On this day exactly a century ago Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht were brutally murdered in cold blood by Freikorps troops under the command of the Social Democratic Party. It decapitated the leadership of the young German Communist Party which then oscillated between putschism and opportunism for the rest of its existence. The consequences were that the world revolution, which the revolutionaries in Russia had counted on, did not take place. This led the Russian Communists down the road, not to international socialism, but to the construction of a new form of capitalism which, however, was falsely baptized as “socialism.” Under Stalin this became one of the most horrific anti-working class regimes of the twentieth century. Today the criminals of Social Democrats who murdered Luxemburg and Liebknecht hypocritically pretend they had nothing to do with it whilst Stalinists and Trotskyists who defend the former USSR as somehow communist all reveal their anti-working class credentials. After almost a hundred years of counter-revolution a capitalist system, whose crisis increases every day, offers us nothing but more misery, war, and environmental degradation but a new generation is arising which is taking up the last challenge to the ruling class thrown down by Rosa Luxemburg a few days before her death:
Your “order” is built on sand. Tomorrow the revolution will “rise up again, clashing its weapons,” and to your horror it will proclaim with trumpets blazing: I was, I am, I shall be!
The “Spartacus” revolt
In early January 1919, just days after the formation of the Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands (the Communist Party of Germany, KPD), the new, supposedly socialist German government sacked the head of the Berlin Police, Eichhorn, who was popular among the genuine socialists. The KPD joined in the calls for a demonstration against this act, which was just the latest in a series of provocations against the workers of Berlin. This demonstration succeeded in preventing Eichhorn’s successor from taking office. Against the votes of the KPD, who correctly believed a revolutionary uprising was premature, the “revolutionary shop stewards” and left wing of the centrist Independent Social Democratic Party now formed a revolutionary committee to overthrow the government.
A general strike was declared and ten days of street fighting ensued. In the course of the fight part of the revolutionary committee split to enter negotiations with the government, thus paving the way for its eventual victory. The day after the fighting was over, Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, leaders of the KPD, were murdered by government troops along with the hundreds of workers who had already been cut down.
The Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands
To understand the background of these events, we first have to look at the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD). This was founded as the Sozialistische Arbeiterpartei Deutschlands — Socialist Workers’ Party of Gemany — in 1875, as the merging of the Sozialdemokratische Arbeiter-Partei (SDAP, “our people,” according to Marx and Engels) and the larger Allgemeiner Deutscher Arbeiterverein (ADAV, General German Workers’ Union, who were, roughly speaking, Lasalleans).1
Despite the ADAV being over 60% larger than the SDAP, Marx and Engels judged the merger as ill-advised and were extremely unhappy about the unification program, yet eventually Marxist views triumphed in the new party. However, this came about after a long struggle under conditions where the party was subject to suppression, under Bismarck’s Anti-Socialist law, passed in 1878 after the SDAP demonstrated that they had significant electoral support.
IIndeed, the victory of Marxism was aided by state repression which made the Lasallean idea of collaboration with the state as a socialist programme look faintly ridiculous. Not only that, but the party itself grew while operating in illegality. There were several reasons for this. Firstly, parliamentary representatives were exempt from the suppression (they had to stand for election as individuals). Secondly, the Party was very successful in organising despite its illegality. Thirdly, Bismarck also tried to steal the Party’s clothes by passing social reforms. The latter tactic backfired by being too transparent, and the Party got the credit for the reforms. A final factor, probably the most decisive, was the enormous growth of capitalist industry in Germany in the period of the Party’s illegality.
By the time Bismarck was sacked and the Anti-Socialist Law abandoned in 1890, the Party, which soon changed its name to the SPD, had not only grown, but had laid down the basis for uninterrupted further growth in membership and electoral success for over a decade and a half.
The pre-WWI SPD was famous for dominating an alternative world to official Germany, with many aspects of working-class life being under its sway, from sports and cultural activities to, of course, politics. Hundreds of newspapers were published by the Party across Germany. All this made it difficult to imagine political life on the left outside its orbit. But the health of the Party was only apparent. Despite Marxism being officially triumphant, it was so in name only.
In the years leading up to WWI, the SPD was eaten away from within by nationalism. Some of its leaders, especially David and Legien (who headed the union apparatus), were out and out imperialists and racists. They were opposed by many on the left of the Party who were formally commited to resisting war. However, the identification of the Party mainstream with the German state, that is, to their own bourgeoisie, was an overriding factor.
This contradiction was very evident in the days leading up to the outbreak of world war. As late as 25 July 1914, the SPD called for an anti-war demonstration. Three days later, 10,000 workers were on the streets of Berlin. Yet, on 4 August, the SPD representatives in the Reichstag voted2 for war credits which enabled the German Empire to finance the war. Its right wing leaders had secretly agreed to do just that a month before the war broke out.
The 4 August was correctly seen by the left as a betrayal of the class by the SPD, with Luxemburg being particularly devastated. However, it neither led to a split, nor to what may have been better, preparations for a split in order to bring the maximum numbers out of the SPD.3
Although the left of the SPD was shocked by the Party’s betrayal, they were not completely paralysed by it. They began to organise against the war, with Liebknecht being the first to vote against war credits when they were extended in December 1914. Amongst other successes, there was an anti-war demonstration organised by Karl Liebknecht, which brought 10,000 people onto Potsdamer Platz, Berlin, on May Day 1916. Even though Liebknecht was arrested for high treason after speaking at this demonstration, the number attending shows that there was scope for gathering up opposition to the war into organisations consistently opposed to it and therefore to the SPD.
Nevertheless, the central plank of the left’s conception of their activity was to win back the SPD to the “true path.”
Only by pouring merciless scorn on all our “half-measures and weaknesses,” on our own moral collapse since August 4, and on the liquidation of our entire system of tactics employed since August 4 can the reconstruction of the International begin.4Rosa Luxemburg
Thus the task was seen as reconquering the old Second International and its parties, not as opposing them as agents of the bourgeoisie, its system and that system’s wars.
By contrast, the betrayal was treated as exactly that by Lenin along with a large swathe of the Russian Bolsheviks. Social Democracy for them was henceforth a bourgeois party and the Second International would have to be replaced by another, communist International. Lenin’s view was reflected in those organisations in Germany who operated against the war outside the SPD, like the Internationale Sozialisten Deutschlands (International Socialists of Germany, ISD) and the group around the Lichtstrahlen (Shafts of Light) publication.
In their attempt to reconquer the SPD, Luxemburg and Liebknecht formed a group inside the Party, the Spartakusbund (Spartacus League), which signed up to the centrist Manifesto written by Karl Kautsky, even though it was far from representing their own politics. In time, the SPD reacted by expelling its centrist and left wings, who then founded the Unabhaengiger Sozialdemokratischer Partei Deutschlands (Independent Social Democratic Party of Germany, USPD), on the basis of the centrists’ politics, with the Spartakusbund, but without the ISD and Lichtstrahlen. This lack of a clear break with the politics of social democracy, evidenced by the Spartakusbund joining with the centrists in the USPD, was to cost the proletariat dear.
The October Revolution in Russia saw a massive transfer of power to the proletariat organized in the form of Soviets. This revolution was understood by Lenin and many of the Bolsheviks at the time as merely the first step in a world revolution. Moreover, without further steps on the road to a global seizure of power by the working class, the Russian step was bound to be reversed. Or, as he put it in March 1918, “Without a German Revolution we are doomed.”
And as Luxemburg put it:
In this sense theirs [the Bolsheviks’] is the immortal historical service of having marched at the head of the international proletariat with the conquest of political power and the practical placing of the problem of the realization of socialism, and of having advanced mightily the settlement of the score between capital and labor in the entire world. In Russia, the problem [our stress] could only be posed. It could not be solved in Russia.5Rosa Luxemburg
Failing to answer
On 30 October 1918, reacting to the German Admiralty’s demands that they sacrifice their lives in a pointless battle for “honor,” the sailors on two battleships in Kiel mutinied, but then surrendered in the face of threats of being torpedoed. 400 mutineers were taken prisoner.
A mass assembly of sailors demanded the release of the prisoners, and the authorities responded by banning further assemblies and sent out armed patrols. In the face of this action by the state, the sailors did not back down but instead began disarming the patrols. One of the larger patrols opened fire on the sailors and, against this backdrop of mounting tensions, the sailors organized themselves into the first sailors’ council of the German revolution.
At the request of the local governor (the representative of the Kaiser’s state) Gustav Noske, a leading member of the SPD, was sent to Kiel to negotiate with the mutineers on its behalf. Finding this impossible, as the movement had already gone too far to meekly surrender, he instead used his “socialist” credentials to put himself at the head of the movement in order to lead it along paths compatible with the continuation of bourgeois rule.
Meanwhile, the revolution begun at Kiel spread to other towns and the SPD continued to act to derail the movement onto “safe” ground. The SPD also brought the USPD into the game, partly to contain the latter, and partly to use its greater proletarian credibility to disguise the nature of its tactics. By mid-December, the revolution had set up workers’ and soldiers’ councils across Germany. However, the situation had been stabilized by the SPD and USPD’s efforts to steer the councils away from the political demand of “all power to the soviets” and to limit the councils’ efforts to arm themselves.
In effect, the revolution had come to a standstill. A congress of German workers’ and soldiers’ councils was held 16-21 December, but it was dominated by the SPD and the non-Spartacist part of the USPD. Instead of claiming political and economic power for the councils — i.e. the working class as a whole — it relegated itself to having a supervisory role over the government, in effect acknowledging the bourgeoisie’s right to rule.
In the wake of the councils’ congress, the “International Communists” (Spartakusbund, IKD, Lichtstrahlen and others) held a conference, and under the urging of Radek, a representative of the Bolsheviks, overcame the reluctance of the Spartakusbund to leave the USPD,6 and decided to hold the founding Congress of a new party, the KPD, from 29 December 1918 to 1 January 1919.
Ever since the SPD’s support for the war had revealed its total opposition to the interests of the international working class, there had been a crying need for a political force capable of showing that a revolution was needed in Germany: not to secure the legal rights of the bourgeoisie but to sweep away the capitalist system itself. Any German revolution had to be part of a wider, world proletarian one to overturn the power the bourgeoisie and its forms of rule, introduce a socialist economy and the dictatorship of the proletariat.
From the Russian October Revolution onwards, the rule of the councils over the whole of society had to be emphasised as the necessary form of that proletarian dictatorship. In other words, the idea that councils were either a temporary measure, to fill in while bourgeois rule was indisposed, or simply a supervisory device, to organise the working class in support of a revived bourgeois state.
Providing political clarity is the primary task of a revolutionary proletarian organization. Beyond the day-to-day technical tasks of a revolution, such as organization and military activity, where revolutionaries participate just as part of the proletariat, the political party has to clarify the ends to which these technical tasks are devoted.
The German revolution was marked by a lack of clarity about the roles of the political actors on the scene, what the interests of the proletariat actually were and what the tasks of the revolution were, at least on the side of the proletariat itself. By contrast the SPD already had enormous organisational control over the working class and it was extremely skilful in using the existing apparatus to steer the proletariat away from where it needed to go.
In military terms, the bourgeoisie was still unsure of which parts of its army were reliable, and which would go over to the revolution, so it supplemented its forces by using the Freikorps, protofascist forces comprised of supposedly demobilized army personnel (mainly ex-officers) who had access to military hardware superior to that possessed by the proletarian forces, and which had a clear view of the class allegiance of their social democrat bosses. They knew that the SPD was on their side, as, via Noske they obeyed that party’s orders. Even while the congress of German workers’ and soldiers’ councils sat, workers were being murdered in other parts of the country as part of the testing of the waters for an attempt to crush the revolutionary forces militarily. These murders weren’t the only provocations.
On New Year’s Day, the government disarmed the 75th Infantry Regiment in Bremen, a regiment deemed to be “untrustworthy” (i.e., likely to defend the proletariat). 22 strikers were killed in Upper Silesia on 3 January. Eichhorn, a left USPDer who was trying to run a “revolutionary” police force (despite this being a contradiction in terms, especially before the overthrow of the old regime, he was nevertheless popular among workers) was sacked, in what was a clear provocation.
The USPD, the revolutionaere Obleute (revolutionary shop stewards) and the KPD met, and, against the KPD’s warnings, voted to establish a revolutionary committee to coordinate the overthrow of the government. Despite the fact that the Spartakists were against this endeavor, the coming events were to be known as the “Spartakus” uprising, partially because the KPD stood by the vote out of proletarian solidarity but largely because the SPD wanted to blame them and destroy them. “Kill Liebknecht” posters were soon appearing on walls across Berlin.7
The KPD’s reluctance was based on a sober assessment that the conditions for a successful revolt had not yet matured. A sign of this immaturity was the trust that the many revolutionary proletarians still had in the USPD. But the USPD was itself divided between those close to the SPD and the more proletarian elements. As a result it could, and did, sway from enthusiasm for action to switching to negotiation; and, as Rosa Luxemburg noted in Rote Fahne, was incapable of any clarity about the purpose of revolt. The tragedy was that the KPD had been formed too late and lacked both the preparation and the influence necessary to hold back the revolt.
Even as the committee was being formed, workers were spontaneously taking action, occupying the offices of reactionary newspapers. The first action of the committee was to call for a general strike, a struggle for power and a mass demonstration on 6 January.
Street fighting broke out, and, true to form, the leaders of the USPD entered negotiations with the government, deserting the workers they had called on to fight. The government handed arbitrary power to Noske, the army units they had feared to trust turned out to be loyal or neutral and the revolt was crushed over the next week or so, with the Freikorps doing the final mopping up. There were about 3000 deaths, principally on the revolutionary side. Luxemburg and Liebknecht were murdered the day after fighting stopped, 14 January.
Apart from Bremen, Bremerhaven and Düsseldorf, where Council Republics were declared, solidarity action from outside Berlin failed to make much impact. The extreme localism of the German revolutionary movement was another factor which hampered its success. Even the Spartacists were prone to it and Luxemburg in her final writings was calling upon other cities to rise alongside Berlin.
Continuing to fail
Such localism played into the hands of the SPD (which had a national organization) and in the wake of the failed Berlin uprising, there were a series of other proletarian revolts, all of which were put down by the Freikorps, by troops loyal to the government or by a combination of both. The most noteworthy example was the Munich Soviet, which lasted for a couple of months, defeating the regular army before being overwhelmed by the Freikorps.
In many places, as in Berlin itself, workers’ uprisings were in response to the government’s provocations, so that the government was able to choose when and where to fight, an enormous advantage as it was able to deploy its initially weak forces in a concentrated fashion. In this way, the government could achieve victory, despite its vulnerability to a co-ordinated revolutionary assault in the early days of the revolution.
While the SPD government was stabilizing the military situation to its advantage, two political developments were occurring. Firstly, the political forces behind the Freikorps were deciding that the SPD was so dependent upon it that they might as well rule in the place of the SPD. Secondly, the left of the USPD split and joined the KPD, under the name Vereinigte Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands (VKPD, unified KPD), which was soon replaced in practice by the old name, KPD. This merger with the very unclear left USPDers added to the incoherence of the KPD.
Both of these developments were made apparent in the Kapp Putsch, which was launched on 13 March 1920. The eponymous Kapp was a member of the rightwing Deutschnationaler Volkspartei, and was supported in his attempt to become Chancellor of Germany through armed force by parts of the state’s military apparatus, as well as by the Freikorps. The SPD called a general strike, which was initially opposed by the KPD, regardless of the fact that the correct course was clearly to support the strike, despite the proletarian blood on SPD hands, and to push it to go further. Moreover, the KPD called on workers to lay down arms. This call was ignored, and the workers in the Ruhr, and elsewhere, formed Red Armies.
Under pressure from the Communist International, the KPD reversed its position, and the Putsch collapsed after an effective general strike and under the threat of the Red Armies. The KPD’s newly reinforced reformism was not finished, however. It met with the government, and, in exchange for the SPD’s promise not to use the Freikorps against workers again, it called on the Red Armies to lay down their arms. The SPD simply dissolved the Freikorps into the regular army and used that to unleash White Terror in the Ruhr.
Against this background, some of the opposition currents in the KPD split to form the Kommunistischer Arbeiterpartei Deutschlands (KAPD). Although it was clear that the revolutionary crisis in Germany was not going to last forever, the formation of the KAPD was carried out in an overhasty fashion, incorporating elements which had no place in a proletarian organization, such as the National Bolshevists around Laufenberg and Wolffheim. The result was that the new organization had to have two founding Congresses, the second without the more dubious elements. More time had been wasted in a classic case of more haste, less speed. The KAPD was riven by localism, councilism and syndicalism and did not long survive.
For its part the KPD, shorn of its most experienced leaders like Luxemburg, Liebknecht, Jogiches, and Leviné oscillated between opportunism, adventurism and even ended up supporting “national bolshevism” itself in 1923. By this time though it was increasingly the tool of a Communist International which was dominated by the need to defend the USSR not to extending the world revolution. By the time Stalin was promoting the idea of “socialism in one country” the revolutionary cause was already lost.
The failure of the “Spartakus” uprising was the first episode of the bitter lessons to be drawn from the inability of the old SPD left to break from that party after its great betrayal of its supposed principles and, more importantly, of the working class.
If there had been a clean break at the moment that the SPD had shown its internal rottenness by supporting imperialist war; or, perhaps more realistically, a prepared separation of all the revolutionary elements after some months, at most, a couple of years; when the war ended (in no small part due to Russian October) the new party’s exposure of the SPD as part of the bourgeois political apparatus would have had time to undermine that party’s fake socialist credentials. This may not have entirely prevented the SPD from putting itself at the head of workers’ movements in order to corral them into support for a ‘democratic’ capitalist state, but it would have weakened that strategy, and made it obvious where it was carried out.
Obviously, carrying out propaganda against the SPD during the state’s tight wartime domestic security would not have been an easy task, but the left did manage to propagandize against the war itself, so the biggest additional difficulty was realizing that this task was a necessary starting point for posing the way forward to a socialist future.
In addition, if the KPD had broken earlier, it might have had sufficient influence to prevent workers responding to local provocations designed to draw them into battles they could not win, and save their strength for a serious assault on state power.
Finally, the German revolution was in desperate need of clarity about what the councils were for — i.e. the organization of a proletarian dictatorship against the bourgeois, of society in its transition to socialism and the seed of the forms of administration of socialism itself.
The USPD acted to obscure the role of the workers’ councils — they were often in favor of them, but not as the fundamental basis of a new society, just as temporary organizers while proper bourgeois government was in trouble. At most, the USPD settled for the councils as technical supervisors of the real business of government: the exploitation of the working class. These “centrists” might have been won over to a more revolutionary vision of the role of workers councils by a German Communist Party, had this been founded in time to be able to build on the success of October in Russia.
1 Ferdinand Lasalle was an ideologist of an alliance between the aristocracy and the proletariat against the bourgeoisie, and pushed all sorts of rubbish like a class-independent “Free State.”
2 Traditionally, the SPD voted as a bloc in the Reichstag. In its representatives’ internal meeting, the vote for approving the war credits was 78 to 14, showing that a significant minority was at least there to be won to anti-war activity, even in the parliamentary party.
3 The SPD was not the only Party of the Second International (which grouped like-minded parties across the world) to make this betrayal. Indeed, the whole group, apart from honorable, but small, exceptions like the Serbian Party, left the terrain of the working class.
4 Quoted in Lenin’s Struggle for a Revolutionary International, Monad Press, 1984, pg. 95.
5 The Russian Revolution, Rosa Luxemburg, 1918.
6 Especially as the USPD left the SPD-USPD government under pressure from its rank and file, on 29 December.
7 For further details, see “A Hundred Years On: Lessons of the German Revolution.”