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Alex Callinicos

The lost opportunity

(October 1982

From Socialist Worker Review, No. 47, October 1982.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The Lost Revolution: Germany 1918 to 1923
Chris Harman
Bookmarks, £4.95

As readers of his earlier Bureaucracy and Revolution in Eastern Europe will know, Chris is a master of historical narrative when he writes about revolutions. The series of convulsions which tore Germany apart for five years comes alive in the pages of this splendid book.

It recounts the spontaneous uprising of November 1918 which overthrew the monarchy and the Spartakist days of January 1919, when the treachery of Germany’s Social-Democratic (SPD) government, the hesitations of the centrist Independent Socialists (USP), and the ultra-left impetuosity of the fledgling Communist Party (KDP) conspired to bring about the death at the hands of the reactionary Freikorps of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht.

The short-lived Bavarian Socialist Republic, the Kapp putsch of March 1920. which led to the formation of Red Armies on the Ruhr, the so-called March action a year later, when the KPD made a farcical attempt to seize power without the support of a majority of workers and the great lost opportunity of 1923, when the French occupations of the Ruhr, and strato-inflation shoved even sections of the middle classes in the direction of revolutionary Communism are all analysed here.

The book does not, however, stand or fall as a historical narrative. The German revolution of 1918–23 was an occurrence whose reverberations are still being felt today. It is not simply that, as Chris makes amply plain, its failure paved the way for both Hitler and Stalin. More to the point, what we are confronted with here is the most important case of a revolutionary process taking place in an advanced capitalist country.

This is highly significant in itself. All the successful social revolutions of the past four centuries (starting with the Dutch revolt of 1564) have taken place in societies where most of the population lived off the soil, and where feudal relations of production still predominated, or had only recently been displaced. This is true of both Russia 1917 and China 1949, even though their outcomes were very different (respectively, a workers’ state and bureaucratic state capitalism).

No immunity

Bourgeois sociologists have concluded that, contrary to Marx, mature capitalist societies are immune to revolution. Germany 1918–23 is a clear and complete contradiction of this hypothesis (recently-advanced, for example, by Anthony Giddens in his The Class Structure of Advanced Societies).

For five years, the most powerful industrial economy in Europe, which had been ruled for nearly half a century by a military and bureaucratic state apparatus renowned for its efficiency and ruthlessness, was shaken by a now open, now hidden civil war. Alfred Rosenburg, the first historian of the Weimar Republic, could write of the very end of this period: There have been few periods in recent German history which would have been so favourable to a socialist revolution as the summer of 1923’.

It is true that the German Empire destroyed by the revolution of 1918 was not a conventional bourgeois democracy. The dominance of the bourgeoisie had been established in Germany not through the forcible conquest of power, as in England 1640–60, or France 1789–1815. It was the result, rather, of what Gramsci called a ‘passive revolution’.

The industrial bourgeoisie were prepared to leave control of the state apparatus in the hands of the quasi-feudal Junker landed class, in exchange for national unification and pro-capitalist economic policies.

This class-alliance was reflected in the structures of political domination. The Reichstag, although elected by universal manhood suffrage, did not control the executive. Under the federal system set up in 1870, considerable power was in the hands of the Prussian state government controlled by the Junkers thanks to a rigged electoral system. Bourgeois-democratic demands aimed at eliminating these remnants of absolutism consequently played a large part in the SPD’s minimum programme.

Despite these peculiarities, the structure through which the organized working class were incorporated into the existing order were identical to those in other advanced capitalist countries. Robert Michels’s pioneering study of the SPD, Political Parties, which appeared at the beginning of this century, analysed the evolution of a conservative trade-union bureaucracy closely allied to a party apparatus in which the parliamentary leadership prevailed.

Michels showed how many of the features of the British Labour Party, which some parochial socialists believe to be unique, are indeed characteristic of classical reformist parties, which seek the improvement of workers’ conditions within the framework of capitalism.

Carl Schorske, in his classic work on German social democracy, traces the way in which bureaucratization of the labour movement was accompanied by the SPD’s gradual shift to the right in the years before 1914. This process culminated in the leadership’s eager support of the Imperial government during the First World War, and in the role which SPD ‘statesmen’ such as Ebert, Noske and Scheidemann played in rescuing German capitalism after November 1918.

Yet it was workers reared in this profoundly conservative labour movement, the famous ‘state within a state’ with 90 daily papers, sports clubs, singing societies, and youth groups, who acted in the most revolutionary way between 1918 and 1923. One observer described a march by workers and soldiers in Berlin during the November Revolution: ‘Most of the workers were of middle age, with grey bearded faces ... They had the trade-unionists’ corporate spirit and marched conscientiously, in order. Some of them were shouldering rifles.’


At the time, these workers would still have supported the SPD, or, at best, the USP. It was wartime privations which prompted them to rebel against the Kaiser, not a conscious commitment to revolutionary socialism. But Chris shows how, in the following years, as a result of the repression mounted by the SPD-sponsored Freikorps, and of the attempts by German capital to claw back the economic gains workers had made after November 1918, wider and wider sections of the proletariat, and even of the middle classes (their savings wiped out by post-war inflation) began to look to the KPD and to its objective of workers’ power.

This process contradicts the claim, made both by many left-reformist and by some would-be revolutionaries, that ‘ideological hegemony’ has to be wrested from the bourgeoisie before there can be any talk of socialism. As Chris points out:

‘All these views have the same basic fault. They see consciousness as a fixed property of individuals. They ask what workers believed at a certain point in time, then go on to argue that these beliefs established limits beyond which the revolution could not go. But consciousness is never a fixed property of individuals or classes. It is rather one aspect of their dynamic, ever-changing interaction with each other and with the world.’

Workers’ consciousness is transformed through their experience of struggle. As Marx told an earlier generation of German revolutionaries (the Communist League in 1850): ‘We say to the workers: You have 15, 20, 50 years of civil war to go through in order to alter the situation and to train yourselves for the exercise of power’ (Collected Works, X, 626).

These words are entirely apposite when applied to Germany 1918–23 (although the period was one of five rather than fifteen or fifty years). A working class reared in reformism gradually shook off the tutelage of the SPD and confronted the bourgeoisie, often with arms in their hands.

The question of time-scale is an important one. Reformists accuse revolutionaries of advocating a sudden insurrection – a charge on the Winter Palace. But the experience of Germany 1918–23 shows that revolution is a process, lasting some considerable period of time, and involving a series of retreats and advances for the revolutionary forces, none of which is necessarily final.

The Russian revolution of 1917 was comparatively brief, lasting some eight months, but then there had been the great dress rehearsal of 1905. The prolonged character of any revolutionary upheaval reflects the weaknesses of both sides. Once the state apparatus has disintegrated, as it did in Germany after the soldiers’ and sailors’ mutinies of November 1918, then it will take some time for the ruling class to regroup its forces, and attempt to regain its position.

In Germany Ebert’s coalition of SPD and USP ministers was instrumental in facilitating this process. On the other hand, workers do not break from their traditional beliefs overnight. A comparatively prolonged period of struggle, in which the true nature of the reformist parties is revealed, is necessary.

Experience of struggle is not, however, a sufficient condition of workers making a revolution. If it were, then Rosa Luxemburg would have been right not to have broken with the SPD during, or even before the First World War. Chris shows very well how this fatalist refusal to build a disciplined revolutionary organization hamstrung Luxemburg and her successors after November 1918.

The early KPD was dominated by young revolutionaries fresh from the war, with little or no experience of the economic class struggle, too new to politics to understand the need to win a majority of the working class before attempting the conquest of power.

The consequences were disastrous: The Spartakists (as the German Communists called themselves) fell into the trap of using the pretext of the dismissal of the revolutionary Berlin police chief to overturn the Ebert government in alliance with the left of the USP. The inevitable failure of this putsch allowed Ebert and Noske to unleash the Freikorps, recruited from the elite regiments of the old Imperial Army, on Berlin. Luxemburg, who opposed this adventure, and Liebknecht, who had encouraged it, were its chief victims.

The period of 1918–20 also brings out one of the chief characteristics of a revolutionary crisis – the sheer confusion of ideas it involves. Workers did not reject their old beliefs in one clean break. Revolutionary, reformist, and reactionary ideas co-existed in a bizarre mess within many workers heads. The most successful political tendencies in such a period are likely to be those which pander to this confusion. Centrism is just such a tendency, seeking as it does to arrive at a compromise between reform and revolution, between preserving the old order and forcibly overthrowing it.


The classic case of centrism in Germany was the USP. Formed by anti-war socialists expelled from the SPD in 1917, it initially embraced everyone from Bernstein, father of revisionism, Karl Kautsky, the pope of orthodox Marxism, and the revolutionaries Luxemburg and Liebknecht. Although after 1918 the USP leadership gradually moved rightwards, it attracted hundreds of thousands of workers who were disillusioned with the SPD, but were dubious of the KPD, including the revolutionary shop stewards such as Richard Muller.

Insofar as centrism, not only in Germany but among the leaders of left Social Democracy in Austria (Otto Bauer, for example), had a theory, it was that of combining parliamentary and workers’ democracy. Constitutions were devised in which parliamentary institutions co-existed with workers’ councils.

This sort of conception is still very influential today. The political theorist Nicos Poulantzas advocated in his last book, State, Power, Socialism, the ‘articulation’ of direct and representative democracy. Similar positions were espoused by Louis Althusser and his French co-thinkers.

At a different level, any Labour new left worth his or her salt will happily waffle on about the importance of both parliamentary and extra-parliamentary movements. Even some ex-revolutionaries take this view. Tariq Ali apparently wants to combine workers’ councils with an assembly, elected by universal suffrage while a leading American Trotskyist, Tim Wolforth, recently devoted an article in New Left Review to putting the case for such an arrangement.

The trouble with such strategies is that they mistake the nature of state power. The sociologist Max Weber defined the state as an association possessing ‘the monopoly of legitimate violence’ in a particular territory. This definition, at least as far as modern states are concerned, seems to me essentially correct. State power involves both some sort of more or less plausible ideological justification for its exercise by a particular group, and the ability to enforce that group’s commands.

In the last instance, it is coercive power that is decisive, but it is always bound up with ideological factors. Thus, in January 1919 it was less the balance of military forces which doomed the attempt to overturn Ebert, than the mass of workers’ (understandable) suspicions of the revolutionary left, and the vacillations of the USP.

The nature of the state power is such as to require a unified command of the repressive forces of the state, and a single source of legitimacy. (These don’t have to be the same – indeed, they necessarily differ in bourgeois democracies, where parliament is sovereign, but does not control the executive.)

No two powers

Parliament and workers’ councils cannot simply co-exist as equals. Unless one is subordinated to the other, they represent alternative states competing for dominance. Moreover, workers’ councils radically challenge bourgeois democracy, asserting that there is a superior form of democracy, one based on the direct election and recall of workplace delegates.

To allow parliament to continue to exist, or to summon a new one (as Ebert did in 1918, convoking the Constituent Assembly), is to create an alternative source of legitimacy to the councils, one behind which the reactionary forces will gather until they can regain the offensive.

The German revolution thus followed a classic pattern, first set in the French revolution of 1848, and repeated as recently as Portugal 1974–5. The forces of the old order, discomfited in the early stages of the revolution, lend their (albeit highly critical) support to the ‘moderate’ left. An example is the famous pact between Ebert and General Groener, head of the Imperial General Staff, during the November Revolution. A representative assembly elected by universal suffrage is then summoned, which tends, because parliamentary elections atomize the voters into isolated individuals and encourage passivity, and because of the confusion characteristic of the early stages of the revolution, to isolate the revolutionary left.

The assembly thus legitimates a reign of terror against the ‘extremist’ and ‘anti-democratic’ left, such as that mounted by the Freikorps in 1919, and Cavaignac’s bloody repression of the Paris workers in June 1848. Once the assembly and its ‘moderate’ leaders has served its purpose, however, the forces of the counterrevolution will turn on them, as the German army did on Ebert during the Kapp putsch.

Consider the career of the Portuguese Socialist leader Mario Soares, chief victor in the Constituent Assembly elections of spring 1975, front man in the offensive against the revolution that same summer, finally dumped by the Portuguese bourgeoisie in favour of the right-wing parties. (The Portuguese revolution, as Chris and Tony Cliff pointed out in their numerous writings at the time, was an eerie reprise of the German upheaval, with most of the same mistakes being made.)

To seek to reconcile bourgeois and proletarian democracy, therefore, is to doom socialist revolution to defeat. One of the main tasks of revolutionaries is to challenge the easy solution offered by the centrists, and to argue consistently that only through the workers’ councils taking sole power, and suppressing the institutions of bourgeois domination, including parliament, can the proletariat achieve its objective of a classless society.

The experience of Germany 1918–23 establishes the essential role of a revolutionary party in more than one respect. It is not simply that reformist ideas can only be broken down through revolutionaries participating in workers’ struggles, and seeking to draw attention to the lessons they contain. Also in question is the decisive role of revolutionary leadership in situations of crisis. ‘Leadership’ is a word of which one is naturally chary because it carries with it connotations of orthodox Trotskyist programme-thumping. Nevertheless, it remains true that realistic, flexible, and decisive leadership is indispensable to the success of a revolution.

Take the case of Heinrich Brandler, one of the main leaders of the KPD during this period. He was in many ways an admirable figure. For example, he was able to make Chemnitz, hitherto a stronghold of the SPD, into one of the Communists’ main bases, refusing to be drawn into premature insurrection, and participating in a series of economic battles in which the KPD gradually came to play the leading role. Yet his responsibility for the disastrous 1921 March action fatally weakened his confidence in his own judgement.

Thereafter, Brandler took his line from the Comintern leadership in Moscow. A consequence was that in the summer of 1923, when the masses, pauperised by strato-inflation and the collapse of the mark, gravitated towards the revolution, the KPD did not grasp the opportunity fate had offered them.

What they lacked

Only when the most favourable moment had passed, and the reactionary Cuno government had been replaced by a Grand Coalition of the SPD and the bourgeois parties, did the Comintern wake up to the situation. Even then, the hesitations of the KPD leadership, plus some bad advice from Moscow, meant that the German October was a fiasco.

The German Communists lacked what the Bolsheviks had possessed in 1917: a disciplined organisation of experienced members trained by years of ups and downs in the struggle, and a leadership capable of making rapid tactical adjustments while keeping the basic objective of workers’ power always in their sights.

When it was founded at the end of 1918, the KPD had the ablest group of leaders anywhere outside Russia itself: Luxemburg, Liebknecht, Leo Jogiches, Paul Levi, Brandler. It lacked the cadre necessary to translate the leadership’s perspectives into concerted activity. By the time such a cadre had been formed, steeled by the bloodshed of 1919 and 1920, and swelled by the split which brought much of the USP over to Communism in late 1920, they lacked an effective leadership. Luxemburg, Jogiches and Liebknecht were dead. Paul Levi was soon driven out for his opposition to the mad March action, and Brandler’s confidence was shattered by the same events.

More than anything else, Chris’s book underlines the absolute importance of building the party before the revolutionary crisis. By the time the upheaval is upon us, it may already be too late. The sheer hard slog of winning small numbers to revolutionary politics in years of political and economic retreat such as the present pays enormous dividends when the struggle revives, as the Bolsheviks learned in 1912, when the Russian workers’ movement burst into action after the defeat of the 1905 revolution, and then again in 1917 itself. For all her brilliance and courage, Luxemburg remained too wedded to the fatalistic Marxism of the Second International to understand this. That must be her epitaph.

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