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The German Revolution of 1918-1919

Chantal Sundaram

November 11, 2018

November marks the 100th anniversary of a little-known revolution in the heart of Western Europe. Like the Russian Revolution of 1917, it posed a fundamental question: what kind of social change did the world need to escape the barbarism of world war and social inequality?

The German revolution replaced a constitutional monarchy with a parliamentary republic, later known as the Weimar Republic. It also unleashed a period of instability that lasted until late 1919. As in Russia, the enormous toll of WWI on poor and working class people created a crisis that put the legitimacy of the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie into question.

Soldiers’ mutinies erupted in German naval ports at the end of October, provoking civil unrest until the monarchy fell and the republic was proclaimed on November 9.

The immediate question in Germany, as in Russia after the fall of the Tsar, was: who will now govern?

A tale of two revolutions

The socialist movement in Germany was quite different from the one in Russia, where a credible alternative to parliament existed, even prior to October 1917: a large network of grassroots workers’ councils rooted in workplaces (called “soviets” in Russian), controlled by direct workers’ democracy, and excluding the ruling and middle classes.

And unlike the Bolsheviks, who looked to those workers’ councils as the key to winning genuine power for working people, in Germany the dominant left party, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) looked instead to a national assembly that would integrate the German upper classes into a social democratic parliamentary government. This extended to an alliance with the German Supreme Command of the military.

The other major difference between Germany and Russia at the time - in addition to the hold of parliamentary politics and the absence of workers’ councils as an alternative - was the absence of revolutionary organization capable of uniting the majority of working people in coordinated mass activity on the ground.

Parliament or worker’s power?

By 1918 a new party to the left of the SPD, the USPD, had formed. But it too had illusions in a parliamentary solution to the crisis. Immediately the two began negotiations on the formation of a government.

The USPD, in return for an offer of equal representation, withdrew its most radical conditions. A Council of People’s Commissars was established with three members of each party, and they called for the election of a national assembly.

Spartacus, a small group of revolutionaries which operated as an organized collective within the USPD, denounced the Council of People’s Commissars, and called instead for all power to the Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils. These did exist in Germany, but not to the extent they had in Russia. And the debate about power was not won even within these councils: on November 10, the Berlin Workers’ and Soldiers’ Council confirmed the six “People’s Commissars,” leaving its own authority vague.

The majority of German councils formed in November were dominated by the SPD, without any serious competition. In Russia, the Bolsheviks had not always carried the day in the multi-party soviets, but they had argued constantly within them for effective strategy based on decades of experience with collective resistance on the streets and in workplaces.

In Germany, especially Berlin, there were networks of revolutionary shop stewards, who were open to the politics of Spartacus and to a workers’ alternative to parliament. But without a separate voice with credibility built through decades of common struggle, it was a challenge to be heard at the eleventh hour. 

January uprising

On December 30-31, 1918, Spartacus members launched the German Communist Party, and in early January 1919 they led an uprising intended to push the revolution beyond the limits of parliament. But the struggle on the ground was not yet generalized across the country, and the SPD alliance with the army allowed nationalist militias, the Freikorps, to crush the 1919 uprisings by force.

The Russian Revolution faced a similar challenge in July of 1917. When the timing wasn’t right, the Bolsheviks had the credibility to win the argument to maintain unity, to preserve organization against the assault of the right, and to tactically retreat and prepare for the next round – which came a few short months later.

The workers’ movement is always uneven, with some sections lagging behind in struggle and others far ahead. Revolution is a process, and as it unfolds it can give an impulse to the most advanced workers to try to seize power prematurely, leaving others behind, to the advantage of the right.

As the Russian revolutionary leader Leon Trotsky famously said, if the forces of reaction had been successful in dividing the revolutionary movement in that country, fascism would have been a Russian word.

Socialism or Barbarism

German revolutionary leader Rosa Luxemburg, who herself was a victim of the Freikorps on January 15 1919, wrote in 1916: "Bourgeois society stands at the crossroads, either transition to Socialism or regression into Barbarism."

German fascism found a base in the contradictions of the Weimar Republic. Although state power was not inevitable, the Nazis’ emergence was linked to the failure of the German revolution to lead to a conception of socialism that was not wedded to the old forms of wealth and power.

The other form of barbarism that resulted from the failure of the German revolution to lead in a socialist direction was Stalinism. For the revolution to hold on in Russia and not regress to control by a new ruling class, it needed to spread internationally – and immediately to wealthier countries. In the end the Stalinist push for “socialism in one country,” which was actually a turn to state-run capitalism and counter-revolution, won the day.

Rosa Luxemburg

Rosa Luxemburg, a leader of Spartacus and a founder of the German Communist party, was undoubtedly one of the most important theorists of revolution from below in the Marxist movement. She theorized the importance of workers’ self-activity through mass strikes, and the ability of spontaneous struggle to change the consciousness of masses of ordinary people.

But her tragedy was in underestimating the need for separate political organization outside the SPD in the years before 1918-19. The SPD was the largest and most successful socialist party in Europe and gave rise to the social democratic movement throughout the West, including parties like the NDP. But Luxemburg’s hesitation was not due to illusions in the ability of the SPD, or USPD, to lead a revolution. On the contrary she fought relentlessly as the SPD took one mistaken position after another, from trying to reinterpret Marxist economics as a way to reform capitalism, to the disastrous capitulation of supporting the German war effort in 1914, to the compromise with German capital in forming Weimar.

She did not break earlier with the USPD for fear of being cut off from the mass of workers who identified with socialism. Even when the revolution broke out in early November, Spartacus leaders decided to stay as long as possible to try to win over as many as they could. There was probably also a hope that the revolutionary moment might make the limits of parliamentary socialism clear. This was an honest belief in the ability of workers themselves, through their experience of mass struggle, to eventually see through the limits of the SPD and USPD.

But while this potential was and is real, it is also always uneven, and competes with other ideas that constantly attempt to reconcile workers with some kind of compromise with capitalism. Consciousness never changes in a uniform way, even in a revolution when so many things may favour it.

What both 1917 in Russia and 1918-19 in Germany should leave us with is that while a better world is possible, a worse one is possible as well. What can make the difference is being an active, visible, and organized revolutionary force, that can call for workers to have confidence in their own power at the right time.

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