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Revolution in Germany

October 27, 2006 | Pages 10 and 11

IN NOVEMBER of 1918, German workers and soldiers rebelled against their rulers and brought the First World War to an end through mass strikes and mutinies.

But they did much more than end the war--they overthrew the German Kaiser (as King Wilhelm II was called), disbanded the regular army and shook German capitalism to its roots. Over the next five years, German workers and bosses fought a bloody battle to determine which class would rule.

Pierre Broué's monumental history The German Revolution: 1917-1923, recently republished by Haymarket Books, tells the story of this struggle. Here, TODD CHRETIEN explains why it is a must read for socialists today.

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THE GERMAN Social Democratic Party (SPD) was founded in 1875 by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels' supporters, along with other radical workers' groups. After surviving decades of repression, the SPD was legalized in 1891, and quickly grew into a powerful mass party.

What else to read

Pierre Broué's The German Revolution: 1917-1923 is the definitive book on one of the most important events of the 20th century. First published in 1971 and still unsurpassed, Broué meticulously reconstitutes the six decisive years during which--between "ultra-leftism" and "opportunism," "sectarianism" and "revisionism," "activism" and "passivity"--Germany's revolutionaries attempted to begin a new chapter in the history of the working class. Now this unsurpassed work has been published in a new English edition from Haymarket Books.


By 1912, 1 million German workers were members of the SPD, while another 4 million voted for it, sending over 100 socialist deputies to the German parliament. The SPD was seen as the jewel of the international socialist movement, and Germany the most likely country for a revolution to take place.

But when push came to shove, on August 4, 1914, instead of making a revolution against capitalism, the leaders of the SPD (and their counterparts in France and Britain) betrayed the Communist Manifesto's slogan "workers of the world unite!" The SPD deputies voted in favor of the Kaiser's war budget and helped the German capitalists mobilize workers for the First World War, to kill French, Belgian, Russian and British workers.

One of Pierre Broué's most important contributions with his book The German Revolution: 1917-1923 is to explain how this was possible. From the early days of the SPD, there had always been a fight between the right and left wings of the party.

On the right, Edward Bernstein rallied those who believed that capitalism could be peacefully reformed. In his 1898 book, Evolutionary Socialism, Bernstein declared that Marx had been wrong to insist that the capitalist economy contained the seeds of its own destruction. Further, he argued that workers could simply vote to gradually reduce the power of the capitalists by winning a majority in parliament.

On the left, Rosa Luxemburg, a brilliant young Polish revolutionary, tore Bernstein's arguments to shreds. Her book, Reform or Revolution, defended Marx and Engels' assertion that capitalist economics necessarily led to violent crisis, and she ridiculed the idea that ruling classes would simply hand over their wealth and power to the working class because they lost an election.

Luxemburg won the battle of ideas, and the SPD majority backed her over the coming years. However, Broué explains that words and resolutions were not enough to counteract the growing power of the bureaucracy within the SPD and in the trade unions.

The rise of the bureaucracy was not only a question of opportunists worming their way into power. Broué shows that between the 1870s and 1914, Germany was transformed from a second-rate economic power into the world's leading industrial giant. This massive economic growth required fierce repression in the early years.

But as the economy became more sophisticated, it required a better-educated workforce. Moreover, the enormous profits made by the industrialists led them to relax their bitter opposition to trade unionism. Broué contends that this 20-year "social peace" was the material circumstance that gave rise to Bernstein's ideas.

This period of gradual SPD growth, rising living standards and ruling class tolerance affected a large part of the working class, but the full-time SPD and trade union officials were the most susceptible to it. And the very success of the SPD meant that there were literally thousands of these full-time officials. By 1906, the SPD and trade union leaders were more concerned with defending the SPD apparatus than they were with making revolution--they identified the SPD's success with the German bourgeoisie.

The First World War put the ideas of the left and the right to the test. Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht (an outspoken revolutionary SPD deputy) were proven absolutely correct on their main points. The reformists either joined in the bloodshed (like the SPD chairman Friedrich Ebert) or were paralyzed by it (like Bernstein or the party's leading theorist Karl Kautsky), vainly hoping it would end quickly so that capitalism could return to "normal."

Yet ideas without organization are very weak. This, too, was proven by the war. Ebert's control of the SPD bureaucracy allowed him to muffle opposition from rank-and-file workers and revolutionaries within the SPD.

The revolutionaries were trapped in a party completely controlled by the pro-war reformist bureaucracy. Even Liebknecht went along with the vote for the war budget at first because the majority of the SPD parliament caucus supported it.

Within weeks of this decision, Liebknecht realized he'd been wrong and that the SPD wasn't going to change course without the revolutionaries taking dramatic action. On December 3, he broke SPD discipline and voted against the new war budget. He was drafted and sent to the front as punishment.

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BROUÉ ILLUSTRATES the dire position of German revolutionaries by comparing them to the Russian Bolsheviks. Although Lenin had not fully realized it at the time, his Bolshevik Party was very different from the SPD. Because of severe repression, Lenin had insisted that only trustworthy revolutionaries be allowed to join the Bolshevik Party.

This led to a split in the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (the SPD's sister party in Russia) at its 1903 founding convention. Although the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks technically remained factions within the united RSDLP until 1912, they more and more functioned as separate parties with increasingly divergent organizational forms and views on revolution.

Broué explains that Luxemburg fought bitterly against the reformists in her own party and was even more hostile to the SPD's bureaucracy than Lenin (who right up until First World War still considered the SPD a model of organization). However, unlike Lenin, Luxemburg never drew organizational conclusions from her political battles. She counted on the spontaneous struggle of rank-and-file SPD workers and the working class in general to push aside the bureaucrats at the crucial moment.

However, at the crucial moment in 1914, it became clear that the SPD leadership--with its monopoly of control over the party press, membership lists, the trade unions, etc.--had a decisive impact on dampening the spontaneous struggle Luxemburg had been counting on.

Lenin was in a very different position. The Bolsheviks immediately and nearly unanimously opposed the war; they had a critical mass of cadre of several thousand; they had a common discipline based on years of experience in the underground; and they had illegal and legal newspapers with which they could they knew how to communicate with wide layers of workers.

By 1915, the first protests and strikes broke out in the countries fighting the war. In Germany, the revolutionaries cheered on these protests and even helped organize them, but only as scattered individuals. In Russia, the Bolsheviks implemented a unified policy of antiwar propaganda and agitation, and recruited hundreds and then thousands of workers and soldiers to their party.

By February 1917, Russian soldiers and workers rebelled against the war, overthrowing the Czar in the type of spontaneous revolution Luxemburg hoped for.

This revolution created two competing governments. On the one hand, the Provisional Government was made up of the old conservative parties (without the Tsar), the liberals, and the Mensheviks and other reformist socialists. On the other hand, the workers, soldiers and peasant soviets (which means "council" in Russian) directly represented the laboring masses, based on elections in the factories and the trenches.

The Mensheviks argued that now that the Tsar was gone, Russian workers should support the war and moderate their demands on their bosses in the interest of defending "democratic" Russia. At first, many leading Bolsheviks were confused about whether to support the Provisional Government, but most of their 25,000 members were extremely hostile to it.

Lenin returned to Russia from exile in April and argued for a radical change in course. He asserted that the Provisional Government intended to continue the war, opposed land reform and had no intention of giving power to the workers in the factories. Therefore, the Bolsheviks must set out to convince the majority of the working class and soldiers that power must be transferred to the soviets.

As every Bolshevik criticism of the Provisional Government came true, the Bolshevik Party grew rapidly. By the summer, there were over 200,000 members; by October 1917, there were over 350,000 members, and the Bolsheviks had won majorities in all the important workers' soviets across Russia.

The Bolsheviks no longer simply represented the revolutionary aspirations of the vanguard of the working class--they were the vanguard of the working class organized as an experienced, disciplined and fighting party.

In alliance with the revolutionary minorities in other parties, they led the socialist October Revolution, and, in short order, gave power to workers in the factories, handed land over to the peasants and offered unconditional peace to all nations. Although Germany refused to accept peace without seizing huge areas of the country, the Bolsheviks made good on their promise to end the war, making hypocrites out of all the reformist socialists who claimed they were only "defending" their "own" country.

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JUST OVER a year later, German workers followed the example of their Russian counterparts.

Strikes had intensified throughout 1918. In the first days of November 1918, sailors rebelled and appealed to port workers to support them. As in Russia, this spontaneous movement spread like wildfire across Germany.

By November 9, the German Kaiser was forced to abdicate, workers' councils were organized in every major city, and the conservative parties appealed to the pro-war SPD leaders to save them from the revolutionary workers and soldiers.

Luxemburg and Liebknecht threw themselves into the revolution, agitating for German workers to follow the examples of the Bolsheviks. By now, they recognized the need for a genuinely revolutionary party, distinct from the reformist bureaucrats, but they had waited too long to begin organizing it. Their revolutionary Spartacus League (named after the Roman slave rebel), numbered only a couple thousand or so members.

Worse, they were not even an independent party, but were still operating as a faction within a party that was still dominated by reformists, the Independent Social Democratic Party (USPD).

The USPD had split from the SPD in 1917, as workers turned against the disastrous war. However, far from being a revolutionary party, the USPD was a "centrist" party, combining both the Spartacus League and many of the old SPD leaders and bureaucrats who had originally supported the war or ducked for cover (like Kautsky and Bernstein).

Luxemburg had hoped that the spontaneous action of the masses would push aside the USPD's own reformists (as she had hoped would happen in the SPD itself). Yet when the revolutionary outburst came in November 1918, the centrists proved just as committed to opposing socialist revolution as their "enemies" in the SPD. In fact, within a couple years, the USPD and the SPD would reunite in opposition to workers revolution.

Instead of fighting to preserve the power of the German workers' councils, the USPD leaders joined the German government, alongside the SPD. Luxemburg and Liebknecht attacked this group of leaders' betrayal, just as Lenin had done in Russia. However, whereas Lenin had a party of tens of thousands, with an experienced and hardened team of leaders, the Spartacus League waited until after the first phase of the revolution to hold the founding convention of the Communist Party (KDP) in January 1919.

Despite being proven correct all along the line and thereby earning the sympathy of tens of thousands of workers and soldiers, Luxemburg's newly formed revolutionary party had only 3,000 organized members.

The newborn KPD barely had time to finish its convention when the radical workers of Berlin rose up in a new general strike and semi-insurrection against the attempt by the SPD government to put right-wingers back in charge of the police.

Although the KPD was still small in number, Luxemburg and Liebknecht's prestige was immense. They entered this battle agreeing that it would take time for the KPD to grow, and that they must avoid the ultra-left impulse of many of the KPD's young members to "make" the revolution before the majority of German workers supported them.

However, in practice, Liebknecht got carried away by the Berlin strike and signed his name to a leaflet calling for the overthrow of the SPD government. While many radical workers supported him, the majority still hoped that the SPD government would make good on some of its promises. The radicals were isolated, the strike was defeated, and the SPD used the confusion to counterattack.

The Bolsheviks had faced a similar challenge during the July Days of the 1917 revolution. Then, soldiers and workers in Petrograd tried to overthrow the Provisional Government, but the Bolsheviks succeeded in preventing a premature insurrection--something the KPD proved unable to do.

Because the November Revolution had dispersed the regular army and police, the SPD government, financed by wealthy industrialists, created a paramilitary unit, comprised of ex-officers, called the Free Corps. It was no more than 5,000 strong, but it was heavily armed, disciplined, well paid and ruthlessly anti-revolutionary.

In the wake of the Berlin strike, the Free Corps killed hundreds of workers, and arrested and murdered both Luxemburg and Liebknecht. During the following months, the Free Corps marched up and down Germany, suppressing isolated and uncoordinated workers' strikes and rebellions, killing thousands.

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REPRESSION ENDED the first phase of the revolution with a defeat. But it also embittered millions of workers, and it utterly failed to solve the economic and political crisis facing German capitalism.

The KPD survived these blows and grew rapidly as workers saw in practice what the SPD had to offer. Paul Levi, Luxemburg's close friend and lawyer, emerged as the leading figure in reorienting the KPD during these difficult days.

His first act was to organize the expulsion of the most reckless ultra-lefts from the party. This cost the KPD over 20,000 members, but also opened up the possibility of recruiting the hundreds of thousands of radicalizing workers who remained in the USPD.

In March 1919, the Bolsheviks in Russia founded the Communist International. They aimed to help create revolutionary parties all over the world, but especially in Germany, where the revolution still hung in the balance.

Lenin always argued that without aid from socialist Germany, Russia's revolution would starve. However, if the vast agricultural resources of Russia and Germany's industrial base could unite under revolutionary socialist governments, this would spell the beginning of the end for world capitalism.

The central problem in forming a mass revolutionary party in Germany was how to convince the hundreds of thousands of rank-and-file socialists still inside the USPD that if they wanted a Russian-type revolution, they had to break free from the centrists leaders who talked left, but acted right. Levi and Lenin spent 1919 and 1920 trying to win them over.

The decisive event that finally convinced the USPD left of the need to join the KPD was an attempted military coup in March 1920. The so-called Kapp Putsch saw hardline military officers try to institute a dictatorship. They were defeated by a general strike of workers across the nation and the creation of workers' militias.

This right-wing offensive broke workers out of their demoralization and proved to the USPD rank and file that there was no hope of going back to the good old days of stable, prosperous German capitalism. In November 1920, 300,000 members of the USPD voted to join the KPD, creating a revolutionary party of some 350,000 members.

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AFTER FIVE years of bloody trench warfare and two years of revolutionary struggle, the German working class finally had a revolutionary organization with the principles, the size and the desire to translate Marxist ideas into practice. Yet this potential was nearly squandered by repeating, on a much grander scale, the mistake that Liebknecht made in January 1919.

At the KPD convention in December 1920, the leadership pledged to follow the Bolshevik practice of opposing premature uprisings. Lenin contended that a large and confident Communist Party was only one of the necessary ingredients for a successful revolution. Also necessary were a crisis that paralyzed the ruling class, and an upsurge in action and confidence on the part of the mass of workers.

The KPD's 350,000 members were very strong, but they could not make the revolution on behalf of Germany's 15 million workers, unless something like a majority of those workers wanted to participate. In March 1921, there was no such crisis in the ruling class and only the most fragmented signs that the mass of the workers (as opposed to the revolutionary minority) had yet recovered its confidence from the defeats of 1919.

Despite this, the KPD leaders launched the so-called March Action, in which they threw the new party into a foolish attempt to "provoke" a revolution. They went so far as to try to force workers on strike by blockading factories with unemployed activists.

Their tactics led to fistfights between KPD members and other reformist or even radical workers. The March Action ended in disaster, with something like half of the KPD membership quitting, and millions of workers alienated from the revolutionaries.

Lenin and Trotsky intervened heavily in the KPD in the spring of 1921, trying to convince the German comrades of their errors. They mainly succeeded, on paper, but the March Action also tore apart the party's leadership. Levi was expelled for publicly and ruthlessly attacking the party's foolish tactics. Moreover, argues Broué, the leadership was so traumatized by its errors, that it never fully regained confidence in itself and increasingly looked to the Bolsheviks to tell them what to do.

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GERMAN CAPITALISM benefited greatly from the Communist Party's disastrous tactics, but it still couldn't solve its own problems.

In 1923, French troops seized the coal mining regions of Germany to extract war debts agreed to under the Versailles Treaty that ended the First World War. This touched off a political and economic crisis that gave German workers one last opportunity to settle accounts with the system.

By the summer of 1923, hyperinflation was running at 10,000 percent per month or more, causing the economy to grind to a halt. To make matters worse, the Nazis began to grow very powerful during this period. They recruited tens of thousands of armed supporters, and began attacking unions and leftist parties.

Now the Communist Party was faced with the necessity of a new turn. It had spent the previous year recovering from the March Action by organizing united-front actions in defense of workers' living standards and civil liberties.

But as the crisis deepened, it failed to recognize that the conditions for revolution that did not exist in 1921 were now developing rapidly, and instead stuck to a passive and defensive policy. When Heinrich Brandler, the new chairmen of the party who took over from Levi, tried to lead the party on the offensive by organizing an "Anti-Fascist Day" in July, he was overruled.

Finally, faced with a total collapse of the economy and a crisis in the government in the fall of 1923, the KPD and their Bolshevik advisers tried to change tactics to prepare for a workers' revolution. There was even a debate about sending Trotsky to Berlin to direct the insurrection.

Broué explains that this debate introduced a very dangerous new element. Up until now, the Bolshevik interaction with the KPD had been generally positive. However, the escalating crisis within the Russian Revolution brought on by isolation and starvation began to be expressed in a complicated faction fight within the Bolshevik Party. By 1923, Russian leaders Joseph Stalin and Gregory Zinoviev were opposed to revolutionary action in Germany. Trotsky eventually overcame their resistance, but the delay was crucial.

The constituent elements for a revolutionary upsurge existed, but the KPD did not know how to lead events, only to react. Brandler himself spent most of September in Moscow, consulting with the Russians. In the end, they blinked--and called off the revolution without a fight.

Having raised expectations yet again, this decision to retreat without a fight led to widespread demoralization and ended the potential of the KPD to lead the working class for a long time. Trotsky called it the worst defeat in the history of the workers' movement.

The German defeat led to the final isolation of the Russian Revolution and the rise of the Stalinist bureaucracy. Stalin's counter-revolution crippled the international communist movement's struggle against fascism, eventually allowing Hitler to come to power.

None of this was inevitable. Broué's book recovers the history of one of the most courageous and tragic episodes in the workers' movement. He demonstrates that theoretical political debates between reformist and revolutionary strategies can have the sharpest practical conclusions, even leading to different sides of the barricades.

Broué's book helps establish the revolutionary potential of workers in the most advanced industrial countries to fight for socialism, but it also warns against the dangers of underestimating the power of capitalism to co-opt or crush that struggle. More than anything, Broué warns revolutionaries against the dangers of dismissing the importance of organization.

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