Masses were moving rapidly to the left

World revolution had arrived

This article is based on a talk given by James Harvey to Communist University 2019.

The failure of the German working class to emulate the Bolsheviks and successfully take power in 1918-19 was a decisive turning point in 20th century history.1 The series of defeats in the 1920s that followed not only resulted in the isolation of the young soviet republic and the ultimate degeneration of the revolutionary regime, but also paved the way for a vicious counterrevolution in Germany and the horrors of Nazism. As a period in which the world failed to turn and the much hoped-for revolutions in the west failed to come to the aid of the Bolsheviks, these years deserve detailed study by all Marxists.

The events of 1918-23 were the closest yet that an advanced capitalist country has come to a successful socialist revolution. The significance of a revolutionary movement that overthrew the imperial regime of Wilhelm II, effectively ending the horrific slaughter of World War I and thus challenging the very existence of the capitalist system in one of the world’s great powers, was not lost on contemporaries. Indeed for the Bolshevik leadership the seizure of power in Russia was predicated on a belief that their revolution would provide a spark for a wider European movement, the centrepiece of which would be a German Revolution. For the Bolsheviks the Russian Revolution was to be a mere prelude before the much more significant movement in the west.2 Despite the very limited resources available to the soviet republic in 1918, when news came through of the kaiser’s abdication and the developing revolutionary situation, for Lenin it was a case of ‘everything to help the German workers.’3 For Radek the news from Germany produced a feeling of liberation: “The world revolution had arrived. The masses of people were listening to its iron step. Our isolation had ended,” he later recalled.4

The fast-moving events of October and November 1918 in Germany had quite conscious echoes of the revolutionary days in Russia the previous year. Following a series of military reverses from the spring of 1918 and attempts to reconfigure the imperial regime in a more ‘democratic’ form - a type of revolution from above - the Kaiserreich imploded in the face of naval mutinies, disaffection in the army, protest strikes and the establishment of sailors’, soldiers’ and workers’ councils explicitly modelled on the soviets. The rapid spread of this movement throughout Germany and the melting away of the seemingly impregnable imperial structures of power in a few days in early November left a political vacuum. Imperial bureaucrats, generals and liberal politicians desperately scrambled to hold the system together, but quickly came to the conclusion that the kaiser would have to go and substantial concessions had to made to the masses, if capitalism was to survive at all.5

However, if this strategy was to have any chance of success, the key partners for the bureaucrats, the generals and the capitalists were the leaders of the German working class, the Social Democrats (SPD). In a frantic series of private deals and manoeuvres between elements of the old regime, especially the general staff, and SPD leaders Ebert, Scheidemann and Noske, a ‘smooth transition’ involving the abdication of the kaiser and the declaration of a democratic republic was arranged to head off revolutionary pressures from below.6 The counterrevolutionary role of the SPD leadership would become clear by January 1919, but the conscious betrayal of the revolution had been in their minds long before. Later memoirs give us a good insight into both their thinking and that of the German ruling class, when confronted with a revolutionary situation. Prince Max of Baden, the last imperial chancellor, reported that, when he asked Ebert to stand at his side “in the fight against social revolution”, Ebert replied: “If the kaiser does not abdicate, then social revolution is unavoidable. But I do not want it; no, I hate it like sin.”7 For the ruling class it appeared to be a straight choice between the SPD leadership and the emerging revolutionary left, represented by Karl Liebknecht and the Spartakusbund:

The revolution is on the verge of winning. We cannot crush it, but perhaps we can strangle it … If Ebert is presented to me from the streets as the people’s leader, then we will have a republic; if it is Liebknecht, then Bolshevism. But if the abdicating kaiser appoints Ebert Reich chancellor, then there is still a small hope for the monarchy. Perhaps it will be possible to divert the revolutionary energies into the legal channels of an election campaign.8


To understand the counterrevolutionary role of the SPD during the German Revolution we need to grasp something of its historical development as a party, and its place within German society and political life in the early 20th century.

Wilhelmine Germany was a contradictory society and those contradictions were reflected in the SPD. By 1900 imperial Germany was one of the world’s leading economies, mounting a serious challenge to its rivals in the British empire and the United States. However, politically and socially it represented a compromise between a dynamic industrial capitalism and an agrarian aristocratic class that dominated the state bureaucracy and the powerful army. The monarchy was politically powerful, especially in relation to foreign policy, which, after Wilhelm II’s accession to the throne in 1890, was directed towards colonisation and the assertion of global German influence - Weltpolitik - in competition with the other great powers. Although the state generally favoured industrial capitalism, there were periods of tension within the ruling class between industrial and agrarian interests. However, the overriding issue amidst these external and internal tensions, for both the state and the capitalist class, was the emergence of the working class as a political and a social force from the late 19th century. By 1912 the SPD was the largest single party in the lower house of the imperial parliament, the Reichstag, after gaining 28% of the popular vote.9 This electoral strength rested on a history of struggle in the late 19th century against state repression - such as the Anti-Socialist Law, which attempted to supress the nascent SPD.10 This attempt to crush the party reflected the state’s fear of the growing power of the working class - itself a product of the rapid industrialisation and urbanisation of society after German unification in 1871.

Contemporary observers, such as the sociologists, Weber and Michels, were struck by the nature of the SPD as almost a state within a state, representing ‘another Germany’ and a counter-culture, ostensibly in opposition to official society.11 To its members the SPD was not so much a party - more a way of life, encompassing political activity, political education, flourishing party media and all aspects of social and cultural life.12 As one active SPD member observed,

It was much more than a political machine; it gave the German worker dignity and status in a world of his own. The individual worker lived in his party; the party penetrated into workers’ everyday habits. His ideas, his reactions, his attitudes were formed out of this integration of his person with his collective.13

Alongside this vibrant life, however, there were less positive signs of increasing bureaucratisation and a political routinism that marked a retreat from revolutionary politics. By 1905 the SPD had 15,000 full-timers, who wielded considerable influence over policy formation and organisation. The leadership of the trade unions affiliated to the SPD were largely economistic and had gained formal independence from the party during the same period.14 A similar trend towards independence could also be seen amongst the SPD’s Reichstag deputies. These tendencies towards bureaucratisation were noted by contemporary critics and were reflected in the political controversies over ‘revisionism’ that emerged from the late 1890s.15 Despite Bebel’s and Kautsky’s strong defence of orthodoxy from the centre, in a de facto alliance with the left, a type of pragmatic ‘Marxism’ that accommodated to the status quo increasingly became the hallmark of the leadership. Thus, whilst ‘revisionism’ was rejected in theory, it was adopted in practice by the SPD leadership, both at a national and regional level.16

Rosa Luxemburg emerged as the most articulate critic of these developments before 1914.17 However, whilst the left had its strongholds in the party schools, and was well represented amongst journalists and leading activists in the industrial centres, the party leadership could draw on its history of struggle and its intellectual authority to appeal to this tradition of unity in the face of common enemies.18 Moreover, the SPD was the Second International’s most successful and dominant party before 1914. The party’s political and ideological influence extended beyond the borders of Germany: the Marxist orthodoxy that its leadership propounded and the ways in which it organised its mass membership were the models for socialists throughout Europe in this period.

Imperialist war

Despite this pristine reputation, the fault lines and weaknesses within the SPD were to become apparent with the outbreak of World War I. The German ruling class had a series of motives for involvement in that conflict, but its fears of growing internal discontent and working class opposition encouraged it to believe that war would be the way to secure national unity in blood.19 The possibilities of a general strike and widespread demonstrations organised by the SPD and the trade unions in 1914 for reform of the undemocratic electoral system also played a part in the calculations of the ruling class.20

The SPD’s vote for war credits in the Reichstag and its support for a ‘civil peace’ and truce in the class war during wartime came as a great shock to Lenin and other revolutionaries. Even Karl Liebknecht, one of the leaders of the left, voted in favour of war credits, following the strong tradition of discipline and unity in the SPD’s Reichstag’s Fraktion.21 Although this support for war credits, the civil peace and a ban on strikes in wartime came as a shock, it should really have been no surprise, given the bureaucratic structure of the party and the rightwing drift of its leadership over the previous 10 years. By the actions of this leadership, the ostensible strength of the movement was turned on itself and the SPD was converted from an instrument of working class struggle into a prop for capitalist rule and imperialist war.

The justification for the leadership’s position drew on a range of arguments, including the progressive nature of German imperialism and capitalism; the revolutionary potential of a war against the Russian autocracy; and the need to defend the German working class. Scheidemann and Ebert in particular utilised the arguments of sections of the left, such as Parvus, to justify their support for the imperialist war, whilst paradoxically some sections of the revisionist right developed a pacifistic anti-war position.22 The left within the SPD, in Germany as elsewhere, was initially disorientated by the strength of social-imperialism and patriotism amongst the leadership of the Second International. However, signs of organised opposition also began to emerge within the ranks of the SPD. Liebknecht voted against war credits in December 1914, calling the conflict “an imperialist war fought for imperialist domination of the world markets”. In a sign that discontent was growing, he was joined in 1915 by 23 other SPD deputies.23

Alongside this parliamentary opposition, a small group of revolutionaries - including Liebknecht, Luxemburg, Zetkin, Mehring and Jogiches - began publishing an anti-war newsletter in the name of Spartakus and began to organise as the ‘Gruppe Internationale’. The political basis of what would become in January 1916 the Spartakusgruppe was a restatement of the position on war adopted by the Second International in 1907: namely to “utilise the economic and political crisis caused by a war to rouse the peoples and thereby to hasten the abolition of capitalist class rule”.24 Like the rest of the anti-war left internationally, this group was small and initially marginalised within the SPD. Perhaps numbering 300-500 subscribers to its newsletter, it drew its support from amongst the pre-1914 left critics of the SPD leadership. Although small in number, the group had a much wider potential influence, given that many amongst its activists had been SPD full-timers, recognised ‘party intellectuals’ and former editors of the SPD’s regional press.25


As the nature of the slaughter and its impact on the working class became clear, wider currents of opposition began to develop. Food shortages, the impact of the Allied blockade, state repression and labour laws - and the sense that the war was never ending - all contributed to strengthen the hostility and anger against the war.26 This opposition took two forms: industrial and political. Protest strikes calling for the release of an imprisoned Liebknecht and an end to the war gathered momentum from 1916 onwards.27 The Bolshevik revolution in November 1917 - “the light from the east” - further galvanised working class opposition and influenced the creation of workers’ councils to organise the protests. In Berlin and other large cities, these took the form of revolutionary shop stewards committees, which increasingly adopted explicitly revolutionary demands.

A similar process of radicalisation and criticism of the war occurred within the SPD. However, when an internal split eventually emerged, resulting in the formation of the Independent SPD (USPD) in April 1917, this new grouping also reflected the structural and ideological contradictions of pre-1914 German social democracy. It was a “veritable melange”, ranging from ‘revisionists’ like Bernstein and Haase on the right through to the Marxist centre represented by Kautsky and Luxemburg, and Liebknecht on the left.28 The only issue that united these strange bedfellows was opposition to the SPD leadership’s support for the imperialist war. The USPD had 120,000 members (compared to the 170,000 remaining with the SPD), who were clearly opposed to the war and reflected a growing demand for radical change: for a small revolutionary group like the Spartakists, it was important to orientate to those currents by joining the USPD and avoiding sectarian isolation from the German masses.

However, the strategy of the Spartakusbund within the USPD was unclear at this stage, reflecting both the organisational difficulties caused by state repression and wider uncertainties and disagreements within the revolutionary left on the nature and role of the revolutionary party. For some, their experience of the betrayals of the SPD bureaucracy in 1914 engendered strategic confusion and contradictory moods, ranging from demands that an open revolutionary party be proclaimed immediately through to scepticism towards the very idea of a party at all. Luxemburg’s own war-time writings and the development of her positions on revolutionary spontaneity after 1905, taken together with Liebknecht’s voluntarist approach at key moments in 1918-19, illustrate some of these important strategic problems for the German revolutionary left.29

These issues were perhaps best encapsulated by the left’s analysis of the USPD and its leadership. From the very beginning Luxemburg and Liebknecht were clear in their articles and speeches about the counterrevolutionary nature of the SPD, and its commitment to upholding capitalism. The key strategic problem, however, was the USPD leadership, which the SPD successfully managed to draw into the provisional government - which styled itself, in the language of revolution, as the ‘Council of People’s Representatives’ (Rat der Volksbeauftragten). Whilst the bourgeois state and the army remained intact (as per the arrangement made between Ebert and the military leadership), the USPD justified its participation in the government by arguing that political power was now in the hands of the workers’ and soldiers’ councils, and that the gains of the revolution must be defended: for Kautsky and company now was not the time for adventurism and ultra-leftism!30 Both the SPD and USPD successfully drew on all the inherited prestige, personal authority and historical legitimacy they enjoyed amongst the German working class to consolidate their position and channel the revolutionary moods into more conservative directions.31


To counter this both Luxemburg and Liebknecht constantly warned of future betrayals by the SPD and USPD right that would embolden counterrevolution and allow the old regime, waiting in the wings, to return. As the Congress of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils, elected from local bodies throughout Germany, was preparing to meet in December 1918, Liebknecht argued:

The danger is growing by leaps and bounds. There is no time to lose … [The proletariat] must proceed to conquer the remaining positions of power, to finally overpower the ruling classes, and to turn the proletariat’s reign into a truth … Hesitating means losing both what has been won and what must be won. Hesitation draws death closer - the death of the revolution.32

Likewise, in an article written on the eve of the congress, Luxemburg called for the Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils to break from the SPD and USPD right, and instead lead a struggle that would bring the working class to power. Although she outlined a number of clear revolutionary demands that would disarm the counterrevolutionary forces and proposed concrete steps to be taken by the Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils to organise revolutionary resistance, the missing element in her programme at this stage was a revolutionary leadership and a party that could generalise and coordinate that struggle.33

When the congress met on December 16, both the contradictions and the revolutionary potential in the situation were revealed. On one hand, the dominance of the SPD was overwhelming: 290 delegates were SPD supporters, whilst 90 were supporters of the USPD. The Spartakists had only 10 delegates and attempts to from a joint fraction between these and the USPD left came to nothing. Neither Luxemburg nor Liebknecht were allowed to participate. Calls from the USPD left for the workers’ and soldiers’ councils to be retained as the basis of the new constitution were defeated by 344 votes to 98. The SPD’s preferred option for the convocation of national assembly was adopted in its stead.34 Thus the composition of the congress and its support for the SPD’s position reflected both the continuing strength of the party’s bureaucracy and the position it enjoyed amongst the German masses.35

On the other hand, away from the congress and its bureaucratic deliberations, support for a revolutionary position was growing. A joint demonstration organised in front of the congress hall by the Spartakists, the USPD and the Berlin revolutionary shop stewards committees assembled some 250,000 workers to demand that the congress replace the Ebert government and assume political power on behalf of the working class.36 The size of the demonstration probably reflected more the degree of organisation of the shop stewards and the confidence they enjoyed amongst Berlin workers than the number of committed members of the organised revolutionary left at this stage. However, despite the numerical and organisational weakness of the left, support for militant positions was clearly growing: the potential for the rapid development of a revolutionary party was noted by many contemporaries, whether they welcomed or feared such a turn of events.37

One such commentator was Karl Radek, who arrived in Berlin just after the congress concluded on December 21. His first-hand accounts and impressions have been influential in shaping assessments of this period. They also formed the basis for Radek’s more considered reports and analyses, which appeared in the early 1920s and significantly contributed to the development of the Third International’s position on the German Revolution.38 As the only senior Bolshevik who participated in the revolutionary events of 1918-19, his accounts naturally carried weight amongst revolutionaries, both in Germany and internationally. The picture he paints of the situation in Berlin when he arrived is one of political confusion and shrill ultra-leftism within the Spartakists.

The organised membership of the group is small and its presence in the congress and the councils is tiny. Instead it is the revolutionary shop stewards and the USPD left who have the widest support and are the focus of opposition to Ebert’s cabinet.39

The December days after the Congress of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils were indeed crucial in the development of the German Revolution and in the formation of the German Communist Party (KPD). As we have seen, there were great possibilities for building a revolutionary movement in this period, as well as great dangers of counterrevolution that might be unleashed by the Ebert government and the still-existing imperial state machine. Luxemburg and Liebknecht correctly called for their supporters to seize these opportunities, whilst warning of the serious threats of military reaction. Their assessments were not exaggerated or overwrought, either in their calculation of the revolutionary potential of the German working class or, as it so tragically transpired, in their understanding of the counterrevolutionary betrayals of the SPD leadership.40

My next article will deal with the formation of the KPD and the counterrevolution of January 1919.

  1. . In recent years the Weekly Worker has printed a number of articles about the German Revolution, the politics of the pre-1914 SPD, and the German left’s response to World War I, which I have drawn upon. See B Lewis, ‘German revolution: diverted and betrayed by leaders of official social democracy’ Weekly Worker November 1 2018; and M Macnair, ‘Imperialism before Lenin’ Weekly Worker March 8 2012.↩︎

  2. . VI Lenin, ‘To YM Sverdlov and LD Trotsky’, in J Riddell (ed) The German Revolution and the debate on soviet power New York 1986, pp26-27.↩︎

  3. . VI Lenin, ‘Everything to help the German workers’, in J Riddell op cit pp27-29.↩︎

  4. . K Radek, ‘Our isolation has ended’, in J Riddell op cit pp 33-35.↩︎

  5. . For accounts of this period, see AJ Ryder The German Revolution of 1918 (Cambridge 1967), P Broué The German Revolution 1917-1923 (Chicago 2006) and W Pelz A people’s history of the German Revolution (London 2018). Another popular account, first published in 1967, that still has some value is RM Watt The kings depart: the tragedy of Germany, Versailles and the German Revolution (London 2003).↩︎

  6. . B Lewis, ‘Revolutionary Germany: how did the right of the left react?’ Weekly Worker November 8 2018.↩︎

  7. . Quoted by J Riddell op cit p40.↩︎

  8. . Ibid p40.↩︎

  9. . The pre-1918 German constitution had a formally democratic Reichstag, directly elected by manhood suffrage, but this had no real control over the imperial government, where real executive power was concentrated around the kaiser, his ministers and the political/military bureaucracy. The various kingdoms that made up the post-1871 empire (Kaiserreich) also had different electoral and administrative structures, which also shaped politics throughout Germany. Prussia, the largest and most dominant kingdom, had a ‘three-class’ electoral system for its assembly, the Landtag, which concentrated power in the hands of a Junker aristocracy and other property-owners. Demands for democratic reform and governmental accountability at all levels of the Kaiserreich were thus key demands of the SPD before the 1918 revolution.↩︎

  10. . The Anti-Socialist Law was initially passed in 1878 and renewed until 1890.↩︎

  11. . WJ Mommsen, ‘Max Weber and Roberto Michels: an asymmetrical partnership’ European Journal of Sociology Vol 22, 1981, pp100-16.↩︎

  12. . Alongside explicitly political publications like Die Neue Zeit, the party also produced a range of sporting and leisure magazines, including Der Arbeiter Radfahrer (The Worker Cyclist) and Arbeiter Turnzeitung (Workers’ Gymnastic Newspaper). The SPD also organised a full range of cultural activities, such as chess, music and theatre, for party members and their families. Lenin seems to have been particularly impressed by the SPD’s choral tradition and the strength of these cultural activities. See W Pelz op cit pp18-22.↩︎

  13. . R Fischer Stalin and German communism Cambridge MA 1948, p4.↩︎

  14. . Unlike the British trade unions, which had been in existence long before the Labour Party was founded, it was the SPD that had established these unions as adjuncts to the party in the late 19th century.↩︎

  15. . CE Schorske German social democracy 1905-1917: the development of the great schism Cambridge MA 1983.↩︎

  16. . R Luxemburg, ‘SPD and the swamp’ Weekly Worker January 29 2009.↩︎

  17. . JP Nettl Rosa Luxemburg London 1966.↩︎

  18. . CE Schorske op cit.↩︎

  19. . F Fischer War of illusions: German policies from 1911-1914 London 1975.↩︎

  20. . Ibid.↩︎

  21. . J Riddell op cit p14.↩︎

  22. . M Macnair, ‘Parvus: for German victory’ Weekly Worker September 11 2014.↩︎

  23. . These deputies would later go on to split from the SPD and form the Independent SPD (USPD) in 1917. See J Riddell op cit p14.↩︎

  24. . J Riddell op cit p12. The motion had been originally moved by Luxemburg and Lenin at the Stuttgart conference of that year.↩︎

  25. . JP Nettl op cit Vol 2, pp 623-33.↩︎

  26. . W Pelz op cit pp28-47.↩︎

  27. . Karl Liebknecht had been imprisoned for anti-war agitation in October 1916.↩︎

  28. . B Lewis, ‘German revolution: diverted and betrayed by leaders of official social democracy’ Weekly Worker November 1 2018.↩︎

  29. . P Broué op cit pp111-27. See also R Luxemburg The mass strike, the political party and the trade unions, and the Junius pamphlet London 1971; G Adler, P Hudis and A Laschitza (eds) The letters of Rosa Luxemburg London 2013 and J Riddell op cit pp42-43 and 75-111.↩︎

  30. . See, for example, Kautsky’s defence of the provisional government against the criticisms of the revolutionary left, and the Berlin USPD’s debate on elections to a national assembly in J Riddell op cit pp94-105 and pp127-34.↩︎

  31. . See, for example, revolutionary shop stewards leader Richard Mueller’s account of how the SPD and USPD right had managed to regain this authority in J Riddell op cit pp82-83.↩︎

  32. . K Liebknecht, ‘Where matters stand’ in J Riddell op cit pp86-88.↩︎

  33. . R Luxemburg, ‘To the ramparts’ in Riddell op cit pp135-38.↩︎

  34. . J Riddell op cit pp142-46.↩︎

  35. . The selection process favoured the SPD in various ways: only 187 delegates were waged or salaried workers and over 195 delegates were party or trade union functionaries. See P Broué op cit pp184-88.↩︎

  36. . J Riddell op cit p141.↩︎

  37. . P Broué op cit pp175-201.↩︎

  38. . K Radek, ‘Lessons of the civil war in Berlin’, in J Riddell op cit pp279-89. Radek’s article appeared in 1921.↩︎

  39. . K Radek, ‘In Berlin’, in J Riddell op cit pp159-63. This article appeared in 1926: his impressions and arguments may have been affected not only by the inevitable hindsight about the subsequent pattern of events in Germany, but also by political developments in the USSR and the international communist movement in that later period.↩︎

  40. . K Liebknecht, ‘The hour of socialism is now’, in J Riddell op cit pp146-53.↩︎