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Rosa Luxemburg and the German revolution

Originally published: Red Flag on April 30, 2022 by Tess Lee Ack (more by Red Flag) (Posted May 03, 2022)

The carnage of World War I was ended by revolution in Germany. It began in November 1918 with a mutiny of sailors in Kiel. The revolt spread like lightning among Germany’s war-weary and increasingly rebellious workers. All over the country, workers’ and soldiers’ councils were elected and held effective power. Within a matter of days, the monarchy collapsed.

But what would replace it? The chancellor, Max von Baden, handed power to Friedrich Ebert, leader of the Social Democratic Party (SPD). The ruling class hoped to establish a stable capitalist government and dampen the revolutionary mood sweeping the country. Above all they feared a working-class movement inspired by the Russian revolution. The SPD, while mouthing revolutionary slogans, was equally determined to prevent the working class coming to power.

Ebert set up a provisional government consisting of delegates from the SPD and the Independent Social Democratic Party (USPD), which was a left split from the SPD. Karl Liebknecht, a member of the revolutionary Spartacus League, was offered a place but refused to give a left cover to a government whose real purpose was to suppress the working-class movement.

Rosa Luxemburg had been imprisoned since 1916. Released by the revolution, she arrived in Berlin on 10 December. Her health, never strong, had been undermined even further under the harsh conditions of her incarceration. Her comrades were shocked to see how much she had aged. Yet “her eyes shone with the old fire and energy”, and she immediately threw herself into the struggle. She took charge of the Spartacus paper, Die Rote Fahne (Red Flag), participated in countless meetings and addressed huge crowds at almost daily demonstrations.

Under Ebert’s government, the old imperial regime remained largely intact. Land ownership, industry, the military, the courts and the civil service remained much the same.

The task facing the German revolutionaries was daunting: could they lead the working class to victory and establish the socialist republic that Liebknecht had proclaimed? The major impediment was that the number of committed revolutionary socialists was tiny: only a few thousand. Moreover, they were not experienced, cohered as a group or well organised. The most important groupings were the Spartacus League, led by Luxemburg and Liebknecht, and a group of influential working-class militants known as the revolutionary shop stewards. But up to 11 November, the Spartacists were still a faction within the USPD, and the revolutionary shop stewards also had links with the USPD. The USPD was not revolutionary; it was a centrist organisation that wavered between reform and revolution, and was keen to maintain a relationship with the treacherous SPD.

The genuinely revolutionary elements therefore had no united organisation, little experience of working together, no way of arriving at an agreed strategy or tactics and no mechanism for selecting reliable leaders. Building an organisation capable of giving a clear lead in the heat of revolutionary struggle was an almost insurmountable task, even as millions of workers were being radicalised.

While spontaneous strikes and street fighting were enough to bring down the old order, they were not sufficient to create a new one. For that, the majority of the working class had to be conscious of what they were building towards. This was far from the case. Workers were inclined to look to their traditional leaders. Lacking experience, and in the absence of an alternative, many were taken in by the seemingly radical rhetoric of the SPD and USPD leaders.

A situation of dual power emerged. The workers’ and soldiers’ councils commanded authority alongside the Ebert government. But they also reflected the confused and rapidly shifting aspirations of the armed masses who controlled the barracks and the streets. And they were not organised into any system for running the country on a new basis. Instead there was a patchwork of different councils, possessing different powers and pursuing different goals.

The political confusion and volatility were revealed at the first national Congress of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils in Berlin in mid-December, at which an overwhelming majority supported the Social Democrats. Luxemburg and Liebknecht were not even allowed into the hall.

Yet on the streets, the Spartacists had strong influence. An attempted right-wing coup engineered by the SPD on 6 December was repelled by massive demonstrations, largely organised by the Spartacists. The government suffered a further setback over Christmas, when militant sailors who had seized the imperial palace and taken SPD leader Wels hostage, fought off government attempts to dislodge them. Several thousand revolutionaries seized the premises of the Social Democrats’ paper Vorwärts. On 29 December, the USPD members left Ebert’s government in protest at its attacks and its failure to deliver any significant reforms.

Founding the Communist Party

At the end of December 1918, on the initiative of Rosa Luxemburg and in the midst of a rapidly developing revolutionary situation, the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) was founded. The 3,000 or so members of the Spartacus League formed its core, and some members of the USPD and other small left groups joined it. Previously, Luxemburg had maintained that a small revolutionary group could maintain contact with the majority of workers only as part of a wider organisation; hence her opposition to splitting away from the USPD. But now she realised that a party with a clear program was vital if the revolution was to have any chance of success.

Luxemburg was largely responsible for writing the KPD’s program, which focused on the necessity of the self-activity of the working class. She argued: “Socialism will not and cannot be created by decrees; [it] must be created by the masses themselves … Where the chains of capitalism are forged, there must they be broken”. Only workers’ struggle could begin to overturn social relationships and establish the basis for socialist revolution.

But there was a marked contrast between the older revolutionary leaders such as Luxemburg and the majority of the delegates. Luxemburg insisted that the revolution was still in its early stages: “We must not … repeat the illusion of the first phase of the revolution … thinking that it is sufficient to overthrow the capitalist government and set up another to bring about the socialist revolution”. It would be a fatal error to attempt to seize power before conditions were ripe.

We must prepare from the base up; we must give the workers’ and soldiers’ councils so much strength that the overthrow of the … government … will be merely the final act of the drama. The conquest of power will not be effected with one blow. It will be a progression.

But the majority of the delegates—young, impatient and burning with revolutionary fervour—were far from accepting Luxemburg’s call for patience. So while they voted for her proposition that the party “will never take over governmental power except in response to the clear, unambiguous will of the great majority of the proletarian mass of all Germany [and] the proletariat’s conscious affirmation of the views, aims and methods of struggle of the Spartacus League”, they did not really understand or share her conviction that the decisive conflict for power was still a long way off and that it was necessary to draw the broad masses into struggle before trying to take over the government.

So when Luxemburg argued that the party should participate in elections for the National Assembly in order “to expose and roundly denounce all [its] tricks and machinations … to reveal its counter-revolutionary activities step by step to the masses”, she was defeated. Similarly, she was unable to counter the ultra-lefts who argued to break with the unions as “reformist” institutions, calling instead for “workers’ unions”—and this at a time when workers were joining unions as never before!

Luxemburg remained optimistic. What mattered most for her was that the party was attracting the best of the younger generation to its ranks despite their inexperience and ultra-leftism. But she underestimated the impact of this inexperience in a party that lacked a reliable and experienced cadre. This was to prove fatal.

The revolutionary shop stewards had been expected to join the party. But as a consequence of the ultra-left positions adopted at the Congress, the negotiations collapsed. This meant that the KPD was to face massive struggles without some of the most influential workers’ leaders in its ranks.

The Spartacist days

By the start of 1919, the revolutionary left in Berlin was in the ascendant. Support for Ebert’s government was becoming increasingly narrow: the USPD had abandoned it, the army was falling apart, and a strike wave was bringing more and more workers into struggle. Importantly, the revolutionary left had influence over significant armed forces—the Marine Division and the Security Force headed by USPD member Emil Eichhorn.

Ebert had been assured by General Groener of the Imperial High Command of the army’s support for his government. But by late 1918, Ebert justifiably feared that the army could not be relied upon. His defence minister, Noske, declaring that “Somebody must be the bloodhound”, set up the Freikorps—made up of right-wing officers who identified with the old ruling class. Their plan was to provoke a premature action by the Berlin masses, and then to retake the city forcibly, under the pretext of “restoring order”.

The provocation took the form of sacking Eichhorn on 4 January. He refused to go, insisting that he could be removed only by the Berlin working class. A meeting of USPD leaders and representatives of the revolutionary shop stewards and the Communist Party called a demonstration for the next day.

The workers’ response exceeded all expectations. Hundreds of thousands turned out, many of them armed. The organisers had intended a peaceful protest; but the angry crowd was not willing to disperse. With a little encouragement (possibly from right-wing provocateurs) some rushed off to seize control of buildings housing the bourgeois press and government offices, while others began to seize the railway stations.

Luxemburg and the KPD leadership were unanimous that an uprising must be avoided at all costs. But they did not have a party capable of communicating their tactics to the workers. Liebknecht was well known and was popular among the workers. But he overestimated the revolutionaries’ influence; in the heat of the moment, he was carried away and lost sight of the leadership’s position.

He was not the only one. Some among the USPD and the revolutionary shop stewards also believed that the pressure of the masses was enough to force Ebert from power. Together these elements set up a “Joint Revolutionary Committee”. They issued a leaflet calling for a general strike and mass demonstrations to bring down the government.

Along with the KPD, the two most influential members of the revolutionary shop stewards strongly opposed this. Liebknecht had acted without the knowledge of the KPD leadership. Luxemburg was devastated, reportedly saying,

Karl, how could you—what about our program?

The revolutionary committee was not only unrepresentative; it was too large and unwieldy to coordinate the action of the armed workers. Instead of acting, it debated endlessly what to do. Its indecision had a catastrophic effect on the morale of those fighting in the streets, who were left waiting for some direction.

Luxemburg had opposed the rising, but once it was under way she felt there was no choice but to fight. In Rote Fahne on 7 January she stressed the difference between the fighting mood of the masses and the fatal indecision of the leaders, and warned that the government was preparing to destroy the revolution:

There is no time to be lost … Act! … that is the … duty and obligation of the revolutionary shop stewards and the sincere leaders of the USPD. Disarm the counter-revolution. Arm the masses. Occupy all positions of power. Act quickly!

But once it was clear that the government was not going to collapse immediately, the USPD leaders asked for negotiations. This gave the government time to marshal its forces, and within days the rebellion was savagely crushed by the Freikorps. The bourgeois press gleefully described the blood-splattered walls against which workers were mowed down. The Social Democrat paper Vorwärts openly called for the death of the Spartacist leaders.

On 15 January Luxemburg and Liebknecht were arrested and later murdered. Luxemburg’s body was thrown into a canal and recovered only months later.

Her final article, which appeared in Rote Fahne on 14 January, was a cry of revolutionary defiance:

‘Order prevails in Berlin!’ You foolish lackeys! Your ‘order’ is built on sand. Tomorrow the revolution will rise up again … and … will proclaim with trumpets blazing: I was, I am, I shall be!

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