How the reformists saved capitalism. The German revolution, 1918-19

Submitted by Anon on 4 December, 2008 - 11:01 Author: Stan Crooke

Part 2. The first part of this article can be found here


The pact between Ebert and Groener had been sealed on the evening of 10 November. Thereafter, with the full support of the SPD leadership, the General Army Command recruited, organised and trained new military detachments (the Iron Division, the Freikorps and the Republican Soldiers’ Defence Corps) for the purpose of crushing the revolution.

The working-class military forces — for which the “revolutionary government” of the SPD provided no support – were much weaker: a trade union-based security force which had been set up by Emil Eichhorn (a USPD member), the 3,000 strong People’s Naval Division, a small Red Soldiers’ League (set up by Spartakus) and several thousand armed workers who had kept their weapons on returning from the front.

On 24 November the SPD appointed a Commission for Socialization, chaired by the USPD leader Karl Kautsky. Its purpose was to thwart any direct initiative by the workers in their own workplaces. In early 1919 the Commission dissolved itself, demoralised by the government’s lack of interest in its recommendations.

As Massimo Salvadori (Karl Kautsky and the Socialist Revolution) wrote: “The majority Social Democrats... had no intention of promoting any action that could jeopardise the conservative coalition between the SPD, the trade unions, the high state bureaucracy, and the General Staff. The principal concern of the SPD was to restore internal order and to revive production.”

From the earliest days of the German Revolution the SPD leadership had called for the creation of a National Assembly. Just as the enemies of the Russian Revolution had backed the convening of a Constituent Assembly in order to undermine and replace the proletarian democracy of soviet power, so too the counter-revolutionary forces in Germany looked to a National Assembly to play the same role in relation to the workers’ and soldiers’ councils.

Luxemburg warned of the looming danger: “The National Assembly is an obsolete heirloom of bourgeois revolutions, a husk without content, a stage-prop from the period of petit-bourgeois illusions about a ‘united people’, about the ‘freedom, equality and brotherhood’ of the bourgeois state.

“Whoever reaches for the idea of a National Assembly is consciously or unconsciously pushing the revolution back to the historical level of a bourgeois revolution.”

While the SPD leadership prepared for elections to the National Assembly to undermine the revolution, Luxemburg looked to the councils to take forward the revolution: “All power in the hands of the working masses, in the hands of the workers’ and soldiers’ councils, and the safeguarding of the revolutionary work from lurking enemies....”

In the closing weeks of November there were unplanned bloody clashes between armed workers and soldiers returning from the front. But by the early weeks of December, as the demobilising policies of the SPD-USPD coalition government began to douse the flames of revolution, the forces of the counter-revolution prepared for organised confrontation.

Groener ordered 10 army divisions which had been stationed on the Western Front to march on Berlin. Their task, as he explained to an enquiry conducted in 1925, was to “tear power away from the workers’ and soldiers’ councils.” The plan of action drawn up by Groener made clear how this was to be done: “Whoever is still in possession of weapons but has no arms permit is to be shot; whoever has kept possession of military materials, including lorries, is to be summarily executed... Whoever declares themselves to occupy an official position without any right to do so [i.e., the membership of the workers’ and soldiers’ councils] is to be shot.”

Meanwhile a witch-hunting atmosphere was whipped up against Spartakus, and against Luxemburg and Liebknecht in particular. From the “Anti-Bolshevik League” and the old pro-imperial Heimatdienst a flood of slanderous anti-Spartakus propaganda poured forth. The killing of the Spartakus leaders was advocated in public and in the press.

According to Groener’s plans the 10 divisions would arrive in Berlin on 10 December and would complete their task of destroying the workers’ and soldiers’ councils by 15 December, one day before the first all-German Congress of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils was due to convene in Berlin. But some sections of the Berlin garrison who had remained loyal to the old order preferred to act sooner.

On 6 December troops occupied the Prussian parliamentary buildings in Berlin and arrested the Berlin Executive Committee of the Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils. A second detachment occupied the editorial offices of Spartakus’ newspaper. A third opened fire on a Red Soldiers’ League demonstration, killing 18 and wounding 30. A fourth detachment marched on Ebert’s offices and proclaimed him President of Germany.

By evening the mini-putsch had fizzled out. Ebert rejected the proclamation. The editorial offices and the Prussian parliamentary buildings were vacated. The Executive Committee of the Councils was released and informed that their arrest had been a mistake. No action was taken against the counter-revolutionary troops by the SPD-USPD government.

On 10 December Groener’s troops reached Berlin. Ebert greeted the troops in front of the Brandenburg Gate: “No enemy has defeated you! Now Germany’s unity lies in your hands!” But Groener’s plans for the troops quickly came to grief. Waves of mass desertions swept through their ranks from the day of their arrival. By the end of December only 800 of the 75,000 soldiers had not deserted.

On 16 December the National Congress of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils opened in Berlin. In the days leading up to the congress a new wave of strikes had begun to spread across Germany, throwing up new leaderships in the industrialised centres. But this new militancy found no expression at the congress. Delegates attending the congress were elected by the workers’ and soldiers’ committees in the first days of the revolution, when illusions about the SPD’s promise of a “revolutionary government” were still rife. Of the 489 delegates, 288 belonged to the SPD, 80 to the USPD, and just 10 to Spartakus. Many of the remainder were bourgeois liberals in political outlook.

By 344 votes to 98 the congress rejected a proposal for the creation of a republic based on workers’ and soldiers’ councils. By 400 votes to 50 the congress then voted in favour of elections for a National Assembly on 19 January. The congress further agreed to “transfer legislative and executive power to the Council of Peoples’ Deputies until such time as the National Assembly may make other arrangements.” The congress had effectively committed political suicide.

The only radical resolution adopted by the congress was submitted by delegates from Hamburg. By an overwhelming majority the congress voted for: “Election of army officers; abolition of insignia of rank; subordination of the military to civilian government; and the transfer of disciplinary powers from officers to the soldiers’ councils”. Naturally, Ebert ignored that resolution.

In the Spartakus paper Red Flag, Luxemburg pointed to the central role played yet again by Social Democracy in stemming the revolutionary tide: “This is an expression not merely of the general inadequacy of the first unripe stage of the revolution but also of the particular difficulties attending this proletarian revolution and the peculiarities of its historical situation.

“In all former revolutions the combatants entered the lists with their visors up: class against class, programme against programme, shield against shield. In the present revolution the defenders of the old order enter the lists not with the shields and coats-of-arms of the ruling classes, but under the banner of a ‘Social Democratic Party’.”

The SPD was now making fresh efforts to disarm the revolution. Otto Wels, who had played a central role in securing the election of a “reliable” (pro-SPD) soldiers’ council on 10 November, announced that the People’s Naval Division was to be reduced to 600 men and transferred away from the centre of Berlin.

The People’s Naval Division had been loyal to the revolution from the outset. Its core consisted of sailors from Kiel who had mutinied in early November and then participated in the Berlin uprising of 9 November. Stationed in the Imperial Palace in the city centre, they were subsequently joined by another 2,000 sailors from Kiel.

To add pressure to his demands Wels reduced the level of pay to the Division to that appropriate to a force of 600. Opposition to Wels’ proposals by the sailors was misrepresented in SPD propaganda as a selfish pay demand which threatened the unity of purpose of the labour movement. After a week of fruitless negotiations the Division went onto the offensive.

On 23 December the sailors occupied the nearby government buildings, placing members of the Council of People’s Deputies under arrest, and taking Wels prisoner. Ebert persuaded the sailors to return to the Imperial Palace, promising that a cabinet meeting the following day would settle the dispute.

At eight o’clock the following morning troops loyal to Groener and Ebert who had been drafted in front of Babelsberg and Potsdam opened artillery fire on the Imperial Palace. As news of the fighting spread, tens of thousands of workers and their families marched on the Palace to demonstrate their support for the sailors. By midday the attack had been defeated. The troops were forced to leave Berlin.

In protest at the use of force against the People’s Naval Division the three non-SPD members of the Council of People’s Deputies resigned their posts on 29 December. Ebert replaced them with three SPD members, including Gustav Noske.

The year 1918 closed with the founding of the German Communist Party (KPD) under the leadership of Luxemburg and Liebknecht. Spartakus, hitherto a fraction within the USPD, formed the core of the new organisation. Spartakus itself was a loose federation of local groups. Despite the intellectual profundity of its leading figures, especially Luxemburg, it lacked a Marxist-educated, experienced membership. Many of the members held overly romantic ideas about revolution. Above all, Spartakus lacked a serious presence in the workplace.

The Revolutionary Shop Stewards, whom Liebknecht tried to persuade to join the KPD, boycotted the founding conference of the new party. The more political elements among them backed the USPD. The majority were syndicalists and saw no need for a political party. They conceived of revolution as a conspiratorial insurrection. The North German Left Radicals, who had renamed themselves the International Communists of Germany (IKD) in late November, after some wavering joined the KPD conference on 31 December, the day after the founding of the KPD.

The conference voted by 62 to 23 to boycott the elections to a National Assembly. This was a mistake, because it confused opposition to the National Assembly itself with the tactical question of how to use the elections to mobilise opposition against the Assembly. There were clear majorities at the conference for withdrawing from the trade unions (on the grounds of their reformism) and for establishing the KPD as a loose, decentralised organisation. Those issues were left to party commissions to decide upon.

In late December and early January Ebert and Groener pressed ahead with the organisation of military units which could be relied upon to succeed where Groener had failed on 10 December, including the Hülsen Freikorps. Ebert appointed Noske commander-in-chief of the Freikorps troops.

The witchhunting atmosphere against the Spartacists — as the members of the KPD continued to be known — intensified from day to day, whipped up both by the extreme right and also by sections of the SPD.

This from the SPD: “The masses cannot afford to wait a minute longer and quietly look on while these brutes and their hangers-on cripple the activity of the republican authorities, incite the people deeper and deeper into a civil war, and strangle the right of free speech with their dirty hands.”

The troops had been assembled. The atmosphere had been raised to fever pitch. Now all that was needed was the pretext to “justify” armed intervention by the counter-revolution. It was provided by events triggered by the sacking of Emil Eichhorn.

On 1 January an SPD publication unjustly accused Eichhorn — a USPD member and Police President of Berlin — of embezzling public funds. At the same time military commanders accused Eichhorn of preparing to launch a civil war. Again the accusations were unfounded. On 3 January Eichhorn was summoned to the Ministry of the Interior and asked to resign. He refused, and asked for 24 hours to prepare a written reply to the accusations. Although he was granted this reprieve, he was sacked the following morning. Eichhorn refused to accept this dismissal, declaring himself to be accountable to the Berlin Executive Committee of the Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils, not to the Ministry of the Interior. That evening the Berlin Executive Committee of the USPD met delegates from the Revolutionary Shop Stewards and two members of the KPD (Liebknecht and Wilhelm Pieck) in the Berlin Police HQ. The meeting agreed to call a protest demonstration the following day, 5 January.

Tens of thousands poured into the city centre during the morning. By midday up to 300,000 people were in the city centre. As the demonstration drew to a close, armed groups broke away and staged a series of occupations: the headquarters of the SPD, the offices of the SPD’s paper, the Reich Printing Office, news agencies, telegraph offices, and the main railway stations.

In the evening another meeting was held in the Berlin Police HQ, attended by 10 representatives of the Berlin USPD Executive, 70 delegates from the Revolutionary Shop Stewards, the leaders of the People’s Naval Division, some delegates from the soldiers’ councils in Berlin, and Liebknecht and Pieck from the KPD. Carried away by the size of the demonstration and the series of occupations underway, the meeting declared the government to be overthrown and elected a Revolutionary Committee consisting of Ledebour (USPD), Scholze (RSS) and Liebknecht (KPD). However the meeting proposed no other action than another mass demonstration the following day.

On 6 January the city centre was again taken over by mass demonstrations. This time far more workers arrived with weapons than the previous day. But there was no fighting and no leadership from the Revolutionary Committee. Instead, the Revolutionary Committee opened negotiations with Ebert, using USPD members as intermediaries. The demonstrations began to break up. By the evening the city centre was empty.

But the occupations were still underway. And now the SPD-military alliance had their pretext for armed intervention: the Spartakus uprising which the black propaganda of conservatism and the SPD had repeatedly warned was imminent. On 9 January reaction launched its counter-offensive.

spartakus uprising

But, as Paul Frölich wrote: “The truth is: there was no Spartakus uprising... the truth is that the January fighting was cautiously and deliberately prepared and cunningly provoked by the leaders of the counter-revolution.”

For all its political weaknesses the KPD recognised the futility of such a young — and numerically weak – organisation attempting to initiate an armed uprising. When Liebknecht reported back to the KPD Executive on 8 January he was censured for his unauthorised involvement in the Revolutionary Committee. “Karl, is that our programme?” asked Luxemburg.

According to Richard Müller, one of the Revolutionary Shop Stewards, the KPD was of the opinion that it was “senseless to attempt to declare a (revolutionary) government. In their opinion, a government based on the proletariat would not have survived longer than a fortnight.”

The KPD subsequently expelled some of its members who had been involved in the wave of occupations. Frölich even went so far as to claim that the occupations had been instigated by agents provocateurs: “All these newspaper occupations had been carried out under the leadership of agents in the pay of the Berlin Commandants’ office, or by highly dubious elements.”

Shortly before his death Liebknecht recognised that the uprising had been a mistake: “It was a demand of History that they [the workers] were defeated. For the time was not yet ripe. And yet, the struggle was unavoidable... to have surrendered the police headquarters without a struggle [i.e., to have allowed Eichhorn’s dismissal to go unchallenged] would have been a shameless defeat. The struggle was forced upon the proletariat by the Ebert band, and with an elementary force it surged up from the Berlin masses.”

On 9 January Ebert ordered troops to recapture the occupied buildings. But it was not only the buildings under occupation that were attacked. An attempt to storm the editorial offices of the Red Flag was made the same day. Two days later the offices of the KPD were seized and destroyed.

On 11 January the first battalions of Freikorps marched into Berlin, headed by General Maercker and Noske. On 15 January more Freikorps flooded into Berlin, occupying the south and west of Berlin and the entire city centre. A wave of terror was now unleashed by the counter-revolution. Suspects were arrested in the streets and arbitrarily executed. Militants were murdered and then declared to have been shot while resisting arrest. Others simply disappeared after having been taken into custody. Workers’ delegations sent to negotiate with the Freikorps were murdered.

On 15 January the wave of terror engulfed Luxemburg and Liebknecht. Captured by counter-revolutionary troops, they were beaten unconscious with rifle-butt blows and finished off by revolver shots. Liebknecht’s body was delivered to a first-aid station as that of an “unknown man” while Luxemburg’s corpse was dumped in the Landwehr Canal. The officer in charge of the murderers, Captain Pabst, issued a press statement claiming that Liebknecht had been shot while trying to escape, and that Luxemburg had been murdered by an angry mob.

Three days later the elections to the National Assembly were held. Despite the betrayals and the counter-revolutionary plotting of its leaders, the SPD still commanded broad electoral support among the working class. The SPD won 164 seats to the USPD’s 22, and formed a coalition government with the bourgeois Centre and German Democratic Party.

Two days later, at the first Cabinet meeting of the new government, Noske announced plans for restoring the rule of “law and order” throughout Germany: “The government must be able to back up its authority with might. We have raised 22,000 men in a military unit during the course of the week. In two or three weeks we will be able to restore a certain amount of order. Dealings with the Soldiers’ Councils has therefore taken on a different character. Hitherto the Soldiers’ Councils have had force on their side; now this is in our favour.”

As Noske spoke, street fighting was raging in Bremen. On 10 January the Bremen Workers’ and Soldiers’ Council had declared the city to be a Workers’ Republic. Noske despatched the Gerstenberg Freikorps to crush the uprising, and by the time of the new government’s first Cabinet meeting the Freikorps controlled the city.

In early May the Munich Workers’ Republic, declared two months earlier, was suppressed by pro-government troops and Prussian Freikorps. A wave of terror even more bloody than that unleashed on Berlin in mid-January swept through the city. More than 700 people were massacred in the first week of May alone. Violence was also used to put down working-class unrest in Thuringia, Saxony, Halle, the Ruhr District and Berlin.

Both before and after the murder of Luxemburg and Liebknecht the SPD leaders claimed that their resort to force was justified by the need to maintain law and order, rather than motivated by the desire to eliminate political opponents and defeat working-class insurrection. In one sense they were right. They were defending law and order – the law of capitalist exploitation and the order of social inequality. And it was precisely this law and order that was under threat from the socialist ideas of Luxemburg and Liebknecht that found expression in the workers’ councils.

Despite Liebknecht’s involvement in the Revolutionary Committee elected on 5 January, neither he nor Luxemburg were killed for leading an armed uprising. There was no Spartakus uprising in Berlin in January 1919. Luxemburg and Liebknecht were murdered because they were the leaders of a revolutionary movement which Social Democracy in alliance with German militarism wanted to destroy at birth.

SPD leaders such as Ebert and Noske sought to cloak their actions behind the stale clichés of maintaining law and order, but their allies in the military were more forthright. As General Maercker later put it: “In the struggle of the Reich government against the left radicals it was exclusively a matter of maintaining political power. Troops were used for this purely political purpose... using force to consolidate domestic policies.

“But the weakness of the government did not allow it to say this openly. It was afraid of showing its colours and of explaining that the role of the Freikorps troops was to put an end to the rule of workers’ councils wherever it still existed. At the end of the day, this was what was at stake.”

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