Rob Sewell’s GERMANY: From Revolution to Counter-Revolution

The Rise of Organised Labour

GERMANY HAD been the cradle of Marxism. Both Marx and Engels spent a great amount of time educating and developing the German labour movement. The German Social Democratic Party (SPD) ever since its foundation had given its allegiance to Marxism and was seen as the embodiment of the German revolutionary tradition. It was the most powerful party of the Second International (the body which grouped together the main socialist parties before the First World War) and was the strongest workers’ party on a world scale. By 1912, the SPD had one million members, over 15,000 full time party workers, assets worth more than 21 million gold marks, 90 daily newspapers and 62 printing offices. It had numerous periodicals together with its own socialist news agency, and a massive Central Socialist School.

It had a parliamentary vote of 4.3 million, which was more than one third of the total electorate. Its affiliated trade union membership amounted to more than 2.5 million. Its strength as a party was incomparably greater than the Bolshevik Party had been on the eve of the October Revolution. It appeared that the German labour movement was on a sound footing and that the socialist revolution was assured. Unfortunately its strength and resources were not used to effect the overthrow of capitalism, but became a means of advancement for a developing labour bureaucracy.

The relative social peace which existed in Europe between the defeat of the Paris Commune in 1871 and the end of the upswing in 1912 resulted in the trade unions and social democratic parties becoming powerful mass organisations. But the development of the German social democracy within this framework of an organic upswing of capitalism infected its leaders and its officialdom with the habit of compromise and gradual progress. The pressure of the mass organisations in this period of upswing resulted in increased living standards for the workers. Such a situation instilled into the labour leadership illusions that reforms could be won indefinitely. As the trade unions expanded in membership, as their resources developed dramatically, then gradually the leaders at each level raised their income and conditions of life higher than the masses. In the words of Marx, ‘social being determines social consciousness’.

The decades of peaceful gradual development transformed the character of social democracy. The labour leaders had bent under the sustained pressures of capitalism. For the developing careerists Marxist phrases were used at May Day processions, on workers’ holidays and other such occasions, whereas in day to day work they adapted themselves to bourgeois society. The trade unions and the SPD had become rich and powerful, and had begun to harbour careerists and place-seekers at every level. These privileged layers now had a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, in effect becoming not an instrument for the overthrow of capitalism, but of mediation between the classes.

Marxism revised?

In the late 1890s, a party leader, Eduard Bernstein, began to articulate the outlook of these privileged sections by arguing for a complete revision of Marxism. He urged the party to recognise reality and the changed situation since Marx’s time. For Bernstein, capitalism had now changed and had overcome its contradictions of boom and slump, class lines were becoming blurred and therefore the class struggle obsolete. He formulated his opportunist viewpoint in the phrase: ‘The final goal, no matter what it is, is nothing; the movement is everything.’ Bernstein was the forerunner of all those later reformist leaders who challenged the ideas of Marxism as not corresponding with the real development of society. The ideas of Kinnock, Gonzales, Mitterrand, Papandreou, are nothing new, but simply a vulgarised rehash of those expressed by Bernstein at the turn of the century.

In the German SPD Karl Kautsky and other leaders took up the fight against Bernstein’s revisionism. Kautsky’s attack on Bernstein, ‘How dare you renounce our heritage’, was not a defence of genuine revolutionary Marxism. For Kautsky, the ideas of Marxism had become like tablets of stone. He was a typical centrist, Marxist in words and phrases but reformist in deeds. His vulgarised Marxism was an attempt to reconcile reform and revolution. For Kautsky, theory and ideas were completely divorced from reformist practice and the day-to-day demands of the movement. The centrists’ whole being became adapted to reforms within capitalism. Kautsky was to end up after 1914 preaching national defence! The party congresses of 1901 and 1903, as well as the 1904 Congress of the Second International, passed resolutions condemning the new revisionism of Bernstein. But they meant very little in practice. The SPD secretary, Ignaz Auer, expressing the real cynical feeling of the bureaucracy, wrote to Bernstein in 1899,’My dear Ede, one does not formally make a decision to do the things you suggest, one doesn’t say such things, one simply does them.’

In the Second International Kautsky was regarded by friend and foe as the ‘Pope of Marxism’. His struggle against Bernstein was supported by Lenin who at that stage regarded himself as a follower of Kautsky. Prior to 1914, Lenin regarded the Bolsheviks as a ‘Bebel-Kautsky’ wing of the Russian Social Democracy. ‘What we have claimed’, stated Lenin in 1906, ’that our fight for the position of revolutionary social democracy against opportunism is in no manner whatsoever the creation of some ‘original’ Bolshevist tendency—has been completely confirmed by Kautsky...’ It was only the brilliant revolutionary, Rosa Luxemburg, who could observe Kautsky’s actions at close hand, who clearly recognised the limits of his pseudo-Marxism.

All individuals and great theories are put to the test by events. There was no bigger event than world war. Resolutions had been passed at the international Congresses of Stuttgart in 1907 and Basle in 1912, against the prospect of imperialist war and to issue a call to fight it by every means, including a general strike. Despite this, the declaration of war in August 1914 shattered the International.

The world war indicated the impasse of imperialism, where the productive forces had outgrown the nation state and private ownership of the means of production. German capitalism, which had arrived on the scene very late, had effectively missed out on the division of the globe by the imperialist powers, especially Britain. The only way German capitalism could break out of the straitjacket of the national market was by a violent re-division of the world. World war became inevitable.

In nearly every country, the leaders of social democracy capitulated to their own bourgeoisie, jettisoning the ideas of class struggle and internationalism. On 4 August, the SPD chairperson read out a statement in the Reichstag:

“We are faced with the iron fact of war. We are threatened with the horrors of hostile invasions...

“It is for us to ward off this danger and to safeguard the culture and independence of our country. Thus we honour what we have always pledged: in the hour of danger, we shall not desert our Fatherland...Guided by these principles, we shall vote for the war credits.”

To confuse the workers and justify their capitulation and their alliance with the reactionary junker aristocrats and bourgeois parties, they used suitable quotations from Marx and Engels written in 1848 and 1859, ripped out of context.

The prestige of the German party within the International had been such, that Lenin at first thought the issue of the SPD journal Vorwaerts carrying the news of the SPD voting for the Kaiser’s war budget, was a forgery of the German general staff.

Rosa Luxemburg described the International as a ’stinking corpse’ which had betrayed the proletariat, delivering it bound, hand and foot, to the capitalists’ military machine.

Internationalists and the War

Those who remained true to the ideas of internationalism on a world scale were reduced to a tiny handful. When they gathered in Zimmerwald in 1915 they joked that the world’s internationalists could be brought together in two stage-coaches. Lenin, Trotsky, Liebknecht, Luxemburg, John MacLean and James Connolly together with others were reduced invarious countries to tiny groups. Nevertheless, they struggled to maintain the principles of Marxism and the ideas of internationalism. They differentiated themselves from the social chauvinists, or social patriots, as the old Labour leaders who supported ‘their own’ ruling class in the war were called. The internationalists defended the fundamental ideas; of the class nature of imperialist war, of the class nature of the state, the right of nations to self determination and the need for the socialist revolution. The Zimmerwald Left, holding a consistent revolutionary position became the embryo of the future Third International.

Within the German SPD a small minority around Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg fought against the pro-war policies of the leadership. In December 1914 Liebknecht became the sole SPD deputy in the Reichstag to openly vote against the Kaiser’s War Credits. But in a short space of time, dissent spread rapidly through the party organisation, with provincial groups passing resolutions against the war policy. In April 1915 the first and only issue of the journal Die Internationale edited by Rosa Luxemburg and Franz Mehring appeared, but was suppressed by government censorship. The Luxemburg-Mehring-Liebknecht section of the party thus became known as the ‘Internationale Group’, the nucleus around which the future German Communist Party was to crystalise. On New Year’s Day 1916 its first congress was held in Liebknecht’s house which took the decision to launch a clandestine journal called Spartacus, named after the Roman revolutionary slave. From then on the group’s members became known as the Spartacists.

Under the impact of the war, a far larger opposition grouping began to emerge within the SPD, which reflected itself in growing opposition amongst the Reichstag (parliament) Deputies. In March 1915, 25 SPD deputies voted against the War Credits, in August 1915 it rose to 36, and by December, 43 of the 108 SPD deputies said they would no longer respect group discipline.

Disillusionment with the war began to affect the masses. On May Day 1916, after agitation conducted by the Spartacists in the factories of Berlin, a mass demonstration took place on the Potsdamer Platz of 10,000 workers demanding: ‘Down with the War! Down with the government!’ Karl Liebknecht was arrested for anti-war agitation and in June was sentenced to 2 years 6 months hard labour. On the day of his trial over 50,000 munition workers downed tools, as demonstrations took place in Stuttgart and further strikes in Bremen and Braunschweig. As a result of these troubles the authorities clamped down, arresting hundreds of Spartacist workers who were given severe prison sentences. In July 1916 Rosa Luxemburg was re-arrested. But the repression was too late, the ice had broken, and in November 30,000 workers demonstrated in Frankfurt against the war.

Birth of the USPD

The growing opposition amongst the workers to the nightmare of the trenches put enormous pressure on the rank and file of the SPD. This emboldened the opposition not only within the Reichstag but throughout the party at large. By March 1916 a big minority refused to vote for the budget in the Reichstag. In June they fought against new taxes which ‘in the last resort serve the imperialist war which we will not tolerate’. This large opposition current won widespread support among the membership and took control of the Party organisations in Berlin, Bremen and Leipzig as well as other key industrial centres. At its first national conference in January 1917 this opposition—amorphous in composition—began to take a more organised form. For this they were promptly expelled, taking 120,000 into the new Independent Social Democratic Party of Germany (USPD or Independents).

Together in this new party were Marxists and revisionists. Revolutionaries and reformists were suddenly united in their general opposition to the war. Individuals like Karl Kautsky, Bernstein (who had moved to pacifism), Luxemburg, and Liebknecht were all members of the USPD. The Spartacist group constituted itself as an autonomous section of the new party. The Independent’s break with the SPD reflected a growing ferment, not only in the ranks of the SPD, but also in the ranks of the working class as a whole. Tens of thousands of militant workers, radicalised by the war and the effects of the February Revolution in Russia, entered its ranks. It became a classical centrist party, wavering between the ideas of Marxism and reformism.

Centrism, as defined by Leon Trotsky, ‘is composed of all those trends...that are between reformism and Marxism.’ It arises from the process of transformation of the mass organisations, which does not develop in a straight line, but in a contradictory, dialectical, fashion. Centrism is an unstable phenomenon which straddles different material interests, from reformism—representing those of the labour aristocracy—to Marxism —representing the interests of the proletariat. What is of key importance is the direction in which the centrist party is developing. Due to its unstable character, it either goes over completely to revolution or reverts back to a classical reformist organisation. The new USPD was moving towards a revolutionary standpoint.

By 1917 war weariness engulfed the mass of the German people. The soldiers in the front were sickened by the war, its bloodshed, brutality, poison gas, hunger and above all the incompetent general staff. Given the economic blockade surrounding Germany, the conditions of the working class in the factories had declined dramatically. Supplies of coal began to run out, and in the bitter winter of 1917-18 thousands of starving children died of cold. Rations were drastically cut. Adult consumption stood at 1000 calories a day and infant mortality increased by 50 per cent since 1913. In the trenches loss of life was astronomical. The French calculated that between August 1914 and February 1917 one Frenchman was killed every single minute.

The Russian Revolution

News of the successful Bolshevik revolution in November 1917 had an electrifying effect under these conditions. In every barracks and factory, workers discussed the victory of the Russian working class. It was a sea-change in the situation; a ray of hope in the darkness of world war. The Soviet government’s first decree to the peoples of the world was for an immediate armistice and a democratic peace based on self-determination and the renunciation of annexations. The Bolsheviks then went on to publish the secret agreements of the Tsarist regime and the old Kerensky government with the Allies and repudiated all the territory that had been promised to Russia. Soviet Russia was leaving the war.

The announcements had a powerful effect on the psychology of the international working class. In 1917 a massive mutiny affected 54 divisions of the French army, and in December a strike wave began that led in the following May to a walk-out of 250,000 workers in Paris. The strikes in Britain in 1918 encompassed well over a million workers. In January 1918, 700,000 workers in Austria-Hungary joined a general strike in support of the Bolshevik’s peace proposals. In February Austro-Hungarian sailors joined in the protests, temporarily controlling half of the war fleet. A sailor condemned to death for his actions in the mutiny stated before his execution, ‘What happened in Russia emboldened us. Over there, a new sun has risen that will shine not only for the Slavs but for all the nations, and it will bring them peace and justice.’

Already in April 1917 Germany had experienced the second mass strike against the war. Two hundred thousand workers struck in Berlin and Leipzig. This was followed in January 1918 by the greatest strike of the war years, when over one million armament workers downed tools against the treaty of Brest-Litovsk, which the German regime had forced upon the Bolshevik government. This demonstrated the profound effect of the propaganda conducted by Leon Trotsky during the negotiations at Brest-Litovsk. The January strike was organised in the main by an opposition trade union group called Revolutionaere Obleute (The Revolutionary Shop Stewards). They had come together because of their opposition to the war and the political truce of the Labour leaders. They later joined the USPD and, like the Spartacist League, maintained a separate existence within the Party. When the strike ended in defeat, over 50,000 strikers were drafted into the army and sent to the front. Lenin later commented that this action marked ‘a turn of sentiment among the German proletariat’.