Chris Harman


The German Revolution

(September 1986)

From Socialist Worker Review, No. 90, September 1986, pp. 15–17.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

In 1918–19 workers were on the verge of taking power in (Germany. The lessons of their defeat have immense importance for us today. Newly published is a book documenting in detail the debates taking place among revolutionaries and socialists at the time. Chris Harman reviews the book.

The German Revolution and the Debate on Soviet Power: Documents 1918–19
Edited John Riddell
Pathfinder. £8.95

‘THE international revolution has come so close in one week that it has to be reckoned with as an event of the next few days ... We must have by the spring an army of three millions to help the international workers’ revolution.’ So wrote Lenin to the Bolshevik commissar for war, Trotsky, and the secretary of the Bolshevik Party, Sverdlov, at the beginning of October 1918. He had just heard the first news of the massive political crisis in Germany brought on by the prospect of military defeat.

Lenin’s optimism was only partly justified. A month later the German emperor was forced to flee after workers and soldiers revolted in every major town. For a brief period political power was in the hands of workers and soldiers’ councils.

But the revolutionary upheaval did not culminate in the formation of a workers’ state. On the second day of the revolution the Berlin councils were easily persuaded to hand power over to a government of Social Democrats who had no intention of smashing capitalism.

Five weeks later a national congress of council delegates voted to call elections for a new parliament and to abdicate powers to it. The elections gave a majority to the bourgeois parties, with whom the right wing Social Democrats then formed a series of coalition governments.

Meanwhile, the Social Democrats worked hand in glove with the old generals to destroy the soldiers councils, to form a mercenary army, the Freikorps, and to smash the revolutionary opposition. The best known revolutionary leaders, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, were murdered.

Yet Lenin’s hopes of socialist revolution were not completely misplaced. There were 17 months of sporadic civil war between the overthrow of the emperor and the return to anything like bourgeois normality.

The experiences of this period are of immense interest to revolutionary socialists today. It was the closest we have yet come to working class revolution in an advanced industrial country.

Yet until recently it was difficult for English speaking socialists to learn the real story of the German revolution. Even the best biography of Rosa Luxemburg, by Paul Frölich (just republished), does not give more than an outline of .the crucial events.

I tried myself to fill in some of the gaps with my book, The Lost Revolution. But although I think I gave an adequate account of the events and the main arguments that took place, that was not the same as being able to provide readers with direct access to sources where these arguments might be found.

This new book does just that. It contains the texts of many newspaper articles, leaflets and speeches from the first three months of the revolution. Most are by revolutionaries, but a few are by the right Social Democrats and by the ‘centrists’ who tried to create a middle ground between reform and revolution. These are very useful in enabling the reader to understanding the context in which revolutionaries were operating.

Of the pieces by revolutionaries, the most interesting are articles which Rosa Luxemburg wrote in her daily paper, Rote Fahne, the hitherto unobtainable debates of the founding congress of the German Communist Party, and the account Karl Radek later gave of his impressions on arriving in Germany fresh from Bolshevik Russia.

The Rosa Luxemburg articles show a great revolutionary at her most perceptive, as she analyses the course of the revolution and argues what needs to be done. They are also useful in dispelling the myth that she was a soggy sentimentalist, standing half way between the right Social Democrats and the Bolsheviks. The articles show her as a granite hard revolutionary, pouring derision on those who do not understand the need for the workers’ councils to take all power, and insistent on carrying the revolution through to the end.

The programme she wrote for the new Communist Party argued: ‘The proletarian revolution needs no terror to achieve its goals. It hates and abhors killing ...’

But she straight away went on to insist:

‘It is an insane illusion to imagine that the capitalists will submit good naturedly to a decision by a socialist parliament or national assembly and calmly agree to give up their property, profit, privileges, and their right to exploit ...

‘The imperialist bourgeoisie, the last of the exploiting classes, exceeds all of its predecessors in brutality, unabashed cynicism, and depravity ... It would rather turn the country into a smoking heap of rubble than voluntarily give up the system of wage slavery.

‘All this resistance must be broken, step by step, with an iron hand and relentless forces. The violence of the bourgeois counter-revolution must be met by the revolutionary violence of the proletariat ...’

The debate at the founding congress of the Communist Party showed the real problem that faced Rosa and her comrades. The party was very small and with hardly any members in the major workplaces. The speed at which the revolution had developed meant that the great majority of workers still had illusions in the right wing Social Democrats, and that those who were disillusioned with them put their faith in the vacillators of the ‘centre’ organised in the Independent Social Democratic Party (USPD).

What was worse, however, was that the small minority that had already been won over to revolution had little understanding of strategy or tactics, and no tradition of working together in a disciplined way.

These weaknesses were revealed in the discussion over whether to participate in the elections.

The party programme, written by Rosa Luxemburg, argued very strongly that the new Communist Party could not take power without the support of the majority of the working class. In this its approach was very similar to that of Lenin when, in April 1917, he called for ‘all power to the Soviets’, but then went on to insist that for the time being, the Bolsheviks could not impose this, but had to ‘patiently explain’ the need to the rest of the class.

The programme ‘was not controversial’, according to Radek’s account. But two thirds of the delegates were incapable of seeing what its approach meant in practice. Rosa Luxemburg, rightly, argued in a newspaper article on the eve of the congress that the majority of workers were still in favour of the the national assembly elections, and that therefore the revolutionaries had to use the election campaign as an opportunity.

‘Ebert and company have devised the national assembly as a dam build to contain the revolutionary flood. Thus we must direct this flood in and through the national assembly to sweep away the dam.’

One of her leading supporters, Paul Levi, put her case at the congress itself:

‘The national assembly is the banner of the counter-revolution ... We know exactly the road the proletariat must travel to victory. It will be over the dead body of the national assembly ... Comrades, we propose to you nevertheless that we do not stand aloof from the national assembly elections ...

‘The national assembly is going to meet. It will dominate the political scene in Germany for months to come, and there is no way you can prevent that. It will be the centre of politics in Germany. There is no way you can stop all eyes being focussed on it ... Our duty is to break into that building.’

But nearly three quarters of the delegates simply did not understand the need for tactics that related to the consciousness of the mass of workers. They heckled Levi with cries of ‘Never!’, ‘No!’ and ‘A waste of energy!’

The attitude of the majority, Radek later told, was, ‘We will break up the assembly with machine guns.’

This approach played right into the hands of the right wing Social Democrats. They were able to give the impression that the revolutionaries wanted to impose a dictatorship of ‘oppressive terrorism’ on the working class. The headline of their paper was, ‘Spartakus aims to break up national assembly’, and their writer claimed, ‘Bolsheviks agitate for world war’.

The discussion on the trade unions was even more confused. In any great revolutionary movment of workers, while the more advanced sections of the class begin to build workers councils, less advanced sections get involved, for the first time, in economic struggles and join trade unions. Yet almost all the participants in the discussion wrote off the existing unions and counterposed workers’ councils to them.

For instance, Paul Frölich argued, ‘The only slogan for us is, “Get out of the unions”.’ Even Rosa Luxemburg did not squarely stand up to such nonsense. Instead, she suggested that ‘we replace the unions with another system that has a new foundation’.

The most experienced revolutionaries at the congress were horrified by the political immaturity of the delegates. Rosa Luxemburg wrote, in a letter to Clara Zetkin, this was ‘a somewhat childish, half baked radicalism. It was, however, she insisted, inevitable in a ‘new generation, free from the mind-numbing traditions of the “old party”.’

Radek talks of ‘the immaturity and inexperience of the German party ... I did not feel I had a real party here before me.’

This inexperience showed itself with tragic results in the second week in January. The right wing Social Democrats sacked the popular left Social Democrat who had run the Berlin police since the revolution. Many workers who had been prepared to tolerate the government only weeks before now turned bitterly against it. There took place what was decribed as ‘the biggest demonstration Berlin had ever known’.

Very influential in the Berlin workers movement were a group of shop floor activists known as the ‘revolutionary shop stewards’. These wavered between the left Social Democrats and the revolutionaries. Now, under the pressure of events, they called for the overthrow of the government.

Rosa Luxemburg and the leadership of the newly-born Communist Party were opposed to any such course of action. A leaflet from them a few days earlier had argued:

‘If the Berlin workers were today to disperse the national assembly and throw the Ebert Scheidemann people into prison, while the workers of the Ruhr and Upper Silesia and the rural workers of Germany east of the Elbe remained inactive, the capitalists would be able tomorrow to subdue Berlin through hunger.’

A meeting of the party’s central committee on 4 January agreed unanimously ‘it would be senseless to strive for our government... A government based on the proletariat would last two weeks and no longer.’

Yet two days later the party’s representatives at a meeting of the revolutionary shop stewards, Karl Liebknecht and Wilhelm Pieck, took it upon themselves to support the call to overthrow the government.

Rosa Luxemburg was disgusted when she finally learnt what they had done. But there seemed little she and the rest of the leadership could do about it. Radek advised them to oppose the movement openly and to urge workers to stay within peaceful limits:

‘The most advanced Berlin workers have been misled by the shop stewards, who lack any political experience and are not in a position to see the relationship offerees in the country as a whole. The shop stewards have impetuously turned the protest movement into a fight for power. That allowed Ebert and Scheidemann [the Right Social Democrat leaders] to deal the Berlin movement a blow that can set it back months.

‘The only restraining force that can prevent this misfortune is ... the Communist Party ... Of course, I am aware of how difficult it is, after so many sacrifices, to stand up before the masses and sound the retreat. I know this will lead to a decline in morale. But such depression is nothing compared to what the masses will say to themselves after a bloodletting ...’

There is little doubt that Radek was right. Revolutionaries do, on occasion, have to restrain workers from mad adventures, however much temporary unpopularity it gains us.

Yet Rosa Luxemburg felt she could not follow such advice. The Communist Party was so small that she feared it would lose its chance of winning the most militant workers if it told them to hold back from armed struggle. They would think it was no different to the left Social Democrats who one minute called for advance, the next for retreat. And so her articles in Rote Fahne urged the workers into action and denounced the left Social Democrats for not carrying through to the end actions they had initiated.

Trotsky, in an article written in April 1919, pointed out why the German revolutionaries had not been able to give real leadership to the mass struggle as the Bolsheviks had in Russia in 1917:

‘At the moment of its transition to open revolutionary struggle for power, the German working class proved to be extremely defenceless organisationally.

‘The Russian working class which accomplished its October revolution received a priceless legacy from the previous epoch: a centralised revolutionary party ...’

Fifty years of bitter struggles against Czarism ‘prepared a large staff of revolutionary leaders, tempered in struggle and bound together by the unity of the revolutionary socialist programme.’

‘History bequeathed nothing like this to the German working class. It was compelled not only to fight for power but to create its organisation and train future leaders in the very course of this struggle ... Absent was a centralised revolutionary party with a combat leadership whose authority is universally accepted by the working masses ...’

Lenin made the same point two and a half years later:

‘When the crisis broke out, the German workers lacked a genuine revolutionary party, owing to the fact that the split (with the left and right Social Democrats) took place too late, and owing to the burden of the accursed traditon of “unity” with capital’s corrupt and spineless gang of lackeys. The heart of every honest and class conscious worker was filled with incredibly bitter hatred for the opportunism of the old German Social Democracy, and this hatred blinded people and prevented them keeping their heads and working out a correct strategy ... This hatred pushed them into premature insurrections.’

The tragedy was that among the victims of the premature insurrections were leaders like Rosa Luxemburg and Leo Jogiches who had the grasp of revolutionary politics required to prevent further terrible mistakes.

One great merit of this book is that it enables you to read the debates that took place yourself, and, in the process, to learn the lessons that too many German revolutionaries did not understand in January 1919.

But there is even more to it than that. The latter half is devoted to the discussions that gave rise to the founding congress of the Communist International in March 1919. Here, too, the reader will find much material not readily accessible before.

I only found one minor fault with the collection. The editor’s politics means he elevates quite a minor question, that of the German peasantry, into a major issue, devoting a whole section to the discussion on the issue at the founding congress of the German Communist Party under the title ‘towards a worker-peasant alliance’.

But Germany in 1919 was already an overwhelmingly urbanised country, with less than a third of the population in the countryside. And of these, the only ones who could be attracted to revolutionary slogans (as opposed to learning to live with an established workers’ government) were the agricultural labourers of Prussia. They were not small landowners, mainly interested in owning their own land, but rural workers who flooded into trade unions in 1919, showing how similar their interests were to those of industrial workers.

But this is a minor blemish on an invaluable book that should be on the shelf of every serious revolutionary socialist.

Last updated on 27 October 2019