Some questions about the lost German Revolution

Issue: 150

Ian Birchall

It is not surprising that Tony Phillips has made a vigorous defence of the ­“classic” Socialist Workers Party position on the 1918-1923 situation in Germany.1 The argument is central to the SWP’s historical analysis. In order to argue that Leninism did not inevitably lead to Stalinism, it is necessary to show that there was an alternative. As Lenin and Trotsky were well aware, socialism could not be built within a single country, so it was necessary to spread the revolution. And Germany was the place where it seemed this could be achieved. So the possibility of revolution in Germany is a central component of the SWP theory of state capitalism, and has been asserted by SWP speakers and writers over the last half century. (I am not scoring points against anyone by saying this; I myself have put forward this analysis at many dozens of SWP meetings.)

Phillips is responding to the argument presented by John Rose at a Marxism meeting that in effect the revolution had been defeated by 1919.2 I have my own disagreements with Rose, but I welcome his efforts to look afresh at the historical experience and thus to enrich our understanding of the process.

It has to be said that there seems to be plenty of evidence to back up Phillips’s claim that a German revolution was possible right up to the autumn of 1923. For example, Victor Serge’s eyewitness reports from Germany in 1923 describe the impact of inflation and the French invasion of the Ruhr, strikes and hunger riots, the rise of the far-right and heated political debates among workers on the streets.3 If we had even a quarter of these factors to deal with we should undoubtedly consider we were living in a revolutionary situation.

Nonetheless I do not find Phillips’s account wholly convincing. Firstly, his argument is somewhat circular. He aims to defend the narrative presented by Pierre Broué and Chris Harman,4 yet virtually all his references are to…Broué and Harman. Now these two books are undoubtedly an important contribution and should be read by anyone hoping to understand the German Revolution. But Broué’s book was first published in 1971, Harman’s in 1982. There are a number of more recent publications which do not fundamentally challenge their case, but do at least invite us to reconsider aspects of it. Broué himself included new material on Germany in his history of the Comintern, not yet translated into English.5 David Fernbach’s collection of writings by Paul Levi and Frédéric Cyr’s biography of Levi add some new insights.6 Levi had all too obvious deficiencies as a leader, but he had a sharp political intelligence; he believed that by 1922 the revolutionary opportunity had been missed. And John Riddell’s scrupulous edition of the proceedings of the Third Congress of the Communist International casts a lot of light on the situation in the German Communist Party (KPD) and the Comintern.7

Secondly, Phillips’s account makes only passing reference to the March Action, although this disastrous venture caused enormous harm to the KPD. He also claims that by 1923 the KPD “had begun to recover” from the March Action.8 On Sigrid Koch-Baumgarten’s figures the KPD lost over half or perhaps two thirds of its members in 1921.9 On Harman’s figures (and in such a hectic period any membership figures must be approximations), the KPD grew by 38,000 in 1922 and 70,000 in 1923; about half of the 1921 losses.10 And even more important, its credibility with members of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) had been destroyed.11 It takes a long time to rebuild trust, and in 1923 when the KPD attempted to win unity in action with the left of the SPD, SPD members must undoubtedly have remembered 1921 and wondered how far they could trust the KPD.

Phillips concludes with a quotation from Leon Trotsky.12 Now Trotsky was one of the great Marxist thinkers of his generation, and it is always rewarding to read his work. But his work should not be used like a religious text to conclude an argument. Trotsky had not been in Germany. He had attended and taken part in the Third Comintern Congress where the situation of the KPD was debated heatedly; doubtless he talked to German comrades visiting Russia and to Karl Radek, who was deeply immersed in the activities of the KPD. But he was a busy man, dealing with many other problems. In no way can his comments be seen as a definitive judgment on the German situation.

In particular Trotsky juxtaposes “tactics” and “objective conditions”, claiming that only the former mattered in Germany. This does not seem to me to correspond to what we know about the situation in Germany, which had been shaped by “objective conditions” going back a couple of generations. Likewise Phillips makes a rather abstract separation of party and class, suggesting their development was independent from each other.13

It is well worth looking back at what Tony Cliff wrote about Rosa Luxemburg. It is well known that in 1968 Cliff made certain brief changes to his study of Luxemburg.14 But it is time to forget the trivia connected with the inept way in which the changes were made, and to look at the substance of what Cliff wrote in both versions. In the earlier edition Cliff wrote: “For Marxists, in advanced industrial countries, Lenin’s original position can serve much less as a guide than Rosa Luxemburg’s, notwithstanding her overstatements on the question of spontaneity”.15 Now Cliff, who always linked theory to practice, was doubtless justifying the Socialist Review Group’s strategy of working within the Labour Party. But he was also making an important point about revolutionary organisation. Revolutionary organisation is not autonomous of its context, but is directly conditioned and formed by the working class movement it develops within. Luxemburg’s organisational perspectives must be understood in the context of the German working class movement inside which she worked.

If this is forgotten, then “building the party” becomes a purely ­voluntaristic enterprise.16 Revolutionaries work ever harder to recruit, distribute propaganda, etc, spurred on by moralising appeals. The working class develops separately, and eventually, it is hoped, the two come together in a moment of orgasmic congress with the “revolutionary situation” (there are many examples of such a view, and the SWP is far from the worst).

Historical study is of great importance for revolutionaries. Indeed, ultimately history is the only basis for our knowledge of what is historically possible, of why certain courses of action are advisable or inadvisable. But the use of history has its dangers, especially if parallels are oversimplified. Tony Cliff pointed out the confusions that Trotsky caused by drawing comparisons with the French Revolution of 1789 and his use of the terms “Thermidor” and “Bonapartism”.17

Learning from history can then easily lapse into what might be called “if only” narratives.18 “If only” X had made a different choice, then things would have turned out quite differently. There is a particularly gross example of this in Tony Cliff’s biography of Trotsky, where he suggests that if Trotsky had gone to Germany in 1923, the revolution might have been successful: “If Trotsky, the organiser of the Russian October ­insurrection, had taken hold of the German party, who knows whether the German October would not have ended in victory instead of defeat?”19 It is doubtful whether Cliff would have seriously defended this lapse into a non-Marxist version of the “great man” theory of history. The problems of the German revolutionary movement were far too deep rooted for anyone, even one with Trotsky’s genius, to sort out in a few weeks. Yet I have heard experienced SWP members echo Cliff on this point.

Harman, following Cliff, gives a nuanced account of Luxemburg. He notes her failure to break with the SPD, but shows that she had good grounds for staying in the mass party.20 And while he recognises that one of the weaknesses of the KPD was the absence of “a party capable of harnessing and coordinating their [workers’] energy”,21 he doesn’t put the blame on Luxemburg for not being Lenin.22 Indeed, he recognises that “even the most powerful revolutionary movements never ­completely free themselves from the taint of the society that they fight”.23

Contrast this to a recent article in International Socialism by Chris Fuller, who writes: “Some would argue Luxemburg was opposed to organisation. This is not the case. She was after all a member of the SPD, a vast organisation built over decades. But it was the wrong organisation.” In other words, she should have been building the Bolshevik Party. He claims that from 1910 onwards it would have been possible to form “a distinct revolutionary party able to challenge both the reformists and the German state”.24 I remain to be convinced that if Luxemburg had walked out of the SPD in or before 1914 she would have achieved anything other than total isolation. Clara Zetkin, one of Luxemburg’s closest comrades, actually thought the Spartacists were premature in leaving the USPD and forming the KPD at the end of 1918.25

It seems to me that the evidence now available to us suggests (and such things can only ever be matters of speculation) that a successful German revolution was extremely unlikely at any time between 1918 and 1923. The deeply divided and incoherent leadership of the KPD had its roots, not in the mistakes of a few individuals, but in the whole previous history of the German working class.

Of course, this is a disconcerting thought. For if a German revolution was unlikely, was it not irresponsible of the Bolsheviks to take power?26 Yet such questions must be asked. The great strength of Tony Cliff and his co-thinkers was their rejection of the defensive approach to revolutionary ideas.27 In the current difficult period the last thing we need is defensiveness about historical narratives.

In the coming two years we will see two historical anniversaries that should offer an opportunity for reflection and stock-taking. Next year will be a hundred years since the October Revolution—as Phillips notes, “the only successful workers’ revolution in history so far!”28 We still await a repeat. And 2018 will be the 50th anniversary of the decision by the International Socialists (forerunners of the SWP) to adopt a strategy of building a revolutionary party. The decision was amply justified by the major class confrontations of the following few years. And since then the SWP has done much that was good—those of us who lived through the Anti Nazi League, Stop the War and the progress of Marxism from the insanitary cellars of North London Polytechnic to a major political event can feel reasonably pleased with ourselves. But in terms of its central strategic aim—building the revolutionary party—the SWP is now further from its goal than it was in the early 1970s.

That revolutionary socialists need organisation is scarcely in doubt. But what form that organisation should take is a much more open question. Of course those who enjoy parliamentary-style debating will point out that I don’t have an alternative. But sometimes it is necessary to ask questions before answers can become available. And oversimplified accounts of complex historical processes are not helpful.


1 Phillips, 2016.

2 Rose, 2014.

3 Serge, 2000.

4 Broué, 2005; Harman, 1982.

5 Broué, 1997. For a review see Birchall, 1999.

6 Fernbach, 2011; Cyr, 2013. For a review see Birchall, 2015b.

7 Riddell, 2015. For a review see Birchall, 2015a.

8 Phillips, 2016, p193.

9 Koch-Baumgarten, 1986, p323.

10 Harman, 1982, pp239, 248.

11 Koch-Baumgarten, 1986, pp319-321.

12 Phillips, 2016, p195.

13 Phillips, 2016, pp194-195.

14 See Birchall, 2011, pp303-305.

15 Cliff, 1959, p54.

16 I recall a meeting with Alex Callinicos to discuss the book that became Revolutionary Rehearsals (Barker, 1987). Callinicos was suspicious of the whole project, feeling it devoted too much detailed attention to specific national events, rather than drawing out the general conclusion of the need for a revolutionary party.

17 Cliff, 1993, pp49-50, 64-67. This point is developed in Thomas Twiss’s excellent study of Trotsky’s evolving views on bureaucracy—Twiss, 2015.

18 John Rose’s review of Paul Le Blanc’s book on Trotsky tends to turn into a similar “if only” argument. If only Trotsky had adopted a “state capitalist” analysis then the history of Trotskyism might have been very different—Rose, 2016.

19 Cliff, 1990, p274.

20 Harman, 1982, pp19-21.

21 Harman, 1982, p302.

22 As Sebastian Budgen notes in his introduction to the French edition of The Lost Revolution, Harman was sceptical about some of the more mechanical formulations about “building the party”. As he said to a comrade: “You can’t think of revolutionary leadership as a deus ex machina if you’ve ever been part of a revolutionary leadership”—Harman, 2015, p18.

23 Harman, 1982, p203.

24 Fuller, 2015, p166.

25 Luban, 2015, pp39-41.

26 But see Haynes, 1997, for a discussion of the possible alternatives to a Bolshevik revolution.

27 On Cliff and defensiveness, see Birchall, 2011, pp89, 400-401, 541.

28 Phillips, 2016, p186.


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