Germany 1918-19 (i): Faced with the war, the revolutionary proletariat renews its internationalist principles

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It is 90 years since the proletarian revolution reached its tragic culmination point with the struggles of 1918 and 1919 in Germany. After the heroic seizure of power by the Russian proletariat in October 1917, the central battlefield of the world revolution shifted to Germany. There, the decisive struggle was waged and lost. The world bourgeoisie has always wanted to sink these events into historical oblivion. To the extent that it cannot deny that struggles took place, it pretends that they only aimed at "peace" and "democracy" - at the blissful conditions presently reigning in capitalist Germany. The goal of the series of articles we are beginning here is to show that the revolutionary movement in Germany brought the bourgeoisie in the central country of European capitalism close to the brink of the loss of its class rule. Despite its defeat, the revolution in Germany, like that in Russia, is an encouragement to us today. It reminds us that it is not only necessary but possible to topple the rule of world capitalism.

This series will be divided into 5 parts. This first part will be devoted to how the revolutionary proletariat rallied to its principle of proletarian internationalism in the face of World War I. Part two will deal with the revolutionary struggles of 1918. Part three will be devoted to the drama around the formation of a revolutionary leadership, concretised in the founding congress of the German Communist Party at the end of 1918. Part four will examine the defeat of 1919. The last part will deal with the historical significance of the assassination of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, and the heritage of these revolutionaries for us today.

I. Defeat and disarray

The international revolutionary wave which began in opposition to World War I, took place only a few years after the greatest political defeat which the workers' movement had ever suffered: the collapse of the Socialist International in August 1914. Understanding why this war could take place, and the reasons for the failure of the International, is thus essential in order to comprehend the nature and the course of the revolutions in Russia, and in particular in Germany.

The road to war

Since the beginning of the 20th century, world war was in the air. The great imperialist powers had been hectically preparing it. The workers' movement had been predicting it, and warning against it. But at first its outbreak was delayed - by two factors. One of them was the insufficient military preparation of the main protagonists. Germany, for instance, was completing the construction of a war fleet capable of competing with Great Britain, the ruler of the ocean waves. It had to convert the island of Heligoland into a high sea naval base and finish off the canal it was constructing between the North Sea and the Baltic etc. As the first decade of the century drew to a close, these preparations neared their conclusion. This gave the second factor of delay all the more prominence: the fear of the working class. The existence of this fear was no mere speculative hypothesis of the workers' movement. It was expressed openly by the main representatives of the bourgeoisie. Von Bülow, a leading political figure of the German state, declared that it was mainly the fear of Social Democracy which was making the ruling class postpone the war. Paul Rohrbach, the infamous propagandist of the openly imperialist, pro-war circles in Berlin, wrote: "Unless an elementary catastrophe takes place, the only thing which can compel Germany to keep the peace is the hunger of those without bread." General von Bernhardi, a prominent military theoretician of the time, warned, in his book On Contemporary War, that modern warfare is an audacious risk on account of its need to mobilise and discipline millions of people. Such insights were based not on theoretical considerations alone, but on the practical experience of the first imperialist war of the 20th century between major powers. This war - between Russia and Japan - had given birth to the revolutionary movement of 1905 in Russia.

Such considerations nourished hopes within the workers' movement that the ruling class would not dare go to war. These hopes helped to cover over the divergences within the Socialist International at the very moment when the need for proletarian clarification required their open debate. The fact that none of the different currents within the international socialist movement "wanted" war created an illusion of strength and unity. However, reformism and opportunism were not opposed to imperialist war on principle, but simply feared the loss of their legal and financial status in the event of its outbreak. The "marxist centre" around Kautsky, for its part, dreaded war mainly because it would destroy the illusion of unity within the workers' movement which it was out to defend at all costs.

What spoke in favour of the capacity of the working class to prevent the outbreak of world war was above all the intensity of the class struggle in Russia. There, the workers had not taken long to recover from the defeat of the 1905 movement. On the eve of World War I, a new wave of mass strikes was gathering momentum in the Tsarist Empire. To a certain extent, the situation of the working class there resembled that of China today - a minority of the total population, but highly concentrated in modern factories financed by international capital, brutally exploited in a backward country lacking the political control mechanisms of bourgeois parliamentary liberalism. With an important difference, the Russian proletariat had been brought up in the socialist traditions of internationalism, whereas the Chinese workers today are still suffering from the nightmare of the nationalist-stalinist counter-revolution.

All of this made Russia a threat to capitalist stability.

But Russia was not typical of the international balance of class forces. The heart of capitalism, and of imperialist tensions, was located in western and central Europe. The key to the world situation was to be found, not in Russia, but in Germany. This was the country which was most challenging the world order of the old colonial powers. And it was the country with the strongest, most concentrated working class with the most developed socialist education. The political role of the German working class was illustrated by the fact that there the main trade unions had been founded by the socialist party, whereas in Great Britain - the other leading capitalist nation in Europe - socialism appeared to be a mere appendage of the trade union movement. In Germany, the day-to-day workers' struggles were traditionally placed in the light of the great socialist final goal.

At the end of the 19th century there began however the process of the de-politicisation of the socialist unions in Germany, their "emancipation" from the socialist party. The trade unions openly contested the existence of a unity between movement and final goal. The party theoretician Eduard Bernstein only generalised this endeavour with his famous formulation: "the movement is everything, the goal is nothing". This putting in question of the leading role of Social Democracy in the workers' movement, of the primacy of the goal over the movement, brought the socialist party, the SPD, into conflict with its own trade unions. After the mass strikes in 1905 in Russia, this conflict intensified. But it ended with a victory of the trade unions over the party. Under the influence of the "centre" around Kautsky - which wanted to maintain the "unity" of the workers' movement at all costs - the party decided that the question of the mass strike was to be the affair of the trade unions.[1] But the mass strike contained the whole question of the coming proletarian revolution! In this way, the German and the international working class was politically disarmed on the eve of World War I.

The declaration of their non-political character was the preparation of the trade union movement for its integration into the capitalist state. This gave the ruling class the mass organisation it needed to mobilise the workers for war. This mobilisation in the heartlands of capitalism would in turn be enough to demoralise and disorient the workers in Russia - for whom Germany was the main point of reference - and thus break the momentum of mass struggles there.

The Russian proletariat which engaged in mass movements from 1911 on, already had recent experiences of economic crises, of wars and of revolutionary struggles behind it. Not so in western and central Europe. There world war broke out at the end of a long phase of economic development, of real improvements in working class conditions, of rising wages and falling unemployment, of reformist illusions. A phase during which major wars could be restricted to the peripheries of world capitalism. The first great world economic crisis of declining capitalism did not break out until 15 years later - in 1929. The phase of the decadence of capitalism began, not with an economic crisis, as the workers' movement had traditionally expected, but with the crisis of world war. With the defeat and isolation of the left wing of the workers' movement on the question of the mass strike, there was no longer any reason for the bourgeoisie to postpone its headlong rush into imperialist war. On the contrary: any delay could now be fatal to its plans. Waiting could now only mean: waiting for the economic crisis, for the class struggle, for the revolutionary consciousness of its gravedigger to develop!

The collapse of the International

Thus, the path to world war was opened. Its outbreak led to the explosion of the Socialist International. On the eve of the war, Social Democracy organised mass protest demonstrations and meetings throughout Europe. The SPD leadership in Germany sent Friedrich Ebert (a future murderer of the German revolution) to Zürich in Switzerland with the party funds, to prevent their confiscation, and the ever vacillating Hugo Haase to Brussels to organise the international resistance to war. But it was one thing to oppose the war before it had broken out. Quite another to take a position against it once it had become a reality. And here, the vows of proletarian solidarity solemnly taken at the international congress at Stuttgart 1907 and renewed in 1912 in Basle turned out, to a large extent, to have been lip service. Even some of the left wing proponents of apparently radical immediate actions against the war - Mussolini in Italy, Hervé in France - now went over to the camp of chauvinism.

Everyone was surprised by the extent of the fiasco of the International. It is well known that Lenin at first believed the German party press declarations in favour of war to be police forgeries aimed at destabilising the socialist movement abroad. The bourgeoisie itself seems to have been surprised by the extent to which Social Democracy betrayed its principles. It had been banking mainly on the trade unions to mobilise the workers, and had reached secret agreements with its leadership on the eve of war. In some countries, important parts of Social Democracy actually did oppose the war. This shows that the political opening of the path to war did not automatically mean that the political organisations of the class would betray. All the more striking was the failure of Social Democracy in the leading belligerent countries. In Germany, in some cases even those most resolutely opposed to war initially failed to raise their voices. In the Reichstag Fraction in parliament, where 14 members were against voting for the war credits, 78 in favour, even Karl Liebknecht at first submitted to the traditional fraction discipline.

How to explain this?

To this end we must of course first of all situate events in their objective context. Here, the change in the fundamental conditions of the class struggle though the entry into a new epoch of wars and revolutions, of the historic decline of capitalism is decisive. Through this context we can fully comprehend that the passing over of the trade unions into the camp of the bourgeoisie was historically inevitable. Since these organs, expressions of a particular, immature stage of the class struggle, were never revolutionary by nature, in a period in which the effective defence of the immediate interests of any part of the proletariat implied a logic towards revolution, they could no longer serve their class of origin, and could only survive by joining the enemy camp.

But what explains so completely the role of the trade unions already proves to be incomplete when we examine the case of the Social Democratic parties. It is true that with World War I these parties lost their old centre of gravity around the mobilisation for elections. It is also true that the change of conditions removed the basis for mass political parties of the working class in general. In the face of war as well as revolutions, a proletarian party has to be able to swim against the tide, and even in opposition to the dominant mood in the class as a whole. But the main task of a working class political organisation - the defence of its programme, and in particular of proletarian internationalism - does not change with the new epoch. On the contrary, it becomes even more important. So although it was an historical necessity that the socialist parties entered into crisis with the world war, and even that whole currents infested by reformism and opportunism would betray and join the bourgeoisie, this still does not fully explain what Rosa Luxemburg called "the crisis of Social Democracy".

It is also true that such a fundamental historical change necessarily provokes a programmatic crisis, old and tested tactics and even principles suddenly becoming out of date, such as the participation in parliamentary elections, the support for national movements or for bourgeois revolutions. But here we should keep in mind that many revolutionaries of the day, although they did not yet understand these new programmatic and tactical implications, nevertheless were able to remain true to proletarian internationalism.

Any attempt to explain what happened on the basis of the objective conditions alone will end up seeing everything which happens in history as having been inevitable from the onset. This point of view puts in question the possibility of learning from history, since we in turn are also the product of our own "objective conditions". No marxist in their right mind would deny the importance of these objective conditions. But if we examine the explanation which the revolutionaries of the day themselves gave for the catastrophe of socialism in 1914, we find that they underlined above all the importance of the subjective factors.

One of the main reasons for the downfall of the socialist movement lay in its illusory feeling of invincibility, its mistaken conviction of the certainty of its own future victory. The Second International based this conviction on three essentials of the development of capitalism which had already been identified by Marx. These were: the concentration of capital and productive power on one hand and of the dispossessed proletariat on the other; the elimination of the intermediary social layers which blur the main class contradiction; and the increasing anarchy of the capitalist mode of production, in particular in the form of economic crisis, driving the gravediggers of capitalism to put the system in question. These insights were perfectly valid in themselves. Since these three preconditions for socialism are the product of objective contradictions which unfold independently of the will of any social class, and in the long term inevitably impose themselves, they nevertheless gave rise to two very problematic conclusions. Firstly that the victory of socialism is inevitable. Secondly that its victory can only be prevented if the revolution breaks out prematurely, if the workers' movement gives in to provocations.

These conclusions were all the more dangerous for being profoundly - but only partly - true. Capitalism does inevitably produce the material preconditions for the revolution and for socialism. And the danger of being provoked by the ruling class into premature confrontations is very real. We will see the whole tragic importance of this latter question in the third and the fourth part of this article series.

But the problem with this schema of the socialist future is that it left no place for the new phenomenon of imperialist wars between modern capitalist powers. The whole question of world war did not fit into this schema. We have already seen that the workers' movement recognised the inevitability of the ripening of a war long before it actually broke out. But for Social Democracy as a whole, this recognition did not at all lead to the conclusion that the victory of socialism was no longer inevitable. These two portions of the analysis of reality remained separated from each other in a way which can appear almost schizophrenic. Such an incoherence, although it can be fatal, is not unusual. Many of the great crises and disorientations in the history of the workers' movement resulted from this problem of being locked in the schemas of the past, of consciousness lagging behind the evolution of reality. We can cite the example of the support for the provisional government and the continuation of the war by the Bolshevik Party after the February 1917 Revolution in Russia. The party had fallen victim to the schema of a bourgeois revolution bequeathed from 1905, and which revealed its inadequacy in the new context of world war. It took Lenin's April Theses and weeks of intensive discussion to find a way out of this crisis.

Friedrich Engels, shortly before his death in 1895, was the first to begin to draw the necessary conclusions from the perspective of a generalised war in Europe. He declared that it would pose the historic alternative between socialism and barbarism. Here, the inevitability of the victory of socialism is openly put in question. But not even Engels could immediately draw all the conclusions from this insight. He thus failed to recognise that the appearance of the oppositional current of "Die Jungen" ("the Youngsters") in the SPD was - for all its weaknesses - a genuine expression of justified discontent with a framework of activities (mainly oriented towards parliamentarism) which had become largely insufficient. Engels, in the face of the last crisis of the German party before his death, threw in his weight with those who defended the maintenance of the party status quo in the name of patience and the need to avoid provocations.

It was Rosa Luxemburg who, in her polemic against Bernstein at the turn of the century, was to draw the decisive conclusion from Engels' vision of "socialism or barbarism": Although patience remains one of the prime virtues of the workers' movement, and premature confrontations have to be avoided, the main danger, historically, is no longer that the revolution comes too early, but that it may come too late. This viewpoint puts the whole emphasis on the active preparation of the revolution, on the central importance of the subjective factor.

This blow against the fatalism which was beginning to dominate the Second International, this restoration of revolutionary marxism, was to become one of the hallmarks of the whole revolutionary left opposition before and during World War I.[2]

As Rosa Luxemburg was to write in her Crisis of Social Democracy: "Scientific socialism has taught us to recognise the objective laws of historical development. Man does not make history of his own volition, but he makes history nevertheless. The proletariat is dependent in its actions upon the degree of ripeness to which social evolution has advanced. But again, social evolution is not a thing apart from the proletariat; it is in the same measure its driving force and its cause as well as its product and its effect."

Precisely because it has discovered objective laws of history, for the first time ever a social force - the class conscious proletariat - can apply its will in a deliberate manner. It can not only make history, but consciously influence its course.

"Socialism is the first popular movement in the world that has set itself a goal and has established in the social life of man a conscious thought, a definitive plan, the free will of mankind. For this reason Friedrich Engels calls the final victory of the socialist proletariat a stride by mankind from the animal kingdom into the kingdom of liberty. This step, too, is bound by unalterable historical laws to the thousands of rungs of the ladder of the past with its torturous sluggish growth. But it will never be accomplished if the burning spark of the conscious will of the masses does not spring from the material conditions that have been built up by past development."

The proletariat must "learn to take hold of the rudder of society to become, instead of the powerless victim of society, its conscious guide."[3]

For marxism the recognition of the importance of objective historical laws and economic contradictions - denied or ignored by anarchism - and of the subjective elements belong together.[4]

They are inseparably linked and influence each other reciprocally. We can see this in relation to the most important factors in the gradual undermining of the proletarian life of the International. One of these was the undermining of solidarity within the workers' movement. This was of course greatly favoured by the economic expansion which preceded 1914, and the reformist illusions this engendered. But it also resulted from the capacity of the class enemy to learn from its experience. Bismarck introduced social insurance schemes (along with his Anti-Socialist Laws) in order to replace solidarity between workers by their individual dependence on what later became the "welfare state". And when Bismarck's attempt to defeat the workers' movement by outlawing it had failed, the imperialist bourgeoisie which replaced his government at the end of the 19th century reversed tactics. Realising that workers' solidarity often thrives under conditions of repression, it withdrew the Antisocialist Laws, instead repeatedly inviting Social Democracy to "constructively participate" in "political life" (i.e. the running of the state), accusing it of a "sectarian" renouncing of the "sole practical means" of gaining real improvements for the workers.

Lenin showed the link between the objective and subjective levels in relation to another decisive factor in the putrefication of the main socialist parties. This was the degradation of the struggle for the liberation of humanity to an empty everyday routine. Identifying three currents within Social Democracy, he highlighted the second current - "the so-called centre, consisting of people who vacillate between the social chauvinists and the internationalists of action" and characterised them as follows. "The centre - these are people of routine, eaten up by rotten legality, corrupted by the atmosphere of parliamentarism etc, functionaries used to a cosy job and quiet work. Considered historically and economically, they represent no particular layer, they are but a transitional expression between the period of the workers' movement from 1871 to 1914 which is behind us (..) to a new period, which has objectively become necessary since the first imperialist world war, which has inaugurated the era of socialist revolutions."[5]

For marxists at the time, the "crisis of social democracy" was not something taking place outside of their own field of activity. They felt personally responsible for what had happened. For them, the failure of the workers' movement of the day was also their own failure. As Rosa Luxemburg put it "We have the victims of the war on our conscience".

What was remarkable about the collapse of the Socialist International is that it was not in the first instance the product either of programmatic inadequacy or of a wrong analysis of the world situation.

"The international proletariat suffers, not from a dearth of postulates, programmes and slogans, but from a lack of deeds, of effective resistance, of the power to attack imperialism at the decisive moment."[6]

For Kautsky, the failure to uphold internationalism had proven the impossibility of doing so. His conclusion: the International is essentially a peace time instrument, which must be set aside in times of war. For Rosa Luxemburg, as for Lenin, the fiasco of August 1914 was above all the result of the erosion of the ethics of proletarian international solidarity within its leadership.

"Then came the awful, the incredible fourth of August 1914. Did it have to come? An event of such importance cannot be a mere accident. It must have its deep, significant, objective causes. But perhaps these causes may be found in the errors of the leader of the proletariat, the social democracy itself, in the fact that our readiness to fight has flagged, that our courage and our convictions have forsaken us." (our emphasis)

II: The turning of the tide

The collapse of the Socialist International was an event of world historic importance, and a cruel political defeat. But it did not constitute a decisive i.e. irreversible defeat of a whole generation. A first indication of this: the most politicised layers of the proletariat remained loyal to proletarian internationalism. Richard Müller, leader of the group of the revolutionäre Obleute, the factory delegates in the metal industry, recalled: "To the extent that these broad popular masses, already before the war, had been educated, under the influence of the socialist and trade union press, to definite opinions about the state and society, it turned out that they, although at first not openly, directly rejected the war propaganda and the war."[7] This in strong contrast to the situation in the 1930s, after the victory of Stalinism in Russia and Fascism in Germany, when the most advanced workers got drawn onto the political terrain of nationalism and the defence of the (imperialist) "anti-fascist" or "socialist" fatherland.

The completeness of the initial mobilisation for war was thus not the proof of a profound defeat, but of a temporary overpowering of the masses. This mobilisation was accompanied by scenes of mass hysteria. But these expressions must not be confused with an active engagement of the population such as was once witnessed during the national wars of the revolutionary bourgeoisie in the Netherlands or France. The intense public agitation of 1914 had its roots first of all in the mass character of modern bourgeois society, and in the unprecedented means of propaganda and manipulation at the disposal of the capitalist state. In this sense, the hysteria of 1914 was not quite new. In Germany it had already been witnessed at the time of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. But it was given a new quality through the evolution in the nature of modern warfare.

The madness of imperialist war

It seems that the workers' movement underestimated the power of the gigantic political, economic, social and psychological earthquakes produced by the world war. Events of such a colossal scale and violence, beyond the control of any human force, are bound to stir up extreme emotions. Some anthropologists believe that war awakens an instinct of defence of one's own "preserve", something which human beings have in common with other species. This may or may not be the case. What is certain is that modern war stirs up age old fears which slumber in our collective historical memory, passed on over generations by culture and tradition, consciously and unconsciously: the fear of death, starvation, rape, expulsion, exclusion, deprivation, enslavement. The fact that modern generalised imperialist warfare is no longer more or less restricted to military professionals, but involves whole societies, and introduces weaponry of an unprecedentedly destructive power, cannot but augment the panic and instability it produces. To this must be added the profound moral implications. In world war, not only a particular caste of soldiers, but millions of working people drafted into the army are called upon to kill each other. The rest of society, behind the front, is supposed to work towards the same end. In such a situation, the basic morality which makes any human society possible no longer applies. As Rosa Luxemburg put it: "Every people which sets out to commit organised murder is transformed into a horde of barbarians."[8]

All of this produced, at the moment the war broke out, a veritable mass psychosis, and a generalised pogrom atmosphere. Rosa Luxemburg recounts how the populations of whole cities were transformed into a crazed mob. The germs of all the barbarism of the twentieth century, Auschwitz and Hiroshima included, were already contained in this war.

How should the workers' party have reacted to the outbreak of war? By proclaiming the mass strike? By calling on the soldiers to desert? Nonsense, replied Rosa Luxemburg. The first task of revolutionaries here is to resist what Wilhelm Liebknecht, referring to the experience of the war of 1870, once described as a hurricane of human passions. "Such outbreaks of the ‘popular soul' are astounding, stunning, crushing in their elemental fury. One feels powerless, as before a higher power. It is a real force majeure. There is no tangible opponent. It is like an epidemic, in the people, in the air, everywhere. (...) So it was no small thing at that time to swim against the current."

In 1870 Social Democracy swam against the current. Rosa Luxemburg's comment: "They stuck to their posts, and for forty years social democracy lived upon the moral strength with which it had opposed a world of enemies."[9]

And here she comes to the point, the crux of her whole argumentation. "The same thing would have happened now. At first we would perhaps have accomplished nothing but to save the honour of the proletariat, and thousands of proletarians who are dying in the trenches in mental darkness would not have died in spiritual confusion, but with the one certainty that that which has been everything in their lives, the international, liberating social democracy is more than the fragment of a dream. The voice of our party would have acted as a wet blanket upon the chauvinistic intoxication of the masses. It would have preserved the intelligent proletariat from delirium, would have made it more difficult for imperialism to poison and to stupefy the minds of the people. The crusade against the social democracy would have awakened the masses in an incredibly short time. And as the war went on (...) every live, honest, progressive and humane element in the masses would have rallied to the standard of the social democracy."

The conquest of this "unparalleled moral prestige" is the first task of revolutionaries in face of war.

Impossible for the likes of Kautsky to understand these concerns with the last thoughts of the proletarians in uniform before their death. For him, to provoke the anger of the mob and the repression of the state, once the war had actually broken out, would be nothing but an empty gesture. The French socialist Jaures once declared: The International represents all the moral strength in the world. Now, many of its former leaders no longer knew that internationalism is no empty gesture, but the life and death question of world socialism.

The turning point and the role of revolutionaries

The failure of the socialist party led to a truly dramatic situation. Its first result was to make possible the apparently indefinite perpetuation of the war. The military strategy of the German bourgeoisie was entirely based on avoiding a two front war, on achieving a rapid victory over France in order to then throw all its forces eastwards to make Russia surrender. Its strategy against the working class had the same basis: taking it by surprise and clinching victory before it had time to regain its orientation.

By September 1914 (the First Battle of the Marne) the overrunning of France, and with it the whole strategy of rapid victory, had completely failed. Not only the German, but the world bourgeoisie was now trapped in a dilemma which it could neither back out of nor leave behind it. There ensued unprecedented massacres of millions of soldiers, completely insane even from the capitalist point of view. The proletariat itself was trapped, without any immediate perspective of ending the war through its own initiative. The danger which thus arose was that of the destruction of the most essential material and cultural precondition for socialism: the proletariat itself.

Revolutionaries relate to their class as a part relates to the whole. Minorities of the class can never replace the self activity and creativity of the masses. But there are moments in history at which the intervention of revolutionaries can have a decisive influence. Such moments arise in a process towards revolution, when the masses are struggling for victory. Here it is decisive to help the class find the right path, sidestep the traps of its enemy, avoid being too early or too late for its rendezvous with history. But they also arise at moments of defeat, when it is vital to draw the right lessons. But here we must differentiate. In face of a crushing defeat, this work is decisive only in the long term, in passing on these lessons to future generations. In the case of the defeat of 1914, the decisive impact revolutionaries could have was as immediate as during the revolution itself. This is not only because the defeat suffered was not definitive, but also due to the conditions of world war, which, by making the class struggle literally a life or death question, gave rise to an extraordinary acceleration of politicisation.

In face of the hardships of war, it was inevitable that the economic class struggle would develop and immediately take on an openly political character. But revolutionaries could not content themselves with waiting for this to happen. The disorientation of the class, as we have seen, was above all the result of the default of its political leadership. It was thus the responsibility of all that remained revolutionary within the workers' movement to itself initiate the turning of the tide. Even before the strikes on the "home front", long before the revolts of the soldiers in the trenches, revolutionaries had to go out and affirm the principle of international proletarian solidarity.

They began this work in parliament, by denouncing the war and voting against the war credits. This was the last time when this tribune would be used to revolutionary ends. But this was accompanied, from the beginning, by illegal revolutionary propaganda and agitation, and participation in the first demonstrations for bread. But the paramount task of revolutionaries was still to organise themselves to clarify their standpoint, and in above all to re-establish contact with revolutionaries abroad, to prepare the foundation of a new International. But by May Day 1916, the Spartakusbund, the nucleus of the future Communist Party, for the first time felt strong enough to take to the streets openly and massively. It was the day on which traditionally the workers' movement celebrated its international solidarity. The Spartakusbund called demonstrations in Dresden, Jena, Hanau, Brunswick and above all in Berlin. There 10,000 assembled at Potsdamer Platz to hear Karl Liebknecht denounce the imperialist war. A street battle broke out in a vain attempt to prevent him being arrested.

The May Day protest at Potsdamer Platz deprived the internationalist opposition of its best known leader. Other arrests followed. Liebknecht was accused of irresponsibility and even of wanting to place his own person in the limelight. In reality, his May Day action had been decided collectively by the Spartakusbund leadership. It is true that marxism criticises empty gestures like acts of terrorism or adventurism. It counts on the collective action of the masses. But the gesture of Liebknecht was more than an act of individual heroism. It embodied the hopes and aspirations of millions of proletarians in face of the insanity of bourgeois society. As Rosa Luxemburg was later to write:

"Let us not forget this, however. The history of the world is not made without grandeur of spirit, without lofty morals, without noble gestures."[10]

This grandeur of spirit swiftly spread from the Spartakusbund to the metal workers. June 27th 1916, Berlin, the eve of the trial against Karl Liebknecht, arrested for public agitation against the war. A meeting of factory delegates was scheduled to take place after the illegal protest demonstration called by the Spartakusbund. On the agenda: solidarity with Liebknecht. Against the resistance of Georg Ledebour, the only representative of the opposition group within the Socialist Party (SPD) present, action was proposed for the following day. There was no discussion. Everyone stood up and left in silence.

The next morning at 9 o'clock the turners switched off the machines in the big armaments plants in the German capital. 55,000 workers from Löwe, AEG, Borsig, Schwarzkopf downed tools and assembled outside their factory gates. Despite the military censorship, the news spread like a fire across the empire: the armaments workers out in solidarity with Liebknecht! As it turned out, not only in Berlin, but also in Brunswick, on the shipyards in Bremen etc. Even in Russia there followed acts of solidarity.

The bourgeoisie sent thousands of strikers to the front. The trade unions started a witch hunt in the factories in search of the "ring leaders". But hardly any of them were arrested, so great was the solidarity of the workers. Internationalist proletarian solidarity against imperialist war: this was the beginning of the world revolution, the first political mass strike in the history of Germany.

But even more rapidly, the flame lit on the Potsdamer Platz had spread to revolutionary youth. Inspired by the example of their political leaders, this youth, even before the experienced metal workers, instigated the first major strike against the war. In Magdeburg, and above all in Brunswick, which was a bastion of Spartakus, the illegal May Day protests of 1916 escalated into an open strike movement against the government decision to pay part of the wages of the apprentices and young workers onto a compulsory savings account which could be used to finance the war effort. The adult workers came out in support. On May 5th the military authorities had to withdraw this attack in order to prevent a further extension of the movement.

After the battle of Jutland in 1916, the first and only major confrontation between the British and the German navy throughout the war, a small group of revolutionary sailors planned to take over the battleship Hyäne and take it to Denmark as a "demonstration to the whole world" against the war.[11] Although these plans were denounced and foiled, they announced the first open revolts in the war fleet which followed at the beginning of August 1917. They began around questions concerning the treatment and conditions of the crew. But soon, the sailors delivered an ultimatum to the government: either you end the war or we go on strike. The state responded with a wave of repression. Two of the revolutionary leaders, Albin Köbis and Max Reichpietsch, were executed.

But already in mid-April 1917 a wave of mass strikes had taken place in Berlin, Leipzig, Magdeburg, Halle, Brunswick, Hanover, Dresden and other cities. Although the trade unions and the SPD leadership, which no longer dared to openly oppose the movement, tried to restrict it to economic issues, the workers in Leipzig had formulated a series of political demands - calling in particular for the ending of the war - which were taken up in other cities.

Thus, the ingredients of a profound revolutionary movement were present by the beginning of 1918. The April 1917 strike wave was the first mass intervention of hundreds of thousands of workers throughout the country, defending their material interests on a class terrain and directly opposing the imperialist war. At the same time, this movement was inspired by the beginning of the Russian Revolution in February 1917, openly declaring its solidarity with it. Proletarian internationalism had seized the hearts of the working class.

On the other hand, with the movement against the war, the proletariat had begun to again produce its own revolutionary leadership. By this we mean not only the political groups such as the Spartakusbund or the Bremen Left who went on to form the KPD at the end of 1918. We also mean the emergence of highly politicised layers and centres of the life and struggle of the class, linked to the revolutionaries and sympathising with their positions. One of these centres was to be found in the industrial cities, in particular in the metal sector, crystallising in the phenomenon of the Obleute, the factory delegates. "Within the industrial working class there was a small nucleus of proletarians, who not only rejected the war as such, but were also willing to prevent its outbreak by all means; and when it broke out, they considered it their duty to end it by all means. They were few in number. But they were all the more determined and active people. They constituted the counterpoint to those who went to the front in order to die for their ideals. The struggle against the war in the factories and offices was not as covered in fame as the struggle on the front, but it brought with it the same dangers. Those who took up and waged this struggle were motivated by the highest ideals of humanity."[12]

Another of these centres was to be found among the new generation of workers, the apprentices and young workers with no other perspective than to be sent to die in the trenches. The nucleus of this fermentation was located in the socialist youth organisations, which, already before the war, had been characterised by the revolt against the "routine" which had begun to characterise the older generation.

Within the armed forces, where the revolt against the war took much longer to develop than on the "home front" a political advanced post was also established. As in Russia, this political centre of resistance arose among the sailors, who had a direct connection to the workers and the political organisations in their ports of call, and whose job and conditions in every way resembled those of the factory workers from whom they generally originated. Moreover, many of them were recruited from the "civilian" merchant fleets, young men who had travelled all over the world and for whom international fraternity was not a phrase, but a way of life.

Moreover, the emergence and multiplication of these concentrations of political life was marked by an intense theoretical activity. All the eye witness accounts from this period stress the extraordinarily high theoretical level of the debates at the different illegal meetings and conferences. This theoretical life found expression in Rosa Luxemburg's Crisis of Social Democracy, Lenin's writings against the war, the articles of the review Arbeiterpolitik in Bremen, but also in scores of leaflets and declarations circulated in strict illegality, and which belong to the most profound and courageous products of human culture which the 20th century has brought forth.

The stage was being set for the revolutionary storm against one of the strongest and most important bastions of world capitalism.



Part Two of this series will deal with the revolutionary struggles of 1918. They begin with the mass strikes of January 1918, and the first attempt to form workers' councils in Germany, and culminate in the revolutionary events of November 9 which brought World War I to an end.



[1] Decision of the Mannheim Party Congress of 1906.

[2] In his memoirs from the proletarian youth movement, Willi Münzenberg, who was in Zürich during the war, recalled Lenin's point of view. "Lenin explained to us the mistake of Kautsky and his theoretical school of falsified marxism, which expects everything from the historical development of economic relations and almost nothing from the subjective factors of acceleration of the revolution. As opposed to this, Lenin stressed the significance of the individual and masses in the historic process. He placed in the foreground the marxist thesis that human beings, in the framework of the given economic relations, make their own history. This stressing of the personal value of individual human beings and groups in the social struggles made the greatest impression on us and spurred us to the greatest imaginable efforts." Münzenberg, Die Dritte Front ("The Third Front") p. 230.

[3] ibid p. 268, 269. We have slightly corrected the English translation.

[4] While correctly defending, against Bernstein, the reality of the tendency towards the disappearance of the intermediary layers, and towards crisis and pauperisation of the proletariat, the Left however failed to recognise the extent to which capitalism, in the years before World War I, had temporarily been able to attenuate these tendencies. This lack of clarity expressed itself for instance in Lenin's theory of the "workers aristocracy" according to which only a privileged minority, and not broad sectors of the class had gained substantial wage increases over longer periods. This led to underestimating the importance of the material basis for the reformist illusions which helped the bourgeoisie to mobilise the proletariat for war.

[5] Lenin, The Tasks of the Proletariat in Our Revolution.

[6] Luxemburg, The Crisis of Social Democracy ("Junius Pamphlet") January 1916. Taken from Rosa Luxemburg Speaks, Pathfinder Press 1970. p. 324

[7] Richard Müller, Vom Kaiserreich Zur Republik p.32. ("From the Empire to the Republic", part one of Müller's trilogy on the history of the German Revolution).

[8] ibid. p. 326.

[9] ibid p. 317, 318

[10] Rosa Luxemburg, Against Capital Punishment. November 1918, ibid p. 398.

[11] Dieter Nelles, Proletarische Demokratie und internationale Bruderschaft - Das abenteuerliche Leben des Hermann Knüfken. p. 1 (Nelles: Proletarian Democracy and International Fraternity - The Adventurous Life of Hermann Knüfken).

[12] Müller, ibid p. 33



History of the workers' movement: