, me and my history in the Party. I guarantee that blood will not be spilled senselessly. I want to heal, not to destroy. Working class unity must be forged against Spartakus so that democracy and socialism will not founder."

The central committee (Zentralrat) "nominated" by the national Congress of the councils and dominated by the SPD even declared: "a small minority aspire to set up a brutal tyranny. The criminal actions of armed bands who put in danger all the gains of the revolution, oblige us to confer full extraordinary powers to the government of the Reich so that order (...) may at last be restored in Berlin. All differences of opinion must give way to the aim of preserving the whole of the working people from another, terrible misfortune. It is the duty of every workers' and soldiers' council to support us in our actions, us and the government of the Reich, in every way possible (...)" (Special edition of Vorwaerts, 6th January 1919).

The SPD and its accomplices were thus preparing to massacre the revolutionaries of the KPD in the name of the revolution and the proletariat's interests. With the basest duplicity, it called on councils to stand behind the government in acting against what it called "armed gangs". The SPD even supplied a military section, which received weapons from the barracks, and Noske was placed at the head of the forces of repression with the words: "We need a bloodhound, I will not draw back from such a responsibility".

By 6th January, isolated skirmishes were taking place. While the government massed its troops around Berlin, on the evening of the 6th the Executive of the Berlin councils was in session. Dominated by the SPD and the USPD, it proposed to the Committee for Revolutionary Action that there should be negotiations between the "revolutionary men of confidence" and the government, for whose overthrow the Revolutionary Committee had just been calling. The Executive played the "conciliator", by proposing to reconcile the irreconcilable. This attitude confused the workers, and especially the soldiers who were already hesitant. The sailors thus decided to adopt a policy of "neutrality". In a situation of direct class confrontation, any indecision can rapidly lead the working class to lose confidence in its own capacities, and to adopt a suspicious attitude towards its own political organizations. By playing this card, the SPD helped to weaken the proletariat dramatically. At the same time, it used agents provocateurs (as was proven later) to push the workers into a confrontation. The latter thus forcibly occupied the offices of several newspapers on 7th January.

Faced with this situation, the KPD leadership, unlike the Revolutionary Action Committee, had a very clear position: based on the analysis of the situation made at its founding Congress, it considered the insurrection to be premature.

On 8th January, Die Rote Fahne wrote: "Today, we must proceed to the reelection of the workers' and soldiers' councils, to take back the Executive of the Berlin councils under the slogan: get rid of Ebert and his henchmen! Today, we must draw the lessons of the experiences of the last eight weeks in the workers' and soldiers' councils, and elect councils which correspond to the conceptions, aims, and aspirations of the masses. In a word, we have to beat Ebert and Scheidemann in the very foundations of the revolution: the workers' and soldiers' councils. Then, and only then, will the masses of Berlin and throughout the Reich have in the workers' and soldiers' councils real revolutionary organs which will give them, in all the decisive moments, real leaders, real centers for action, for struggle, and for victory".

The Spartakists thus called on the workers first and foremost to strengthen the councils by developing the struggle on their own class terrain, in the factories, and by getting rid of Ebert, Scheidemann, and Co. By intensifying their pressure through the councils, they could give the movement a new impetus, and then launch into the battle for the seizure of political power.

On the same day, Luxemburg and Jogisches violently criticized the slogan of immediate overthrow of the government put forward by the Action Committee, but also and above all the fact that the latter had shown itself, by its hesitant and even capitulationist attitude, incapable of directing the class movement. In particular, they reproached Liebknecht for acting on his own authority, letting himself be carried away by his enthusiasm and impatience, instead of referring to the Party leadership, and basing himself on the KPD's program and analyses.

This situation shows that it was neither the program nor the political analyses that were lacking, but the Party's ability, as an organization, to fulfill its role as the proletariat's political leadership. Founded only a few days before, the KPD had not the influence in the class, much less the solidity and organizational cohesion of the Bolshevik party one year earlier in Russia. The Communist Party's immaturity in Germany was at the heart of the dispersal in its ranks, which was to weigh heavily and dramatically in the events that followed.

In the night of the 8th/9th January, the government troops went on the attack. The Action Committee, which had still not correctly analyzed the balance of forces, called for action against the government: "General strike! To arms! There is no choice! We must fight to the last man!". Many workers answered the call, but once again they waited in vain for precise instructions from the Committee. In fact, nothing was done to organize the masses, to push for fraternization between the revolutionary workers and the troops ... And so the government's troops entered Berlin, and for several days engaged in violent street fighting with armed workers. Many were killed or wounded in scattered confrontations in different parts of the city. On 13th January, the USPD declared the general strike at an end, and on 15th January Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht were assassinated by the thugs of the Social-democrat led regime! The SPD' s criminal campaign to "Kill Liebknecht!" thus ended in a success for the bourgeoisie. The KPD was deprived of its most important leaders.

Whereas the newly founded KPD had correctly analyzed the balance of forces, and warned against a premature insurrection, the Action Committee dominated by the "revolutionary men of confidence" had a false appreciation of the situation. To talk of a "Spartakus week" is a falsification of history. On the contrary, the Spartakists had taken position against hasty action. Proof of this, a contrario, was given by Liebknecht's and Pieck's breaking Party discipline. This bloody defeat was caused by the overhasty attitude of the "revolutionary men of confidence", burning with impatience but lacking in thought. The KPD did not have the strength to hold the movement back, as the Bolsheviks had done in July 1917. In the words of Ernst, the new social-democratic chief of police who replaced the ousted Eichorn: "Any success for the Spartakus people was out of the question from the start, since by our preparations we had forced them to strike prematurely. Their cards were uncovered sooner than they wished, and that is why we were able to combat them".

Following this military success, the bourgeoisie immediately understood that it should build on its advantage. It launched a bloody wave of repression, in which thousands of Berlin workers and communists were assassinated, tortured, and thrown into prison. The murders of Liebknecht and Luxemburg were no exception, but reveal the bourgeoisie's vile determination to eliminate its mortal enemies: the revolutionaries.

On 19th January, "democracy" triumphed: elections were held for the National Assembly. Under the pressure of the workers' struggles, the government in the meantime had transferred its sittings to Weimar. The Weimar Republic was thus established on the corpses of thousands of workers.

Is the insurrection a party affair?

On this question of the insurrection, the KPD clearly based itself on Marxist positions, and in particular on what Engels had written after the experience of the struggles of 1848:

"Insurrection is an art. It is an equation whose data is more than uncertain, and whose values can change at any moment; the enemy's forces have in their favor all the advantages of organization, discipline and authority; as soon as it becomes impossible to oppose them from a position of strong superiority, then one is beaten and annihilated. Secondly, once one has taken the road of insurrection, it is necessary to act with the greatest determination, and go onto the offensive. The defensive is the death of any armed insurrection; it is lost before even getting a chance to measure itself against the enemy. Take your opponent by surprise, while his strength is still dispersed; make sure to win new victories every day, however small; hold on to the moral supremacy that the movement's first victory has won you; attract the hesitant elements who always follow the impetus of the strongest, and take the safest side; force your enemies to retreat even before they have been able to gather their forces against you ..." (Revolution and counter-revolution in Germany).

The Spartakists adopted the same approach to insurrection as Lenin in April 1917:

"To succeed, the insurrection must be based not on a plot, not on a party, but on the vanguard class. This is the first point. The insurrection must be based on the revolutionary élan of the people. That is the second point. The insurrection must appear at a turning point in the history of the rising revolution, where the activity of the people's vanguard is at its strongest, where hesitation is strong in the ranks of the enemy, and weak among the friends of the revolution. That is the third point. These are the three conditions which distinguish marxism from blanquism, in its way of posing the question of insurrection" (Letter to the RSDLP Central Committee, September 1917).

What was the concrete situation in January 1919, with regard to this fundamental question?

Insurrection is based on the revolutionary élan of the masses

At its founding Congress, the KPD held that the class was not yet ripe for insurrection. After the movement initially dominated by the soldiers, a new impetus based on the factories, mass assemblies, and demonstrations was vital. This was a precondition for the class to gain, through its movement greater strength and greater self-confidence. It was a condition for the revolution to be more than the affair of just a minority, or of a few desperate or impatient elements, but on the contrary to be based on the revolutionary élan of the great majority of workers.

Moreover in January the workers' councils did not exercise a real dual power, in that the SPD has succeeded in sabotaging them from within. As we showed in the previous Issue, the councils' National Congress held in mid-December had been a victory for the bourgeoisie, and unfortunately nothing new had come to stimulate the councils since then. The KPD's appreciation of the class movement and the balance of forces were perfectly lucid and realistic.

Some think that it is the party that takes power. But then, we would have to explain how a revolutionary organization, no matter how strong, could do so when the great majority of the working class has not yet sufficiently developed its class consciousness, is hesitant and oscillating, and has not yet been able to create workers' councils with enough strength to oppose the bourgeois regime. Such a position completely misunderstands the fundamental characteristics of the proletarian revolution, and of the insurrection, which Lenin was the first to point out: "the insurrection must be based, not on a plot, not on a party, but on the vanguard class". Even in October 1917, the Bolsheviks were particularly concerned that it should be the Petrograd Soviet that took power, not the Bolshevik Party.

The proletarian insurrection cannot be "decreed from on high". On the contrary, it is a conscious action of the masses, which must first develop their initiative, and achieve a mastery of their own struggles. Only on this basis will the directives and orientations given by the councils and the party be followed.

The proletarian insurrection cannot be a putsch, as the bourgeois ideologues try to make us believe. It is the work of the entire working class. To shake off capitalism's yoke, the will of a few, even the class' clearest and most determined elements, is not enough: "the insurgent proletariat can only count on its numbers, its cohesion, its cadres, and its general staff" (Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution, "The Art of Insurrection").

In January the working class in Germany had not yet reached this level of maturity.

The role of the communists is central

The KPD was aware that its main responsibility was to push for the strengthening of the working class, and in particular for the development of its consciousness in the same way as Lenin had done previously in Russia, in the April Theses:

"This seems to be "nothing more" than propaganda work, but in reality it is most practical revolutionary work; for there is no advancing a revolution that has come to a standstill that has choked itself with phrases, and that keeps "marking time", not because of external obstacles, not because of the violence of the bourgeoisie (...), but because of the unreasoning trust of the people.

Only by overcoming this unreasoning trust (...) can we set ourselves free from the prevailing orgy of revolutionary phrase-mongering and really stimulate the consciousness both of the proletariat and of the mass in general, as well as their bold and determined initiative (...)" (Lenin, "The tasks of the proletariat in our revolution", April 1917).

When boiling point has been reached, the party must "at the opportune moment, catch the mounting insurrection", to allow the class to launch the insurrection at the right moment. The proletariat must feel that "it has above it a clear-sighted, firm and audacious leadership", in the form of a party (Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution, "The Art of Insurrection").

But unlike the Bolsheviks in July 1917, in January 1919 the KPD did not have enough weight to have a decisive effect on the course of the struggle. It was not enough for the party's position to be correct: it had to have a wide influence in the class. And this could not be developed by the premature insurrection in Berlin, still less by the bloody defeat that followed. On the contrary, the bourgeoisie succeeded in dramatically weakening the revolutionary vanguard by eliminating its best militants, but also by banning its main weapon of intervention in the class: Die Rote Fahne. In a situation where the widest possible intervention by the party was crucial, the KPD found itself deprived of its press for weeks at a time.

The drama of dispersed struggles

During these same weeks, the proletariat confronted capital in several countries. Whereas in Russia, the counter-revolutionary White troops strengthened their onslaught on the workers' power, the end of the war brought a certain calm to the social front in the "victorious countries". In Britain and France, there were a series of strikes, but the struggle did not take on the same radical orientation as it had in Russia and Germany. The struggles in Germany and central Europe thus remained relatively isolated from those in the other European industrial centers. In March, the Hungarian workers set up a Soviet Republic, which was quickly and bloodily crushed by counter-revolutionary troops, thanks once again to the skillful work of the local social-democracy.

In Berlin, after defeating the workers' insurrection the bourgeoisie set out to dissolve the soldiers' councils, and build an army ready for civil war. It also worked systematically to disarm the proletariat. But workers' combativity continued to break out all over the country. During the months that followed, the struggle's center of gravity was to shift through Germany. Extremely violent confrontations between proletariat and bourgeoisie took place in almost all the major towns, but unfortunately isolated from each other.

Bremen in January...

On 10th January, in solidarity with the Berlin workers, the Bremen workers' and soldiers' council proclaimed the creation of the Soviet Republic. It decided to evict the members of the SPD, to arm the workers, and to disarm counter-revolutionary elements. It appointed a council government, responsible to it. On 4th February, the Reich government gathered troops around Bremen and went on the offensive. The rebel town remained isolated, and fell on the same day.

The Ruhr in February...

In the Ruhr, the biggest working class concentration, expressions of combativity had broken out since the end of the war. Already prior to the war, in 1912 there had been a long wave of strikes. In July 1916, January 1917, January 1918, and August 1918, the workers launched large movements of struggle against the war. In November 1918, the workers' and soldiers' councils were mostly under the influence of the SPD. January and February saw the outbreak of many wildcat strikes. The striking miners went to neighboring pits to enlarge and unify the movement. There were often violent confrontations between the workers in struggle, and the councils still dominated by members of the SPD. The KPD intervened:

"The seizure of power by the proletariat, and the creation of socialism, presupposes that the great majority of the proletariat has the will to exercise the dictatorship. We do not think that that moment has yet arrived. We think that the development of the next weeks and months will cause to ripen within the whole proletariat, the conviction that its salvation can only lie in its dictatorship. The Ebert-Schiedemann government is seeking out the slightest opportunity to stifle this development in blood. As in Berlin, as in Bremen, it will try to strangle each revolutionary outbreak in isolation, in order to avoid the general revolution. The proletariat has the duty to make these provocations fail, by avoiding armed uprisings which would offer itself to the executioners as a willing sacrifice. It is far more important, right up to the moment of the seizure of power, to raise the revolutionary masses' energy to the highest point by demonstrations, meetings, propaganda, agitation and organization, to win over a greater and greater number of the masses, and to prepare minds for the time to come. Above all, it is necessary to push for the re-election of the councils under the slogan:

The Ebert-Scheidemanns out of the councils!

Get rid of the executioners!"

(Call by the KPD Centrale for the reelection of the workers' councils, 3rd February).

On 6th February, 109 council delegates met to demand the socialization of the means of production. Behind this demand, lay the workers' increasing realization that control of the means of production could not remain in the hands of capital. But as long as the proletariat did not hold political power, as long as it had not overthrown the bourgeois government, this demand could turn against it. Without political power, all the measures of socialization are not only a deception, but a means for the ruling class to stifle the struggle. The SPD thus promised a law providing for "participation" and a pseudo-control by the working class over the state. "The workers' councils are constitutionally recognized as the representation of economic interests and participation, and are anchored in the Constitution. Their election and prerogatives will be regulated by a special law to take effect immediately".

It was planned that the councils should be transformed into "enterprise committees" (Betribrate), and that their function should be to take part in the economic process through joint management. The prime aim of this proposal was to adulterate the councils, and to integrate them into the state. They were thus no longer organs of dual power against the bourgeois state, but on the contrary served to regulate capitalist production. Moreover, this mystification maintained the illusion of an immediate transformation of the economy "in one's own factory", and the workers were thus easily enclosed in a local and specific struggle, instead of engaging in a movement of extension and unification of the combat. This tactic, used for the first time by the German bourgeoisie, was illustrated in several factory occupations. In the struggles in Italy during 1919-20, it was again put to very successful use by the ruling class.

From 10th February, the troops responsible for the bloodbaths in Bremen and Berlin were marching on the Ruhr. The workers' and soldiers' councils throughout the Ruhr valley decided on a general strike, and called for armed struggle against the Freikorps. Everywhere, came the slogan "Out of the factories!" There were many armed confrontations, all of which went along similar lines. So angry were the workers, that SPD offices were often attacked, as on 22nd February in Mulheim-Ruhr where a social-democrat meeting was machine-gunned. There were thousands of workers under arms in Gelsenkirchen, Dortmund, Bochum, Duisburg, Oberhausen, Wuppertal, Mulheim-Ruhr and Dusseldorf. But just as in Berlin, the movement's organization was sadly lacking. There was no united leadership to orientate the working class' strength, while the capitalist state, with the SPD at its head, acted with organization and centralization.

Until 20th February, 150,000 workers remained on strike. On 25th February, the return to work was decided and the armed struggle suspended. The bourgeoisie could unleash its repression once again, and the Freikorps occupied the Ruhr town by town. Nonetheless, at the beginning of April a new wave of strikes began: on the 1st, 150,000 workers were on strike; on the 10th, 300,000, and by the end of the month their numbers had fallen again to 130,000. In mid-April came the repression and the hunt for communists. For the bourgeoisie, it became a priority to re-establish order in the Ruhr, for large masses of workers were coming out on strike simultaneously in Brunswick, Berlin, Frankfurt, Danzig, and central Germany.

Central Germany in February and March

At the end of February, just as the movement in the Ruhr was being crushed by the army, the proletariat in central Germany entered the scene. Whereas the movement in the Ruhr was limited to the workers in the iron and coal industries, here it involved the workers in every industry, including transportation. Workers joined the movement in almost every factory and large town.

On 24th February, the general strike was declared. The workers' and soldiers' councils immediately called on the Berlin workers to unify the movement. Once again, the KPD warned against any hasty action: "As long as the revolution has no central organs of action, we must oppose the action of organizing councils, which develop locally in a thousand places" (leaflet from the KPD Zentrum). It was time to strengthen the pressure from the factories, to intensify the economic struggle, and to renew the councils. There was no slogan for the overthrow of the government.

Here again, thanks to an agreement on socialization, the bourgeoisie succeeded in breaking the movement. And once again, there was united action between the SPD and the army: "For all military operations (...) it is helpful to make contact with the leading members of the SPD who are faithful to the government" (Marcker, military leader of the repression in central Germany). The bourgeoisie's thugs continued the repression into May, as the strike wave had spilled over into Saxony, Thuringia, and Anhalt.

Berlin, once again, in March...

The movements in the Ruhr and central Germany were drawing to a close, when the Berlin proletariat once again entered the struggle on 3rd March. Its main orientation was: reinforcement of the workers' and soldiers' councils, liberation of all political prisoners, formation of a workers' revolutionary guard, and making contact with Russia. The rapid decline in living conditions after the war, the explosion in prices, and the development of mass unemployment after the demobilization, all pushed the workers to set forward economic demands. In Berline, the communists demanded new elections to the workers' councils to increase pressure on the government. The KPD leadership in the Greater Berlin constituency wrote: "Do you think that you will reach your revolutionary objectives thanks to the ballot-box? (...) If you want to make the revolution progress, then with all your strength enter the struggle in the workers' and soldiers' councils. See that they become real instruments of the revolution. Hold new elections to the workers' and soldiers' councils".

The SPD declared itself opposed to such a slogan. Once again, it set out to sabotage the movement politically, but also as we have seen, by repression. When the Berlin workers went on strike at the beginning of March, the executive council made up of delegates from the SPD and USPD took the leadership of the strike. The KPD refused to join it: "To accept the representatives of this policy into the strike committee means the betrayal of the general strike and the revolution".

Like the socialists, stalinists, and other representatives of the left of capital today, the SPD succeeded in taking over the strike committee thanks to credulity on the part of some workers, but above all thanks to all kinds of maneuvers, tricks and double-dealing. It was to avoid having their hands tied that the Spartakists refused at this point to sit alongside the executioners of the working class.

The SPD was able to print its paper, whereas the government had banned Die Rote Fahne. The counter-revolutionaries were thus free to develop their disgusting propaganda, while the revolutionaries were reduced to silence. Before it was banned, Die Rote Fahne warned the workers: "Stop work! For the moment, stay in the factories. Gather in the factories. Convince those who hesitate. Don't let yourselves be drawn into useless fighting, which Noske is only waiting for to start a new bloodletting".

In fact, the bourgeoisie was quick to use its agent provocateurs to start looting, which was used as the official excuse for bringing in the army. First and foremost, Noske's troops destroyed the printing presses of Die Rote Fahne. The KPD's leading members were thrown in jail. Leo Jogisches was shot. It was precisely because it had warned the working class against the bourgeoisie's provocations that it became the immediate target for the counter -revolutionary troops.

The repression began in Berlin on 4th March. About 1,200 workers were shot. Bodies were washed up on the banks of the river Spree for weeks afterwards. Anyone found in possession of a portrait of Karl Marx or Rosa Luxemburg was arrested. Once again: this bloody repression was not the work of fascists, but of the SPD.

The general strike was broken in central Germany by 6th March, and in Berlin the 8th. In Saxony, Baden, and Bavaria important struggles took place during these same weeks, but the different movements never managed to link up between themselves.

The Bavarian Soviet Republic in April 1919

In Bavaria too, the working class entered the struggle. On 7th April, the SPD and USPD, hoping "to win back the favor of the masses by a pseudo-revolutionary action" as the revolutionary Levine put it, proclaimed the Republic of Councils. Just as in January in Berlin, the KPD saw that the balance of forces was not favorable to the workers, and took position against the creation of the Republic. Nonetheless, the Bavarian communists called the workers to elect a "truly revolutionary council", with a view to setting up a real communist Soviet Republic. By 13th April, Eugen Levine found himself at the head of a new government which took energetic economic, political, and military measures against the bourgeoisie. Despite these measures, this initiative was a serious error on the part of the Bavarian revolutionaries, who acted against the Party's orientations and analyses. Completely isolated from the rest of Germany, the movement had to confront a huge bourgeois counter-offensive. Munich was starved out, and 100,000 troops massed around the city. On 27th April, the Munich Executive Council was overthrown, and bloody repression struck again: thousands of workers were killed in the fighting, or executed; the communists were hunted down, and Levine condemned to death.


Today's proletarian generations can scarcely imagine the power of a wave of almost simultaneous struggles in the great centers of capitalism, and the pressure that this put on the ruling class.

Through its revolutionary movement in Germany, the working class proved against one of the world's most experienced ruling classes, that it is capable of establishing a balance of forces which could have overthrown capitalism. This experience shows that the revolutionary movement at the beginning of the century was not something reserved for the proletariat of "backward countries" like Russia, but involved masses of workers in most industrially developed country of its day.

But the development of the revolutionary wave from January to April 1919 suffered from dispersion. Concentrated and united, its forces would have been enough to overthrow the power of the bourgeoisie. But they were scattered, and the government was thus able to confront and annihilate them one by one. Already in January, in Berlin, the government had succeeded in breaking the back of the revolution.

Richard Muller, one of the "revolutionary men of confidence", who showed themselves so hesitant for so long, could not help observing: "If the repression against the January struggles in Berlin had not happened, then the movement would have been able to gather a greater impetus elsewhere in the spring, and the question of power would have been posed more precisely, in all its implications. But the military provocation cut the ground from under the feet of the movement. The January action provided the arguments for the campaigns of calumny, harassment, and the creation of an atmosphere of civil war".

Without this defeat, the Berlin proletariat would have been able to support the struggles which developed in other parts of Germany. This weakening of the revolution's central battalion allowed the forces of capital to go on the offensive, and to draw the workers all over the country into premature and dispersed military confrontations. The working class, in fact, had not succeeded in establishing a broad, united, and centralized movement. It had been unable to impose a dual power throughout the country, by strengthening and centralizing the councils. Only by creating such a balance of forces would it have been possible to launch an insurrection that demanded the greatest conviction and coordination. And this dynamic cannot develop without the clear and determined intervention of a political party inside the movement. This is how the proletariat can emerge victorious from its historic struggle.

The revolution's defeat in Germany during the early months of 1919 was not solely due to the skill of the local ruling class. It was also the result of a concerted action by the international capitalist class.

While the working class in Germany was engaging in scattered struggles, in March the Hungarian workers rose in a revolutionary confrontation with capital.

The Soviet Republic was proclaimed in Hungary on21st March 1919, only to be crushed by counter-revolutionary troops in the summer.

The international capitalist class stood united behind the German bourgeoisie. For four years, the different bourgeoisies had done their best to destroy each other, and yet they stood united against the working class. Lenin showed clearly that "everything was done to come to an understanding with the German conciliators in order to stifle the German revolution" (Report by the Central Committee to the 9th Congress of the RCP). There is a lesson that the working class must remember: whenever it puts capitalism in danger, it will have to confront, not a divided ruling class, but the internationally united forces of capital.

But, if the proletariat had taken power in Germany, the capitalist front would have been driven in, and the Russian revolution would not have been left isolated.

When the IIIrd International was founded in Moscow in March 1919, as the struggles were developing in Germany, this perspective seemed to all the communists to be within their grasp. But the workers' defeat in Germany began the decline of the international revolutionary wave, and in particular that of the Russian revolution. It was the action of the bourgeoisie, with the SPD as its bridgehead, which made possible the isolation, then the degeneration of the Bolshevik revolution, and then the birth of Stalinism.


[1] See the two previous issues of this Review: "The revolutionaries in Germany during World War I" and "The beginning of the revolution".

[2] The German Social-Democratic Party, was the largest socialist party in the world before 1914, when its leadership, headed by its parliamentary group and trades union leaders, betrayed all the party's internationalist commitments and joined ranks, bags and baggage, with the national bourgeoisie as a recruiting sergeant for the imperialist bloodbath.

[3] In 1980 the CWO demonstrated to what an irresponsible attitude a revolutionary organization without clear analyses can be led. At the time of the mass struggles in Poland they called for the revolution immediately ("Revolution now").

[4] German Independent Socialist Party, a "centrist" split from the SPD, which rejected the latter' s most openly bourgeois aspects, but without taking the clearly revolutionary positions of the internationalist communists, The Spartakus League joined the USPD in 1917, with a view to spreading its influence amongst the workers, increasingly disgusted by the policy of the SPD.

[5] German Internationalist Communists, known as German Internationalist Socialists prior to 23rd November 1918, when they decided, in Bremen, to replace the word Socialist by Communist. They were less numerous and influential than the Spartakus group, whose revolutionary internationalism they shared. They were members of the Zimmerwald Left, and closely linked to the international Communist Left, in particular the Dutch Left (Pannekoek and Gorter were among their theoreticians before the war), and the Russian (Radek worked in their ranks). Their rejection of the unions and parliamentarism was in the majority at the KPD's founding Congress, against the position of Rosa Luxemburg.

[6] The "revolutionary men of confidence" (Revolutionnare Obleate) were originally made up largely of union delegates elected in the factories, but who had broken with the social-chauvinist union leaderships. They were the direct product of the working class' resistance to the war, and to the treason of the unions and workers' parties. Sadly, their revolt against the union leadership made them suspicious of any idea of centralization, and led them to develop a too Iocalist, or even "factoryist" viewpoint. They were always uneasy when confronted with questions of general politics, and often an easy prey for the policies of the USPD.

History of the workers' movement: