Th. Rothstein 1918

The German Revolution

Source: The Call, 21 November 1918, p. 3; (written under his pseudonym W.A.M.M.)
Transcribed: Ted Crawford,
HTML Markup: Brian Reid
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2007). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.

The “last moujiks in Europe,” as Du Quercy, a prominent French Socialist of the early days of the Guesdist movement, once dubbed the Germans, have shown that they, too, when the conditions become ripe, can make a revolution in every way as radical as that which the French made after Sedan. The Kaiser and his dynasty are no more, and a Provisional Government, consisting exclusively of Socialists, is in possession of the supreme power in the country. The change has been as rapid and as bloodless as the March Revolution in Russia, and there can be no doubt that the developments in the near and nearest future will be no less profound.

For what is the actual and potential character of the German Revolution? The great French Revolution of the end of the 18th century established the type and traditions of all the subsequent bourgeois revolutions throughout the world. A Provisional Government consisting of lawyers, journalists, and other Radical-minded intellectuals of the middle classes, committees of public safety, and “civic,” that is, bourgeois, guards to protect the conquests of the revolution against the attempts of other classes, the aristocracy not less than the proletariat; and lastly, a constituent assembly to draw up a constitution for the new parliamentary and unitary bourgeois State—such were the external forms of all revolutions in the course of the 19th century.

Russia in 1905 was the first to break with these traditions. For the first time in human history it fell to the lot of the proletariat to take upon itself the initiative in, and to lead a revolution. Accordingly, a new revolutionary form of organisation sprang up in, the shape of Councils of Workers’ Delegates which became the central pivots and authority of the Revolution. This was in itself a revolutionary innovation in the traditional practice of revolutions, and Trotsky, who already at that time was one of the guiding spirits of the revolution, rightly proclaimed it to be the beginning of a Socialist revolution.

It was nevertheless left to the March and, still more so, the November Revolutions to establish this innovation in its entirety. The Soviets, the Councils of Workers’ and Peasants’, as well as of Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Delegates, became the only real authority in the country, and after eight months of internal strife and self-elucidation, became also the sole formal possessors of supreme power in the State. The conception of a democratic, that is a bourgeois parliamentary, Republic was discarded in favour of a proletarian Republic of the Soviets; the Constituent Assembly was thrown overboard; the middle classes were disarmed and their civic guards replaced by Red Guards; a Council of People’s Commissioners, the trustees of the working class and poor peasantry, took the place of the Provisional Government of lawyers, journalists, professors, and other bourgeois intellectuals, and Russia was proclaimed a Federal State, in which every part was autonomous.

By the law of Recapitulation, which holds good in sociology as well as in biology, the German Revolution, after some hesitation, attached itself straightaway to the latest stage reached by its predecessor. Soviets—“the most important contribution made by the Russian Revolution,” as rightly observed by Lenin—immediately sprang up in every part and city of the former empire, thereby predetermining the federal character of the future Republic and assumed complete legislative, administrative, and judicial authority, both local and central. In Berlin, the capital of the new Republic, the government power passed into the hands of a Council of People’s Commissioners, consisting of leaders of the Soviet parties, who discharge executive functions pending the meeting of a congress of the Soviets. We have thus an exact parallel to Russia. Germany has effected not only a political, not only a social, but a Socialist Revolution by establishing the dictatorship of the proletariat. It remains to be seen what use will be made of this dictatorship by the leaders and the masses. Will they proceed to the overthrow of the capitalist regime as the Bolsheviks have done and are doing in Russia, or will they elect to act on a different programme?

The German Socialists who are leading the Revolution are split into three sections. There are, first, the Socialists of the old official party led by Scheidemann and Ebert. We know what they are and what part they played in the war. Scheidemann and his friends had already joined the Government under the old regime, and when the new regime had to be established they were in favour of a coalition with the bourgeois elements and of the immediate convocation of a Constituent Assembly. They might be called the German Mensheviks of the right wing, who, from conviction or from lack of courage, would rather not attempt a Socialist revolution “at present,” and whose abhorrence of Bolshevism is not a whit less than that of the capitalist parties. There are, second, the Socialists of the Independent party led, politically, by Haase and, theoretically, by Kautsky. They also repudiate Bolshevism, because they are “democrats”; they are prepared to introduce Socialism, but by way of universal suffrage and the gradual and painless extinction of the bourgeoisie. Lastly, there are the Socialists of the left wing, who are constituted in two organisations, the “Internationale,” more a literary body, of which Mehring, Rosa Luxemburg, and Klara Zetkin are the most prominent leaders, and the “Spartacus” group, of which Karl Liebknecht is the banner-bearer. The “Internationale” was affiliated to the Independent party, but the Spartacus Socialists stood aloof, thus forming the irreconcilable Left. Both groups may be said to constitute the equivalent of Russian Bolshevism, being in favour of transforming Germany forthwith into a Socialist Federal Soviet Republic.

The Extreme Left in Germany, therefore, is in a decided minority, but the experience of Russia has shown how easily a minority becomes a majority in revolutionary times if those in power fail to satisfy the needs and demands of the masses. It was, no doubt, with a view to forestalling the Bolshevik danger that the Scheidemannites, wiser in their generation than the Russian Socialists of the Right, not only took upon themselves the initiative in demanding and compelling the abdication of the Kaiser, but also agreed to forego the idea of a coalition with the bourgeois parties and to postpone the convocation of a Constituent Assembly in favour of an exclusive Soviet authority. The same fear has probably determined the Independents, in spite of their fetishism of universal suffrage, to accept the dictatorship of the proletariat at least as a temporary measure and to acknowledge the exclusive authority of the much-derided Soviets after the Russian style.

So far so good and none will be more gratified at the action of the German Socialists than the Bolsheviks of Russia, who advocated “all power to the Soviets” even at a time when they themselves were in hopeless minority, and who, on attaining power, invited the other Socialist parties to share it with them on a programme of peace and full power of the Soviets, but met with an indignant refusal. The Mensheviks of Germany have proved by their action that they are better Socialists and better statesmen than their comrades in Russia.

This is certainly a hopeful sign, and one is only too easily inclined to ascribe this auspicious beginning to the better education and higher sense of discipline of the German people. But one must not forget that the dictatorship of the proletariat in Germany has not yet been put into practice, and that the bourgeoisie, with its intellectuals, and the Junker class, with its generals and high bureaucrats, have so far acquiesced in the new order of things. The real test will come when the proletariat in power begins to draw conclusions from the situation and to lay its hand on the interests of capitalism and landlordism. Will, the German bourgeoisie and Junkerdom, too, prove so “educated” and “disciplined” as to offer no resistance and refrain from recourse to the weapons of boycott, sabotage, and armed insurrection? Will the Socialists themselves who are now in power have the courage and the will to carry out the economic and social demands of the masses? It is obvious that at the present stage it would not be profitable to reply to these questions, but it is equally obvious that if the German capitalists and landlords behave as their class brethren in Russia have behaved, there will be civil war with all the attendant bloodshed and terror which we have seen in Russia, and that if the present Socialist coalition does not prove equal to the occasion, it will be swept away by the masses in favour of the Extreme Left, who will have to act in the same fashion as the Bolsheviks of Russia have been compelled to act. No amount of education and discipline will, in either case, prevent a civil war.

About the enemies at the gate, with their hunger whips, there is no need of saying much at present, but here again the future developments, will not depend upon the “education” and “discipline” of the German people. On the whole, however, whether the situation develops in an “orderly” or turbulent fashion, its final outcome admits of no doubt. Germany is going to be a Socialist Republic just as Russia has become, and Bolshevism, in its practical applications, will celebrate another triumph.