German revolution: diverted and betrayed by leaders of official social democracy

In this supplement, Ben Lewis shows how the heroic actions of November 1918 were doomed by misleaders

One hundred years ago, at the beginning of November 1918, sailors in various ports in the north of Germany began to mutiny, disarming their officers and seizing control of their ships.

These actions, which set in motion the events now referred to as the November revolution of 1918, provided a fitting end to German involvement in the carnage of World War I. When ordered by a desperate high command to embark upon, in the name of national ‘honour’, a senseless suicide mission against the British navy, which would have cost tens of thousands of lives, the sailors had other ideas. Their rebellion drew inspiration not from the stuffy, authoritarian and martial ideals of the Kaiserreich, but from the other Germany: that of the counter-culture of collective organisation, democracy and solidarity, which the German workers’ movement had established in the course of the previous 50 years or so.

News of the rebellion quickly spread and confirmed the greatest fears of the German elites: not only had the country lost the war, but there was a real possibility that social discontent would unleash a Russian Revolution on home soil. In this sense, the mutiny was not an entirely unexpected bolt out of the blue. Already by late September 1918, the German military regime had come to recognise that defeat was inevitable and that, in the words of secretary of state Paul von Hintze: “It is necessary to prevent an upheaval from below by a revolution from above”.1

The German establishment was not alone in preparing for the possibility of revolution. In Russia, the Bolshevik leadership’s decision to take power in 1917 was premised on the victory of socialist revolution in Germany within a relatively short period of time. Russia was, after all, an economically undeveloped country with an overwhelming peasant majority. The continued survival of the revolution there thus hinged on the European revolution - crucially in the form of the German working class taking power. For without a corresponding revolutionary government in Germany, the young Soviet Republic would be condemned to isolation and inevitable defeat. It was surrounded by a sea of hostile imperialist powers and subject to the overarching economic dictates of the world division of labour. No wonder, therefore, that news of revolution in the west was greeted with joyous demonstrations in Russia. Karl Radek recalls:

From every corner of the city demonstrations were marching towards the Moscow Soviet … Tens of thousands of workers burst into wild cheering. Never have I seen anything like it again. Until late in the evening workers and Red Army soldiers were filing past. The world revolution had come. The mass of the people heard its iron tramp. Our isolation was over.2

The transmission of revolutionary ideas and slogans across national boundaries has always been a feature of a healthy and vibrant revolutionary workers’ movement. Whereas Lenin and other Bolsheviks had previously ‘looked west’ (and spent much of their lives there) in order to emulate the mass Marxist parties of the Second International in their homeland, the October Revolution of 1917 saw working class partisans in western Europe seeking to ‘do what the Russians did’.

With the benefit of hindsight, there was obviously something tragic about Radek’s assertion that the world revolution had dawned and that the siege of Russia was about to be broken. The revolutionary events in Germany did not usher in a socialist regime; instead, ultimately, failure culminated in counterrevolution, the brutal Nazi suppression of the German working class, World War II and the holocaust. This failure must be borne in mind, when reflecting on this chapter of history.

In marking the anniversaries of some of the most significant events and turning points in the German Revolution, my aim in the articles and translations I plan to publish in this paper over the coming period is not only to celebrate the heroism and commitment, but also to assess how the various trends of the German left responded to the challenges presented by history. It is my conviction that the strategic disputes and debates which raged during this time provide rich, albeit often painful, political lessons for those of us committed to the global supersession of capitalism.

Here, I primarily wish to provide an overview of the major events and developments within the German workers’ movement, from the mutiny of the Kiel sailors through to the (so-called) ‘Spartacus Uprising’ and the national assembly elections in January 1919. In order to set the scene, however, and to understand exactly why the Bolsheviks were so confident that a German revolution would triumph, it is necessary to take a closer look at the historical strength of the German workers’ movement, so feared by von Hintze and others, as well as to explore this movement’s complicated relationship with what proved to be the catalyst of the November revolution highlighted above: the bitter struggle against the horror of World War I.

Social democracy

Between the 1880s and 1914, the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) served as a model for the workers’ movement internationally. Notwithstanding his criticisms of its programme and the behaviour of some of its elected deputies. Friedrich Engels could barely contain his delight at its seemingly inexorable rise.

The SPD had wide influence and deep roots. German social democracy was not so much a political party as it was another way of life, devoted to the political, cultural and social development and empowerment of the working class. It ran women’s groups, cycling clubs, party universities and schools, published hundreds of newspapers, weekly theoretical journals, special-interest magazines such as The worker cyclist or The free female gymnast and much, much more.

Indeed, by 1912 the SPD had become the biggest party in the Reichstag, with 110 seats and over 28% of the popular vote. Depending on their position in society, many either confidently or anxiously awaited the day when it would win a parliamentary majority and take over the running of society.

But the SPD’s expansion had also planted the seeds of opportunism and revisionism that would later undermine it from within and, eventually, reduce it to the hollowed-out, pro-bourgeois shell it is today. As the party grew, so did the gulf between its revolutionary theory and the routine of putting out newspapers, organising in trade unions and contesting elections. The goal of socialism and human emancipation was increasingly relegated to Sunday speeches, party congresses, annual festivals and educational events. A detached and largely unaccountable bureaucracy of over 15,000 specialist full-timers gradually developed. Many party trade union leaders and functionaries saw no further than the struggle for higher wages and better conditions. Reichstag deputies immersed themselves in minor reforms and parliamentary deals. In other words, the practice of the labour bureaucracy was becoming the norm, finding theoretical expression in the writings of Eduard Bernstein - a former star pupil of Marx and Engels, who was now questioning the very basis of Marxism itself.

Rosa Luxemburg polemically savaged Bernstein. But it was another pupil of Marx and Engels, Karl Kautsky, who spoke for the party’s centre - the majority, orthodox tendency. Kautsky countered the right with polemics and essays, which, despite being widely ignored on the left today, remain important contributions to Marxist political strategy. Lenin certainly respected Kautsky’s works and drew on his writings, not least when taking on the right within the Russian party. Nonetheless, Kautsky was a resolute champion of maintaining the unity of the SPD above all else - something that would cause significant problems when the party was put to the ultimate test.

With quite remarkable prescience, Engels envisaged two possible scenarios that could put a brake on, or even throw back, the cause of German social democracy: a possible war with Russia, with the potential loss of “millions of lives”; or “a clash on a grand scale with the military, a blood-letting like that of 1871 in Paris”.3 Of course, World War I sent millions of working class people to their deaths in the mincing-machine. But there was also Germany’s version of 1871. Years of “fraternal dispute” in SPD pubs, branch meetings and congresses “found their bitter end in fratricidal warfare.”4 SPD police chiefs and armed groupings, as we shall see, ended up shooting down communist militants on the streets of Munich, Berlin and other town and cities.

War and collapse

On August 4 1914 the SPD Reichstag fraction treacherously voted for war credits, following a deal struck with the trade union bureaucracy to avoid strike action in the event of a war. Many at home and abroad suffered an almost catatonic shock. Hearing the news, for example, Lenin was convinced that it had been a fabrication on the part of the bourgeoisie in order to generate pro-war sentiments. But other parties in the Second International followed the German lead: with few exceptions, they sided with their own bourgeois government.

The usually indefatigable Rosa Luxemburg contemplated taking her life when she learnt that the Second International - once a symbol of international class unity - had betrayed its own name. Even the great internationalist, Karl Liebknecht, had gone along with party discipline in voting for the war credits. Like the 13 other deputies who had expressed their opposition in a private fraction meeting the previous day, he had put the unity of the party first, in the hope that it could be rapidly won back round. He soon recognised that this was an error, however. Speaking to comrades afterwards, Liebknecht said: “Your criticisms are absolutely justified … I ought to have shouted ‘No!’ in the plenary session of the Reichstag. I made a serious mistake.”5

The German war government’s politics of Burgfrieden (fortress peace) had enormous ramifications for the party itself. Exploiting the wave of (mainly middle class and student) demonstrations in favour of war against ‘the enemy without’, the German state apparatus had the perfect excuse to clamp down on ‘the enemy within’: censorship, conscription and oppression against a workers’ movement that German absolutism feared just as much as the British navy. Kaiser Wilhelm II summed up the results: “I no longer know any parties. I know only Germans!”

Indeed, while the German ruling classes had long envisaged creating a land empire from France to Russia to complement their colonial ‘place in the sun’, the turn to imperialism was also informed by domestic concerns - not least beating back the ‘red menace’ of the SPD. There were calls from big industrial capital and the great landowners, convinced that democracy had gone too far, to curb the Reichstag’s already limited powers and eliminate the SPD threat via a “coup d’état from above”.6

The war, and with it the passing of political power into the hands of the military high command, can therefore be partly understood as the ruling class countering the challenge from the workers’ movement. The tragedy is that the SPD was unable to rise to the occasion. For all its size, leadership of the trade union movement, financial resources, numerous properties and cultural clubs and associations, it failed politically. The SPD leadership was willing to put its shoulder to the war effort and ruthlessly enforce a crackdown on critical elements, who sought to uphold the SPD’s official policy of opposition to imperialist war. Others, many of whom were originally on the SPD’s hard left, such as Alexander Parvus, Paul Lensch and Konrad Haenisch, even ‘theorised’ the controversial decision to vote for war credits by claiming that a German victory in the war represented the only viable means of crushing the British empire and thus enabling the rise of world socialism … not least in Britain. The arguments proposed by these outriders of imperialism were occasionally drawn on by the SPD leadership, whenever it deemed it necessary to pose left in order to fend off anti-imperialist critics within the party.

Those in the SPD who viewed August 4 as an aberration that could quickly be reversed were soon proved completely wrong - party democracy was further constrained and things got much worse. SPD leader Phillipp Scheidemann openly embraced the plans of German chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg for territorial annexation in a Reichstag speech. Scheidemann even met up with him beforehand to iron out any differences they still had. A cosy relationship, but it came under ever increasing pressure as the war dragged on and the country was bled white.

Shifting perceptions

The patriotic wave that allowed SPD union leaders and Reichstag tops to promise class peace gradually gave way to anti-war sentiments. Shortages, repression and the horrific reality of the bloodshed across Europe shifted perceptions. The longer the war continued, the more instances there were of workers taking action against its effects.

This inevitably found expression within the SPD itself. In December 1915, 20 of its deputies refused to vote for further war credits. Staying within the remit of national ‘self-defence’, they focused their attacks more on the bellicose talk of annexations than the war itself. Their opposition was a far cry from Liebknecht, Luxemburg, Clara Zetkin, Franz Mehring, Leo Jogiches and their Gruppe Internationale. On January 1 1916, at a meeting in Liebknecht’s flat, it renamed itself the Spartakusgruppe (from November 1918 on it was known as the Spartakusbund). The Spartacists’ influence may have been utterly marginal to begin with (they had no more than a few hundred members and their first journal had a circulation of around 9,000), but their message was principled and infectious.

The Spartacists strove to utilise the economic and political crisis created by the war to hasten the downfall of capitalist class rule - fully in line with the formal policy of the Second International, as adopted in Stuttgart in 1907. Following an amendment from Luxemburg and Lenin, that resolution read as follows:

If a war threatens to break out, it is the duty of the working class and of its parliamentary representatives in the countries involved, supported by the consolidating activity of the International [Socialist] Bureau, to exert every effort to prevent the outbreak of war by means they consider most effective, which naturally vary according to the accentuation of the class struggle and of the general political situation. Should war break out nonetheless, it is their duty to intervene in favour of its speedy termination and to do all in their power to utilise the economic and political crisis caused by the war to rouse the peoples and thereby to hasten the abolition of capitalist class rule.

Naturally, the pacifistic speeches of some of the Reichstag deputies earned the scorn of many a Spartacist polemic. Yet, whether they suspected it or not, the logic of events was driving forward their cooperation and unity in a new organisation.

Against a backdrop of enormous disillusionment with the war, the SPD faced growing internal opposition from the left. The SPD leadership, the war cabinet and the army high command were unanimous - dissent could not be tolerated. The SPD daily Vorwärts - already twice censored for making vaguely critical comments about bread distribution - printed a letter from colonel general Mortimer von Kessel, which spelled out that it would be banned if any of its articles were deemed to have promoted class struggle.7 As a result, the work of all critically minded party journalists and editors of local party newspapers was severely restricted. For its part, the SPD leadership proceeded with caution, attempting to divide the radicals and the more moderate, pacifistic opponents of the war by means of surgical amputation.

Thus, in May 1916, Karl Liebknecht was conscripted into the army - punishment for his tireless work in promoting the Spartakusbund and its defiant message. That despite his parliamentary immunity. He refused to fight and due to ill health was eventually allowed to return to Germany. Following a Berlin anti-war demonstration in October 1915, he was sentenced to two and a half years in jail (later increased to four years). Karl Kautsky, an inveterate peacemonger, was able to continue editing the SPD theoretical journal, Die Neue Zeit. Just a year later, however, even he would be removed (as was Clara Zetkin from editing the SPD’s women’s journal, Die Gleichheit).

Yet these attempts to sever the opposition into two separate parts - the unacceptable and the acceptable - only partially succeeded. The incarcerated Liebknecht became something of a martyr. The anti-war strikes - a foreshadowing of the desertions and mutinies to come - rallied around his name in Berlin, Leipzig and other working class centres in 1916 and 1917. While Liebknecht represented the unacceptable wing to the SPD, Hugo Haase might be said to represent the acceptable wing. But not for long. Though holding revisionist views and being elected joint chair of the party, he was a practising lawyer and took up numerous cases in defence of anti-war activists and conscription objectors. He also became ever more vocal in his opposition to the war. Both sides soon realised that the ‘war socialists’ were the common enemy.

In March 1916, Haase spoke out, in the Reichstag, against the renewal of the state of siege. He was supported by 33 SPD deputies ... who were then expelled from the fraction. By January of the next year, they were out of the party as well - their work in forming the Sozialdemokratische Arbeitsgemeinschaft(Socialist Working Group) in the Reichstag proved too much for the SPD’s rightwing leaders, Gustav Noske, Friedrich Ebert and Scheidemann. Three months later, in April 1917, the Independent Social Democracy (USPD) was born.

This realignment of the workers’ movement came against a backdrop of military stalemate and a deep-seated desire for radical change. Events began to move fast. Very fast. In Russia, Tsar Nicholas II fell, workers and soldiers’ soviets sprang up everywhere and a provisional government was formed that recognised the authority of the Petrograd Soviet. Suddenly, the kaiser regime in Germany looked distinctly unstable.

Two Russian revolutions

The formation of the USPD is to this day the largest split in the long history of the SPD. Some 120,000 members defected to the new organisation. It was a veritable melange, including Luxemburg, Bernstein, Kautsky, Zetkin and Liebknecht. Its main slogan was still “Peace without reparations and annexations”, which it thought could be achieved through mass pressure. The international bourgeoisie could be made to see reason.

In response to their bureaucratic mistreatment in the SPD, the USPD favoured a decentralised approach. This tended to gloss over important differences within the organisation rather than clarify or resolve them - a defining feature of the USPD throughout its short existence. Yet the USPD was about to be put to the test in ways that found it extremely wanting.

For their part, the Spartacists were clear that they were only in the USPD as a way of influencing those elements breaking with Burgfrieden and war socialism. Others, like Emanuel Wurm, Kautsky and Bernstein, were at first strongly opposed to the formation of the USPD, precisely because they feared the growing influence of the radical left wing. Their rather limited aims mainly revolved around attaining peace. After much private discussion, Bernstein and Kautsky agreed that the struggle for peace had to come first, even if this necessitated temporarily working alongside the Spartacists.

The USPD’s foundation was bound up with international developments. The fall of the tsar electrified public opinion in Germany and lifted the spirits of the German left. During the negotiations to found the USPD, Haase spoke of the “light from the east”.8 Kautsky wrote enthusiastically about the possibility of socialist revolution, maintaining that it could be on the agenda if the peasantry - “the X, the unknown factor in the Russian Revolution” - could be won over.9

But, as the Russian Revolution swung still further to the left and gathered yet more momentum, tensions increased between the differing trends in the USPD - mirroring the divisions between the various Russian leftwing groups on the nature of their revolution. When the Bolsheviks finally toppled the provisional government and announced that power had been transferred to the workers, peasants and soldiers, such a world-shattering event demanded an unambiguous stance on the part of the German left, as did the disintegration of the kaiser regime itself.

By late September 1918, Germany’s defeat was obvious to the top brass, the emperor’s court and leading industrialists alike. General Erich von Ludendorff pressed for urgent action.10 But a military dictatorship was not on the cards - morale was low and rank-and-file servicemen had become unreliable. The government had to be broadened to include the SPD, in order to prevent things spiralling out of control.

Initially hesitant, the SPD leadership eventually decided to join the new coalition of Progressives, National Liberals and the Centre on October 4 1918. The SPD was persuaded to take its place in this constitutional monarchy (under the leadership of the kaiser’s cousin, prince Max von Baden, as the new imperial chancellor) by the promise of an equal, non-propertied franchise in Prussia and the restoration of the Belgian state, which would receive reparations.

But this restructuring from above proved to be too little, too late. The movement from below could not be stopped. On October 16 there were mass demonstrations under the slogan, “Down with the government - long live Liebknecht!” Then, on November 4, the sailors who took part in the naval mutiny in the north German city of Kiel established a council deliberately along the lines of Russia’s soviets. They demanded, among other things, press freedom, the release of political prisoners and the repudiation of officer privileges. Their council rapidly recruited soldiers, union branches and local members of the SPD and USPD, thus gaining a huge following. It became the model for other workers’ and soldiers’ councils throughout the country.

Nationally, the SPD thus faced an important dilemma. Meeting on the same day, November 4, its executive committee announced that the kaiser’s abdication was under discussion. Its supporters in the working class were urged “not to frustrate these negotiations through reckless intervention”. Calls to action by an “irresponsible minority” had to be rejected.11

New republic(s)

But the line could not be held. Bavaria was the first state to become a republic. Declared by the enigmatic socialist pacifist and USPD member, Kurt Eisner, it following a general strike on November 7. King Ludwig III abdicated and numerous other petty princes and fiefs were subsequently swept away. Soon Dresden, Leipzig, Chemnitz, Magdeburg, Brunswick, Frankfurt, Cologne, Dusseldorf, Hanover, Nuremberg and Stuttgart had all fallen into the hands of the workers’ and soldiers’ councils.

On November 9 the regime was finished. The revolution reached Berlin. A meeting of the USPD leadership had decided on a general strike and, although the Jägerbatallion [light infantry] was sent in by prince von Baden to suppress it, the soldiers refused to move against the crowd.

Von Baden hoped that the regime could be salvaged if the kaiser abdicated. He resigned as chancellor in favour of Friedrich Ebert, general secretary of the SPD. Ebert told him: “If the kaiser does not abdicate, then social revolution is unavoidable. But I do not want it; no, I hate it like sin.” In keeping with this outlook, Ebert was working behind the scenes to agree upon a pact with Wilhelm Groener, whom von Baden had appointed, to replace the less pliant Ludendorff, as the new quartermaster general of the German armed forces. The latter pledged that the powerful German military apparatus would remain loyal to Ebert and the SPD - on the important condition that the authority of the officer corps would not be challenged and that the workers’ and soldiers’ council should be swiftly dealt with.

Meanwhile, on November 9, leading SPD member Scheidemann had found out that Liebknecht was about to proclaim the socialist republic. Scheidemann decided to steal Liebknecht’s thunder. Against Ebert’s wishes, Scheidemann declared the German republic from the balcony of the parliament. He announced that von Baden had given his office over to “our friend, Ebert”, who would “form a government, to which all socialist parties will belong”.

Just two hours later, Liebknecht was indeed proclaiming the socialist republic from the very same spot. With the memory of Ebert’s and Scheidemann’s betrayals of August 1914 still in mind, he feared more treachery. Liebknecht was clear: Ebert had to be ousted from power. At 8pm around a hundred of his supporters stormed and occupied parliament. Their plan was quite simple: tomorrow elections had to take place in every factory and every regiment in order to form a revolutionary government.

A brief aside on Liebknecht is necessary here. As we will see below, his murder in January 1919 alongside Rosa Luxemburg stands as the most salient reminder of the treachery of social democracy. It is thus fitting that he, as a working class partisan who paid the highest price for his commitment, is to this day immortalised on T-shirts and placards, as well as in various workers’ songs and poetry. It is nonetheless undeniable that his proclamation of the socialist republic, at a time when it was far from an immediate prospect, reflected a repeated tendency towards voluntarism in his thoughts and actions. On this occasion, his speech at least had the merit of bringing out the political differences between some of the SPD leaders. As we shall see below, however, Liebknecht’s impulsiveness had more serious implications in January 1919.

But let us return to November 9. While the workers’ and soldiers’ councils represented a burgeoning alternative power, the two workers’ parties remained pivotal. Indeed, relations between them were to prove decisive at all levels. The SPD’s behaviour can be explained by the fact that it essentially considered the revolution completed by November 1918. Germany had become a democratic republic and peace had been restored. A ‘socialisation’ commission had been established, the right to vote for all men and women over 20 guaranteed, pre-war labour regulations reintroduced and an eight-hour day enforced.

With initial success, the SPD sold itself to the population at large as a kind of caretaker government upholding ‘order’ before elections to a national assembly. Indeed, aside from the growing, but inchoate, ranks of the USPD, there was no authority (other than the military) which could challenge the SPD’s dominance both within what remained of the old order and within the embryonic alternative order. The SPD leadership’s project was thus sold as the sole legitimate form of government, resting on the pillars of the old bureaucracy and the army supreme command.

Addressing the councils or trade union branches, SPD members would talk about how newly-won universal suffrage represented “the most important political achievement of the revolution, and at the same time the means of transforming the capitalist social order into a socialist one, by planned accordance with the will of the people”.12 ‘Socialism’ was framed firmly within a constitutional order which, although formally very democratic, was built on the foundations provided by the old order. The Weimar Republic was certainly worlds apart from the ‘democratic republic’ which Marx and Engels recommended, following the experience of the Paris Commune of 1871.

But those who should have known better were claiming the very opposite. Although now a member of the USPD, Kautsky’s renegacy from Marxism became evident once again in his tacit approval of the SPD’s approach. Bafflingly, he claimed that the working class had come to power in November 1918. This was deliberate opportunist obfuscation and, it should be noted, the inverse of Liebknecht’s voluntarist proclamation of the ‘socialist’ republic. If the Kautsky who had written of the significance of republican democracy in Marxism in 190513 had been the same person writing in 1919, as opposed to the ‘renegade’ Kautsky who had disavowed what he once wrote, then he would have been in no doubt that the working class had not conquered power.

Given the revolutionary turmoil, however, the concessions won by the SPD were considered, by many in the trade union movement and the workers’ movement more generally, the most that could be obtained. Following the agreement signed between SPD union leader Carl Legien and the big industrialists, Hugo Stinnes and Carl Friedrich von Siemens, the trade union bureaucracy became positively hostile to notions of deepening and spreading the revolution.

This in part explains another key feature of the SPD’s behaviour: its constant tendency to cite the danger of ‘putschism’, ‘Bolshevik chaos’ and ‘civil war’ to justify its dealings with the military high command and its clampdown upon working class self-activity. Events in Russia, which had spurred on the struggle against the war and the kaiser regime, were now deployed as a means of halting the revolution. Behind the rhetoric, SPD intentions were clear - not to allow the revolution time to mature and to draw more layers of the population into the democratic process, not to arm the people, not to expropriate industry, but to use its political influence to secure improved living standards, voting rights, trade union negotiation rights, and so on.

The SPD was unsure whether the workers’ councils would cooperate with this plan or would themselves become an alternative centre of power. Thus it had to direct the councils into safe, constitutional channels. Yet doing so also required ‘left’ cover from USPD supporters. The USPD was therefore pushed into joining a provisional government - a major test for such a young and politically nebulous organisation, which, it is worth recalling, counted figures as diverse as Liebknecht and Kautsky among its ranks.

Caretaker coalition

The USPD rank and file were pivotal in driving forward the revolutionary movement in November 1917. They had established strong links, particularly with the militant shop stewards’ movement known as the Revolutionäre Obleute. But, given its divisions and short existence, the USPD had no clear vision of what it wanted, no clear programme for German society. Distrust between the leadership of the USPD and the SPD ran deep, but the erstwhile party comrades knew each other’s politics and characters inside out. And the SPD was confident that it could win the softer layers of the USPD - the ‘centrists’. That way, a descent into ‘Bolshevik chaos’ could be prevented. Ebert even implied, hypocritically, that he wanted Liebknecht on board - just hours earlier he had been resolutely committed to a parliamentary monarchy and an SPD coalition with the Liberals and the Progressives.

USPD leaders Richard Muller, Ernst Däumig and Georg Ledebour were extremely suspicious of those so quick to leap from advocating a coalition with bourgeois parties to championing a workers’ government. They did not want to be used as a fig-leaf for SPD moves to call a snap general election, thereby nullifying the councils and preventing the revolution from going further.

Däumig, who refused to take up a post in the war ministry, said this: “the German revolution has only taken the first step - it must take many more.”14 Liebknecht insisted that government participation should be made contingent on all power being vested in the councils and on the immediate signing of an armistice. This was rejected by the SPD leadership, which claimed that a “class dictatorship” of the workers would be undemocratic. Only the people could decide on their government, following properly organised elections - the implication being that the SPD wanted bourgeois parties on board.

A second round of negotiations - this time without Liebknecht in the USPD delegation - proved far more fruitful. The USPD accepted the invitation to enter government on the condition that bourgeois politicians would be there merely as “technical assistants”. The other qualification was that the national assembly should not meet until “the gains of the revolution had been consolidated”. This agreement produced further discord within the USPD.

Liebknecht was emphatic. He would not join the proposed government with Ebert, a man who had “smuggled himself into the revolution”. So it was that the new government was set up without Liebknecht. It consisted of three representatives, or people’s commissars, from each party: Ebert, Scheidemann and Otto Landsberg for the SPD; and Hugo Haase, Wilhelm Dittmann and Emil Barth for the USPD. However, the situation was in flux. The SPD was playing the role of both the heir to the old regime and the head of the Berlin Rat der Volksbeauftragten (Council of People’s Commissars).

Right from the outset the SPD was determined to marginalise the executive council of workers’ and soldiers’ councils (Vollzugsrat), which had been elected at a 3,000-strong meeting of workers and soldiers on November 10 1918. Driven on by its radical minority, the Vollzugsratsaw itself as a kind of Petrograd Soviet. It declared that Germany was now a “socialist republic”, where power lay in the “workers’ and soldiers’ councils”. Such clowning was, of course, scoffed at by the SPD press. The Vollzugsratwas reduced to radical rhetoric, having - as it did - no effect on the decisions of the Rat der Volksbeauftragten. This, in turn, had little control over the real day-to-day business of running the country. None of the six people’s commissars was a departmental minister. Trusted socialists may have been assigned to keep an eye on the bureaucrats, but the results were farcical. At a time when the new government was colluding with the Entente states to keep German troops in Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, so as to contain the Russian Revolution, Kautsky - sent as a USPD representative to watch over foreign policy - was packed off to investigate historical documents on the origins of World War I! Business as usual, then, for foreign secretary Wilhelm Solf and his officials. The fortress had been stormed, but several of its old masters were still calling the shots.

It was the same in other areas of government business too. The ‘socialisation’ commission produced no results at all. The SPD members insisted that it was impossible to “socialise need”, and that socialisation could only occur on the basis of national reconstruction and stability. Controlling the army also proved impossible. The people’s commissars refused to take measures against overbearing officers - one of the central demands of the soldiers and sailors. Beyond a few token sackings and declarations on the right to display the red flag, the people’s commissars did little. Indeed, decisive action would have immediately called into question the Ebert-Groener pact. The SPD’s approach of tinkering with the institutions of the old order ensured that they even tolerated sinister organisations like the Freikorpson the Polish border. Soon the supreme command would employ such paramilitary groups to crush Berlin’s most militant working class strongholds.

Of enormous symbolic importance was the new ‘socialist’ government’s attitude towards the Soviet Republic. The minutes of the session of the Council of People’s Commissars of November 19 state:

Continuation of the discussions on Germany’s relations with the Soviet Republic. Haase advises dilatory progress … Kautsky joins with Haase; the decision would have to be postponed. The Soviet government would not last much longer, but would be finished in a few weeks …

The Russian delegation to the congress of workers’ and soldiers’ councils in Berlin on December 16 - which included Adolph Joffe, former chair of the Petrograd Revolutionary Military Committee, as well as Nikolai Bukharin and Radek - was turned away. Moreover, the SPD was able to carry the day, with the congress declaring that elections to a national assembly should be convened in January 1919. The Spartacists had only 10 representatives among the 514 delegates present and thus had little impact on proceedings. Moreover, the buoyant confidence of some of the Spartacist comrades regarding the prospects of socialist revolution was clearly out of step with the group’s actual popular support in the movement (the SPD had around 300 delegates and the USPD 100). Radek’s criticism of leftist trends in the Spartacists is thus worth quoting:

I looked the paper [of the Spartacists - Die Rote Fahne] over. I was seized with alarm. The tone of the paper sounded as if the final conflict were upon us. It could not be more shrill … It was the question of how to relate to the constituent assembly that sparked controversy … 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 guns’.15

The adventurist political conclusions drawn by some in the Spartacist movement reflected a more general disgust at the SPD’s betrayal of the revolution - the mass of the USPD membership came to oppose their party’s participation in the provisional government. By equal measure, the attempts to convene elections to a national assembly as quickly as possible were rejected. The three USPD people’s commissars found themselves increasingly isolated from their membership.

There were growing calls for a USPD congress - all were ignored. Yet the crisis in the party could not be averted. The final straw came on December 24, when the SPD commissars ordered general Arnold Lequis - a man well known for his role in the suppression of the Herero uprising of 190416 - to launch an attack on one of the revolutionary committees, the People’s Naval Division in Berlin, without the knowledge, let alone the consent, of the USPD commissars. Dittmann, Haase and Barth felt compelled to resign, leaving the SPD to occupy all six commissar positions.

This move marked the SPD’s success in outmanoeuvring those to its left and opened the way to near civil war in many German cities in the run-up to the national assembly elections in January 1919. Despite this, the USPD leadership still refused to heed calls for a party congress, arguing that the January elections took precedence. The Spartacists then decided to split from the USPD and establish the Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands(Spartakus). In the words of a later KPD(S) leader, Paul Levi, the split had “scarcely any influence” on the disaffected ranks of the USPD. Clearly, a premature move.

January days

This was not the only problem for the young Communist Party in what were extremely demanding political conditions. The leftist tendencies of the more inexperienced elements in its ranks were proving to be a big problem for those with cooler heads, such as Luxemburg and Levi.

At the KPD(S)’s founding congress, held between December 30 1918 and January 1 1919, a deal had to be made behind the scenes in order to prevent a motion calling for workers to leave the trade unions being voted on (as Luxemburg admitted, it probably would have passed). Moreover, a motion from Levi was unable to convince the congress that boycotting the forthcoming elections to the national assembly would amount to little more than self-destructive revolutionary posturing. At a time when people in Germany - particularly women, who had just gained the right to vote for the first time - felt that they had made an historic leap forward, the KPD was unable to present a coherent strategy and corresponding set of tactics. Nonetheless, it is clear that the KPD(S) contained within its ranks some of the finest revolutionary minds of its generation. True to the principle of Marxism, its programme sought to check the overexcitement of some layers within its ranks by stressing:

The Spartacus League [KPD - BL] will never take over governmental power except in response to the clear, unambiguous will of the great majority of the proletarian mass of all of Germany, never except by the proletariat’s conscious affirmation of the views, aims and methods of struggle of the Spartacus League.

Nonetheless, the absence of a minimum programme left the KDP(S) rudderless: participation in assembly elections did not feature. And, what was worse, Liebknecht’s actions in Berlin in early January undermined the commitment to winning a majority to revolutionary perspectives. In another example of his tendency to make hasty judgements, he and Wilhelm Pieck met with USPD representatives on January 5 1919 in order to set up a ‘revolutionary committee’ to seize power in the capital.

Those in the committee feared that elections to the national assembly in two weeks’ time would mark the ebbing of the revolutionary tide. However, Pieck’s and Liebknecht’s decision flouted not only the party’s general approach, but the explicit wishes of the KPD(S) leadership, which had met on January 4 and rejected calls to seize power in the capital. Luxemburg was livid: “Is that our programme, Karl?” she asked. Reluctantly, she and others agreed to fall in behind the attempted seizure of power, which was suppressed within 10 days - not least due to Ebert’s deployment of the anti-republican nationalist Freikorps.17

In the aftermath of the uprising, the elections to the national assembly were held on January 19, with a turnout of 83%. The SPD gained 38% of the vote and, as expected, went into a coalition government with the Catholic Centre Party and the German Democrats. The USPD, winning 7.8% of the vote, benefited from its role in the opposition and now was officially represented in the assembly. Between November 1918 and March 1919 200,000 new members had joined its ranks.

The KPD(S)’s membership was scattered and subject to harsh repression. Posters emerged calling for the heads of those such as Liebknecht and Luxemburg. Within months, three of the party’s most able leaders - Luxemburg, Liebknecht and Leo Jogiches - were murdered by Freikorps thugs working on behalf of those ‘socialists’ whom they had sat with in the same organisation just a few years previously. But, as we shall see in future articles, while the SPD had largely outmanoeuvred its opponents on the left, the order that it had helped bring into being was anything but stable.

We will never know how Luxemburg would have responded to the new political situation in the aftermath of the national assembly elections, as she was cruelly, brutally murdered four days before they took place. The newly formed Communist Party was robbed of its brightest star and a towering thinker.


1. E Waldman The Spartacist uprising of 1919 Milwaukee 1958, p70.

2. Quoted in R Sewell Germany: From revolution to counterrevolution London 2014, pxvi.

3. F Engels Introduction to the class struggles in France: http://marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1895/03/06.htm.

4. C Shorske German social democracy 1905-1917: the development of the great schism Harvard 1983, p322.

5. Quoted in P Broue The German revolution 1917-1923 Chicago 2006, p50.

6. P Kennedy The rise of the Anglo-German antagonism - 1860-1914 London 1980, p453.

7. EB Gortz (ed) Eduard Bernsteins Briefwechsel mit Karl Kautsky (1912-1932) Frankfurt am Main 2010, p24.

8. Protokolle der USPD Berlin 1976, p98.

9. K Kautsky, ‘Prospects of the Russian RevolutionWeekly Worker January 14 2010. For the possible effects of this article on Vladimir Ilych Lenin’s ‘April theses’, see LT Lih, ‘Kautsky, Lenin and the April thesesWeekly Worker January 14 2010.

10. In August 1916 Paul von Hindenburg replaced Erich von Falkenhayn as chief of the general staff, with Ludendorff as his coadjutor - continuing their partnership, which had begun some time earlier. By mid-1917 Hindenburg and Ludendorff were running a highly centralised and militarised regime, which had effectively taken over the civil government. This explains why von Baden later removed Ludendorff as head of the armed forces.

11. J Riddell (ed) The German revolution and the debate on soviet power New York 1986, p38.

12. Quoted in DW Morgan The socialist left and the German revolution: a history of the German Independent Social Democratic Party, 1917-1922 New York 1975, p129.

13. For these and other of Kautsky’s writings on democracy, see my forthcoming book: B Lewis (ed) Karl Kautsky on democracy and republicanism Leiden 2019.

14. Quoted in DW Morgan The socialist left and the German revolution: a history of the German Independent Social Democratic Party, 1917-1922 New York 1975, p136.

15. Quoted in R Sewell Germany: from revolution to counterrevolution London 2014, pp15-16.

16. Following an uprising against German colonial rule in South West Africa (modern-day Namibia), the German army drove the Herero people into the desert of Omaheke. Up to 100,000 of the native population then died of thirst and starvation. This has been regarded as the first act of genocide of the 20th century.

17. The most detailed overview of the events in Berlin is O Luban, ‘Rosa at a loss: the KPD leadership and the Berlin uprising of January 1919 - legend and reality’ Revolutionary History No4 (2004), pp19-45.

London Communist Forum

Storming the fortress

The November revolution and the German left

Speaker: Ben Lewis

Calthorpe Arms, 252 Grays Inn Road, London WC1.

Organised by CPGB: www.cpgb.org.uk


Labour Party Marxists: www.labourpartymarxists.org.uk