Was the German Revolution defeated by January 1919?

Issue: 149

Tony Phillips

John Rose argued in his talk at Marxism 2014 that the German Revolution had effectively suffered terminal defeat by January 1919.1 The National Congress of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils voted in December 1918 to hand power to the National Assembly after elections to be held in January 1919. The outstanding leaders of the revolutionary left, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, were murdered in January 1919. The following week the SPD, whose leaders were working closely with the army high command to crush the revolution and had ordered the murders, won the overwhelming majority of working class votes in the general election. John argues that Chris Harman and Pierre Broué underestimate the impact of these events in their classic Marxist histories of the revolution.2 He states that “Chris underestimates the level of the defeat in January 1919 when the councils effectively collapse and the Parliament is elected”. He goes on to favourably quote Richard Müller, the leader of the revolutionary shop stewards in Berlin: “He describes this moment in December as the end. I think he is right actually; I think really it does end there”.3

The events John describes were undoubtedly disastrous blows for the revolution, but I want to agree with Harman and Broué that later ­developments would show that the German working class continued to show its revolutionary potential after January 1919 and could still have taken power right up to October 1923.

The October Revolution and the November Revolution

It is useful to compare developments in Germany with the Russian Revolution the year before—the only successful workers’ revolution in history so far. However, we also need to be careful to emphasise the important differences between the two revolutions. The German Councils of Workers and Soldiers had sprung into existence following the naval mutinies at Wilhelmshaven and Kiel which began the revolution on 4 November and spread rapidly across the country. They were clearly inspired by the Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies that had reappeared in Russia following the fall of the Tsar in February 1917.

But in Russia, far from dissolving itself, the Military Revolutionary Committee of the Petrograd Soviet had been the organisation through which the Bolsheviks, in alliance with the left wing of the Socialist Revolutionary Party, had overthrown the capitalist Provisional Government. The new workers’ government was based on the soviets as a new higher form of democracy, fully accountable to the masses and combining both representative and executive functions. This was the justification for the dispersal of the Constituent Assembly in February 1918. Elections to the assembly had taken place before the October overturn and it no longer reflected the new reality of workers’ power.

Why then did the opposite happen in Germany? There were crucial objective differences between Germany and Russia in the early 20th century. Russia was an overwhelmingly rural society in which the working class, though very militant and class conscious, were a small minority of the population. The political superstructure of Russia was a hangover from its recent feudal past and there was no civil society of mass reformist political parties and trade unions. In contrast Germany was, along with the United States, one of the most advanced industrial societies in the world at the time. While there was still a large rural population, the working class was a much larger percentage of the population than in Russia with much greater social weight. While the German Reich under the Kaiser was not a democracy, a mass workers’ party, the SPD, had become the biggest group in the Reichstag and was allied with mass trade unions run by a significant layer of full-time officials.

Workers’ and soldiers’ councils in Germany

The November Revolution swept away the superstructure of the Reich. Workers’ and Soldiers’ councils sprang up across Germany. However, there was confusion among the workers about the role of the councils which the counter-revolutionary SPD leadership and the trade union bureaucracy exploited to the full. Unlike their Russian comrades, the German working class had not been through the dress rehearsal of the 1905 revolution in which the soviets had first come into being and played a central role. The councils in places such as the North Sea coast, Bremen and Brunswick were fully conscious of their role as the potential basis of a revolutionary workers’ government. Elsewhere, however, less politically sophisticated and experienced workers and soldiers looked to the SPD politicians and even army officers for leadership. They in turn worked hard to poison the workers’ and soldiers’ minds against the revolutionary left.4 The council in Berlin appointed a national executive which in turn appointed a government of six drawn from the SPD and USPD leadership all of whom were opposed to socialist revolution.5

The Central Congress of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils of December 1918 that, as John points out, voted to subordinate itself to the National Assembly was not at all representative of the revolutionary workers, soldiers and sailors who had made the revolution the previous month. The SPD machine and the trade union bureaucracy made sure that it was packed with their appointees and not composed of delegates from the factories, barracks and naval bases. Neither Karl Liebknecht nor Rosa Luxemburg was a delegate to the congress.6 Following the elections to the National Assembly, the resulting coalition government of bourgeois parties and the SPD sent squads of counter-revolutionary officers—the Freikorps—to crush the revolutionary workers’ councils in the first months of 1919.

The Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies in Russia had much deeper roots in the population from the beginning of the revolution. However, they were dominated by the Socialist Revolutionary and Menshevik parties from February until September 1917 who tried to play a similar role to the SPD and USPD.7 Initially, like Luxemburg’s and Liebknecht’s Spartacus League in Germany, the Bolsheviks were a small minority in the soviets. Like the Spartacists in January 1919, they were subject to repression after the July Days, but thanks to their greater roots and experience they were able to manoeuvre and prove in practice to the masses that only through all power passing to the soviets could the key demands of the people be realised.

Unlike the Bolsheviks, who had formally set up a separate organisation in 1912, the Spartacists did not leave the USPD and set up an independent revolutionary party until the end of December 1918 when they launched the German Communist Party (KPD). The fact that the majority of its members had no understanding of the need for patient work in the organisations of the working class and the tactics required to win over the majority of the working class meant that the new party was unable to intervene as a unit in the uprising in January 1919. It was not able to ensure that the revolutionary movement retreated in good order and paid a terrible price with the loss of Liebknecht, Luxemburg and a few weeks later the key party organiser Leo Jogiches.

But did this mean that the revolution was over? On 15 December Luxemburg argued in Die Rote Fahne, the Spartacist paper:

The councils were not able to resist any of this. They left the entire apparatus forming public opinion in the hands of the cabinet, and therefore the counter-revolution. They watched silently while the cabinet, this counter-revolutionary club, threw firebombs into their homes every day. However, the weakness of the councils is not the weakness of the revolution. The revolution cannot be killed by any of these petty means… Yesterday the workers arose in Upper Silesia, today they will arise in Berlin, tomorrow in Rhineland-Westphalia, Stuttgart and Hamburg.8

Luxemburg was premature in her specific examples, but she was absolutely right about the overall course of development of the revolution in the next few months, though she tragically did not live to see it. Despite the defeat in Berlin, the vote of the Congress of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils and the election results, the working class as a whole continued to move to the left. In March there was a general strike and street fighting in Berlin. Workers in the Ruhr, Bremen, Saxony and Bavaria put up armed opposition to the Freikorps, who were only able to pick them off one by one due to their lack of coordination across the country.9

In addition, as John Rose mentions in his talk, economic hardship led to a massive strike wave. In 1918 there were five million strike days, in 1919,
48 million and in 1920 over 54 million.
10 Compare these figures with the 11,703,000 strike days during the British upturn of 1968-74. German workers went on strike over political issues as well as the cost of living, including the right to strike, powers of factory councils and the socialisation of the mines. As Luxemburg wrote about the 1905 Russian Revolution, “the economic struggle was not here really a decay, a dissipation of action, but merely a change of front…after the possible content of political action in the given situation and at the given stage of the revolution was exhausted, it broke, or rather changed, into economic action”.11

Contrary to John’s suggestion in his talk, although there were attempts at incorporation, the factory councils had nothing in common with the bureaucratic works councils of Germany today.12 They were militant bodies of struggle at the point of production with far more in common with the shop stewards’ committees of Glasgow and Sheffield of 1914-21. Like the shop stewards’ committees, they had grown up in conditions of wartime illegality outside the official union structures and were highly democratic and accountable to the rank and file. It was through these bodies that the strikes were built and resistance to the Freikorps coordinated. They were the basis for the potential revival of the workers’ councils.

The experience of the use of troops by the SPD against the workers, whether Communists or not, and continuing economic hardship despite the end of the war led millions of workers to shed their illusions in the SPD as the party that defended their interests. In the general election of June 1920, the first since January 1919, the USPD vote increased from 2.3 million to
4.5 million and the SPD vote fell from 11.5 million to 5.5 million.
13 The KPD, standing in its first election, won 590,000 votes and four Reichstag deputies.14

The Kapp putsch

The German ruling class had certainly learnt from the experience of Russia and moved ruthlessly to crush the Spartacists by force at the beginning of the revolution. It had used the SPD’s false image as a socialist party to outmanoeuvre the revolutionary left and ride out the initial phase aided by the centrist USPD leadership. However, the reparations imposed by the Allies on Germany only exacerbated the country’s economic problems of which the workers were the main victims. The vast sea of bitterness engendered by the sufferings of war and the hope inspired by the Russian Revolution and the post-war revolutionary wave affected growing sections of the working class.

In this situation, the ruling class overplayed its hand by moving to crush the Weimar Republic, as the parliamentary democracy that had emerged from the November revolution became known. The Kapp-Lüttwitz military coup (the Kapp putsch) of March 1920 resulted in a crushing defeat for the forces of reaction. Union bureaucrat Carl Legien, whom the leading industrialist Hugo Stinnes named a ship after in gratitude for services rendered to the ruling class, was forced to call a general strike that completely paralysed the country. Determined, unified action by the working class pulled even the workers of rural East Prussia and conservative white collar employees into the strike.

John argues in his summing up in his Marxism 2014 talk that “the Kapp putsch strengthened the parliamentary process”.15 The truth is more contradictory. The equivalent event during the Russian Revolution was the Kornilov coup of August 1917, which, by exposing the ­counter-revolutionary role of the Provisional Government, pushed the majority in the soviets towards a seizure of power led by the Bolsheviks. The balance of class forces in Germany in March 1920 was less favourable due to the events sketched above, but the response of the mass of workers to the coup showed that with correct intervention by revolutionaries the defeat of the coup contained the potential to turn the tables on the ruling class.

In the Ruhr and Saxony where workers’ councils had been put down by the Freikorps the previous year, resistance to the coup went far beyond strike action. In the Ruhr, the army was driven out in pitched battles with armed workers and a Red Army set up with mass support. Workers’ councils took power in most major towns, often excluding the local SPD leadership. In Saxony and Thuringia armed workers took over all the major towns, defeating the army and reactionary militias. A workers’ council was elected from factories in the region based in Chemnitz. The KPD was the biggest party in the council, having built up support through united front work with the USPD and avoiding premature bids for power. Workers’ councils were also set up on the northern coast where there had been no previous experience of revolutionary struggle. Rural workers east of the river Elbe where there was no Communist presence also armed themselves against reactionary militias to enable themselves to join the strike.

The military and the bourgeois parties now realised that they could not defeat a united and determined working class and the coup’s leaders ran for cover. This was a great victory for the workers. However, the events in the Ruhr, Saxony and the north showed that with determined centralised leadership, the workers could have gone over to the offensive against the ruling class and the SPD.

Broué notes that:

While this time Germany was not covered by a network of workers’ councils…it was nonetheless covered by a tight network of executive committees or action committees formed by the workers’ parties and trade unions. The struggle against the putschists…led these committees to play the role of revolutionary centres and this posed in a practical way…the problem of power in general.16

As Harman puts it, “The situation was rather similar to that in Spain in July 1936 after Franco’s coup. The right wing army coup provoked a rising of the workers”.17

Tragically, the KPD was still not in a position to provide the leadership needed. It had grown over the previous year, but had expelled half its membership for holding ultra-left positions rather than trying to win them over. This had severely weakened the party in key cities such as Berlin and Hamburg. Following the coup the party’s national leadership vacillated and did not offer a clear lead. The centrist USPD also dithered and the general strike was allowed to peter out without decisive action against the right. This allowed the SPD leadership to let the army leaders take revenge on the armed workers.

The impact of the events of 1919 and 1920 on the USPD rank and file was profound. The civil war and the Kapp putsch had shown millions of workers that the ruling class was determined to reverse the November Revolution. The Weimar Republic had not delivered on the vital needs of the workers. The counter-revolutionary role of the SPD was very clear; as was the need for a mass, centralised combat party of the working class instead of the centrist leadership of the USPD, who in practice shared the politics of the SPD, and the ultra-leftism of large sections of the KPD. There was now much greater understanding of events in Russia and the lessons for Germany and sympathy for the German Communists based on the experience of common struggle.

The USPD was a very significant organisation with 800,000 members in 1920, including many working class activists with deep roots in the unions, factories and pits. As mentioned above, it doubled its vote in the 1920 elections, nearly equalling that of the SPD. The leadership now came under massive pressure to affiliate to the Communist International. At its congress at Halle in November 1920, delegates voted overwhelmingly to support an appeal delivered in person by Grigori Zinoviev, the president of the Communist International, to join the International and for the USPD and KPD to merge to form the United Communist Party of Germany. At last German workers had a mass revolutionary organisation with serious roots in the key organisations of the class.

Was defeat in October 1923 inevitable?

But it was the events of the year of crisis 1923 that showed most clearly that the German Revolution could still have ended in victory for the workers. The invasion of the Ruhr, Germany’s most important industrial area, by French troops and the raging inflation that destroyed the living standards of the middle class let alone the workers, threw the ruling class into a deep crisis. Chris Harman quotes the minister of finance as saying, “the ­dissolution of the social order was expected by the hour”.18

Initially the government, led by Wilhelm Cuno, was able to unite all classes in a wave of patriotic fervour behind its policy of passive resistance to the invader. But by April its credibility was in tatters as it was clear the big industrialists of the Ruhr were using passive resistance for their own ends. Inflation really began to take hold stimulated by currency speculation by Stinnes. Soaring prices were met by a massive wave of strikes that quickly got out of the control of the union bureaucrats. Tried and tested methods of reaching a compromise to get workers back to work no longer worked in a situation in which prices were doubling weekly. The unions’ bureaucratic machine was disintegrating as officials’ salaries were becoming worthless and the unions could not afford strike pay. In June, Rudolf Wissell, a member of the government’s Provisional Economic Council, wrote, “I tell you quite clearly that a revolutionary and activist spirit is rising in the most quiet and most stable of the masses… It only needs a little excitement to explode everything”.19

Workers were increasingly ignoring the union structures and organising their struggles through the factory and pit councils. In the ­revolutionary situation that was now developing in Germany, the factory councils, linked up nationally, had the potential to become the basis for a revolutionary workers’ government that could replace the capitalist state. As the economic crisis deepened during 1923, the factory councils launched bodies known as control committees that fought to control prices by regulating markets and requisitioning foodstuffs. They involved housewives, spreading the power of the factory councils into working class communities.20 On top of this, in response to the growth of the far-right, the leadership of the factory councils called in April for the formation of armed workers’ detachments known as the proletarian hundreds. These became particularly strong in the Ruhr and Central Germany, amounting to 100,000 men nationally by October.21

These developments show that despite the absence of soviets as such, organisations of working class power were developing rapidly. In his critical notes on Zinoviev’s “Foundations of the Third International: Theses”, Lenin corrected the sentence: “The real organs of mass revolutionary struggle which will be transformed after the insurrection into organs of power are the soviets of workers’ deputies” with the words, “of the type of the Commune and the Soviets”.22 This reflects his understanding that the organs of workers’ power do not have to replicate exactly the soviet form thrown up by the Russian Revolution.23 Leon Trotsky wrote a year later:

It was in Germany that soviets were several times created as the organs of insurrection without an insurrection taking place—and as organs of state power—without any power. This led to the following: in 1923, the movement of broad proletarian and semi-proletarian masses began to crystallise around the factory committees which in the main fulfilled all the functions of our own soviets in the period preceding the direct struggle for power.24

He noted that in 1917 “Lenin had indicated the factory councils as the organisations of the struggle for power” in the period when the soviets were dominated by the counter-revolutionary Menshevik and Socialist Revolutionaries.25

Even before the crisis, the KPD had begun to recover from its own disastrous putsch of March 1921, which had severely damaged its ­credibility. Careful application of the united front policy had led to a gradual rise in support and influence at the expense of the SPD. When the unions had refused to call a national conference of factory councils at the end of 1922, an unofficial conference had been held which showed strong support for the KPD. Now the SPD was in crisis because the police in the states it controlled were shooting down workers and like the unions, its apparatus was bankrupt. By August prices were doubling and trebling daily. Normal daily life was now impossible for the working class and much of the middle class. The factory councils called a general strike which swept across Germany demanding not only action on living standards, but the replacement of the Cuno government by a government of the workers’ parties and legalisation of the proletarian hundreds. The government fell within days. The ruling class was in deep crisis.

The KPD leadership and the Communist International leadership in Moscow belatedly realised that workers’ power was now on the agenda. For months, the KPD leadership had maintained a defensive posture, lagging behind events. It had lost confidence in its own judgement, paralysed by its own previous mistakes. The date was set for the seizure of power and feverish military preparations began. Tragically, the KPD called off the rising and missed the boat.


The purpose of this article is to reaffirm the view of Broué and Harman that workers’ power was on the agenda between 1918 and 1923. I attempt to refute John Rose’s claim that once the workers’ councils acquiesced in their own effective dissolution in December 1918 and the SPD won a majority of workers’ votes in the general election the revolution was all but over. I also dispute John’s claim that the outcome of the defeat of the Kapp putsch was the strengthening of the Weimar Republic and his dismissal of the importance of factory councils.

In his talk John leans heavily on the documents contained in Gabriel Kuhn’s book All Power to the Councils!, which, although containing excellent material by Rosa Luxemburg, also relies heavily on materials by ultra-lefts and anarchists who were pessimistic about the prospects of revolution in Germany and hostile to the Bolsheviks and the KPD. As this journal has repeatedly argued, revolution is a process not an event or series of discrete events. The German workers were inexperienced and confused in 1918 and fell prey to the manoeuvres of the SPD leaders and trade union bureaucrats. By the summer of 1923, five years of revolutionary struggle had taught them many hard lessons. Now they looked to the KPD to lead them in giving capitalism the knock-out blow. Tragically they were let down with consequences of world historic proportions. As Trotsky put it:

Why did the German Revolution fail to lead to victory? The causes for this lie wholly in tactics and not in objective conditions… In the course of 1923 the working masses realised or sensed that the moment of decisive struggle was approaching. However, they did not see the necessary resolution and self-confidence on the side of the Communist Party.26


1: Rose, 2014.

2: Harman, 1982, and Broué, 2006.

3: Rose, 2014.

4: Riddell, 1986.

5: The USPD was a left wing anti-war split from the SPD that included most of the revolutionaries until December 1918.

6: Riddell, 1986.

7: Trotsky, 1977, p191.

8: Luxemburg, 1918, “Auf die Schanzen (To the Entrenchments)” in Kuhn, 2012, p111.

9: Broué, 2006, chapter 13.

10: Harman, 1982, p145.

11: Luxemburg, 1970, p172.

12: See Rose, 2014.

13: Harman, 1982, p146.

14: Broué, 2006, p380.

15: See Rose, 2014.

16: Broué, 2006, p360.

17: Harman, 1982, p170.

18: Harman, 1982, p222.

19: Quoted in Harman, 1982, pp246-247.

20: Harman, 1982, p238.

21: Broué, 2006, p770.

22: See Riddell, 1986, p608, my emphasis.

23: Riddell, 1986, p608.

24: Trotsky, 1975, p249, Trotsky’s emphasis.

25: Trotsky, 1975, p249.

26: Trotsky, 1972, pp2-3.


Broué, Pierre, 2006, The German Revolution 1918-23 (Haymarket).

Harman, Chris, 1982, The Lost Revolution: Germany 1918-23 (Bookmarks).

Kuhn, Gabriel (ed), 2012, All Power to the Councils! >A Documentary History of the German Revolution of 1918-1919 (Merlin Press).

Luxemburg, Rosa, 1970, “The Mass Strike, the Political Party and the Trade Unions”, in Mary-Alice Waters (ed), Rosa Luxemburg Speaks (Pathfinder).

Riddell, John, 1986, The German Revolution and the Debate on Soviet Power: Preparing the Founding Congress (Pathfinder).

Rose, John, 2014, “Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils in Germany, 1918-19”, talk at Marxism 2014, http://swpradiocast.bandcamp.com/track/workers-and-soldiers-councils-in-germany-1918-19-marxism-2014

Trotsky, Leon, 1972, The First Five Years of the Communist International, Volume 1 (Monad Press), www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1924/ffyci-1

Trotsky, Leon, 1975, “Lessons of October”, in The Challenge of the Left Opposition 1923-25 (Pathfinder Press), www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1924/lessons/

Trotsky,Leon, 1977, The History of the Russian Revolution (Pluto Press).