Nov 26, 2018
In 1918, the workers’ revolution that had started in Russia a year before almost spread to Germany.
By the time World War I broke out in 1914, Germany was the most industrialized country in Europe. It was still ruled by an emperor, and it had a weak elected parliament. Capitalists in alliance with an old aristocracy formed the ruling class. And Germany had a huge working class, which was largely influenced by the Marxist tradition. German workers had built their own party, the Social Democratic Party or SPD. Before the war, the SPD had a million members. Its unions organized 2.5 million workers. It had gotten 34% of the vote in 1912, allowing it to have 110 delegates in the German parliament. Germany was the center of the world socialist movement.
In its early days in the late 1800s, the SPD had been a revolutionary party. It had defied the German government. The Social Democratic delegates in the German parliament had always voted against the military budget.
But its electoral successes had led a part of its leaders and activists to adapt to the dominant political system. That is why, in August 1914, when World War I broke out, the Social Democratic Party voted for the war budget and helped to lead the workers into the butchery of the imperialist war.
The Social Democratic Party required all its parliamentary deputies to go along with its support for the war. But in December of 1914, the deputy Karl Liebknecht broke this discipline. He, along with Rosa Luxemburg and a few other leaders who opposed the war, launched the Spartacist League, named after the slave who had defied ancient Rome. Their slogan: “The principal enemy is in our own country.” A similar movement started within the Social Democratic unions: militants against the war formed the Revolutionary Shop Stewards, who were influential in the factories.
In 1914, the patriotic and nationalist fever dominated. But by 1915, women demonstrated against the high cost of living. On May 1, 1916, the newly formed Spartacist League called for workers to demonstrate against the war. Liebknecht declared: “Down with the war! Down with the government!” The demonstrators confronted the police. Liebknecht was sent off to forced labor.
But workers rallied to the Spartacists. At the beginning of 1918, 400,000 Berlin workers went on strike against the war, at the call of the Revolutionary Shop Stewards. The strike spread to Kiel, Hamburg, and Cologne, before the Social Democratic leadership maneuvered to end it.
By September 1918, with military defeats accumulating, the German military commanders knew that they could not win the war. They needed an armistice, but they did not want to be associated with the defeat. The Social Democrats were offered a place in the government. The then army declared the Social Democrats responsible for the defeat.
The naval commanders wanted one last battle, for honor. The sailors, however, refused to be sacrificed for the honor of their officers, and on October 29, the crews of two ships mutinied. The officers regained control and arrested a thousand sailors, but the ships stayed in port.
At the naval base in Kiel, 50,000 sailors and 30,000 shipyard workers wanted to free their comrades. They took over the city and elected councils of sailors and workers. Soldiers sent to put down the uprising joined in the rebellion. That was on November 3 – the German revolution had begun.
The sailors dispersed throughout the country and spread the idea of councils. Workers and soldiers came together in councils that formed centers of power in the Ruhr, Stuttgart, the northeast of Germany, Munich, Saxony, Hesse, Franconia, Wurttemberg, Metz and Strasbourg.
On November 9, Berlin workers occupied the public buildings. Soldiers joined them. At 11 o’clock, the German Emperor stepped down. The SPD leader Ebert was left in charge. But he said, “I don’t want revolution. I hate it as much as sin.” In order to take the wind out of the sails of the Spartacists, the SPD declared the First German Republic at 2 o’clock.
The Spartacist leader Liebknecht proclaimed the Free Socialist Republic, and called for a fight for this demand. In support, the Revolutionary Shop Stewards called on the workers to elect representatives to an all-German congress of councils, to organize working-class power. But the majority of the delegates elected by the working class to the congress of councils were still attached to the Social Democratic Party. And they voted their confidence in the SPD leader, Ebert.
The army supported the SPD government against the Spartacists. Given that many of the troops supported the revolution, the military leadership formed shock troops composed of officers, adventurers, and far-right students to put down the Spartacists.
Strikes broke out. To cut them short, on November 15, the SPD union leadership signed an agreement with the bosses giving workers the eight-hour day and the right for their unions to operate and meet openly. This apparent victory disoriented the workers. The movement began to disintegrate as the army stepped up its attacks.
As Trotsky wrote in 1919: “The moment war broke out, and consequently when the moment arrived for its greatest historical test, it turned out that the official working-class organization (the Social Democratic Party) acted and reacted not as the proletariat’s organization of combat against the bourgeois state, but as an auxiliary organ of the bourgeois state, designed to discipline the proletariat.... The working class was paralyzed.... The hardships of war, its victories, its defeats, broke the paralysis of the German working class.... But the German proletariat remained without a revolutionary combat organization.”
In October of 1917, the Russian revolutionary combat organization, the Bolsheviks, had led the working class to power in the Russian Revolution. They looked to the German workers to join the fight. For the Bolsheviks, the revolution had to spread, or it would be strangled by the capitalists.
And in 1918, it seemed like the workers’ revolution might indeed spread. German workers, soldiers, and sailors overthrew the emperor. And they wanted more than a capitalist republic, with an SPD flavoring. They took many actions that raised the banner of workers’ power against that of the capitalists. But the German working class lacked a revolutionary party that could lead and coordinate its actions.
The only really organized party was the SPD. Marx and Engels had helped create this party in 1875, to fight for the emancipation of the working class. But it betrayed the working class and its own traditions, and was the main force that saved German, and world, capitalism.
Humanity would pay a terrible price for this betrayal in the decades to come. It led to the rise of the Stalinist bureaucracy in the isolated Soviet Union. It opened the door for the rise of Hitler in Germany. It set the stage for the horrors of World War II. And in this capitalist world, today we are still paying the price.