Various Subjects

A Creeping Revolution

Transcribed and HTML markup for the Trotsky Internet Archive by David Walters

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The German revolution has clear features of similarity with the Russian, but no less instructive are its dissimilarities. At the beginning of October a “February” revolution took place in Germany. Two months later, the German proletariat was already going through its “July” days, that is, engaging in its first open clash with the bourgeois-compromiser imperialist forces on the new, “republican” foundation. In Germany, as in our country, the July days were neither an organised uprising nor a decisive battle spontaneous in origin. This was the first stormy demonstration of class struggle in pure form on the foundation which had been won by the revolution, and this demonstration was accompanied by skirmishes between the vanguard detachments. In our country the experience of the July days helped the proletariat to concentrate its forces further and prepare in an organised way for the decisive battle. In Germany, after the first open revolutionary demonstration by the Spartacists had been crushed, and their leaders murdered, no breathing-spell supervened, virtually not even for a single day. Strikes, revolts, open battles followed one after another in various parts of the country. No sooner had Scheidemann’s government succeeded in establishing order in the suburbs of Berlin than the valiant guardsmen, inherited from Hohenzollern, had to rush to Stuttgart or Nuremberg. Essen, Dresden and Munich became, in turn, the arena of bloody civil war. Each fresh victory for Scheidemann is only the point of departure for a new revolt by the workers of Berlin. The revolution of the German proletariat has acquired a protracted, creeping character, and, at first sight, this might arouse fear lest the ruling scoundrels succeed in bleeding it white, section by section, in a series of innumerable skirmishes. At the same time, this question seems to pose itself: have not the leaders of the movement committed tactical mistakes which threaten to ruin the entire movement?

In order to understand the German workers” revolution, one must judge it not simply by analogy with Russia’s October revolution but by taking the internal conditions of Germany’s own evolution as one’s starting-point.

History has so turned out that in the epoch of imperialist war the German Social-Democratic Party has proved – and this can now be stated with complete objectivity – to be the most counter-revolutionary factor in world history. The German Social-Democratic Party, however, is not an accident: it did not fall from the skies, but was created by the efforts of the German working class in the course of decades of uninterrupted construction and adaptation to the conditions of the capitalistJunker state. The party organisation and the trade unions connected therewith drew out from amidst the proletariat the most outstanding and vigorous elements, and moulded them psychologically and politically. When the war came, that is, when the moment of maximum historical testing arrived, it turned out that the official organisation of the working class felt and acted not as the proletariat’s organisation for combat against the class state, but as an auxiliary organ of that class state, serving to discipline the proletariat. The working class was paralysed, since bearing down upon it was not only the full weight of capitalist militarism but also the apparatus of its own party. The ordeals of the war, its victories and defeats, tore the German working class out of its paralysis, freed it from the discipline of the official party. The latter split asunder. But the German proletariat had no revolutionary fighting organisation. History once again exhibited to the world one of its dialectical contradictions: precisely because the German working class had expended most of its energy in the previous epoch upon self-sufficient organisational construction, occupying the first place in the Second International as regards both party and trade-union apparatus, it proved, in the new epoch, at the moment when it went over to open revolutionary struggle for power, to be organisationally quite defenceless.

The Russian working class which accomplished its October revolution had inherited from the preceding epoch a priceless legacy in the shape of a centralised revolutionary party. The pilgrimage of the Narodnik intelligentsia to the peasantry, the terrorist struggle of the Narodovoitsi, the underground agitation of the pioneer Marxists, the revolutionary demonstrations of the first years of the century, the October general strike and barricades of 1905, the revolutionary “parliamentarism” of the Stolypin period, very closely bound up with the underground movement – all this prepared a numerous body of revolutionary leaders, tempered in struggle and bound together by the unity of the programme for social revolution.

History bequeathed nothing like that to the German working class. It is compelled not only to fight for power but also to create its organisation and train its future leaders in the very course of this struggle. True, in the conditions of the revolutionary epoch this work of education is being carried through at feverish speed, but time is nevertheless needed for it to be accomplished. In the absence of a centralised revolutionary party with a fighting leadership whose authority is universally recognised by the worker masses, in the absence of leading combat nuclei and leaders, tested in action and proved through experience, in the separate centres and areas of the proletarian movement, when this movement broke out into the streets it became, of necessity, intermittent, chaotic, creeping in character. These strikes, insurrections and battles which flare up are at present the only form available for the task of openly mobilising the forces of the German proletariat, freed from the old party’s yoke, and, at the same time they are the sole means of training new leaders and building the new party. It is quite obvious that such a road calls for enormous exertions and demands countless sacrifices. But there is no choice. This is the only road along which the class revolt of the German proletariat can develop until final victory.

Following Bloody Sunday, January 9, 1905, when the workers of Petrograd, and, after them, gradually, the workers of the whole country, came to understand the necessity of struggle, and, along with this, sensed how dispersed their forces were, there ensued a powerful but extremely chaotic strike movement. Wiseacres then arose who shed tears over the waste of energy by the Russian working class and foretold its exhaustion and the defeat of the revolution that would result therefrom. In reality, however, the spontaneous, creeping strikes of the spring and summer months of 1905 were the only possible form of revolutionary mobilisation and organisational education. These strikes laid the groundwork for the great October strike and the building of the first Soviets.

There is a certain analogy between what is now happening in Germany and the period of the first Russian revolution which I have just mentioned. But the German revolutionary movement is, of course, developing on incomparably higher and more powerful foundations. While the old official party has suffered complete bankruptcy and has become converted into a tool of reaction, this, naturally does not mean that the work accomplished by that party in the preceding epoch has disappeared without trace. The political and cultural level of the German workers, their organisational habits and capabilities, are very high. Tens and hundreds of thousands of worker leaders who had been trained by the political and trade-union organisations in the previous epoch, and had seemingly been assimilated by it, in fact allowed its oppression to weigh upon their revolutionary consciousness only up to a certain point. Today, in the process of partial clashes, through the trials of this revolutionary mobilisation, in the harsh experience of this creeping revolution, tens of thousands of temporarily blinded, deceived and intimidated worker-leaders are awakening and rising to their full stature. The working class is finding them again, just as they are finding their place in the new struggle of the working class. While the historical assignment of the Independent Party of Kautsky and Haase consists in bringing vacillation into the ranks of the government party and providing a refuge for its frightened, desperate or indignant elements, on the other hand, the stormy movement in which our Spartacist brothers-in-arms are playing an heroic role will have as one of its consequences the steady demolition from the Left of this Independent Party, whose best, most self-sacrificing elements are being drawn into the Communist movement.

The difficulties, the partial defeats and the great sacrifices of the German proletariat should not dishearten us for one moment. History does not offer the proletariat a choice of roads. The stubborn, unabating, again and again flaring up, creeping revolution is clearly approaching the critical moment when, having gathered together all its previously mobilised and trained forces for battle, this revolution will deal the class enemy the final mortal blow.

April 17, 1919
Pravda, No.85

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Last updated on: 27.12.2006