In the three preceding articles we showed how the struggles of the working class forced capital to bring World War I to a close. In order to prevent an extension of the revolutionary struggle, capital did all in its power to divide the working class in Germany from that in Russia, to sabotage any further radicalization. In this article we want to show how revolutionaries in Germany were confronted with the question of building the organization, faced with the betrayal of the social-democracy.
The outbreak of World War I was possible only because the majority of the parties of the Second International submitted to the interests of their various national capitals. Once the unions participated unhesitatingly in the "holy alliance" with the national capital, the approval of war credits came as no surprise; it was the consequence of the whole process of degeneration of the opportunist wing of Social Democracy. Before the war, its left wing had fought with all its strength against this degeneration, so there was an immediate response to this betrayal. From the very beginning of the war the internationalists regrouped around the banner of the group that would soon become known as "Spartakus". They identified their first responsibility as the defense of working class internationalism against the betrayal of the SPD leadership. This meant not only propagandizing in favor of this programmatic position but also, and most importantly, defending the organization of the working class, whose leadership had betrayed it, from being throttled by capitalist forces. Following the betrayal of the party leadership, there was unanimous agreement on the part of all the internationalists not to allow the party to fall into the hands of the traitors. All of them worked to win back the party. None wanted to leave of their own accord, on the contrary they all wanted to work as a fraction within the party with the aim of expelling the social patriotic leadership.
The traitors' bastion was the union representatives, who had been irrevocably integrated into the state, and nothing could be reclaimed for the working class there. The SPD however was a point of resistance. Even the parliamentary fraction in the Reichstag was clearly divided between the traitors and the internationalists. Even though - as we showed in the article in International Review no 81 - it was only with great difficulty and great hesitation that a voice was raised in the Reichstag against the war. But the most potent lever against betrayal developed above all within the rank and file of the party itself.
"We accuse the Reichstag fraction of having betrayed the fundamental principles of the party and, with them, the spirit of the class struggle. The parliamentary fraction has thus placed itself outside the party; it has ceased to be the official representative of German Social-Democracy" (Leaflet of the opposition, quoted by R. Muller).
All the internationalists were agreed not to abandon the organization to the traitors. "This does not mean that immediate separation from the opportunists is desirable, or even possible, in every country. It means that such a separation is ripe historically, that it has become inevitable and that it represents a step forward, a necessity for the revolutionary struggles of the proletariat. It means that the historic turning point, marked by "peaceful" capitalism's entry into its imperialist phase, puts such a separation on the agenda" (Lenin, "Opportunism and the foundation of the Second International", Works, vol 21).
In International Review no 81 we showed that the Spartakists and the "Linksradikale" in other towns aimed at forging a balance of forces that would put the social-patriotic leadership in a minority. How could the organizational break with the traitors be brought about? Obviously the traitors and the internationalists could not coexist in the same party. One had to get rid of the other. The balance of forces had to be reversed in the course of this struggle. As we showed in International Review no 81, the Spartakists' resistance put the leadership in an increasingly difficult situation found itself; the party as a whole followed the traitors less and less. In fact the social-patriots in the leadership were forced to go onto the offensive against the internationalists in order to asphyxiate them. How were they to react to this? By slamming the door and immediately forming a new organization outside the SPD?
There were divergences on this question within the left. The social-patriots began to chase the revolutionaries out of the SPD - first from the parliamentary fraction, then from the party itself; after Liebnecht, who was excluded in December 1915, it was the turn of those deputies who had voted against the war credits to be thrown out of the parliamentary group in spring 1916. At this point there was discussion on how long it was necessary to fight for the organization.
Rosa Luxemburg's attitude was clear: "You can "leave" tiny sects and circles when they no longer suit you, to found new sects and circles. To want to free the proletarian masses from a horribly heavy and damaging yoke simply by "leaving" and to show them by this valiant example the road to follow, is just a childish dream. To have the illusion of freeing the masses by tearing up your membership card is just the other side of the coin to fetishising the party card as an illusory power. These two attitudes are just different sides of organizational cretinism (...) The decomposition of German social-democracy is part of an historic process of the broadest scope, of the general confrontation between bourgeoisie and working class, a battle ground that you cannot abandon out of disgust. We must wage this titanic battle to the bitter end. We must strain with all our united forces to break the deadly knot that official German democracy, the official free unions and the ruling class have slipped over the neck of the masses, who have been duped and betrayed. The liquidation of this pile of organized putrefaction, that today goes under the name of social-democracy, is not a private affair that depends on the personal decision of one or several groups (...) It must be sorted out as a broad public question of power by deploying all our strength" (Rosa Luxemburg, Der Kampf no 31, "Offene Briefe an Geninnungsfreunde. Von Spattung, Einheit und Austritt" , Duisberg, 6 January 1917).
"The slogan is neither split nor unite; it is not for a new party or for the old party. It is to reconquer the party from bottom to top by means of the rebellion of the masses who must take the organizations and their resources into their own hands, not in words but in deeds, by rebellion (...) The decisive combat for the party has began" (Spartakusbriefe, 30th March 1916).
The work of a fraction
While Rosa Luxemburg firmly defended the idea of remaining as long as possible in the SPD and was the most strongly convinced of the need to work as a fraction, the Bremen left began to defend the idea that an independent organization was necessary.
Up to the end of 1916, beginning of 1917. this question was not a focus of disagreement. K. Radek, one of the main representatives of the Bremen left himself said: "To propagandize for a split does not mean that we must leave the party immediately. On the contrary, we must aim to take control of all the organizations and party organs possible (...) It is our duty to remain at our posts as long as possible because the longer we remain, the greater will be the number of workers who will follow us if we are excluded by the social imperialists, who obviously understand quite well what our tactic is even if we do not state it openly (...) One of the tasks of the hour is to unite the local party organizations that are in opposition and establish a provisional leadership of an opposition that is clearly defined" (Radek, Unter eigenem Banner, p327, end of I 916) .
So it is not true that the Bremen left wanted an immediate organizational separation in August 1914. It was only from 1916, when the balance of forces within the SPD began to waver more and more, that the Dresden and Hamburg groups argued for an independent organization - even if they did not have solid organizational conceptions on this question.
An assessment of the first two years of the war showed that the revolutionaries did not allow themselves to be silenced and that none of the groups gave up their organizational independence. That is why, if they had abandoned the organization to the social patriots in 1914, they would have been throwing their principles overboard. Even in 1915, as the pressure of the workers themselves was growing, with an increasing number of acts of resistance, this was still not a reason to set up a new organization independent of and outside the SPD. As long as the balance of forces remained inadequate, as long as there was not the strength necessary to fight within the ranks of the workers and as long as the revolutionaries were still a small minority; in short, as long as the conditions for "the formation of the party" were not fulfilled, it was necessary to work as a fraction within the SPD.
A brief survey of the situation at the time shows that the shock of the party leadership's betrayal in August 1914 continued to be felt, that with the nationalism's temporary victory the working class had suffered a defeat, and that it was consequently impossible to found a new party. It was first necessary to fight for the old party, carry out the difficult work of a fraction and then prepare for the construction of a new party - but to found it immediately in 1914 was unthinkable. The working class had first to recover from the effects of the defeat of 1914. For the internationalists, neither the immediate exit from the SPD, nor the foundation of a new party was on the agenda in 1914.
In September 1916 the party's Executive Committee called a national conference of the SPD. Although the leadership manipulated the mandates given to the delegates, they nevertheless lost their hold over the opposition. The latter decided not to pay dues to the Executive. The Executive replied by excluding all those who refused to pay dues, starting with the Bremen left.
In a situation which rapidly became acrimonious, where the party's Executive Committee was increasingly challenged within the party, where the class offered more and more resistance to the war, and where the Executive had begun to make significant exclusions, the Spartakists were against leaving the SPD "piecemeal" as some of the Bremen comrades advocated with their tactic of refusing to pay dues.
E. Meyer stated: "We remain within the party only as long as we can wage a class struggle against the directive committee of the party. From the moment that we are prevented from doing this, we no longer want to stay. We are not in favor of a split" (quoted Lenin, Wohlegemuth, p 167).
The Spartakist League wanted to form an organization of the whole opposition within the SPD. This was the orientation of the Zimmerwald conference. As Lenin rightly stressed: "The German opposition still greatly lacks a solid basis. It is still dispersed, scattered in autonomous currents which lack above all a common foundation which is indispensable for its ability to act. We consider it our duty to forge the dispersed forces into an organism capable of action" (Lenin, Wohlegemuth, p 118).
As long as the Spartakists remained within the SPD as an autonomous group, they formed a political reference point fighting against the degeneration of the party, against the betrayal of a part of itself. According to the organizational principles of the workers' movement, a fraction does not have a separate existence, does not have organizational independence, it remains within the party. The independent existence of the fraction at an organizational level is only possible if it is excluded from the party.
By contrast, the other left regroupments, especially around Borchardt ("Lichtstrahlen") and in Hamburg, began to declare themselves clearly in favor of the construction of an independent organization in this phase, during 1916.
As we have shown, this wing of the left (especially that of Hamburg and Dresden) used the betrayal of the social patriotic leadership as a pretext for putting into question the need for the party in general. Out of a fear of a new bureaucratism, afraid of seeing the workers' struggle stifled by the left because of the organization, they began to reject all political organization. At the beginning this took the form of distrust in the centralized nature of the organization, a return to federalism. During this phase this was expressed by their deserting the struggle against the social patriots within the party. This was what gave birth to what would later become council communism which was to develop substantially in the years that followed.
The principle of working as a fraction, carrying on the resistance within the SPD, as was applied in Germany by the left in this period was later to serve as an example for the comrades of the Italian left scarcely ten years later, in their fight within the Communist International against its degeneration. This principle which was defended by Rosa Luxemburg and the vast majority of the Spartakists was rejected very early on by the parties of the KPD who left the organization as quickly as possible with the betrayal of the social patriots as soon as divergences arose and before there were any common measures agreed.
The different currents within the workers' movement
For more than two years of the war, the workers' movement in every country was divided into three currents. In The tasks of the proletariat in our revolution, April 1917, Lenin described these three currents in the following way.
- (...) the real internationalists who are best represented by "the Zimmerwald left". Essential distinguishing characteristic: complete rupture with social-chauvinism (...). Intransigent revolutionary struggle against one's own imperialist government and one's own imperialist bourgeoisie";
- between these two tendencies there was a third current that Lenin describes as the ""center", which hesitates between the social-chauvinists and the real internationalists.(...) The "center" swears by its great gods that it is (...) for peace, (...) and for peace with the social chauvinists. The "center" is for "unity ", the center is against a split (...) the "center" is not convinced of the need for a revolution against its own government, does not advocate it, does not carry out an intransigent revolutionary struggle, invents the most banal false perspectives, even if they have an arch-marxist ring to them, in order to avoid it".
This centrist current had no programmatic clarity but was, on the contrary, incoherent, inconsistent, ready to make any concession it could, retreated before any attempt to elaborate a program, tried to adapt itself to any new situation. It was the zone in which petty-bourgeois and revolutionary influences confronted one another. This current was in the majority at the Zimmerwald conference in 1915, and in 1916; in Germany, its numbers were considerable. At the time of the opposition's conference held on 7th January 1917, it represented the majority of the 187 delegates; only 35 delegates were Spartakists.
The centrist current itself contained a right and left wing. The right wing followed more and more closely the social-patriots while the left wing was moreopen to the intervention of the revolutionaries.
In Germany, Kautsky led this current, which united within the SPD in March 1916 under the name of "Socialdemokratische Arbeitsgemeinschaft" (SAG: Social-democratic work collective), and which was particularly strong in the parliamentary fraction. Haase and Ledebour were the main centrist deputies in the Reichstag. So there were not only the traitors and the revolutionaries but also a centrist current which drew the majority of the workers to it for some time.
"And those who avoid reality by refusing to recognize the existence of these three tendencies, who refuse to analyze them and to fight in an appropriate way for what is really internationalist, condemn themselves to inertia, impotence and error" (Lenin, "The tasks of the proletariat in our revolution", Works, vol 24, p.68).
Whereas the social patriots went on trying to inject large doses of the nationalist poison into the working class and the Spartakists waged a ferocious battle against them, the centrists oscillated between these two poles. What attitude should the Spartakists adopt towards the centrists? The wing regrouped around Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebnecht insisted that "we must hit the centrists politically", that revolutionaries must intervene towards them.
Intervention towards centrism: political clarity first, unity afterwards
In January 1916, during a conference called by those who were against the war, Rosa Luxemburg explained her position in relation to the centrists.
For her, any organizational association with the centrists within the SPD was to be excluded: "Of course unity is strength, but the unity of solid and profound convictions, not that of a mechanical and superficial addition of elements that are fundamentally divergent. Its strength is not in numbers but in the spirit, the clarity, in the determination that animates us" (R. Luxemburg, The policy of the social-democratic minority, spring 1916).
Likewise, in February 1916 Liebnecht stressed: "Not unity at any cost, but clarity above all. The path we must trace is to bring out intransigently and discuss in depth all divergences in order to reach agreement on principles and tactics with the perspective of being able to act, with the perspective of unity. Unity must not be the starting point of this fermentation process, it must be the conclusion" (Spartakusbriefe. p.112).
The cornerstone of the method of Luxemburg and the other Spartakists was the demand for programmatic clarity. By demanding programmatic solidity, refusing to be drowned politically, accepting that they be numerically scarce but remain clear in content, Luxemburg was not being sectarian, she was in continuity with the old marxist method. R. Luxemburg is not the only repository of this rigor and programmatic firmness: the same method would later be used by the comrades of the Italian left when, in analyzing the lessons of the of Russia and in the 30s, they warned against the tendency to make political concessions at a programmatic level with the sole aim of numeric growth. Perhaps Rosa Luxemburg already felt the repercussions of the new situation inaugurated by the decadence of capitalism. In the period of capitalist decadence, there can no longer exist mass parties of the working class, but only numerically smaller parties which must be solid at a programmatic level. This is why this theoretical solidification represents a compass point for the work of revolutionaries in relation to the centrists, who - by definition - oscillate and fear political clarity at the programmatic level.
When in March 1917 the centrists - after their expulsion from the SPD - wanted to found their own organization, the Spartakists recognized the need for an intervention towards them. They took up the responsibility which is that of revolutionaries towards their class. On the basis of the revolutionary development in Russia and the growing radicalization of the working class in Germany itself, the task of the Spartakists was to keep the best elements, who were under the influence of centrism, out of harm's way and push them to go forward and clarify their positions. We must conceive centrist currents such as the "social democratic work collective" (SAG) - just like a number of parties who adhered to the Communist International in March 1919 - as disparate and offering no stability or coherence.
Lenin summed up this task as follows:
"The most important failing of the whole of revolutionary marxism in Germany is the absence of an illegal organization, which follows a systematic line and educates the masses in the spirit of the new tasks: such an organization would have to take a clear position towards both opportunism and Kautskyism" (Lenin, July 1916 in Works, Vol 22).
How was this activity of a pole of reference to be carried out?
In February, the centrists proposed a conference to be held on 6/8th April 1917, with a view to founding a common organization, which would bear the name USPD (Independent Social-Democratic Party). Profound differences emerged among the internationalist revolutionaries as to how to react.
The Bremen Left took position against the revolutionary lefts taking part in this common organization. Radek thought that: "Only a clear and organized nucleus can exert any influence on the radical workers of the Center. Up until now, while we were acting on the terrain of the old party,we could get by with loose links between different left radicals. Now (...) only a radical left party, with a clear program and its own organs can gather dispersed forces, to unite them and make them grow. [We can only do our duty] by organizing the left radicals into their own party" (Karl Radek, Unter eigenem Banner, p414).
The Spartakists themselves were not united on the question. At a preparatory conference of the Spartakist League on 5th April, many delegates took position against entry into the USPD. The Spartakists aimed to attract the best elements out of the new party, and win them for the revolutionary cause.
"The Social-Democratic work collective includes in its ranks many worker elements who are on our side, either politically or by their state of mind, and who only follow the work collective by lack of contact with us, or by lack of knowledge of the real relationships within the opposition, of for some other chance reason ... " (Leo Jogisches, 25th December 1916).
"We must therefore use the new party, which will bring together greater numbers of workers, as a recruiting ground for our ideas, for the determined opposition tendency; we must then contest the work collective's political and moral influence on the masses within the new party itself; finally, we must push forward the party as a whole both by our activity in its organizations, and by our own independent actions, and eventually act against its damaging influence on the class" (Spartakus im Kriege, p184).
There were many arguments, within the Left, both for and against joining. The question posed was: should we carry out fraction work outside the USPD, or act on it from the inside? While the Spartakists' concern to intervene towards the USPD to draw away its best elements was perfectly valid, it was far more difficult to see whether this should be done "from the inside" or "from the outside".
However, the question could only be posed at all because the Spartakists rightly considered the USPD as a centrist current within the working class. It was not a bourgeois party.
We can only understand the significance of the centrist USPD, and the fact that it still possessed a great influence among the working masses, by considering the increasingly turbulent situation within the working class. A wave of strikes swept through north Germany in spring, and the Ruhr in March. In April, a series of mass strikes involving more than 300,000 workers hit Berlin. During the summer, a movement of strikes and protests affected Halle, Brunswick, Magdeburg, Kiel, Wuppertal, Hamburg, and Nuremberg. In June, the first mutinies took place in the fleet. These movements could only be stopped by the most brutal repression.
At all events, the Left was temporarily divided between the Spartakists on the one hand, and the Bremen Left and other revolutionary lefts on the other. The Bremen Left demanded the rapid formation of the Party, whereas the majority of the Spartakists joined the USPD as a fraction.