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

Counter Revolution Raises Its Head

IN MOST REVOLUTIONS, where events are drawn out, particularly after the initial flush of victory, the masses can feel the gains of the revolution slipping from their hands. The advanced sections of the proletariat, realising the dangerous situation, begin to become impatient and attempt to recapture the initiative. Such was the situation in late December 1918 and early January 1919 in Germany.

Similar parallels can be seen in the Russian Revolution, where in June and early July 1917, advanced layers of workers, particularly in Petrograd, moved towards the overthrow of the Provisional Government. In the ‘July Days’, workers in revolutionary Petrograd organised armed mass demonstrations against Kerensky, in response to the attempt by the Provisional Government to provocatively move out the Machine Gun Regiment to the front. Lenin saw the dangers of a premature move to seize power: ‘We must be especially attentive and careful, so as not to be drawn into a wrong move on our part can wreck everything...’

The Bolsheviks, however, did not stand aside from the revolutionary workers of Petrograd but, on the contrary, intervened at the head of the demonstrations in order to ensure their peaceful and organised character. That did not prevent reaction moving against the Bolshevik Party in July, but at least it was able to maintain intact the advance guard of the Russian proletariat. The Bolshevik Party’s actions won it enormous prestige amongst the working class, and prepared the ground for winning the majority of workers and peasants to the side of the party and preparing the ground for the success of the October Revolution.

Again similar occurrences can be seen in the Spanish Revolution during May 1937 in Barcelona. There the Republican government, under the pressure of the Stalinists who acted as a counter-revolutionary force, attempted to seize back the Barcelona telegraph exchange from the anarchists. This provocation resulted in a prolonged armed clash with the Republican government, and ended with the bloody suppression of the revolt and the banning of the workers’ organisation, the POUM. This time, because there was no strong Bolshevik Party, the defeat in May was a crushing blow to the advanced revolutionary sections of the Spanish proletariat. It was to lay the basis for the defeat of the Spanish Revolution and the final victory of Franco in 1939.

 The ‘Spartacist Uprising’

In Berlin in early January, there existed a state of crisis. The three USPD ministers had just resigned from the government. Fears of a coup had begun to circulate, the campaign by the extreme right against the Spartacists was in full swing, and an anxious and frustrated mood began to develop amongst the advanced workers. After its formation, the Communist Party of Germany began to conduct a relentless campaign against the Social Democratic Government and for the need to extend and complete the socialist revolution. Reaction, in league with the right wing ministers, was preparing a bloody showdown with the Spartacists and the ranks of the Independents in order to strike a decisive blow against the revolution and prepare the way for the restoration of the old order.

In 1925 General Groener, at a trial in Munich, described the plot hatched between the general staff and Ebert and Noske: ‘On 29 December Ebert summoned Noske to lead the troops against the Spartacists. On that same day the volunteer corps assembled, and everything was now ready for the opening of hostilities.’ Again, General Georg Maercker’s memoirs recorded: ‘In the very first days of January a meeting attended by Noske, who had just returned from Kiel, took place at General Staff Headquarters in Berlin with the Freikorps leaders concerning the details of the march (into Berlin).’ Gustav Noske, who, on 6 January, had assumed the title of ‘People’s Commissar of Defence’, answered the call to deal with the Berlin workers with the words: ‘One of us has to be the bloodhound’. Noske was to relish this new-found role.

At the end of December a price of 10,000 German marks had been put on the head of Karl Radek, the Bolshevik representative in Germany, by the Anti-Bolshevik League. At the same time a campaign of denigration was carried out against Emil Eichhorn, the police president of Berlin and a member of the USPD. He had organised a new ‘left’ police force of 2000 workers and soldiers. The action against this man was to be used as the provocation to force the Spartacists, the ranks of the USPD and the Berlin workers into premature action. On 3 January, after a series of false charges, Eichhorn was called upon by the Ministry of the Interior to resign. The right-wing Social Democrat, Eugen Ernst, was to be appointed in his place. As expected, Eichhorn refused to budge.

At the time of this provocation, the Berlin Executive of the USPD, which was in discussions with the Revolutionary Shop Stewards, immediately adopted a resolution supporting Eichhorn. They then met with KPD leaders to discuss joint action. With the refusal of the government to back down, the USPD Executive in Berlin, together with the Revolutionary Shop Stewards and the KPD, called for a mass demonstration on 5 January. This resulted in hundreds of thousands of workers marching to police headquarters. A ‘Revolutionary Committee’ was established representing the Berlin USPD, the KPD and the Revolutionary Shop Stewards. They were informed that the Berlin garrison was supporting their stand and that they could rely on military assistance from Spandau and Frankfurt. The Committee therefore decided, given their apparent support, to resist the dismissal and use the opportunity to attempt the overthrow of the Ebert-Noske-Scheidemann government.

In December groups of revolutionary workers had occupied the editorial offices of Vorwaerts, the journal of the SPD. They had been persuaded to leave, but now, once again, the suggestion was made of a further occupation. After accomplishing this, other important news printing offices were also occupied. The next day, 500,000 workers took to the streets, as many large factories went on strike. Further demonstrations were called by the Revolutionary Committee, which then went into permanent session, but without plans or detailed strategy of how their aims could be met.

The workers not only occupied the Vorwaerts and the press quarters, but also the Reich printing office, the railway headquarters, food warehouses and other buildings. Even the Reichstag was occupied for a brief period. Noske later wrote:

“Great masses of workers...answered the call to struggle. Their favourite slogan ‘Down, down, down’ (with the government) resounded once more. I had to cross the procession at the Brandenburg Gate, in the Tiergarten, and again in front of general staff headquarters. Many marchers were armed. Several trucks with machine guns stood at the Siegessaule. Repeatedly, I politely asked to be allowed to pass, as I had an urgent errand. Obligingly, they allowed me to cross through. If the crowds had had determined, conscious leaders, instead of windbags, by noon that day Berlin would have been in their hands.”

The official position of the KPD at this time was against an attempt to overthrow the Social Democratic government. Given the balance of forces nationally such an action would be a pure adventure. But the general tone of the KPD newspaper Rote Fahne was full of attacks on the government and urged the workers to take action. The two KPD representatives on the committee, Karl Liebknecht and Wilhelm Pieck, without the party’s authority, backed the resolution supporting insurrection. Liebknecht was a workers’ leader, a man of action captivated by the mass movement. For him the revolution was a gut reaction. He was no theoretician, and lacked a firm understanding of the tactics and strategy that were needed to carry through a successful revolution. The ‘Revolutionary Committee’ had endless discussions, but failed to give any coherent direction to the mass movement, which began to dissipate. This prolonged vacillation and indecision had catastrophic consequences in confusing and disorientating the proletariat.

The White Terror

The forces of counter-revolution had prepared for a bloody confrontration with the workers of Berlin. On 10 January an attack was opened up by the Potsdam Freikorps regiment. On 11 January Noske moved in with a further contingent of troops led by monarchist officers. The government was determined to take back the Vorwaerts building by force. In the early hours, heavy artillery and mortar attack created enormous damage and many injuries. For the rebels, the situation became hopeless and the 300 workers remaining in the building were forced to surrender. Within a week, 156 people officially had been killed and hundreds wounded. In the words of Paul Froelich, ‘the White Terror had begun.’

The counter-revolution acted quickly. In a short space of time, two leading KPD members, Leo Jogiches and Hugo Eberlein, were arrested. The government minister Philipp Scheidemann had put an unofficial price of 100,000 German marks on the heads of Liebknecht and Luxemburg. A frenzy was whipped up by the bourgeois press to deal with these Bolsheviks once and for all. Even the SPD paper Vorwaerts joined in the hue and cry. On 13 January they published a poem which ended with a verse:

“Many hundred corpses in a row—Proletarians!
Karl, Radek, Rosa and Co. -
Not one of them is there, not one of them is there!

On 15 January Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg were arrested by reactionary Freikorps officers. Both were taken to the headquarters of the Cavalry Guards Division for ‘investigation’. Liebknecht was the first to be escorted out and shot, allegedly trying to escape. Then Rosa Luxemburg was led out. As she left the building an officer used his rifle butt to smash her skull. Her corpse was then thrown into the Landwehr Canal, where it was not discovered until 31 May. The officers responsible for the murders, apart from two short sentences, got away virtually scot free. The German proletariat had lost two of its most outstanding leaders.

Sectarians have drawn completely erroneous conclusions from the so-called Spartacist Uprising. Of course, the existence of a mass revolutionary party on the lines of the Bolsheviks in 1918-19 could have transformed the situation completely. But the question arises of how such a party can be built. Chris Harman in his book, The Lost Revolution, takes Rosa Luxemburg to task:

“Her tactical error is not to he explained by anything that happened in December or January, but by a much earlier error—when in 1912 and 1916 she underrated the importance of building an independent revolutionary socialist Party…[in] contrast with Lenin’s repeated insistence on the political and organisational independence of revolutionaries from ‘centrists’...”

This is fundamentally false, stands Lenin on his head and repudiates the whole experience of Bolshevism. Rosa Luxemburg’s failure to build a mass revolutionary party was not due to the fact that she had not broken earlier with social democracy to form an independent sect, but to her failure to create a well-organised and homogenous tendency within the SPD at a much earlier time. The Internationale Group was not established until early 1916, and was a loose federation of groupings. In that sense she underestimated the importance of organisation.

Harman fails to recognise that Bolshevism evolved within the framework of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party. Lenin’s Bolsheviks formed the revolutionary wing of social democracy and carried out a theoretical struggle, a political struggle, with the Mensheviks within the same organisation. It was not until 1912 that the Bolshevik faction constituted itself as an independent party. On the international arena Lenin considered himself a supporter of Karl Kautsky, right up until 1914. At that time, Rosa Luxemburg was far more correct in her criticisms of Kautsky than Lenin was, as she had the experience of Kautsky’s day-to-day activities. Until 1914, Lenin regarded the German SPD under the Bebel-Kautsky leadership as the model for every party of the Second International. The Bolshevik criticism of the Mensheviks was seen in the same light as Kautsky’s attacks on the revisionists around Bernstein.

When mass communist parties were formed in Germany, France, and Italy, they did not arise from small groupings or sects, isolated from the mass organisations, but emerged from enormous splits within the old social democracy—the traditional parties of the working class. Precisely the reason why the British Communist Party remained a sect was because of its failure to win over the workers in the mass organisations, particularly in the Labour Party. Even after its formation as an independent party in 1920, Lenin forcefully argued that the new British Communist Party should affiliate to the Labour Party. This, too, was the position adopted at the Second Congress of the Comintern. Why was this? It is in complete contradiction to Harman’s interpretation of Lenin. It was an attempt to create a mass British Communist Party out of the Labour Party by winning over its rank and file on the basis of events. Lenin’s approach was to combat the ideas of reformism and revisionism, but never allow the forces of Marxism to he isolated from the ranks of the working class. That would mean falling into the sterile mistakes of sectarianism.

Following the bloodletting in Berlin, new elections for the National Assembly (the Reichstag) took place on January 19. The KPD wrongly boycotted the elections. The SPD, however, polled 11.5 million votes, whereas the USPD got just under 2.5 million. Thus, the two workers’ parties, which formally stood for Marxism and socialism, polled around 45 per cent of all the votes cast. The right wing bourgeois parties managed to scrape together a mere 15 per cent of the vote.

The first action of the SPD was to approach the Independents to enter the new government. But when they refused, approaches were made to the bourgeois parties: the Democrats and the Centre Party, which agreed not only to participate but even accepted the programme of socialisation!

After the defeat of the ‘Spartacist Uprising’, counter-revolutionary forces, of the Freikorps and other ‘loyal’ divisions, took the initiative in a number of provinces to restore law and order. In February their troops had occupied Bremen and forcibly removed the Workers’ and Soldiers’ Council. Other military actions followed in Bremerhaven and Cuxhaven. In central Germany government-backed troops ousted the councils in one town after another. The workers, however, did not give up their gains without a fierce struggle in which thousands were killed during prolonged street battles.

The Freikorps—semi-fascist military formations—were set up in December 1918, led by reactionary upper-class officers. These attracted the most degenerate mercenary elements who began their post-war military careers fighting Bolshevism in the Baltic States. On their return to Germany, much of this scum, from General Ruediger von der Goltz’s ‘Iron Division’, still wore the swastika emblems of the Baltic Freikorps on their steel helmets. Noske was to rely heavily on this reactionary rabble in his attempts to restore ‘law and order’.

At the end of February 1500 delegates gathered at the general assembly of the Berlin councils to discuss solidarity action with the workers of Central Germany. The composition of these councils reflected a changed balance of forces within the working class, with supporters of the SPD now outnumbered by the Independents and KPD representatives. Further demands were put to a reconvened assembly which included the organisation of a workers’ militia, the dissolution of the Freikorps and the freeing of political prisoners. To obtain their demands, 90 per cent favoured the calling of a general strike. Within 24 hours a massive strike gripped Berlin.

Barricades were erected and fighting broke out as the Freikorps attempted to restore normality. The government acted swiftly, giving Noske dictatorial powers over all Berlin. He immediately gave orders for 30,000 Freikorps troops to enter the city. On 9 March the Workers’ and Soldiers’ Council decided to call an end to the strike, but this failed to placate Noske and the Freikorps. On the contrary, he announced ‘any person who bears arms against the government troops will be shot on the spot.’ By the time the fighting ended some 2-3000 workers were dead and at least 10,000 were wounded. On 10 March, Leo Jogiches, the chairman of the Communist Party, was murdered in a police station, ‘while trying to escape’.

The Bavarian Republic

Bavaria had been the first state in Germany to overthrow its monarch. On 7 November 1918 Kurt Eisner, a member of the USPD and recently released from jail, became the first head of the Bavarian Republic in Munich. It was an extremely unstable regime, which was reflected in Eisner and the USPD being humiliated in the Bavarian Landtag elections which gave them only three seats. For just over one month he maintained his position by manoeuvring between his own party, the SPD and the workers’ and soldiers’ councils. On 21 February, he was murdered by a right wing officer, Count Arco Valley.

The assassination provoked enormous turmoil throughout Bavaria. In Nuremburg and Munich general strikes took place, and armed workers roamed the streets. After a brief interlude, the SPD climbed into the vacuum and created a government under Johannes Hoffmann. Within a very short time this government was forced to flee Munich and seek assistance from Noske’s Freikorps.

Munich was plunged into a state of semi-anarchy. With economic conditions deteriorating rapidly the number of unemployed rose to 45,000. As soon as the news reached Munich of the establishment of a soviet republic in Hungary, Ernst Toller, a playwright and leader of the USPD, proposed the establishment of a government of workers’ and soldiers’ councils. But this eccentric government, which the KPD refused to enter, represented a comic opera rather than a serious power. The first act of the Foreign Minister, for instance, was to declare war on Switzerland because it refused to loan 60 steam-trains to Bavaria! The regime collapsed within six days.

By this time, Hoffmann had gathered 8000 troops ready to march on Munich. In Munich itself, an attempted coup by the Republican Security Force led to a mass movement of workers, ending in the defeat of the coup. The threat of counter-revolution propelled the masses to the left. In the words of Marx, ‘revolution sometimes needs the whip of counterrevolution to push it forward.’

Mass meetings throughout the city passed resolutions demanding that power be handed over to the communists. At first the KPD leaders were extremely cautious and opposed the calls for a soviet republic. But the pressure from the workers became irresistable. As with the Paris Commune of 1871, exceptional conditions gave power into the hands of the working class. As in any struggle, sometimes there are no choices, sometimes there are no perfect conditions, sometimes there is no alternative but to make a stand. The Communist leader Eugen Leviné, despite his reservations about strategy and tactics, agreed to take charge of the situation. A new soviet republic was declared on 7 April based on newly elected workers’ councils in the factories, whose immediate task was to organise resistance against the imminent threat of Hoffmann’s troops.

Leviné understood that the only way the soviet republic would survive would be through the spread of the revolution to other major cities of Bavaria and beyond. The workers gritted their teeth and took inspiration from the newly formed soviet republic in Hungary, the existence of powerful workers’ councils in Austria, a strike wave in the Ruhr, and a state of emergency in Stuttgart. The fear of the bourgeoise was expressed by one Colonel House, writing in his diary for 22 March 1919: ‘Bolshevism is gaining ground everywhere. Hungary has just succumbed. We are sitting upon an open powder magazine and someday a spark may ignite it.’

A few weeks earlier the new communist Third International, the World Party of Socialist Revolution, had been established in Moscow, raising hopes of a rapid revolutionary development throughout Europe. In the words of Trotsky:

“ is unquestionable that in the year of the First Congress (1919) many of us reckoned—some more, others less—that the spontaneous onset of the workers and in part of the peasant masses would overthrow the bourgeoisie in the near future...such moods and expectations were by and large justified by the objective situation at the time.”

In any case, in Munich, there was no alternative but to fight. Better to go down fighting, and leave a communist tradition, than to capitulate without a struggle.

The Hoffmann troops quickly encircled the city robbing it of food and fuel. As suffering mounted and discontent spread the counter-revolutionary troops were reinforced by 30,000 of Noske’s Freikorps. On 1 May Munich was ‘liberated’. The final Communist declaration stated: ‘Don’t make the hangmen’s task easy. Sell your lives dearly.’ Over 1000 workers were killed during the street battles. The Communist leader Eugen Leviné, before his execution, made a defiant speech against the counter-revolution which ended: ‘I have known for a long time that we Communists are but dead men on leave. It is up to you, gentlemen, to decide whether my ticket of leave will once more be extended or whether I must join Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg. You may kill me—my ideas will live on.’ Scores were shot by impromptu Freikorps court-martials, others were simply beaten with rifle butts or kicked to death. Few leaders escaped the ‘White Terror’.