In November we wrote about how the German Revolution ended
World War I in November 1918. (http://www.socialist.net/german-revolution-ends-horror-war.htm) ;After 4 years of intense warfare, the
German workers and soldiers ended the war that had cost millions of people their lives. The
emperor fell and a Social Democratic government came to power. This was
Germany’s own equivalent of the Russian "February Revolution" of 1917
that overthrew the Tsar.
The workers and soldiers had taken power into their hands but also
handed it over to the very same people who so shamefully supported the war in
1914. Right wing Social Democrats Ebert, Scheidemann and Noske were catapulted
into power and Liebknecht and Luxemburg, who had opposed the war, were left
with a small group of 3,000 revolutionaries in the Spartacus League.
Another 200,000 could be found in the more left wing
Independent Social Democrats (USPD) who initially participated in a coalition
government with SPD.
Throughout November and December, workers’ and soldiers’
councils were set up in many places in Germany. These were organs of
revolutionary power, very similar to their Russian counterparts – the soviets.
Yet, most workers did not understand the full significance of these councils.
Rosa Luxemburg argued in a speech to the founding congress of the Communist
Party on New Year’s Eve 1918:
‘We must make the masses understand that the workers’ and
soldiers council is in all senses the lever of the machinery of state, that it
must take over all power and must unify the power in one stream – the socialist
revolution. The masses of workers who are already organized in workers’ and
soldiers’ councils are still miles away from having adopted such an outlook,
and only isolated proletarian minorities are clearly conscious of their tasks.’
(‘Our programme and the political situation’,
The workers and soldiers were not yet conscious of the
fact that they held power in their hands, and, like their Russian brothers and
sisters in February 1917, they supported the compromisers, the
counter-revolutionaries who, in Ebert’s own words, ‘hated revolution like sin’
and were determined to put an end to it. In the same speech Luxemburg pointed
out that the workers still had illusions in the Social Democrats:
‘Comrades! This first act [of the revolution], between
November 9 and the present, has been filled with illusions on all sides. The
first illusion of the workers and soldiers who made the revolution was: the
illusion of unity under the banner of so-called socialism. What could be more
characteristic of the internal weakness of the Revolution of November 9th than
the fact that at the head of the movement appeared persons who a few hours
before the revolution broke out had regarded it as their chief duty to agitate
against it’ (‘Our programme and the political situation’, Rosa
The workers had illusions in the leaders and the party
(SPD) that had led them for many years. As a result, when elections came for
the workers’ councils, SPD triumphed over the Spartacists and also the USPD,
who took up a position between the SPD and the Spartacus League. The SPD
managed to secure four fifths of the 489 delegates to the first national
congress of the councils.
The government under pressure
Support for the SPD by no means meant that the workers
were reformist. The same SPD-dominated national congress voted through some
remarkably radical policies. The congress supported the abolition of the
standing army and introduction of a workers’ militia, election, with the right of
recall, of officers and nationalization of the key industries. The problem was,
however, that the people that were set to organize and carry out these policies
were by no means committed to them. Still, at times they were pushed into
action by pressure from their supporters.
A short time after that Ebert had been appointed prime
minister, an armed demonstration appeared outside the parliament, where
Scheidemann was having coffee. The angry crowds brought him to the balcony in a
hurry, where he announced Ebert’s appointment. As in an afterthought he shouted
‘long live the German Republic’ and with those words the republic became a
fact. Ebert was furious with his colleague, arguing that he had no right to
proclaim the republic, but the deed was done. Any attempt to restore the
monarchy would only have further radicalised the German workers, and the German
ruling class had to accept the situation.
A constituent assembly?
Like in Russia, Social Democrats had for a long time been
putting forward the slogan of a constituent assembly, as a democratic demand
against the rule of the Kaiser and the Tsar. Like in Russia, this demand was
resurrected in November 1918 by the reformists, as a way of stalling for time.
Instead of recognising the fact that the working class had, in effect, taken
power into its hands, the constituent assembly would provide an excuse to delay
any attempt by the workers to use this power. As a result, many impatient
elements among the Spartacists were hostile to the assembly and instead argued
for all power to be transferred to the soviets.
Karl Radek, emissary from the Bolsheviks, commented when
he arrived in December that
‘It was a very tempting idea to counterpose the slogan of
the councils to that of a constituent assembly. But the congress of councils itself
was in favour of the constituent assembly. You could hardly skip over that
stage. Rosa and Liebknecht recognised that…But the Party youth were decidedly
against it, "we will break it up with machine guns"’
The workers were, as was stated before, still not
conscious of the significance of the workers’ councils, that they were a higher
form of government, more democratic and appropriate for a real workers’ state.
The Spartacists thus in their propaganda started to separate off the most
advanced layers of the working class from the more backward.
Lenin commented on this in his Left-Wing Communism an Infantile Disorder:
‘In Western Europe and America, parliament has become most
odious to the revolutionary vanguard of the working class. That cannot be
denied. It can readily be understood, for it is difficult to imagine anything
more infamous, vile or treacherous than the behaviour of the vast majority of
socialist and Social-Democratic parliamentary deputies during and after the
war. It would, however, be not only unreasonable but actually criminal to yield
to this mood when deciding how this generally recognised evil should be
fought.’ (Lenin, Left-Wing Communism: an Infantile
Unlike the Bolsheviks under the leadership of Lenin in
1917, the newly formed Communist Party proved unable to steer a course between
the opportunism and reformism on the one hand and ultra-leftism on the other.
The Bolsheviks in 1917 supported the calling of the Constituent Assembly at the
same time as they urged the reformist leaders of the Soviets to take power.
This they did in their propaganda right up to they were themselves the majority
in the Soviets and could put both of the demands into practice.The immaturity of the revolution was ruthlessly exploited by the SPD
government. Using the most backward elements of the peasantry and the
petty-bourgeoisie, it launched a serious of provocations against the
revolutionary workers in the cities. Some of the soldiers came from these
layers and were prepared to take up arms against the workers.
With the connivance of the government,
right-wing soldiers were formed into armed groups of counter-revolutionaries,
called the Freikorps. They were
trained in counter-revolutionary operations in the Baltic states where
they operated against the Bolsheviks. The success of these troops against
the young workers’ state was such that the victorious allies made it part of
the cease fire that they should continue to operate on occupied territory in
the east – an extraordinary measure.
Gustav Noske was the Social Democrat who became
responsible for the organization of these units and their deployment against
the Spartacists, and he was henceforth known as the "bloodhound" of
counter-revolution. In early 1919, he readied the Freikorps and organized a provocation. The battle ground was
to be the chief of police in Berlin, Emil Eichhorn, who was sympathetic to the
revolution and member of USPD. On 14 January, Rosa Luxemburg wrote:
‘What triggered this week of combat? As in all previous
cases, such as December 6 and December 24, it was a brutal provocation by the
government. Like the bloodbath against defenseless demonstrators in
Chausseestrasse, like the butchery of the sailors, this time the assault on the
Berlin police headquarters was the cause of all the events that followed.’
(Luxemburg, ‘Order Prevails in Berlin’)
The government sacked Eichhorn and the workers mobilized
to resist. As part of the struggle, armed workers seized the headquarters of
the bourgeois press and the SPD paper Vorwärts.
A particularly ferocious struggle took place over the latter, costing the lives
of hundreds of workers. Inevitably, the courageous but isolated Berlin
workers were defeated and reaction followed. The Communist party press was
closed down and Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht were arrested and murdered
in this striking resemblance to the reaction in Russia after the July days of 1917.
Events in Germany had moved quicker than they did in
Russia. After only two months, the revolution had suffered its first heavy blow
with the defeat of the Berlin workers. This defeat was by no means the final
defeat of the working class that the counter-revolution had been looking for.
Subsequent event were to prove, however, that the ultra-left attitude that the
Spartacists took in these months had serious repercussions for the
future development of the German Revolution.