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ISR Issue 50, November–December 2006

The German Revolution 1917-1923

Pierre Broué
The German Revolution, 1917-1923
Haymarket Books, 2006
910 pages $50


Part one of two

We stand today...before the awful proposition: either the triumph of imperialism and the destruction of all culture, and, as in ancient Rome, depopulation, desolation, degeneration, a vast cemetery; or, the victory of socialism.
-Rosa Luxemburg, The Junius Pamphlet, written in prison in 1915

IN 1971, the French Trotskyist Pierre Broué wrote a groundbreaking history of Germany's revolutionary upheavals that followed the First World War. Finally translated into English and published by Brill in Britain in 2005, Haymarket Books has made it available for the first time in English in the United States. It is a long and complex work, almost 1,000 pages. The editors have included an invaluable timeline of important events and paragraph-length biographical sketches of more than 100 important political figures. Unless you are an expert in German history, you will more than once want to glance to the back of the book to distinguish between Ernst Thaelmann and August Thalheimer. But the effort is well worth it.

Why such a long book on a revolution that failed? The answer lies in the historically pivotal character of this period in Germany. In 1917, Lenin and Trotsky had hoped that an alliance between revolutionary Russia with its vast agricultural resources, and revolutionary Germany with its powerful industrial base, could together form the beginnings of a sustainable, European-wide socialist republic that would inspire the rest of the world. In November 1918, the overthrow of the German Kaiser seemed to signal the beginning of the same process that had begun in February of 1917 with the overthrow of the Russian Tsar and ended with the October socialist revolution. But it was not to be. Despite huge battles, the revolution was defeated in Germany during the years 1919-23, leaving the Russian Revolution isolated and starving.

Rosa Luxemburg was right, the defeat of socialism quickly transformed large parts of Europe into a “vast cemetery.” Stalin consolidated his bureaucratic regime on the basis of the disappointment of the defeat in Germany and the poverty of the Russian economy. In Germany, the Nazis cut their teeth and grew into a powerful mass organization in the struggle against the revolutionary workers. The twins of Stalinism and Nazism buried the promise of revolutionary Marxism.

But there was nothing automatic about this. Broué pulls no punches in analyzing the errors committed by the revolutionaries, both those based on youthful inexperience and, later, those based on bureaucratic stupidity. At the same time, he also uncovers a wealth of lessons in terms of strategy and tactics and the difficulties in making a revolution in an economically advanced nation-the most painful one being the necessity of building independent revolutionary organizations preceding the moment of revolutionary crisis, as the Bolsheviks had done, rather than attempting to build one from scratch in the heat of battle. These lessons, both negative and positive, were learned at a very great cost. Broué not only brings to life a topic that is long-forgotten, and little understood by activists and socialists today, but fittingly pays tribute to the socialists who gave their lives in one of the greatest working-class struggles the world has yet seen.

This two-part review will take up some of the central debates and problems Broué discusses within the German revolutionary Left. Part I will deal with the questions of reform or revolution and how revolutionaries should organize themselves in relationship to non-revolutionary workers or political parties. Part II will take up the difficulties of creating leadership in a revolutionary party, strategy and tactics, the question of reformist consciousness in the working class, and problems posed by the crisis in the Russian Revolution and its relationship to the German Communist Party (KPD).

Reform or revolution

The German Social Democratic Party (SPD) was the pride of the international socialist movement before the First World War. It was founded in 1875 in Gotha as a fusion between the Marxist Social Democratic Labor Party led by August Bebel and Willhelm Liebknecht, and the General German Workers' Association led by Ferdinand Lassalle, a critic of trade unions who looked to state-funded producer cooperatives as labor's panacea. Marx wrote a famous critique of the new party's program, which he believed made too many concessions to the Lassalleans. During its early years, the SPD faced harsh repression in the form of the Exceptional Laws (Bebel was twice imprisoned), and this pushed the party in a more radical and Marxist direction. Banned but not destroyed, the party managed to grow considerably in a period of boom accompanied by relatively little class struggle. From the 1880s right up to the war, strikes were uncommon and workers' living standards rose, even if they didn't keep pace with profits. The party's numbers grew steadily, reaching 1,085,905 members in 1914. Its vote increased from 311,900 in 1881 to 4 million in the 1912 elections, when it sent 110 deputies to the National Assembly (Reichstag), in addition to more than 3,000 other officials into lower bodies. The party maintained 90 daily newspapers, employed 267 full-time journalists and 3,000 manual and clerical workers, and led trade unions totaling 2 million members. In the absence of public institutions, the party created libraries, workers' schools, youth groups, women's groups, sports leagues, and entertainment venues. It was more than a political party-it was a way of life for many workers.

The SPD was certainly a mass party, but its very success in terms of building its impressive institutions led to sharp fights over strategy and tactics as well as core principles. In 1891, the Exceptional Laws were repealed, allowing the party to come up from underground, and a fierce debate broke out over whether or not the party should stand candidates for public office. As Broué recounts:

In opposition, on the one hand to the “youth” who advocated boycotting elections and a permanent policy of the offensive, as well as, on the other hand, to the right wing…who wanted to reorient the Party towards “possibilism” and exclusive electoral struggle, the leadership secured victory, in the program adopted at the Erfurt Congress, for the conception developed by Karl Kautsky. Kautsky did not renounce the maximum program, the socialist revolution, which the expansion of capitalism had made a distant prospect, but laid down that the Party could and must fight for the demands of a minimum program, the partial aims, and political, economic and social reforms, and must work to consolidate the political and economic power of the workers' movement, whilst raising the consciousness of the working class. In this way, the dichotomy was created.… This separation was to dominate the theory and practice of social democracy for decades. (17)

Kautsky's role, “repeatedly performed as long as it was humanly possible,” writes historian Carl Schorske, was “the reconciliation of antagonistic tendencies by means of theoretical concepts.”1

In 1898, Eduard Bernstein, himself a survivor of the years of repression and a major party leader, reignited the reform versus revolution controversy. Bernstein cast doubt on Marx's assertion that sharpening economic crises were inherent to capitalism. He came to see “socialism as a free choice of people, independently of their economic and social conditioning, as a moral option instead of a social necessity. He counterpoised to what he regarded as outdated revolutionary phraseology the realistic search for reforms, for which the working class should sink itself into a broad democratic movement with important sections of the bourgeoisie.” (18) In response, Rosa Luxemburg wrote Reform or Revolution, arguing that the choice between reform and revolution was false. Reformists who abandoned revolution as the means to socialism were not only choosing a different path, but a different goal because the capitalists would never relinquish political power peacefully. Revolutionaries, on the other hand, did not renounce the struggle for reforms within the context of the capitalist system, rather, they simply argued that reforms could only go so far and would inevitably be vulnerable to reaction as long as the capitalist profit motive ruled. Kautsky sided with Luxemburg, helping her win the SPD majority to vote to renounce Bernstein's attempt to “replace the policy of conquering power through political victory with a policy which accommodates itself to the existing order.” (18) But as Schorske notes, neither the resolution against Bernstein in 1899 nor another one in 1901 “checked the spread of revisionist ideas. The party valued its numbers and its unity”-the Left included-“too highly to expel the minority.”2

The debate was far from settled. The 1905 Russian Revolution (which was defeated after a whole year of mass strikes and semi-insurrections) combined with a relatively bad showing by the SPD in the 1907 elections helped crystallize three distinct trends within the party. On the right, stood

Ebert, Braun, Scheidemann [all important right-wing SPD leaders] and the others [who] found themselves placed in what was in a certain sense a privileged position, between opposed class forces. The economic transformation of Germany and the relative social peace in Europe… the advances in social legislation, which were won by Social Democracy and the trade unions, together with the prospects of social advancement and individual success which the workers' organizations and their closed world offered to capable members of the working class, all nourished the revisionist tendencies. These tendencies were fundamentally opposed to Marxism… [They considered] the standard of living of the German [working class]…to be linked to the prosperity of “its” capitalists and the expansion of German imperialism. (25)

On the left, the revolutionaries like Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht saw electoral contests as secondary to workers' economic struggles, which they believed would pave the way to mass strikes and revolutionary struggles on the barricades as had happened in 1848 in Germany, 1871 in Paris, and 1905 in Russia. They defended Marx and Engels' belief that capitalism could never overcome its tendency toward economic crisis. They identified the danger of escalating imperialist tensions between the great European powers and openly opposed the growing militarist and colonial ambitions of the German ruling class.

In the center, many of the old-line leaders, like Kautsky and Bebel, equivocated. They had spent their whole lives building up a powerful party. They still believed in socialism, and even an idea of “revolution” in the sense of winning the majority of parliament and then enacting thoroughgoing reforms. However, what they feared most was that the German government would use the rhetoric and action of the left wing of the party as an excuse to bring back the repressive measures of the 1880s and smash the beautiful machine they had spent thirty years crafting. Thus, in practice, although the center could not openly swallow the Right's rejection of the eventual goal of replacing capitalism with socialism, there was the “emergence of an ever closer alliance between the Right and the Centre.” (20) From then on, Broué argues, the SPD leadership, both the Right and the Center, “categorically turned its back on the party's identification with revolution, and references to revolution in the ensuing debates were few and far between.” (19)

This debate within the SPD was not simply a battle of ideas detached from social forces. The ideas of the Right were firmly rooted in the trade-union bureaucracy and the elected officials, whose jobs were most dependent on the political system that supervised German capitalism. The ideas of the Center tended to be strongest among the party officials, who were concerned primarily with holding the SPD together. The Left's positions tended to be championed by journalists or full-time party workers who were not directly responsible for any organizational questions. Of course, there were important exceptions to this description (such as Liebknecht), but Broué's discussion of the rise of the SPD bureaucracy is an important starting point to understand the outcome of the debate.

On August 4, 1914, the reformist and revolutionary analyses of capitalism were put to the test. On that day, all of the SPD delegates to the Reichstag upheld party discipline and voted to authorize military credits to prepare for war with Russia and France, “The Social Democrats joined in the War,” writes Broué. “Their words were exposed as a paltry rhetorical cover for a reality that consisted of shrapnel, bombs, machine guns, poison gas and imperialist aims.… The International died on August 4.” (47)

Within months of the first battles in the fall of 1914, it became clear that the First World War would be unlike any other war in human history. The most advanced industrial economies in the world created ingenious means by which to slaughter previously unthinkable numbers of soldiers and civilians. Reformist socialists had banked on the continuing prosperity of capitalism to gradually raise the living standards of the working class. Now that very system was proving that it could just as effectively hurl populations back into the Dark Ages. The Right joined in the slaughter hoping Germany would conquer the others. The Center's hope for a short war and an immediate return to peace collapsed. The Left was proven correct. Yet, they were the least organized of all the trends within the SPD.

The revolutionary Left

Some of the most impressive personalities of the SPD championed its revolutionary left wing. Rosa Luxemburg, who helped found the Polish social democrats, rose quickly to prominence through her sharp polemics with Bernstein. She also wrote a monumental work on the process of capital accumulation, defended the mass strikes in Russia, and rose to be one of the most popular leaders as a Jewish woman and a foreigner in the biggest socialist party on Earth. Karl Liebknecht was well known as a leading agitator against German militarism, had a huge youth following, and held a seat in the Reichstag. Clara Zetkin was internationally renowned as a socialist women's leader. Others had decades of struggle under their belts and were well known in the party, such as Franz Mehring, Leo Jogiches (a close companion and collaborator of Luxemburg for many years), Paul Frölich, and Heinrich Brandler. As individuals, they ranked among the best agitators, intellectuals, and mass workers' leaders the socialist movement has ever produced.

Yet when the SPD capitulated in favor of war, these leading figures were left virtually alone, unable to change the course of events. The shock of the betrayal explains part of this. For example, when Lenin first got news of the August 4 vote, he assumed it was a forgery by the German authorities to demoralize the socialists in other nations. But the depth of the Left's paralysis is hard to understand. In September 1914, Luxemburg, Jogiches, and Mehring sent out 300 telegrams asking leading Left figures to meet in Luxemburg's apartment to discuss antiwar strategy. Only Zetkin replied positively. (50)

Broué uses Liebknecht's experience to illustrate the isolation and demoralization of the Left. Despite his reputation as an anti-militarist, he had been convinced to maintain party discipline in the Reichstag during the August 4 vote by the leadership of the SPD. After traveling to Belgium, he found out about German atrocities. When confronted by friends in Stuttgart, he said, “Your criticisms are absolutely justified… I ought to have shouted 'No!' in the plenary session of the Reichstag. I made a serious mistake.” (51)

Throughout the fall, the Left tried to work through existing SPD structures to express their dissent, but the SPD leadership worked arm-in-arm with the German police to arrest or stifle any SPD dissidents by censoring newspapers and banning political meetings. By December, Liebknecht decided that “loyal opposition” within the SPD was impossible. As Broué recounts,

Faced with the collapse of his last illusions, with his nerves shaken by the importance of the gesture, but aware that he owed it to those who had not given up the socialist ideal, Liebknecht decided to take the decisive step. Only one means of expression remained open to him, that of voting against the war credits, of voting against the decision of his party. There was a dramatic discussion in Lebedour's apartment on the night of 1-2 December, but he could not convince any of the other oppositional deputies that it was necessary at all costs to resolve to make this spectacular gesture. In the Reichstag on 3 December, he alone voted against the credits, and in this way, made himself the symbol of the opposition and the rallying-centre for its scattered forces. (53)

For his defiance, Leibknecht was drafted and sent to the front.

Why did it take four months for Leibknecht to break SPD discipline? Why was the Left so weak? According to Broué, despite their hostility to the growing bureaucracy within the SPD and the drift to the right, they never sought to systematically organize themselves as a coherent group to fight for leadership of the SPD. The theoretical basis of their passive attitude to the question of organization lay most clearly in Luxemburg's understanding of the relationship between the socialist party and the working class. She believed that the party bureaucracy was conservative and that it was an outgrowth of the excessive centralism of power in the hands of the full-time party apparatus. She argued that, while the Left should oppose this tendency toward bureaucracy, the spontaneous struggle of the working class would be the key factor in overcoming the bureaucracy's conservatism at the decisive moment. Her book about the 1905 Russian Revolution, The Mass Strike, argued that Russian workers had discovered that the merger of mass economic and political strikes were the means by which to fight capitalism and simultaneously overcome conservative or bureaucratic elements within their midst.

Broué agrees with her emphasis on mass struggle. But he notes that her understanding of the Russian situation completely overestimated the role of mass action in overcoming reformism and underplayed the importance of organization, which, from her limited German experience, she assumed generally plays a retarding role in the struggle.

The professional revolutionaries who had built the Bolshevik faction in order to bring revolutionary consciousness and social-democratic organization to the Russian working class did so in conditions of illegality and repression which hardly gave them the possibility or even the temptation to adapt themselves to, or to integrate themselves into, Tsarist society. They had maintained their revolutionary objective, which might have seemed even more remote than in Germany, in the forefront of their general propaganda, whilst they strongly centralized their organization-yet no conservatism found its way into their daily practice. On the contrary, the apparatus of German Social Democracy…was seeking electoral effectiveness…during a period of relative social calm…it was preoccupied with ensuring that the internal conflicts did not weaken its electoral impact. (22)

Luxemburg consistently opposed Lenin's method of building up a principled and, crucially, organized group of revolutionaries, with its own press and system of communication that aimed to carry its positions into every party branch and every group of workers possible. She rejected as sectarian Lenin's practice of constructing a faction that had the common experience of working together over the course of years and submitting to a commonly agreed upon discipline. Broué believes that she incorrectly identified Lenin's insistence on limiting membership in the revolutionary group to those who agreed to work in a disciplined and centralized manner as the same tendency towards bureaucracy she was fighting against in the SPD. Paradoxically, her tenacious opposition to bureaucracy and centralism in general blinded her from taking any organizational measures to combat it in specific, as well as a fatalistic attitude towards new forms of organization.

As she put it to a left-wing friend who was quitting the SPD in 1908, “We cannot be outside the organization, out of contact with the masses. The worst of workers' parties is better than nothing!” (35) But this does not answer the question of how to fight most effectively to expand the influence of the left wing inside such a party, or what to do if the “worst” party becomes a bloc against revolutionary action. After all, the Bolsheviks remained in the same party as the Mensheviks (the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party) for many years. Lenin was not on principle (at least before 1912) against working in a common party with reformists. He simply insisted that revolutionaries should never give the reformists the right to veto the propaganda and organization of the Left. In fact, Luxemburg was so hostile to Lenin's insistence that revolutionaries had to openly fight for recruiting workers away from the Center and the Right, that she sided with Kautsky in 1912 in condemning Lenin for wanting to split with the Russian Mensheviks. (36)

Within two years, Lenin's method proved much more practical than Luxemburg's. He had a principled organization of revolutionaries with a critical mass, rooted in key workplaces, that had spoken out strongly against the war in a fairly united way and that immediately began organizing opposition in the factories and at the front. Luxemburg was censored by the Right of her own party and was not permitted to publish anything, yet she had no independent organization or publication of her own.

The Left now paid the price for their underestimation of the power of the SPD right wing. Having never organized a national faction to fight, the revolutionaries had to try to bring themselves together under the worst of circumstances, which they did as a loose grouping under the banner of the Spartacus League (named after the leader of the slave revolt in ancient Rome). Between 1914 and 1918, Luxemburg, Liebknecht, Mehring, Jogiches, Brandler, and the others were in and out of prison and often drafted into the army as punishment. In 1915, Luxemburg wrote The Junius Pamphlet, which called for strikes to end the war and laid the blame for the war squarely on the German authorities. It had to be distributed underground as both the police and the SPD leadership sought to suppress it. But the pamphlet found a growing hearing. On May Day 1916, workers demonstrated in Berlin for peace and then engineering workers, led by Richard Müller, a future KPD leader, struck in protest of the re-arrest of Liebknecht.

By the middle of 1916, it became obvious that the SPD was headed for a split. On the right, SPD leaders like Noske, Scheidemann, and Ebert wholeheartedly supported the war and enforced a no-strike pledge on the unions. By 1915, they were openly endorsing the German government's plans to annex foreign territory and create a German empire. (75) On the left, the Spartacus League championed mass strikes and mutinies to bring the war to an end. In between these two camps, centrist leaders, such as Kautsky, Georg Ledebour, Rudolf Hilferding, and Bernstein, opposed mass action, but favored negotiations to end the war “as soon as possible.” The pending split posed a serious question for the Left. Should they launch a clearly revolutionary party or should they join with the centrists in a new party in which the revolutionaries would remain a minority?

Karl Radek, a Polish communist working closely with Lenin, strongly advocated for the Left to found a revolutionary party based on the Bolshevik policy of turning the world war into a civil war between capitalism and socialism in each belligerent nation: “The idea of constructing a party jointly with the centrists is a dangerous utopia. Whether the circumstances are favorable or not, the left radicals must construct their own party if they wish to fulfill their historic mission.”(81) Yet, most leaders of the Left still refused to fully break with the Center. Indeed, this became an important source of conflict at the socialist antiwar conferences held at Zimmerwald and Kienthal in 1915 and 1916. There, Lenin failed to convince the German Lefts to turn their back on the Center and speak out for creating a new revolutionary International. Luxemburg and Liebknecht still feared that they would become isolated and lose any connection with the working-class movement (the left-wing engineering workers in Berlin for instance) if they struck off on their own. (63) And the Spartacus leaders, who by this time mostly agreed among themselves about the need for a revolutionary party, were still very divided over the tactics of how to form it. It was one thing to finally agree on the principle of building a revolutionary party based in the working class and independent of the centrists, but it was much more complicated in practice to bring this party into being.

Their refusal to prepare for the split in an organized way only passed the initiative to the Right, which allowed it to set the time and date for it. In May of 1916, Hugo Haase spoke in the Reichstag on behalf of the Center, attacking the government's suppression of civil liberties and thirty-three SPD deputies voted with Haase. The SPD leadership immediately moved to expel them all. In exchange, the government seized the main SPD newspaper in Berlin, Vorwarts, which had been run by SPD members loyal to the centrists and handed it over to the SPD Right. Two months later, the Independent SPD (USPD) with some 120,000 members was formed uniting the Left and the Center, while the SPD Right kept 170,000 members. While the split was positive in the sense of breaking the censorship over antiwar agitation, the revolutionaries (especially Liebknecht) were now lending their moral authority to old SPD centrists who had supported the war.

Revolution without a revolutionary party

The 1917 February Russian Revolution overthrew the Tsar and raised the confidence of the working class and the Left in Germany. The Bolshevik Revolution in October ended the war with Germany in short order (although at great expense to Russia) and convinced millions of workers that socialist revolution was on the order of the day. 1918 was a year of devastating economic hardship for German workers and catastrophic killing of soldiers. The USPD grew by leaps and bounds at the expense of the SPD and the left wing of the USPD became radicalized under the impact of the Bolshevik Revolution. The idea of a Russian-type socialist revolution based on workers' councils became very popular among millions of workers and soldiers. In November 1918, sailors mutinied in Kiel and set into motion a rebellion in the army. Workers launched a general strike, quickly leading to the overthrow of the Kaiser, the collapse of the German government, and the proclamation of the German Republic. Workers' councils were formed in dozens of cities in imitation of the Russian soviets. The Spartacus leaders felt vindicated by the rush of events. “Yet the building of the revolutionary organization lagged behind the audacious political analyses and perspectives of the revolutionaries, and they were unable to take advantage…of the revolutionary ferment that was rising throughout 1918,” writes Broué. (125)

The November revolution unleashed a blur of events that would have challenged the strongest of revolutionary parties. With the army in rebellion, the conservative parties agreed to hand power over to a coalition of six SPD and USPD ministers in a calculated attempt to pacify the masses. SPD Right leader Ebert, thanks to the revolutionary action of the working class that he had so long opposed, now became the chancellor. Meanwhile, the SPD trade-union leaders and army officers, rushed to pack the workers' councils with hand-picked loyalists in order to preempt them in establishing the type of dual power that existed in Russia in February 1917. The chaos of revolutionary events allowed the disciplined apparatus of the SPD to gain positions of power all out of proportion to the political mood of the working class.

Meanwhile, a sharp debate broke out within the USPD. The Right of the party favored throwing its weight behind the SPD-USPD government and pushing for new elections to the Reichstag, essentially an attempt to return to the prewar focus on parliamentary elections as the main socialist tactic. Luxemburg spoke for the Spartacus League and in favor of building up the power of the workers' councils as a dual power, aiming to eventually replace the Reichstag and the capitalist state bureaucracy with a Russian-type system based directly on the workers' councils alone. A vote of 485 to 185 at a mid-December conference in favor of the Right's perspective showed that with the war ending, the majority of the USPD leadership were opposed to a renewed wave of workers' struggle to usher in socialism. (200) Thus, the USPD splintered at the very moment when it was most important to pose an alternative to the SPD, leaving the revolutionaries without a party.

During the years 1914 to 1918, the Spartacus leaders never fully clarified the purpose of their work among themselves. Was it to prepare for the founding of a separate revolutionary party or simply to try to push the USPD to the left? At each crucial stage, they were left wondering who was with them and who was against them. Rather than setting the pace, they could only react to events-in August 1914, in January 1917, and again in November 1918. The USPD majority decision to turn away from the workers' councils finally forced the Spartacus leaders to found their own party, but not until after the first phase of the revolution was coming to a close. Broué draws the painful lesson that the Spartacus League's revolutionary ideas and ability to inspire outbursts of struggle proved to be no match for the organized parties of the SPD and USPD. The revolutionaries were pitifully unprepared for the revolution. By way of comparison, in January 1917, the Bolsheviks had roughly 25,000 members with a fifteen-year tradition of common party activity, the experiences of 1905 under their belts, and an impressive underground and legal press that was distributed to tens of thousands of workers. The Spartacus League had a few hundred members, did not have its own regular publication, and possessed very little experience of organized, common struggle against the other factions and parties, or in leading the day-to-day class struggle.

The founding of the KPD

Despite their woefully late start, by the end of November 1918, the prospects for founding a revolutionary party appeared good to the Spartacus leaders. Luxemburg and Liebknecht hoped to fuse three important groups of revolutionaries into the new party: First, the prominent leaders of the Spartacus League (themselves, Paul Levi, Zetkin, Frölich, etc.); second, radical communist groups that had refused to join the USPD and newly radicalized youth; third, the revolutionary shop stewards, concentrated around the Berlin engineering workers.

In the event, the forces that the founding congress of the KPD attracted were very small. In Berlin, on December 30, 1918, just 112 delegates met, representing several thousand members and tens of thousands who actively sympathized with the new party. Richard Müller and the revolutionary shop stewards were not even present at the founding conference of the KPD, as they generally considered the majority of the KPD delegates to be hotheads and adventurists. Liebknecht tried to bridge the gap by carrying on go-between negotiations. Matters were not helped by the fact that the majority of KPD delegates proved to have a completely unrealistic view of their own power. For instance, they voted to boycott the elections for the Reichstag that had been called by the SPD and USPD government for February 1919. Otto Rühle, who became an anarchist of sorts, argued against Levi's assertion to use the elections as a platform to build the KPD, proclaiming, “Today we have other platforms. The street is a huge platform, which we will not abandon, even if they shoot us.” (217)

Luxemburg, Leibknecht, Levi, Zetkin, and almost all the best known Spartacus leaders argued to take part in the elections on the grounds that the SPD and the USPD had already successfully disbanded the workers' councils and that the revolutionary Left was not strong enough to create a new revolution all by itself. Therefore, the KPD should use the election campaign to popularize its ideas and recruit new members, as the Bolsheviks had done after the 1905 revolution. Yet, the overwhelming majority of the KPD delegates were very hostile to this position because they expected a new spontaneous revolution to break out at any moment and they voted sixty-two to twenty-three against participation in the elections. (217) Worse, the KPD next voted, this time with Luxemburg's support, that trade unions were outdated and that revolutionaries should work to convince workers to quit them in favor of workers' councils. (218)

These ultra-left positions (and Müller's continuing hesitancy to break with the Centrists) led to the collapse of negotiations with the revolutionary shop stewards. Broué explains the impact, “The Spartacist leaders were isolated from these militant organizers of the working class, the genuinely indispensable cadres of a workers' revolutionary party, as they were doubtless aware, they had no foothold in the industrial workers' movement. On the other hand, the admirable fighters in the Berlin factories were deprived of political leadership [of Luxemburg and Liebknecht].… The new-born Communist Party was from the start isolated from the masses, and it was doomed to impotence before it had swung into action.” (225)

Levi remarked bitterly,

The air of Berlin…was filled with revolutionary tension.… There was no one who did not feel that the immediate future would see further great demonstrations and actions…the delegates who represented these hitherto-unorganized masses who had come to us exclusively in action, through it and for it, just could not understand that any new action, which could easily be foreseen, might end not in victory but in retreat. They did not consider, even in their worst dreams, following a tactic which would have left them a margin of manoeuvre if they need to retreat. (213)

At the time, Luxemburg believed that the KPD's ultra-leftism was simply the “squalls” of an infant. She believed that “the new party would eventually find the right path despite all its errors….” (228) Perhaps she was trying to put the best face on a bad situation, but it is also possible that her relatively optimistic view was based on her continuing belief that the spontaneous struggles of the working class would correct the KPD's “errors” in practice. Even at the KPD's founding convention, Luxemburg shied away from any attempt to use her authority to discipline her ranks. For instance, while she gave a brilliant presentation on the KPD's general principles and argued in general against ultra-leftism, she allowed Levi, who didn't command anything like the respect she did from the young delegates, to give the most controversial report on the need to take part in the elections.

The new KPD entered the volatile January 1919 situation with the strength to call some important protests, and some of its leading members had the sympathy and could count on the collaboration of key leaders who had opted to remain in the USPD, Müller for instance. But the KPD had no substantial organized base, with only around 3,000 members who had any notion of acting as an organized party. Compared to the national apparatus and mass membership of both the SPD and USPD (both had more than 100,000 members), the KPD was virtually powerless. Its forces were so meager that they struggled simply to communicate between cities and even between sections of Berlin. Compounding this problem was the party's infusion with the ultra-left enthusiasm that Levi described and the lack of an experienced leadership team that commanded the allegiance and respect of the party's rank and file. While Lenin hailed the party's founding, it was a party that could not yet coordinate events regionally or nationally.

But that realization would come only after another terrible blow. In response to a deliberate provocation by the SDP Berlin authorities in January, Liebknecht and the revolutionary shop stewards (who only days before had refused to join the ultra-left youth of the KPD) launched a general strike and called for the overthrow of the government. Radek alerted the KPD leadership to the danger,

In your pamphlet…What Does the Spartacus League Want?, you declare that you only want to seize power if you have the majority of the working class behind you. This fundamentally correct point of view is founded on the simple fact that the workers' government cannot be formed without the backing of the mass organization of the proletariat. Today, the only mass organizations to be considered, the workers' and soldiers' councils, have no strength except on paper. Consequently, it is not the party of struggle, the Communist Party, which heads them, but the social-patriots or the Independents. In such a situation, there is absolutely no question of dreaming of the proletariat possibly taking power. If as a result of a putsch, the government fell into your hands, you would be cut off from the provinces, and would be swept away in a few hours. (250)

Although the strike was initially met with enthusiasm, it was poorly organized and the SPD government was able to mount a counter-offensive. The January strike was like the situation the Bolsheviks faced in July of 1917. Then, the mass of Petrograd workers and soldiers launched semi-organized and semi-spontaneous strikes and armed demonstrations. Lenin opposed the mobilizations because he believed that even if they could take power in Petrograd, the rest of the country was not yet as politically radical and they would quickly be isolated and crushed by more conservative troops. The Bolsheviks called the July Days, “more than a strike, but less than an insurrection.” Even though they disagreed with the protests, they sent their tens of thousands of members in Petrograd into the streets with the workers and soldiers in order to do their best to prevent chaos. Although this angered many of newly radicalized workers and soldiers, the Bolsheviks were able to prevent a premature uprising and help the masses make a relatively orderly and organized retreat when the right wing counter-attacked.

Faced with a similar grassroots outburst of anger and disillusionment with the ruling SPD government on the part of the Berlin working class and thousands of decommissioned soldiers, the KPD proved utterly incapable of employing the tactics the Bolsheviks had used in the July Days. Broué highlights the weakness of the KPD by pointing out that not only had Liebknecht ignored the party's tactics, but that the party's forces were so feeble that Luxemburg was not even aware of what her closest collaborator was doing. The division between Liebknecht and Luxemburg was not simply one of character. During the July Days, many leading Bolsheviks effectively adopted Liebknecht's tactic of pushing as far as possible in response to the radicalization of hundreds of thousands of workers in the leading revolutionary city. However, the Bolshevik Party as a whole was able to mostly win over those comrades to the party line and preserve the party's unity in action. Luxemburg may have shared Lenin's approach to the German Revolution's July Days, but she could not win her young party to acting in a concerted manner. Rather than leading the Berlin workers out of a trap, the KPD followed them into it. While in hiding with Liebknecht during the repression that followed the defeat of the strike, Luxemburg first read a newspaper account of his role in calling for the premature uprising. “She said to him, 'Karl, is that our programme?' Silence fell between them.” (255)

Reformism becomes counterrevolution

According to Broué, if the first phase of the German Revolution proved that the KPD was not yet up to the task, it also proved that the reformist leaders in the SPD, who had appeared before the war to be in favor of “moderation” and “gradual progress,” now turned out to be the most ruthless practitioners of counter-revolutionary cunning and violence. Faced with the collapse of the regular army, the German ruling class financed a paramilitary force of thousands of right-wing army officers, the so-called Free Corps. While this force was small (4,000 fighters), it was disciplined, well-armed, and committed to its goal of suppressing workers and smashing the revolutionary Left. The SPD ministers, especially Gustav Noske, helped bring this force into being, defended it, and deployed it to restore order throughout Germany in the months after November 1918. Thus, not only did the SPD Right prove itself to be skilled at maneuver and cooptation in the service of German capitalism, it also proved to be merciless. It did not flinch from murder, even if it meant the murder of former comrades.

At the height of the January general strike, the SPD-controlled newspaper Vorwarts published a poem declaring, “Karl and Rosa and partners, not one dead, not one, amongst the dead.” This was widely seen as giving the green light for their assassination, which was conducted by the Free Corps troops just two days later. Liebknecht and Luxemburg were captured, tortured, and shot without trial. SPD minister Scheidemann justified the murders, hypocritically laying blame on the victims while absolving his own government of any responsibility, “'You see how their own terrorist tactic has done for them themselves!' After that, there was always the blood of Liebknecht and Luxemburg between German Social Democrats and the Communists,” Broué explains. (257)

The January strike and the wave of repression that followed drove the KPD underground and set the revolution back. Radek was arrested but not killed. Jogiches was murdered, shot “while trying to escape.” In one incident, a lieutenant Marloh hand-picked and shot twenty-nine sailors “because they looked intelligent.” (277) In his memoirs, Noske admitted that 1,200 were massacred, the revolutionaries claim 3,000. Broué argues that

The leadership of the Communist Party had not been able to prevent the crushing of the movement which it had helped to unleash, and which it had done nothing to prevent or to check. It had no doubt let slip for a long time the chance of a struggle for a united class-front against the leaders who were in alliance with the generals. It was to pay dearly for the ultra-left action which had been undertaken without adequate reflection by Liebknecht and the majority of the revolutionary [shop stewards]. (255)

Despite their losses, the KPD and the revolutionary vanguard of the working class were not finished. They spent the next four-and-a-half years waging a bitter struggle to solve the riddles left unanswered by the martyrs of 1919. This period will be the subject of Part II of this review.


Broué's balance sheet provides many important lessons for revolutionaries today.

First, the First World War confirmed that political ideas matter; indeed, they can lead people to different sides of the barricades. The debate between Bernstein and Luxemburg had real life consequences, even if it was not completely obvious at the time. Kautsky's attempt to paper over these fights, merely served to disorient the Left and gain time for the Right to consolidate its control of the party apparatus.

Second, the capitalists are ingenious when it comes to patching up their system and passing on the costs of the crisis to the working class. Yet, the ruthless economic competition that lies at the heart of the capitalist system forces the capitalists, and the governments they control, to confront one another in the hopes that they will be the last man standing, even if it threatens their common ruin. Kautsky could not believe European capitalism would plunge into full-scale war. In fact, it did so twice between 1914 and 1945. Capitalism breeds war and that danger will only pass when it is replaced with socialism-a lesson with obvious lasting value in today's world.

Finally, Luxemburg and Liebknecht were political giants Yet, lacking a powerful political party with clear Marxist ideas based in the working class they could not put their revolutionary principles into practice. Broué's book will help a new generation of revolutionaries learn these truths.

Todd Chretien is a member of the International Socialist Organization in the Bay Area. He is author of “The B-team of Corporate America” (ISR 49, September-October 2006).

1 Carl E. Schorske, German Social Democracy 1905-1917: The Development of the Great Schism (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1983), 5.

2 Ibid., 23.

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