A century now separates us from the revolution that swept Germany in November 1918. It is likely that this event will pass relatively unnoticed both here and where it took place. But for Marxists, it is a pivotal point of the 20th century from which there is an enormous amount to learn. Of the many key lessons, three stand out: reform versus revolution; the fate of Soviet Russia; and the question of workers’ councils or parliamentary democracy.
Reform versus revolution
Until the Russian Revolution of 1917, Germany was the undisputed centre of international Marxism. The mighty Social Democratic Party (SPD) was its model organisation and Karl Kautsky, the so-called “Pope of Marxism”, its dominant theoretician. However, Germany also hosted the most important debate about whether progress would come about through gradual change or the overthrow of capitalism. This kicked off in 1900 when the “revisionism” of Eduard Bernstein was challenged by Rosa Luxemburg in her pamphlet “Reform or Revolution”.1
Neither Bernstein nor Luxemburg won a decisive victory. The position that prevailed was best expressed by Kautsky, who wrote that the SPD was “a revolutionary party, but not a revolution-making party. We know that our goal can only be attained through a revolution. We also know that it is just as little in our power to create this revolution as it is in the power of our opponents to prevent it. It is not part of our work to instigate a revolution or to prepare a way for it”.2 Such a centrist position assumed the peaceful and uninterrupted development of capitalism within which the nascent forces of socialism (the SPD and its unions) would grow until, at some point in the future, social transformation would happen of its own accord. Kautsky even developed a theory to prove this scenario would occur. Capitalism was moving away from “the arms race and the threat to world peace” into “the next phase: ultra-imperialism”.3 Incredibly, his article on this subject appeared in September 1914, a month after the outbreak of the First World War.
The devastation that followed brought carnage on the military front, while on the home front German workers were virtually chained to their machines and working hours pushed the limits of physical endurance. From the outbreak of the war, the SPD leadership had played a despicable role by abandoning its pledge to organise mass strikes to oppose war should it come, and backing every move of the Kaiser’s government to repress any opposition to it (such as the draconian State of Siege law).
In Russia, the October 1917 insurrection, consciously instigated and prepared for by the soviets (workers’ councils) under Bolshevik leadership, further undermined Kautsky’s arguments, but even before that, events in Russia were having an impact. Two months after the overthrow of the Tsar (in February 1917), workers struck in Leipzig over a cut in rations and established their own workers’ council. Berlin followed suit with 200,000 stopping work. Arrests doused the action, but it reignited in January 1918. With inflation at 400 percent and working conditions unbearable, some 400,000 Berlin engineers walked out and formed a 414-strong workers’ council (one per 1,000 workers). Its demands were for economic improvements and peace. This time the police and army were unable to break the strikers’ resolve. At this point Friedrich Ebert, the SPD leader, “joined the strike leadership with the clear intention of bringing the strike to a speedy end to prevent damage to the country”.4 He succeeded where brute force had failed.
These events began to clarify the differences between reformism and revolution. But until November 1918 it was still possible to pass off what had happened in Russia as a consequence of Tsarist autocracy, and of little relevance to the “civilised West”. That view was blown apart when Kiel sailors mutinied on 2 November 1918, releasing the pent up discontent of the masses. From there the uprising rapidly spread and workers’ and soldier’s councils were established wherever it appeared. When the wave reached Berlin on 9 November the Kaiser’s government was overthrown. This brought an end to the First World War two days later, making the German Revolution the most successful peace movement in history.
Although the process of change had begun in Russia, Germany moved the question of reform and revolution from the periphery to literally the very centre of Europe. It also laid the basis for the worldwide political separation of revolutionaries from reformists. The Bolsheviks were no longer alone and now had the basis for establishing the Communist Third International, while the Second International continued to represent social democratic parties.
The fate of Soviet Russia
The German Revolution came about due to the domestic impact of the First World War, but also the inspiration of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. In return, its fate depended to an exceptional degree on the ultimate success of revolution in Germany.
The Russian proletariat of 1917 numbered around 2.6 million. Together they shared a common interest in achieving socialism because of the collective nature of modern production. However, if Russia was considered in isolation, the working class was greatly outnumbered by the 100 million-plus peasantry, which, as individual producers, were petty bourgeois. So assistance from advanced economies in Europe would be essential if the progressive aims of the Bolsheviks were to be achieved. As Nikolai Bukharin, the editor of Pravda, put it: “the final victory of the Russian Revolution is unthinkable without the victory of the international proletariat”.5
Germany was particularly important in this regard. In March 1918 the Kaiser’s government had imposed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk on Russia as the price for ceasing hostilities. This meant the loss of 780,000 square kilometres, 56 million people, a third of the country’s rail network, 73 percent of its iron ore, and 89 percent of coal output. Furthermore, after the German Revolution brought an end to the First World War, Russia became a military target for capitalist counter-revolution. Some 14 states intervened in combination with a civil war launched by the former ruling class.
Successful socialist revolution in Germany could have transformed the balance of forces. Alas, that was not to be. The Bolsheviks survived but at a terrible cost. By 1921 Russian imports had fallen 180-fold, exports 2,000 fold. The already small working class had more than halved. Winning the civil war victory had relied on the Bolsheviks operating a strict command economy from the top. This meant the end to Soviet democracy from below and left a massive 5 million-strong state dominating the demoralised and atomised industrial proletariat and peasantry.
There were revolutionary outbreaks in countries as far apart as Hungary and China where the prospect of Russia breaking out of its isolation could be glimpsed; but undoubtedly the best opportunity lay in Germany with its mighty industrial workforce and advanced economy. It was not until 1929 that the Stalinist counter-revolution ultimately triumphed in the form of a state capitalist dictatorship. But its origins lay not in some internal flaw of revolutionary Marxism or Leninism, but in the failure of the international revolution.
Workers’ power and parliamentary democracy
There was another way in which Germany was of capital importance to Marxism after the First World War. Trotsky entitled a chapter of Results and Prospects, written after the 1905 Russian Revolution: “The Peculiarities of Russian Historical Development”—the “peculiarities” referring to deviations from the European norm. The 1905 revolution was required for the Russian Duma to be established. But the Duma was still highly undemocratic even by bourgeois standards. It lacked the relative legitimacy of the German Reichstag and its universal male suffrage dating back to 1871. Germany had had legal trade unions for decades, while in Russia they could only operate openly after the outbreak of revolution itself. Both reformist Mensheviks and revolutionary Bolsheviks had routinely been forced to operate clandestinely, while in Germany the SPD had existed since 1875 and functioned legally since 1890.
Like their German counterparts Russian revolutionaries did encounter mass reformism (the Mensheviks and SRs) and parliament (the Constituent Assembly), but these emerged mainly after February 1917, and it was relatively easy to win the working class over to a more radical position. Due to Tsarist repression, the roots of reformism were shallow, and soviet organisation was strong. Given the depth and organisational strength of the reformist tradition, German revolutionaries had a much more difficult job to do in convincing the masses.
The differences were visible in the run-up to November 1918. The SPD’s wartime collaboration with the government precipitated a crisis that led to splits, the largest of which created the centrist Independent SPD (or USPD). Karl Liebknecht became co-leader, with Rosa Luxemburg, of the Spartacist League. It was a sign of the uphill struggle they would face that, whereas Lenin’s Bolsheviks were the majority current when Russian Social Democracy divided in 1903, Liebknecht was the only deputy to vote against launching war in 1914, and the League was by far the smallest of the three competing currents.
Yet Liebknecht’s stand against war was crucial, and he was a nationally known figure with great popularity. However, the League was so new that it had not had a chance to develop strong organic links to working class militancy before the revolution arrived. The two demonstrations the League called in 1915 attracted just 150 and 1,500 respectively. Yet the potential for mass radical action clearly existed. As we have seen, the November Revolution came after a series of giant political strikes that openly defied the reformist politicians and trade union leaders. In Berlin these were called by a movement of shop stewards—the Revolutionäre Obleute. Such a rank and file configuration had not existed in Russia because a trade union bureaucracy was absent. The Obleute’s first stoppage attracted 55,000 and was over the arrest of Liebknecht for an anti-war speech on May Day 1916. The strikes referred to above—200,000 (1917) and 400,000 (January 1918)—were also led by the Obleute.
When the November Revolution reached Berlin there was an interplay between revolutionary political leadership with the rank and file movement. Liebknecht, who had recently been released, planned the uprising in conjunction with the Obleute.
The issue of power was posed immediately. On 9 November Liebknecht addressed huge crowds from the balcony of the Imperial Palace to call for a socialist Germany run by workers’ and soldiers’ councils. At the very same moment, and just a few hundred metres away at the Reichstag building, SPD leaders were appealing for the maintenance of capitalism and a parliamentary system. The problems revolutionaries would face in promoting the former and resisting the latter were underlined when a National Congress of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils was held in December. The full-time bureaucracy was there in strength (195 delegates compared to 187 workers), and the SPD outnumbered the centrist USPD by three, and the Spartacists 30 times over. Luxemburg and Liebknecht had not even been elected as delegates. The Congress immediately threw its weight behind parliament as opposed to the council system.
However, ideas change through struggle and this is never more true than during a revolution. While the majority of workers supported reformism, their immediate needs drove them to take revolutionary action. For example, in Berlin employees at the Spandau state workshops replaced their managers with an elected committee. Defying instructions to obey their union officials, Daimler Marienfelde workers pressed forward a set of demands headed by equal pay for women, shorter hours, an end to overtime, hire and fire by the workers’ council and abolition of piecework. Many other factories followed suit. The press noted that: “The workers believe there is no point waiting for the collectivisation of industry by government”.6
The atmosphere was encapsulated in this account from a right-wing newspaper on 25 November:
The workers arrive on time, then take off their coats, read their newspapers and slowly begin work. This is interrupted by debates and meetings. The employers are as powerless as the managerial staff. All power is in the hands of the workers’ committees. On all questions ranging from the reconversion of the factory to peacetime production, the supply of labour, the employment of demobbed soldiers, the implementation of agreements, work methods and sharing out of work, on all these the workers’ committees have the last word.7
In the midst of enormous social upheaval it was just a matter of time before experience of struggle would win converts to revolutionary ideas and away from the notion that the only option was the restoration of capitalism and parliament. But time was not to be available.
In December the League had joined forces with other revolutionary groupings to form the German Communist Party. Setting out its programme, Luxemburg insisted revolutionaries would: “never take governmental power unless that is the clear, unambiguous will of the great majority of the proletarian masses”. Victory “comes not at the beginning, but at the end of the revolution”.8 However, the party’s membership lacked experience and in January the revolutionary vanguard in Berlin, though still a minority overall, fell for a deliberate provocation by the SPD government and challenged for power. Reactionary Freikorps troops under the command of the Social Democrat Gustav Noske then massacred some 200 activists, including Liebknecht and Luxemburg.
This was not the end of the revolution. Ironically, and as proof of Luxemburg’s contention, in November 1918 the SPD gained 61 percent of votes in workers’ council elections, but just two months after the massacre it was in the minority at 36 percent. The German struggle was certainly not over but it had received a significant setback.
Under the political protection of the SPD the authority of the state was restored, and capitalism survived to lick its wounds and prepare its revenge. One SPD official sensed the danger when he wrote: “Essentially we have governed according to the old forms of our state life… I believe the verdict of history will be severe and bitter”.9 He was right. Fourteen years later, Nazi shock troops, descendants of counter-revolutionary Freikorps formations, would drag the SPD and any other opponents off to concentration camps.
The German Revolution was no mere incident, or a pale sideshow to the Russian Revolution. It was a decisive moment in history that saw the masses bring an end to the First World War and revealed the character of reformist leaders when the system faces being overthrown. It also pointed to what would be required to overcome this barrier. In a situation of mass trade unionism there needed to be a rank and file alternative to the bureaucracy, and above all, a revolutionary party that had acquired the political maturity and organic links with the working class to lead the masses to workers’ power.
Finally, the German Revolution was a classic illustration of the French revolutionary Louis de Saint-Just’s aphorism that: “those who make revolution half way only dig their own graves”. If Germany had gone forward to socialism, then the horrors of Stalinism and Nazism would not have arisen, and capitalism itself might be a distant memory.
Donny Gluckstein is a member of the Socialist Workers Party in Edinburgh and a trade union activist in the EIS.
1 Luxemburg, 2000.
2 Kautsky, 1909.
3 Kautsky, 1914.
4 Harman, 1982, p33.
5 Bukharin, 1919, p7.
6 Rote Fahne, 27 November 1918.
7 Quoted in Rote Fahne, 25 November 1918.
8 Luxemburg, 1986.
9 Quoted in Rosenberg, 1936, pp125-126.