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Ian Birchall

Red Rising in Bavaria

(March 1974)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.67, March 1974, p.32.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Rosa Levine-Meyer
Pluto, £1.25 (mail order only).

Red Rising in Bavaria
Richard Grunberger
Arthur Barker, £2.75.

THE FAILURE of the German Revolution in the years following 1917 is the great tragedy of our century; a successful revolution in Germany could have altered the course of world history. To understand that failure is therefore a key task for Marxist historians, and these two books, both dealing with the short-lived Bavarian Soviet Republic of April 1919, are valuable to the extent that they help in that task.

Revolutions attract cranks, and they are marked by episodes of lunacy. Mr Grunberger is aware of this, and reminds us of the fact with a patronising irony which rapidly becomes tiresome. He catalogues some standard ultra-left errors but otherwise has little explanation for the bloody defeat which the Bavarian Soviet suffered.

His book, however, contains one gem. He quotes in full what must be the greatest telegram ever sent – by Lenin to the Bavarian Soviet leaders:

‘Have you (1) set up workers’ councils, (2) disarmed the bourgeoisie and armed the workers, (3) confiscated stores of clothing and other supplies, (4) expropriated factories and estates, (5) doubled or trebled the wages of farm labourers and unskilled workers, (6) confiscated all paper and print for the publication of popular leaflets and of mass newspapers, (7) introduced a six-hour working day with an additional two to three hours spent in administrative tasks, (8) compelled the bourgeoisie to give up accommodation to allow workers immediate access to rich apartments, (9) taken over all the banks, (10) taken bourgeois hostages, (11) introduced bigger food rations for workers than bourgeois, (12) mobilised all workers for the defence of the council regime and (13) mobilised the adjacent villages through propaganda.’

The key to the situation was the workers’ councils, which had existed since the previous November, though the Social Democrats had tried to reduce them to purely subsidiary functions. The recognition of the role of Soviets was the central contribution of Eugen Levine, the leading Communist in the Republic, who was executed shortly after it fell. His wife’s biography of him is essentially a personal memoir, and on that level alone it is a moving work. But it also gives a glimpse of a man who, tragically, was never able to develop fully as a Marxist, but who was grappling with the central issue of workers’ power.

For Levine Soviets were the central core. He rejected any attempt to by-pass Soviets on the ground that only the workers’ own hard struggle could emancipate them. And though he predicted that the Bavarian Republic would soon be crushed, he argued:

‘We want to know what we are dying for. I know it from the example of Russia. There in the towns where a properly run Soviet was crushed by superior enemy forces, the idea of Soviet rule had taken such deep root that it was almost always resurrected once the enemy had been driven off.’

For Levine the principle of recall was the central feature of the Soviet. Not because of some abstract notion of democracy, but because a delegate must be constantly judged in practice by those he represents:

‘The cornerstone of a Soviet Republic is the factory council. The workers are not organised regionally, but in the factories, where they are together every day, where they can get to know each other in the course of their daily work, and where elections of functionaries are held on totally different principles. There the workers know whether their representative is a mere babbler or a man who can stand his ground.’

Not that Levine neglected the role of the Party, as Stalinist historians have accused him of doing. On the contrary, he stressed the importance of Communists in the Soviets:

‘A Soviet Republic can be founded only by Soviets, not by individuals and only if a Communist majority stands behind them. For only Communists can pursue a Communist policy.’

And he participated in the reorganisation of the Communist Party into factory cells to assist its operation in the Soviets.

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