History: German Revolution 1918

The 90th anniversary of the November 1918 German revolution comes at a particularly appropriate time.

An edited version of this article appears in The Socialist, weekly newspaper of the Socialist Party, cwi in England and Wales.

We are publishing two articles to mark the 90th anniversary of seven protestors being killed during the November 3, 1918, demonstration of mutinous sailors and striking workers in Kiel, northern Germany; a clash which transformed a naval mutiny into the November revolution that challenged the very existence of capitalism in Germany and throughout Europe.

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When the German workers entered the stage of history

The current economic convulsions of world capitalism are recognised by some as “the greatest loss of wealth in history”. This will in turn usher in a convulsive political situation in the world and not least in the ‘old continent’ of Europe, which could lead over time to the same kind of social upheavals as we saw then.

Capitalist commentators, who have derided the very idea of socialist change, and particularly the dreaded word ‘revolution’, are now contemplating such an outcome if world capitalism should lurch into a slump. Martin Wolf warns in the Financial Times that this would be a recipe for “xenophobia, nationalism and revolution. As it is, such outcomes are conceivable.”

This incomplete revolution was, at the time, second only to the victorious Russian revolution that had taken place only a year previously. In a sense, for present-day socialists, Marxists and the labour movement, a close examination of the processes involved in the German revolution is as important as even the mighty Russian Revolution – the single greatest event in human history. Unlike in Russia, China, Spain or even Portugal in the 1970s, this was a revolution in an advanced industrial country, with Britain, the most advanced at that stage.

The laws of revolution worked out by Marx and deepened by Lenin, Trotsky and the Bolsheviks in the course of the Russian revolution retain all their validity for socialists and Marxists today. But in Germany, unlike Russia, the immense power of the organised working class was overwhelming. The German capitalists were much more powerful than the weak Russian landlords and capitalists.

Yet faced with the stirrings of revolt in the war-weary German masses, the capitalists – whose system was crowned by the semi-dictatorial regime of the Kaiser (Emperor) – felt the ground tremble beneath their feet. They sought at first to deploy force and repression against the threatening revolution.


However, economically this was no backward country. In 40 years from 1871 to 1910, the proportion of the population living in cities had increased from one third to two thirds. The working class was the overwhelming dominant force with almost nine million industrial workers, 12.5 million workers in all. They, in the “broad sense of the term, including women and children, made up between 67 and 68 per cent of the total population” [Pierre Broué]. This working class was concentrated in huge cities such as Berlin, Hamburg, Munich and Cologne.

Alongside these were 3.3 agricultural workers, labouring on large estates, of which 369 were more than 1,000 hectares in size – a quarter of the whole cultivated area. In these facts was posed the possibility of an alliance between the urban working class, the poor peasants and the rural working class. Moreover, the German working class – certainly on the eve of the First World War – was not as impoverished or culturally deprived as those found in economically backward countries, even Russia itself.

It had, through the Herculean labour of generations of workers, built up at that stage the most powerful organisation of the working class in the world, formally standing under the banner of Marxism and the (Second) Socialist International of workers. The Social Democratic Party (SPD) had more than a million members in 1914. One left leader, Ruth Fischer (later a leader of the Communist Party), wrote later that for many workers “the German social democracy became a way of life… Its ideas, its relations, its attitudes were formed out of this integration of his person with his collective.”

The SPD had 90 daily newspapers, employing 267 full-time journalists and 3,000 manual and clerical workers. Overall, it probably had about 15,000 full-timers, a “virtual state within a state”. And yet it is an irony of history that this very colossal political machine because of its leadership at a decisive moment acted as a huge obstacle to the evident desire of the masses to overthrow capitalism and establish a socialist workers and peasants’ republic, as their Russian brothers and sisters had done just a year before.

It was the ‘long boom’ in the decades before the First World War that, while organisationally strengthening German social democracy, had rotted its ideological foundations. The leadership and their supporters acquired the habit of compromise and negotiation within the framework of capitalism; not a sharp break but the ‘inevitability of gradualism’ was the way to achieve socialism. Something similar also happened to parties like the Labour Party in Britain or the SPD in the last few decades. From workers’ parties at the bottom, albeit with pro-capitalist leaderships, they have been transformed into outright capitalist parties. The SPD in 1918 formally adhered still to the historic aim of socialism.

But in the revolution it acted as an enormous bulwark in preventing this. Faced with revolution, the German capitalists, utterly discredited by the slaughter of the First World War, were forced to lean on these social democrat leaders to derail the revolution again and again. Not able to use their own power and forces, the capitalist counter-revolution took a ‘democratic’ form buttressed by the killing of workers and massacres by the police, army and right-wing nationalist and fascist murder gangs.

The great Marxist Rosa Luxemburg – even before Lenin – had recognised the political degeneration of the leadership of the SPD and the role it was likely to play. She politically opposed them within the SPD, counterposing to its heavy conservatism the actual movement of the working class spectacularly revealed in the 1905-07 Russian revolution. Tragically, however, while emphasising the ‘spontaneous’ movement of the working class as the mainspring of the revolution, she also neglected to form a separate and distinct Marxist organisation in opposition to these leaders. This was to play a fatal role both before but particularly after the floodgates of revolution opened in November 1918.

SPD leaders support war

The ‘mole of revolution’ burrowed below the surface during the First World War. The German social-democratic leadership had shamefully abandoned their class and international duty by voting for ‘war credits’ in supporting its own ruling class on the infamous 4 August 1914, thereby taking full responsibility for the carnage that followed. Not so the immortal Karl Liebknecht, who voted against (although initially he had not done so) on 2 December 1914. He was to be joined by Otto Ruhle in March 1915, which meant that only two of the original 110 SPD Reichstag (parliament) representatives eventually voted against the war.

For this, Liebknecht was persecuted, slandered and jailed but this only served to enhance his attraction to the working class, both in the trenches and in Germany itself. His famous aphorism, “the enemy is at home”, resounded throughout the working class, in Germany, Russia and elsewhere too. It acquired particular resonance as the suffering of the working class and the mound of corpses grew.

Soon, the pro-war hysteria evaporated as the working class were called upon to pay a terrible price for what social-democratic renegades called ‘war socialism’; rationing of butter, meat and eggs was introduced. The food allocation to workers was one third of the necessary calories, it was estimated. This led, as in Russia, to mass demonstrations, both for peace and against starvation rations meted out by the authorities.

The SPD leaders were up to their necks in support of the war, which in turn led to mounting opposition within their ranks. The pressure of the masses was reflected even amongst the ‘left’ leaders of social democracy. Some of these leaders, like Karl Kautsky and Paul Hilferding, had opportunistically not opposed the war and were hostile to Liebknecht and Luxemburg because they refused to ‘respect’ the SPD constitution. For this, Liebknecht was condemned as an incorrigible ‘sectarian’. But Liebknecht and Luxemburg, who although in ill health was also jailed, defended the honour of the German working class and reflected their historic interests at the outbreak of war.

Nevertheless, under mass pressure, leaders like Kautsky and Co were compelled to first of all oppose the SPD leadership, in a half-hearted fashion, and then were forced out of its ranks. This led to the formation in 1917 of the USPD (Independent SPD) which took an estimated 120,000 members with it compared to 170,000 that formally stayed under the SPD banner. The USPD was then a manifestation of a ‘new mass workers’ party’, which The Socialist campaigns for now. However, today the main forces for such a party are likely to come from outside the Labour Party, which is empty because of its pro-capitalist character.

The USPD leaders had a halfway-house political position, sometimes using very radical, ‘revolutionary’ phraseology but were passive in deeds, refusing to go the whole way in the struggle against capitalism. When such a formation develops, it comes into being usually against the wishes of those who are compelled to ‘lead’ it. It reflects the increased radicalisation of the working class, which these leaders are forced to reflect in their programme and phraseology, but in an imprecise ‘centrist’ fashion.

For instance, in the Portuguese revolution Mário Soares, a lawyer until then, flew in from Paris in April 1974 to form the Portuguese Socialist Party (PSP), which had been mainly a signboard up to then. When the masses poured into this party, they demanded socialism and Marxist policies. The same thing happened in Greece with the formation of the Socialist party (PASOK), led by Andreas Papandreou. Soares was compelled at the congress of the PSP to declare that those “opposed to Marxism” would have to be “shown the door”. This did not stop him later, as the revolutionary tide ebbed, acting as a conduit for the pressure of capitalism, via the right-wing German social democracy in derailing the Portuguese revolution. The majority of the USPD’s leaders were to occupy a similar position in the German revolution.

Gathering Storm

The signs of the coming storm were evident in 1916. Between February and December, almost a quarter of a million German soldiers fell before Verdun. Great discontent at the course of the war was reinforced by strikes for better food in Berlin and elsewhere. Lenin, Trotsky and the Bolshevik leaders of the Russian Revolution looked enthusiastically to the imminent German revolution. From a thousand platforms, they had declared both before and after the October revolution that the only salvation for Russia was a successful revolution in Germany. They spent all their efforts into supporting those forces that were driving in this direction.

The cost to the German working class is shown by the number of victims in the war. Between March and November 1918, when the revolution broke out, 192,447 people were killed in the war, over 400,000 were missing or captured and 860,000 were wounded. Added to this were 300,000 more civilian deaths. The desire to put an end to the slaughter fuelled the demands for revolution. This is why Marxists sometimes describe war as the ‘midwife of revolution’.

And the revolutionary wave rose ever-higher. Leo Jogiches, one of the leaders of the Sparticists – the left organisation around Rosa Luxemburg,– described the situation in early 1918: “Civil war could be sensed in the air… Like a revolutionary breeze, a certain readiness but no-one knew what to do. After each clash with the police, we heard people saying: ‘Comrades, we should come back with arms tomorrow.’” When Ebert, the leader of the SPD spoke at a public meeting, he declared: “Victory is the dearest wish of all Germans.” He was openly called a ‘scab’ and a ‘traitor’ by the crowd of strikers gathered to hear him and was forced to hastily declare that the ‘victory’ was a reference to their economic demands!

Those capitalist writers and historians who inveigh against the idea of social revolution totally ignore the monstrous and huge costs which revolutions end. The costs of war – particularly the first and second world wars – when weighed against the alleged ‘unacceptable price’ of revolutionary change are much greater. In Russia and Germany, the numbers killed in the revolutions were small compared to the slaughter of the First World War – five million workers and peasants in Russia alone killed or injured – which the Russian Revolution ended. Weighed on the scales of humanity and history, there is no doubt that a fundamental economic and social change in society – socialist revolution – is less ‘costly’ than a continuation of capitalism, with its countless victims of war and economic catastrophe, especially if the working class has a clear, farsighted leadership and party.

If the glorious opportunities – not one but at least four or five – between 1917 and 1923 had been seized in Germany, the working class and humanity would have been saved terrible suffering. A democratic workers’ state in Germany with its immense industrial and cultural resources would have linked up with the young workers’ state in Russia, which in turn would have spread to Central Europe while resoundingly knocking at the doors of the other countries of Europe as well. The real possibility of a socialist united states of Europe being established would have prevented the rise of the Nazis and of Stalinism which flowed from the isolation of the Russian Revolution, in particular because of the subsequent defeat in Germany.

The unmistakeable signs of the approaching revolution were clearly unfolding in September 1918. The spark that lit the fire, however, came in October with the uprising of the sailors of the North Sea fleet. An earlier uprising had been met with repression with two sailors’ leaders being shot. It is not an accident that in a number of revolutions, the navy is to be found in the vanguard. This was so in the 1905-07 Russian revolution, the Spanish revolution and even in Britain with the Invergordon mutiny because of pay cuts following the crisis of 1929-31.

The reason why the ‘virus’ of revolution can often strike first there is because the ships of the navy are often ‘floating factories’. They are very hierarchical, with a rigid division between the different classes – from the bridge down to the engine rooms. This, married to brutal discipline, can provide the seed bed for revolution.

The events of November are well described in detail elsewhere (see the article by Robert Bechert in Socialism Today, and Pierre Broué’s book). The sailors’ revolt resulted in a revolutionary wave sweeping from one end of Germany to the other, which compelled the Kaiser – “we must sacrifice the Kaiser to save the country” – to bolt over the border to the Netherlands, thereby relegating the German monarchy to history. More importantly, as in Russia, “the slogan of the workers’ councils became a potent material force” [Pierre Broué]. In Berlin, Karl Radek, a Marxist leader, on the day that Karl Liebknecht was released from prison, which was greeted by mass demonstrations, wrote: “I have never seen anything like it. Late in the evening, workers and red soldiers were still parading. The world revolution had come, [the Russian revolution’s] isolation was at an end.”

Some commentators today, joined by ‘super-wise’ but shallow ‘left’ historians, argue that the chances of a successful German revolution were faint and that the workers’ councils which were created were nothing of the kind, and did not bear comparison to the soviets created in Russia. This is totally false. Indeed, as Pierre Broué pointed out in his monumental work, The German Revolution, 1917-1923, the chances of a German revolution appeared on 9 November 1918 to be “more serious than those of the Russian soviet revolution of February 1917”.

The left – revolutionaries, left independents, international communists and the Sparticists – had significant support in many of the councils and a period of dual power ensued. But the social-democratic leaders and the traditional organisations of the working class still had colossal authority in the aftermath of the revolution. Even in Russia, the working class firstly took the ‘line of least resistance’ and mainly supported the Mensheviks in the first period. In Germany, alongside the social democrats was also a powerful trade union apparatus not present on the same scale in Russia. In Berlin, the workers’ councils elected one delegate per thousand votes in the big factories and one delegate per part of a thousand elsewhere. What is true is that these councils– unlike in Russia between February and October 1917– were not sustained for the whole period of the revolution. This is because the capitalists and the social-democratic leaders learnt from Russia and did everything to prevent a similar situation in Germany.

As an alternative to the slogan ‘All power to the soviets’, they counterposed ‘All power to the whole people’, attempting to undermine the power of the working class. In practise, this meant that the power that the working class had conquered in November was effectively handed back to the cowering German capitalists hiding behind these ‘leaders’.

They counterposed to the idea of a ‘council-type’ republic the idea of electing a ‘national assembly’ (parliament). General Groener, chief of the army, later declared: “There existed no other party [other than the SPD] which had enough influence upon the masses to enable the re-establishment of governmental power with the help of the army.”

Nor were the ‘centrist’ leaders of the USPD prepared to go the whole way. This did not appear to be the case in the first instance because of the extremely radical, if not ‘revolutionary’, terminology used by the leaders of this party. But the German revolution in its first period developed at breathtaking speed – more frenetic even than the Russian Revolution. Such was the sweep of events that Lenin and Trotsky – mistakenly as it later proved – believed that the colossal movement of the German working class would conquer even without a mass communist party at its head.

The capitalists were initially forced to make concessions; for instance, the granting of the eight-hour working day, an amnesty for political offences, the lifting of the state of siege and censorship, freedom of opinion and the right of women to vote. But already, they were preparing to strike back. As with Lenin in Russia, hundreds of thousands of leaflets and countless newspaper articles vilified the left leaders – particularly Rosa Luxemburg, ‘bloody Rosa’, and Karl Liebknecht. Their ideas were maliciously distorted but Karl Liebknecht turned his back on the parliamentary babblers and went to the working class who massively supported his and Rosa Luxemburg’s ideas.

Revolutionary party

There were, as Trotsky pointed out, many similarities between the German revolution and what had happened in Russia. But there were also big differences, not just in tempo but in the absence in Germany of that priceless weapon which the Russian workers had, a mass revolutionary communist party – the Bolsheviks – with a clear and farsighted leadership. Heroic efforts were made to create such a party in the heat of the revolution, which culminated after many cul-de-sacs and mistakes, in the formation of a mass communist party following a split in the USPD at its Halle congress in October 1920.

But this only came after defeats and setbacks, notably the uprising of January 1919. Such movements are to be seen in all revolutions, particularly when the masses, through heroic efforts, seem to have made a revolution only to see their hopes and gains gradually eroded, and they decide to act. Such was the mood that led to the July days in Russia in 1917. A similar development took place in the Spanish revolution in the May events in Barcelona in 1937. Lenin opposed the July demonstration because the rest of Russia was not as prepared as the Petrograd workers to overthrow the government. The Bolsheviks led it in order to mitigate the damage which flowed from this. A counter-revolutionary red-baiting wave that flowed from this forced Lenin and many Bolshevik leaders underground.

In 1919, unfortunately, Karl Liebknecht – but not Rosa Luxemburg – mistakenly went along with the uprising. What followed was an inevitable defeat, repression, an orgy of bloodletting and, in particular and most tragically, the beheading of the German revolution through the assassination of Rosa Luxemburg – the ‘brain’ of the revolution – and Karl Liebknecht, its most heroic figure.

This was not the end of the revolution but it represented the end of the first phase. From this, Germany was plunged into an incredible process of revolution and counter-revolution – actual ‘civil war’ in the Ruhr with countless victims – the split in the USPD and the formation of a mass communist party, the Kapp putsch defeated by an immense general strike of the working class, the March 1921 ultra-left general strike and the decisive year of 1923.

In future articles we will comment on some of these developments – in particular 1923 for the lessons it holds for us today. In the meantime, on the anniversary of these great events – the lessons of which are so numerous we have only touched on them here – young people and workers who wish to acquaint themselves with the great and momentous events in Germany then and its relevance for today should consult amongst other sources the magnificent work of Pierre Broué, ‘The German Revolution 1917-1923’, only recently published in English.

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November 2008