Germany 1918-19: Social Democracy sets a deadly trap for the revolution

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The first article in this series (WR 319) examined the beginning of the revolution in Germany in November 1918. In this second part, we look at how the ruling class used its most powerful weapons - not only armed repression, but also the ideological campaigns of the former workers' party, the SPD, to inflict a major defeat on the revolutionary movement. 

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 radicalisation of the movement and prevent a repeat of the ‘Russian events' the capitalist class used the SPD 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.

However the preparations for military action were made from the very begin­ning. It was not the right wing parties of the bourgeoisie which organised 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 defence. 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 6 & 24 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. Karl Liebknecht, Rosa 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 demobilised or had deserted; fourteen demonstrators were killed. In response several factories went on strike on 7 December; general assemblies were held everywhere in the factories. For the first time on 8 December there was a demonstration of workers and armed soldiers in which more that 150,000 participated. In the towns of the Ruhr, like Mülheim, 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 mobilisa­tion 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.

The national Congress of the councils that took place in the middle of December 1918 showed that this was in fact the case and the bourgeoisie profited from the situation. 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 realised that they could use this political weakness of the working class by unleashing an­other military provocation following the Congress: on 24 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 25 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, 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 mouthpiece of a powerful campaign of slander against the revolutionaries and even went so far as to call for death to the Spartakists in particular.

At the end of December the Spartakus group left the USPD and joined with the IKD 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." (Rosa 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 centre, 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 reorganised 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 4 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 4 January the Revolutionäre Obleute held a meeting which Liebknecht and Pieck attended in the name of the newly formed KPD.

The KPD, Revolutionäre Obleute and USPD called for a protest gathering for Sunday 5 January. About 150,000 work­ers attended following a demonstration in front of the prefecture of police. On the evening of 5 January some of the dem­onstrators occupied the offices of the SPD paper, Vorwärts, and other pub­lishing houses. These actions were prob­ably incited by agents 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 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." 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 5 January another meeting of the Obleute 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 a Revolutionary Committee of 52 members led by Ledebour as president, Scholze for the Revolutionäre Obleute and Karl Liebknecht for the KPD. They decided on a general strike and another demonstra­tion for the following day, 6 January.

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

Soldiers came to declare their solidar­ity with the Revolutionary 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, Liebknecht for the KPD, Scholze for the Obleute signed a decree declaring that it was bankrupt and that government affairs would be taken in hand by the Revolutionary Com­mittee. On 6 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 Revolutionary Committee had produced the slo­gan "Down with the government" it took no serious initiative to carry out this orientation. In the factories no combat troops were organised, no attempt was made to take the affairs of the state in hand and paralyse the old govern­ment. Not only did the Revolutionary Committee have no plan of action but on the 6 January the navy forced it to leave its headquarters.

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 favour of the government. A bitter and perfidious campaign was launched against the com­munists.

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 6 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 that there should be nego­tiations between the Revolutionäre Obleute 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 organisations. 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.

Faced with this situation, the KPD leadership, unlike the Revolutionary 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.

The KPD 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 Jogiches violently criticised the slogan of immediate overthrow of the govern­ment put forward by the Revolutionary 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 programme and analyses.

This situation shows that it was neither the programme nor the political analysis that were lacking, but the Party's ability as an organisation, to fulfil 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 organisational 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 8/9 January, the government troops went on the attack. The Revolutionary Committee, which had still not correctly analysed 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 organise the masses, to push for fraternisation 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 13 January, the USPD declared the general strike at an end, and on 15 January Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht were assassinated by the thugs of the Social-Democrat regime! The SPD's criminal campaign "Kill Liebknecht!" thus ended in a success for the bourgeoisie. The KPD was deprived of its most important leaders

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 Eichhorn: "Any success for the Spartakus people was out of the question from the start, since by our preparation we had forced them to strike prematurely. Their cards were uncovered sooner 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 revealed 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 established on the corpses of thou­sands of workers.

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 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 had succeeded in sabotaging them from within. As we showed in WR 319, 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 was perfectly lucid and realistic.

Some think that it is the party that takes power. But then, we would have to ex­plain how a revolutionary organisation, 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's 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. (To be continued)

(This is a shortened version of an article published in International Review 83, 1995)

Historic events: 


History of the workers' movement: 

Development of proletarian consciousness and organisation: