Gilles Dauvé / Denis Authier

War and Radicalization

Chapter 4

Table of Contents:


1914 and Democracy

On August 4, 1914, the socialist parliamentary delegation, including the left, voted in favor of the war budget. Only one socialist deputy, F. Kunert, abstained, but did not give his gesture any political significance. The parliamentary delegation obeyed the decision of the SPD Central Committee. The socialist trade unions did the same, and announced their opposition to all strikes and their support for participation in the war effort. All strikes were declared illegal. The anarchosyndicalist trade unions rejected the sacred union (Burgfrieden, or “civic truce”) and were immediately outlawed and subjected to mass arrests.

The 1907 Stuttgart Congress of the Socialist International had ended in a compromise which raised the hopes of the Left. The Lenin-Martov-Luxemburg amendment, which proclaimed that, in case of war, the “economic and political crisis created by the war should be used ... to precipitate the destruction of capitalist rule,” had no practical force since the International was quite careful not to authorize the means to implement such a policy.[1] It was a respectable institution, recognized by the international bourgeoisie, which even as late as 1913 had expectations of being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize: had the war not taken place, it would quite likely have been awarded the prize in 1914.

Some groups and individuals then proclaimed the “collapse” of the Second International: the Bolsheviks, Bordiga and the left wing of the Italian Socialist Party, Pannekoek and Gorter, the Serbian Socialist Party, etc. The French, German and English parties accepted the war. The other two important parties (their importance was not merely numerical), the Russian and the Italian parties, had quite distinct positions. The two factions of the Russian Party, which in reality constituted two distinct parties, did not abandon the struggle against their own government. Italy did not enter the war at first: while an important minority took a revolutionary position on the war which was similar to that of the Zimmerwald Left, the majority of the PSI adopted a completely pacifist position, and was quite content not to have to take up a position between the two lines of fire. When Italy did enter the war, the PSI decided to “neither support nor sabotage” the sacred union. The Zimmerwald Left spoke of a “social pacifism” equivalent to “social patriotism” in other circumstances.

The different positions adopted by the Socialist Parties cannot be understood if one inters oneself in the logic of the parties themselves. The parties represented the general tendency of the proletariat in each country: almost total support on the part of the French and English proletariat for the war, a more subdued adherence on the part of the German proletariat, which would be transformed into rebellion against the war, and Russian proletarian defeatism. France was a democracy and its proletariat had not yet recovered from the defeat of the Commune: it was reformist (sometimes violently so) and was not oriented towards the State (whether democratic or not). In Germany, not only was the workers movement more powerful before 1914, but it still had the goal of realizing democracy in its country, something which, in those circumstances, was a goal which had to be approached on the level of the State. In Russia, not only was it a question, as in Germany, of changing the form of the State, but also of replacing it with a new one and changing society itself, of carrying out the bourgeois revolution in its entirety, since the Russian bourgeoisie was incapable of doing so.

In France, the SFIO and the trade unions marshaled the proletariat under the banner of defense of their democratic conquests against Prussian absolutism, overlooking the fact that in doing so it had to ally itself with a distinctly more reactionary absolutism: czarism. In Germany, the SPD’s rallying call was the defense of European civilization against Asian barbarism. In Russia, no slogan of this kind was possible. The proletariat once again took up the defeatist attitude it had displayed in the Russo-Japanese War: the military collapse of czarism in a foreign conflict would once again be the signal for a revolution at home, as in 1905. The Russian proletariat underwent a process of radicalization. After 1915, mutinies spread throughout the army. Lenin and the Bolsheviks became the leaders of the Zimmerwald Left.

The positions of the various proletariats and workers parties revolved around the defense or conquest of democracy. On a world scale there was just one proletariat. Generally, it sought improvements within the framework of the existing mode of production. The reformism of the West and the democratic revolutionism of the East were two aspects of the same reality. One could say that the proletariat participated in these two aspects. Even in Russia, the proletariat had to assure the conditions for the extension of the capitalist mode of production by destroying all the vestiges of previous modes of production. It carried out the tasks of the bourgeois revolution. In Russia as in all the western countries, the proletariat stood alone, because the communist revolution never took place: the proletariat itself was universally enlisted in the effort to reform capital’s economic and political rule. In Germany, where the proletariat was potentially powerful on a social scale (and not on the political level, as in Russia), the most radical tendencies of the era arose, oriented towards communism. In Russia, the isolated proletariat would exhaust itself and be submerged in capitalist tasks. In Germany, however, after the democratic “revolution” of November 1918, all that was left to achieve was the proletarian revolution.


Developments within the SPD

As of August 2, 1914, the trade unions banned all strikes. When General Ludendorff grumbled about all this trade union support, an Undersecretary of State responded in the following manner: “There is no doubt that we cannot win the war without the good will of the industrial workers. No one, of course, has so much influence over these workers as the trade union leaders. Without these leaders, and a fortiori against them, we can do nothing. Their influence rests upon the actions which they have successfully led for decades with the intention of improving the workers’ situation ... it is inconceivable how we could resist if this had not been the case...”[2] The CI would never go so far in its analyses.

On August 4, the left wing of the SPD parliamentary delegation, K. Liebknecht and Otto Rühle, yielded to Party discipline (Luxemburg was not a deputy). Taken as a whole, however, the social democratic edifice, including the trade unions, was already beginning to crumble. The rate and methods by which the various tendencies would regroup in different organizations can be examined on three levels: parliament, party and the workers movement, with each influencing the others, especially from the bottom up, as the development of the workers movement was the foundation of the development of the left radical and centrist groups.

It was on the parliamentary level that the splits appeared and crystallized most quickly. The parliamentary apparatus, and, consequently, the reactionary tendency, possessed a monopoly of information due to the very nature of such an organization. Liebknecht had to go to Holland and to the various German States in order to be rapidly convinced that the opposition was not restricted to Berlin, where a small group had formed around Luxemburg, Mehring, etc., and where important working class sectors of the Party supported the opposition. On December 2, he was the first deputy to vote against the new war credits. Haase, leader of the centrist opposition to the war and future leader of the USPD, justified the vote for war credits in the name of the Party due to the need for national defense. On February 7, 1915, Liebknecht was mobilized, along with other known opponents of the war.

The tide of events would push Rühle, and then some twenty other deputies, towards the opposition. In February of 1915, Luxemburg was imprisoned for the first time during the war, and would not be released until February 1916. While in prison she wrote The Crisis of Social Democracy, also known as the Junius Pamphlet after her pseudonym (see below). An international women’s peace conference convened in Berne in March 1915. The Germans were represented by Zetkin. The Russians would, for the first time, hear the voice of the international left, but the majority of the latter was still pacifist. This conference was preceded by a demonstration of a thousand women in front of the Reichstag: it was the first demonstration of the political opposition since the beginning of the war. During this same period, the oppositionist Stuttgart Party section stopped paying its dues to the Party leadership, which amounted to a split. On March 20, Rühle followed Liebknecht and refused to vote for the national budget, which the SPD approved for the first time in its history. Thirty deputies did not attend the parliamentary session so as not to participate in the vote. A series of women’s demonstrations led to the arrest of Zetkin. An international conference of socialist youth adopted a position against the war. The news from Zimmerwald, the passage of numerous Party sections to the opposition, the founding of the ISD and the first hunger riots led 18 centrist deputies into open opposition in December.

In early 1916, all these oppositionists were excluded from the parliamentary delegation. The centrists formed the social democratic Community of Labor (Arbeitsgemeinschaft), the nucleus of the future USPD. It was opposed to the SPD leadership’s war policy but refused to break with the Party until it was excluded in early 1917.

After the February Revolution in Russia, the German parliament voted for a resolution in favor of peace, in July 1917, in order to undercut the impact of the mass movement against the war. The State, under pressure from its parliament and especially the SPD (who thought they could save the economy from a revolution) also attempted to reform itself in the direction of a parliamentary democracy: the last government before November 1918 would be declared to be responsible before the chamber and would include SPD ministers.

The de-aggregation of the Party’s left was paralleled by a reaction on the part of the leadership. For the first time, the old radical current of social democracy was dispersed into numerous groups (prior to 1914, Luxemburg and Kautsky were both known as “radicals”). Later, a process of regroupment culminated in the founding of the USPD, the Spartacus League and the ISD.

The first opposition groups formed primarily in Hamburg, around Wolffheim and Laufenberg, and in Bremen, where the group included the majority of the socialist organization and could express its views in the Bremer Bürger-Zeitung, which from the very start of the war took a firm stand: “everything which we have said until now would amount to nothing but empty words unless we uphold our positions during and after the war.”[3] Groups also formed in Dresden, Gotha, Brunswick, Weimar, Nüremberg, Leipzig, Halle and various neighborhoods in Berlin. The Berlin Vorwärts was in the hands of the opposition and Rühle issued calls for a split.

The loyal branches of the Party diminished in number: after Stuttgart, Duisberg (summer 1916) and Bremen (December 1916) ceased to pay the Party leadership their statutory 20% dues quota. Numerous groups and individuals chose to leave the Party: of its 1,000,000 members in 1914, only 200,000 remained in the SPD at the time of its September 1917 Congress.

The leadership’s policy was to fire the editors of its papers who did not support its directives, and to replace them with more docile editorial teams. In Berlin the affair took on the appearance of a police operation, and was known by the name of the “Vorwärts Robbery”: hence the occupation of the premises of the newspaper during the revolution, the rank and file wanting to recover “its” organ of expression.



The ISD was formed in September 1915. It was the smallest of the radical currents, but it was the precursor of the postwar German Left. Its theoretical spokesperson before the war was Pannekoek. After August 4, 1914, only a few oppositionist groups decided to definitively break with the SPD and with everything the latter represented and entailed. The two most important groups were the Berlin group around the journal Lichstrahlen (Rays of Light), and the Bremen and Brunswick groups around Radek, which then comprised the German ultra-left.

Upon definitively breaking with the SPD, these groups explained the supposed betrayal of 1914 as being due to the social democratic form of organization itself. They wanted a new form of organization in which complete democracy would prevail: the delegates must be revocable at any moment, under the constant vigilance of the rank and file, etc. In this manner the formation of a layer of bureaucrats living on the members’ dues, the “bonzes” who become conservatives (in politics as well) in order to preserve their positions, would be prevented. One of the principle refrains of the German Revolution began to be heard: denunciation of the leaders, praise for the masses.

Lichstrahlen was founded in 1913 by Julian Borchardt. The very title of the magazine clearly indicated its enlightenment goal: to clarify the consciousness of the masses so they could take measures to free themselves from the influence of leaders.[4] (Knowledge of the currents involved in the origins of the German Left is important in order to form an accurate idea of the latter.) Pannekoek, who was in close contact with the Bremen group, carried out a much more profound analysis of the causes of the apparent betrayal of 1914: the socialist parties corresponded to the pre-imperialist period of capitalism, a period characterized by the growth of the capitalist social form, in which the workers struggles could achieve real reforms. The socialist parties were structured on the basis of this situation. The body of the Party is the high authority, at the political level, for conducting the negotiations which lead to obtaining improvements in the material conditions of the proletariat. The Party had become well-adapted to this function, wherein revolutionary action (in which the masses directly intervene without any need for someone to act in their place, that is, in which they are no longer masses but a class, and potentially humanity) appears to the social democratic organization as a dangerous perspective, in general but above all in regard to its own preservation.[5]

Besides the fact that it did not join the ISD, the Hamburg group was most notable for its connection to the revolutionary movement in the USA: the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World). Wolffheim had been a militant in the IWW in California for several years. The views expressed by Wolffheim and Laufenberg in Democracy and Organization were similar to the ideology of the IWW (see Chapter 9).[6] Their ideas also presaged German unionism (the AAU and AAU-E). Workers should not, they said, organize and struggle while grouped by trades and skills (as in the trade unions) because the structure of capitalism had changed since the formation of the first trade unions. Trades had long since ceased to be the basic economic units and consequently were no longer the locus of the class struggle of the proletariat. This unit was now the factory and, at a higher level, the industry. Against the monopolization and trustification of capitalism in its many forms, the workers could not prosecute an effective struggle unless they monopolized and trustified themselves at their workplaces, factory by factory, and then by industry: “To the monopolized form of industry corresponds, on the workers’ side, the pure industrial union on the basis of the factory organization.”[7] This would, in addition, permit the still “unorganized” workers to join the struggle.

In September of 1915, various groups and individuals (among others, the Russian Bolsheviks and Mensheviks) held a conference in Zimmerwald attended by all the currents of international social democracy which were opposed to the Second International’s policy since the onset of the war, in order to build a new worldwide revolutionary organization. The internationalists, few in number, could be counted on the fingers of two hands.

From Germany, the following were represented at Zimmerwald: the International group (the future Spartacus League: see below); the Bremen and Brunswick groups (represented by Radek); the Berlin group (Borchardt); as well as the centrists Ledebour and Hoffmann who took as their basis the proclamation of Kautsky, Haase and Bernstein demanding a peace treaty, without attacking the leadership of the SPD.

On the fundamental question of what attitude to adopt concerning social democracy, a split developed between the left and the center. The Mensheviks (Martov) and the future Spartacists joined the centrists. They rejected an immediate split and spoke of re-conquering social democracy. The left (the Bolsheviks, Roland-Holst[8] representing the Dutch SDP Left, and the delegates from Bremen, Brunswick and Berlin) voted for a resolution which stated, among other things:[9]

“Social-patriotism and social-imperialism, defended in Germany by both the majority—which is openly patriotic—of the old social democrats, as well as by the so-called centrists grouped around Kautsky ... is an even more dangerous enemy of the proletariat than the bourgeois advocacy of imperialism, because social-imperialism, outrageously claiming to be the standard-bearer of socialism, can lead unenlightened workers into error” (un-aufgeklärte, always Aufklärung, the clarification of consciousness).

The resolution saw only a spiritual problem of consciousness where it was above all a matter of the relation of forces. But even at the level of the relation of forces its analyses seemed to be correct because, after the war, social democracy was the only effective counterrevolutionary force. Gorter’s Imperialism, the World War and Social Democracy (1915) developed the major theses of the Zimmerwald Left: transforming the war into a civil war and creating a new international. It also contains an implicit critique of the thesis concerning the labor bureaucracy: it was the whole proletariat (and not just its highest layers) which had been “corrupted”, that is, it had seen its material situation improve through its struggles, thanks to the rise in the rate of profit in the preceding period.

Gorter and Pannekoek, who could not attend the Zimmerwald Conference, supported the left. Pannekoek and Roland-Holst sent money (the SDP did not want to become involved in this kind of activity). They were entrusted with editing and publishing a German-language international organ, Vorbote (the Precursor), whose other collaborators were Lenin, Radek, Zinoviev and Gorter. Only two issues appeared as a result of disputes within the small group, due in part to the Bolsheviks’ sensitivities. One such dispute, for example, involved Roland-Holst and Trotsky.[10]

This collaboration within the framework of the Zimmerwald Left is one of the elements which help to explain the German Left’s misunderstandings concerning the Bolshevik seizure of power and the Third International at the time of its founding. When Lenin and the leadership of the Third International began to attack the “leftists”, the latter would long believe that this was a result of a lack of information.

The Bolsheviks, and the German, Dutch, Bulgarian and Italian Lefts, were unique in their espousal during the war of the revolutionary position against social democracy and their advocacy of the realistic and revolutionary watchword: no to peace, transform the war between nations into a civil war to seize power.

It was upon this set of positions that the Bremen, Brunswick and Berlin Lefts founded the Internazionale Sozialisten Deutschlands (ISD): the International Socialists of Germany. Their organ was Lichstrahlen and later, after that journal was shut down in April 1916, the Bremen Arbeiterpolitik (Workers Politics), published after the SPD took over the Bremer Bürger-Zeitung in June 1916.[11] In December of 1916 they ceased to pay their dues to the SPD leadership and were joined by the radicals of Brunswick and Hamburg, although the latter did not immediately enter the ISD. Numerous individual members and entire sections of the Spartacus League were in agreement with the ISD’s views concerning the need to create a left radical organization totally independent of social democracy: the Dresden sections (Rühle), for example, and those of Frankfurt and Duisburg. One can thus understand why, while it was less important during the war than Spartacus, the ISD—or at least its theses—enjoyed the support of the majority at the founding Congress of the German CP (see Chapter 6).

The two touchstones of the left at the founding Congress of the German CP would, in effect, be electoral abstentionism and sabotage of the trade unions. These two positions were arrived at by the ISD in the course of its theoretical development, greatly influenced by the workers movement during the war. It was in Arbeiterpolitik that, for the first time, the watchword of the German Revolution appeared: Heraus den Gewerkschaften! (Out of the Trade Unions!), at first to be subjected to criticism, and later to be adopted. Much the same thing took place regarding the concept of the unitary organization which was expressed for the first time in 1917 in the same journal. This idea would be re-appropriated and further elaborated by Wolffheim and Laufenberg, providing the first theoretical foundations of the AAU. But the German Left went beyond the IWW: instead of basing itself on economic organizations which rejected politics, it wanted to positively overcome the rupture between political and economic organizations. Finally, the critique of social democracy and its methods led the ISD to the rejection of parliamentarism as a tactic which fatally led to the domination of the parliamentary delegation over the rest of the Party which would thus become the instrument for purely electoral ends. The later theoretical elaborations of this current are clearly of great interest today: World Revolution and Communist Tactics, by Pannekoek, as well as three texts by Rühle: The Revolution is Not a Party Matter!, Fundamental Questions of Organization, and From the Bourgeois to the Proletarian Revolution.



As the Left maintained, the USPD was a “party of leaders”, created by “leaders” to lead the “masses”. At the beginning of 1917, after a national conference of oppositionists, which was attended by the social democratic Community of Labor, the Spartacus League and Lichstrahlen (these groups contributing 111, 34 and 7 delegates, respectively) and which voted to remain in the SPD, the Community of Labor and the Spartacists were excluded from the SPD. In April, the centrists created the USPD, the Independent Social Democratic Party, which the Spartacus League joined as an autonomous group. It was an important party which would receive 2.5 million votes in the 1919 elections. Drawn from the SPD Left, which comprised many of its sections, it had its own trade union organization in the “revolutionary shop stewards” (see below), an oppositionist trade union organization born during the war.

The Independents denounced the existing German State as “the State of the Middle Classes” and wanted a State of the working class.[12] This position differs from both Bernstein’s stance at the turn of the century which was in favor of an SPD-Liberal alliance, as well as from that of the defenders of imperialism, who were supporters of a working class-big capital alliance against the liberal bourgeoisie and the middle classes, a program which would be more or less realized by the Nazis. The USPD extended traditional liberalism by mixing it with a laborism of workers ideology. The numerous workers who supported it were against the revolution as well as the authoritarianism and bureaucratism of the SPD and the ADGB. Historically, this Party expressed the ambiguous character of a (numerous) fraction of workers whose confusion would be augmented by defeat.

In conformity with its dualism, it was the Party where all compromises found a place. Whenever its left wing launched or reactivated an action, it began negotiating from the very moment that the action appeared to become dangerous to the established order. It had a left wing which took to the streets (the Spartacists, at the beginning, and leaders like Ledebour who had connections with the shop stewards), and a right wing which undertook parliamentary maneuvers. After the sailors had established contact with the USPD during the summer of 1917 (see the next Chapter), it abandoned them the moment they were repressed and denied any responsibility for their actions. A leader of the USPD declared: “We have tried to channel the justified indignation of the masses into legal political action.”[13] These “pure” social democrats wanted social democracy without its natural consequence: social democracy’s counterrevolutionary future. Their critique, like Luxemburg’s, was directed at the “official authorities”, the “current leaders” of the SPD, but never at the SPD as such.

The USPD was the German expression of the international phenomenon Lenin designated as “centrism”: the center of the Italian SP under Serrati, the Independent Labour Party in England, the majority of the SFIO in France. Yet this center would be the object of the CI’s efforts to swell the ranks of the CPs. For the revolutionaries, centrism was defined and fought on the basis of its dynamic: blocking the evolution of reformist positions towards radical action. The USPD would play this role to perfection.


The Spartacist League

The Spartacist League included both the future rightist leaders of the KPD (Luxemburg, Leo Jogisches, Levi, Pieck—the future president of the GDR—Zetkin), as well as future KAPists (Rühle, Bergmann, Meyer). Others, like Liebknecht, occupied an intermediate position in the revolution.

The Spartacist League suffered from a problem which would be reproduced on a larger scale during the KPD’s first few months: a left majority and a right-wing leadership, with the left not daring to make a clean break to join the ISD. In 1915, the Spartacist League was known as the International group, which was the name of the single issue of a journal which it published. In 1916 it became the Spartacist Group or League: starting in January 1916, Luxemburg published a series of political letters under the signature of “Spartacus”, and the “Spartacus” journal appeared in September. Its two theoreticians were Liebknecht and Luxemburg. For his valiant and spectacular opposition to the war, Liebknecht was the most popular of the “social democratic leaders” in Germany. He was the first to refuse to vote for war credits. For having shouted “Down with the war! Down with the government!” at the May Day demonstration in 1916, he was arrested and condemned to a sentence of four years in prison, etc. It was in prison where he elaborated his positions, which are summarized below.

If Luxemburg was the author of the formula, “After August 4, 1914, social democracy is nothing but a nauseating corpse,” she proved to be quite a necrophiliac. She played a perfectly reactionary role, utilizing all the resources of her dialectic and all her authority to prevent the revolutionaries from cutting the ties which bound them to that “corpse” under the pretext that the masses were found there and that they must not separate themselves from them. Her trenchant formulas and intricate dialectics often concealed a lack of deep analysis:

“However laudable and understandable the impatience and bitterness which today lead the best elements to leave the Party (we should recall that 4/5 of the Party has thus abandoned it), flight is still flight. For us, this means a betrayal of the masses who are struggling and suffocating, caught in the snares of the Scheidemanns and the Legiens (socialist leader and the leader of the ADGB, respectively), who enjoy the favor of the bourgeoisie. One can ‘leave’ small sects and little cults when they no longer please, in order to found new sects and new cults. To attempt, by means of a simple “departure”, to free the proletarian masses from the horribly heavy and disastrous yoke of the bourgeoisie and to thus set a good example for them, is purely imaginary. To entertain the illusion of freeing the masses by tearing up the militants’ membership cards is nothing but the inverted expression of the fetishism of the Party membership card as an illusory power. Both these attitudes are merely different poles of institutional cretinism, an illness inherent to the old social democracy.”[14]

The Spartacus Letter of March 30, 1916, concerning the founding of the Community of Labor, concluded in this fashion: “The watchword is neither schism, nor unity, nor new party, nor old party, but the re-conquest of the Party from the bottom up by means of the rebellion of the masses who must take their organizations and instruments into their own hands, not with a rebellion of words, but of deeds.”

This tactic was similar to the centrist position of the Spartacists at Zimmerwald: refusing to publicly denounce the Kautskyist center and to accept Lenin’s and Gorter’s, et al., slogans against the war, Luxemburg and Liebknecht underwent the following evolution. At first, they propagandized in favor of a “just” peace without annexations, defined as a “socialist peace”. At the meeting of the SPD shop stewards held in Charlottenburg on December 30, 1914, Liebknecht proposed a vote on a “Resolution on the nature of the war and the tasks of the working class” in which he said: “The goal of the socialists is to obtain through struggle a peace without annexations, without humiliating any country, and to do everything possible to reinforce the movement for such a socialist peace in all countries concerned.” Later, the conclusion of the Junius Pamphlet (“Theses on the Tasks of International Social Democracy”) launched the slogan “War against War”, which was susceptible of many different interpretations. Luxemburg would long remain bound to the socialist conception of the war. Jaurés’s phrase is well-known: “Capitalism brings war the way clouds bring a storm.” The Zimmerwald Left went so far as to add a third term: war leads to revolution. The slogan, “War against War” remains in the social democratic camp.

Liebknecht developed an original position on organization. He had seen that, except for those made by Pannekoek, the “leftist” critiques of the social democratic form of organization were quite superficial and effectively revealed a degree of organizational fetishism. He attempted to oppose to an organizational form which favored the leaders and the counterrevolution, another form which would favor the “self-activity of the masses”. This leftist point of view was expounded by Liebknecht in his prison writings and was shared by the majority of the Spartacist League:

“To eliminate the paid bureaucracy, or to exclude it from all decision-making processes; to limit it to technical labor; to prohibit the re-election of all officials, after a maximum time served ..., to reduce the power of high-level positions; decentralization; vote by the rank and file on all important questions (veto power)... To teach the masses and individuals intellectual and moral independence, to question authority, to take the initiative and personal responsibility, so that each person would be prepared for and capable of free action: all these things comprise the only sure foundation for the development of a workers movement which would be equal to its historic tasks, in general, and this is also the precondition and essential basis for the extirpation of the bureaucratic danger.”[15]

Luxemburg did not want to become involved in this kind of critique. She broke with social democracy, but only reluctantly, and helped retard the construction of a new, entirely autonomous radical organization. Her 1904 polemic with Lenin, however, showed that she was by no means a devotee of organizational fetishism.[16] It is impossible to agree with Laufenberg when, in 1920, he wrote in Communism versus Spartacism: “Luxemburg never freed herself from the social democratic form of organization.” Laufenberg’s critique issued from the mystified point of view expressed by Liebknecht above. All the debates within the German Left are generally very confused.

There was, then, an important Left, which was even in the majority within the Spartacist League; but it did not distinguish itself in relation to its centrist leadership, represented by Luxemburg. The Spartacist League itself remained an autonomous group within the USPD, which, for its part, never lost hope of reunification with the SPD.


Labor Agitation and the “Shop Stewards”

All strikes were prohibited by the trade unions as a “betrayal of our brothers at the front”. As a result, everything was very clear from the beginning on the labor front, as far as organizations were concerned: in every strike, a new organization was born in each factory, led by the “revolutionary shop stewards”. These men were generally regularly-elected trade union delegates who did not follow the official line of the ADGB’s Central Committee. The new structures were based on the factory, and these factory organizations (BO, Betriebsorganisation) were organized by industrial regions (for example, the workers council of Greater Berlin), in accordance with the technical structure of capital during that era. This form of organization would be adopted and theorized by the German Left (KAPD, AAU), and was also the embryo of the future workers councils. The shop stewards held effective leadership over all strikes, and called them off without any negotiations when they felt that the strike movement was in no position to make the State back down. Starting and stopping strikes almost at will, the shop stewards were the most authentic expression of the labor rank and file at that time: they comprised its executive organ. Constantly spreading, the strikes were supposed to have terminated in the insurrectionary general strike. The shop stewards would elaborate a plan for November 1918 along such lines which, as it turned out, could not be executed: once again, it became obvious that the revolution would begin spontaneously before the D-Day foreseen by all the leaders. Later, when this revolution directly posed problems at the level of the State, once the struggle became directly political, the shop stewards in fact proved incapable of leading it: they generally rallied to the USPD as their political party. Incapable of transcending the limitations of the factory, they left it only in order to fall prey to the limitations of political democracy. Opposed to mass action, which they considered to be “revolutionary gymnastics”, the Revolutionäre Obleute (RO) proved that the mere fact of their working class and factory background did not confer upon them any more immunity against opportunism and immediatism than was the case with social groups “outside” the factories. The most radical sectors of the proletariat (the “left”) would not clearly emerge until the revolution.

The first disturbances were hunger riots accompanied by looting of stores, in October 1915 in Chemnitz, and later, during May-June 1916, demonstrations were held in numerous cities in solidarity with Liebknecht, who was on trial at the time for his seditious outbursts. In March-April 1917, a new wave of strikes took place. On April 16, what has come to be known as the first workers council in Germany was born in Leipzig; it was called a “committee” and was composed for the most part of members of the USPD, with a democratic pacifist and reformist program. The goals of the workers movement did not surpass this level until November 1918: but its direct methods allowed a glimpse beyond its initial goals.

The movements in the provinces were followed by a large strike in Berlin (250,000 workers) which spread like wildfire to central Germany from April 16 to 23 of 1917. On the 19th, the Knorr-Bremse factory elected a workers council with Spartacist tendencies. This strike was so significant that the ADGB permanent committee took the decision to compel new elections: the old rightists were replaced by new rightists. It was the first manifestation of the democratic offensive, a procedure which was to be extensively employed during the revolution.

The strikes of January 1918 were an extension of the strikes in Austria. Their international purpose was to exert pressure on the German and Austrian negotiators at Brest-Litovsk. Except for the latter, the movement’s goals were identical, but the strike was observed by more than one million workers. At the end of 1918, at the time of the “revolution”, the proletariat would again take up the attitude of the strikers of January, and it would be defeated. The expansion of the strike simultaneously made it clear how the various political groups were excluded from the practical initiatives which originated among the rank and file, only later managing to take control of the movement: at the time of the announcement of the events in Austria, the atmosphere in Berlin was dominated by strikes. The USPD was sympathetic and the Spartacists supported the strike, which was ultimately decided upon by the shop stewards. 400,000 workers did not go to work and elected a “Russian-style” council composed of delegates from all the city’s factories (analogous to the St. Petersburg Soviet), which had 400 delegates. The delegates in turn elected an Action Committee composed of eleven shop stewards who, despite protests, then co-opted three members of the USPD and three members of the SPD. The USPD representatives were Ledebour, Haase (who had justified the SPD’s vote for war credits while Liebknecht argued against it) and Dittmann (who became famous in Kiel when his party abandoned the sailors: see the next Chapter). The SPD representatives were Scheidemann, Braun and Ebert; the latter would later declare, in order to justify his action to his party’s extreme right, that he had only joined this Action Committee in order to sabotage the movement.[17]

The strike spread in Berlin and in all the large cities (with more than one million workers on strike). The government’s reaction was violent: the Berlin factories and the shipyards of Hamburg and Kiel were placed under martial law. The SPD pushed for negotiations, the Spartacists wanted the disturbances to lead to insurrection, but the shop stewards called an end to the movement on February 3.



[1] Haupt: Le congrès manqué, Maspero, 1965, pp. 25-27.

[2] Badia: Histoire de l’Allemagne comtemporaine, Ed. Sociales, Vol. I, p. 62.

[3] Walling, p. 268. Cf. Humbert Droz, L’origine de la IC, La Baconnière, 1968; and Gankin and Fisher, The Bolscheviks and the World War, Stanford University Press and Oxford University Press, 1940.

[4] H. M. Bock: Syndikalismus und Linkskommunismus, Marburger Abhandlungen für Politischen Wissenschaft, Vol. 13, 1969, p. 72.

[5] “L’imperialisme et les tâches du proletariat”, Vorbote, No. 1, 1916.

[6] Guerin: Le mouvement ouvrier aux USA, Maspero, 1968.

[7] Bock: p. 79.

[8] Roland-Holst: she left the small “Internationalist Group” to join the SDP in 1916.

[9] Bock: p. 69.

[10] F. Kool: Die Linke gegen die Parteiherrschaft, Walter-Verlag, Olten et Freiburg im Breisgau, Switzerland, 1970, pp. 90-91. Lenin considered Roland-Holst and Trotsky to be Zimmerwald “centrists”: cf. Oeuvres, Vol. 21, Ed. Sociales, 1969, pp. 323 and 465.

[11] According to Waldman, most members of the Lichstrahlen would later join the Linksradikalen of northern Germany: pp. 45-46.

[12] L. O’Boyle: American Historical Review, July, 1951, “The German Independent Socialists during the First World War.”

[13] Badia: p. 81.

[14] Quoted by Bock, p. 69.

[15] Ibid., p. 65.

[16] “Organizational Questions of Russian Social Democracy”, op. cit.

[17] Badia: pp. 87-88.