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Revolution and Counterrevolution in Germany 1919

Talk by Christoph Fringeli
held at Vétomat in Berlin, 14/01/2019

Tomorrow marks one hundred years since two important figures of the early German communist movement were murdered in Berlin: Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. This was in the middle of an attempt to turn the revolution that had forced the Kaiser to abdicate in November, 1918 into a fully socialist one. This attempt, often called the Spartacist Uprising1, was defeated, as were other attempts in other parts of Germany to set up council republics and workers’ democracy.

Liebknecht and Luxemburg were both born in 1871. From around the turn of the century, they were active in the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) as well as the international socialist movement. The SPD was the biggest party in that movement and one of the main players in the Second International. The party originated in 1875 when two previously existing socialist organisations were united. It was heavily influenced by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, even though Marx had formulated a scathing critique of their original program2 .

As the party developed, it became a major force in German politics. Its share of the vote multiplied until it reached 34,8% in 1912, the last election before the First World War. This development was accompanied by an increasing bureaucratisation of the party and a conflict between its revisionist right wing, the orthodox centre, and the revolutionary left wingKarl Liebknecht was the son of Wilhelm Liebknecht, one of the main figures of early social democracy in Germany. Liebknecht joined the SPD in 1900 and practised as a political lawyer. In 1907, he was accused of high treason on the basis of his anti-militaristic writings and spent time in prison.

In those years it was becoming clear that the competition between the imperialist powers of France, Britain, Germany and Russia was intensifying and that the outbreak of a war was looming. The Socialist International, however, still believed that the international solidarity of the workers could prevent it.When the war did break out in 1914, most socialist parties did a u-turn and sided with their national governments, including the SPD. In parliament, the party voted for the war credits needed to finance the military and Kaiser Wilhelm II noted that finally the red veneer had come off the social democrats and they proved to be good Germans after all.

At first, even the radical minority who rejected the war voted for the credits, bowing down to party discipline, but they experienced this as a massive humiliation and perversion of their political beliefs 3 . The day after the vote saw the formation of the Gruppe Internationale with Rosa Luxemburg and Franz Mehring who were joined by Liebknecht and other anti-war socialists. Liebknecht traveled to Belgium to make contact with socialists in other countries in the hope of forging international alliances against the imperialist war.

But the radical left was fairly isolated as the great slaughter began. The biggest socialist party in Europe had given in to nationalism and imperialism, a monstrous event for the left.

At the second vote in parliament, Liebknecht finally broke party discipline and was the only member to vote No to the war credits. With his courageous vote, he broke the mould and encouraged others to do the same. In an effort to silence him, the state drafted him into the army and locked him up in prison. At the same time, he was expelled from the SPD fraction. These events contributed to new constellations being formed on the left. The Gruppe Internationale called itself the Spartacus Group (Spartakusgruppe) from 1916 onwards. The following year, they joined the newly formed Independent Social Democrats, or USPD, uniting those forces of the left that opposed the war.

Rosa Luxemburg was from a Jewish, Polish family and joined a radical group when she was still a teenager. She studied economics in Zürich. When the first Russian Revolution broke out in 1905, she traveled back to Warsaw, which was then a part of the Russian Empire. After facing arrest in Warsaw, she made it to Germany in 1907 and became one of the main voices of the radical left in the SPD and one of the most important Marxist theoreticians of the time. She was a teacher at one of the party schools and published Accumulation of Capital, her main theoretical book, in 1913.4
Overwhelmed by the outbreak of the war a year later, she co-founded the Gruppe Internationale, which later became the Spartakusgruppe. Like Liebknecht, she spent a good part of the war period in prison.

Luxemburg was only freed from prison when the monarchy abdicated in November, 1918. Liebknecht had already been let out of prison a few weeks before. As the monarchy crumbled and workers’ and soldiers’ councils took over the executive and legislative power, Liebknecht declared a “free socialist republic” in two public speeches on November 9th. On the same day, Philip Scheidemann, an SPD man from the right wing of the party, declared a parliamentary republic.What ensued was a parallel struggle of powers, with the councils on one side and bourgeois democracy on the other. The same SPD leadership that had supported the war in 1914 was now making alliances with the military and a range of bourgeois parties in order to make sure the capitalist mode of production would prevail. They brought in general voting rights and what in their minds was probably a realistic way of making economic and political gains for the working class. Although this of course meant that there would be no fundamental changes in the relations of production.

The left wanted something altogether different: a socialist society, ushered in by a “dictatorship of the proletariat” conducted by the workers councils. This was widely understood on the left as a much more democratic system than the representative democracy advocated by the bourgeoisie, which left the decidedly undemocratic economic power relations intact.

The Spartacus League immediately began publishing the Rote Fahne (Red Flag) as a daily newspaper and prepared the foundation of a new party, The Communist Party of Germany (KPD). The congress of the new party’s foundation took place in Berlin from December 30th, 1918 until January 1st, 1919. This reunited the former left wing, the internationalist faction of the SPD and then the USPD with other groups and individuals, most importantly the International Communists of Germany (Internationale Kommunisten Deutschlands, IKD)5 .

These events were certainly in part inspired by the victory of the Russian Revolution a year before. But there were interesting differences in opinion between Rosa Luxemburg and Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, the leader of the Bolsheviks, the Russian communists.
Lenin held the opinion that the ordinary proletarians could only develop a “trade-unionist” consciousness and hence had to be led by highly disciplined professional revolutionaries. Luxemburg believed in the creativity and spontaneity of the masses, and held against Lenin that the organisation should be built from below and that the “mistakes the revolutionary workers’ movement makes are immeasurably more fruitful and valuable than the infallibility of the best central committee.”

Despite such disagreements, she was extremely hopeful and enthusiastic when the Bolsheviks took power in Russia, like everyone on the radical left in 1917. But she kept her critical faculties intact as the events unfolded and formulated a critique a few months later. This text, written during her time in prison, wasn’t published in her lifetime, but was published in 1922 by her friend and comrade Paul Levi 6 . In this text, she criticised the authoritarianism of the Bolsheviks, their tendency to present their revolution as a model for the revolutions in other countries, their policies concerning the peasants, and their recognition of the right to national self-determination.

At the founding conference of the KPD around New Years 1918/19, Luxemburg suffered a defeat in one vote. The conference voted against taking part in the upcoming parliamentary elections. The majority believed that the duty of the hour was to push forward with the revolution and defend the power of the councils, not to take part in bourgeois parliamentary politics.A few days later, the police president of Berlin, a left-winger of the Independent Socialists, was deposed by the central government. This was a clear attempt by the right to seize more of the executive powers. The workers responded with strikes and the insurrection that is commonly called the Spartacist Uprising.

In the first half of January 1919, the situation was getting more serious and the newly formed party was ill prepared for the civil war like situation. This was made worse by increasing death threats against its leadership. Finally, Liebknecht, Luxemburg and other leaders went into hiding, the two at first in Neukölln, before they made an ill-advised move to Wilmersdorf. There they were illegally arrested by members of a right wing militia. They were brought as prisoners into the Hotel Eden where one of the most right wing proto-fascist Freikorps had set up headquarters.
Later the same night both were separately maltreated, beaten and eventually shot dead. The leader of the Freikorps had decided to have them murdered, but not without consulting with the higher-ups, which included leading social democrat Gustav Noske.
Luxemburg’s body was thrown into the canal and only retrieved months later. Liebknecht was identified and buried ten days later in Friedrichsfelde.

* * *

These historical events remain a contentious subject to this day. On January 11, 2019, the news magazine Der Spiegel reported that Andrea Nahles, then chairwoman of the SPD, refused to take any responsibility on behalf of the party for the murder of Rosa Luxemburg, after being challenged to do so by Klaus Gietinger7 and “other left wing intellectuals”. According to Nahles, there was no “final proof” for the involvement of Gustav Noske, the right wing social democrat responsible for the military in the first weeks and months of the republic.

This is not untypical of the way the SPD customarily attempts to deflect responsibility for their involvement in these events. For example, the author and historian Peter Lübbe, in his pro-SPD book Kommunismus und Sozialdemokratie (1978, p.28), disingenuously claims that none of the courts concerned with the case implicated the SPD leadership in the murders. In fact, the courts notoriously showed no interest at all in investigating the truth about the case.

In the 1960s, the Freikorps commander Waldemar Pabst publicly took responsibility for the murders. In a private letter discovered after his death, Pabst explained that the reason he was never even questioned, let alone taken to court over the murders, was that he himself “kept his mouth shut” for fifty years about the Freikorps’ collaboration with the SPD. He wrote: “…these German idiots should be thanking Noske and me on their knees and erect monuments, name streets and places after us”.

Noske said about himself “one has to play the bloodhound”. Under his command, military and Freikorps put down the uprising. The situation worsened in March of 1919, when Noske issued an order that gave carte blanche to the armed counterrevolution to kill.

Thousands were murdered by the right wing Soldateska while the Social Democrats kept watch.

The short Spiegel piece is telling also in the way it describes the revolution. It claims that the aim of the insurrection was to prevent the parliamentary elections planned for January and set up a “dictatorship” instead. Der Spiegel shows itself once again to be a propaganda outlet for the bourgeoisie. And they are not the only media outlet depicting the revolution of 1918/1919 in this way, even one hundred years later.

At the same time, some social democrats would like to reclaim Rosa Luxemburg for themselves as a democratic socialist adversary of Lenin, an attempt that is stumbling over the fact that she was a harsher critic of the treacherous social democrats than of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. It is just as strange how many Leninists still try to reclaim Rosa Luxemburg, despite her much quoted “faults”.

From the time of the burials, the KPD held yearly memorial marches to the graves of Luxemburg, Liebknecht and dozens more in the cemetery of Berlin-Friedrichsfelde. After Lenin died in 1924, the name of the demonstrations was extended to Lenin-Liebknecht-Luxemburg. In 1926, an impressive monument designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe was inaugurated. The last march took place in January 1933, before being banned by the Nazis, and the monument was destroyed.

After the Second World War, the marches were taken up again under the direction of the Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands (SED). The SED was created in the soviet occupied zone in the east of Germany in 1946 as a new party which unified the former enemies SPD and KPD. This was the ruling party of the German Democratic Republic (DDR) from 1949 to 1989. It was also interested in claiming Liebknecht and Luxemburg as part of its heritage, but more as founders of the KPD and as martyrs than for their political positions. Tellingly, Luxemburg’s critical fragment about the Russian Revolution did not appear in the first edition of the collected works of her writings in the DDR.

And as we shall see, the attacks on the evils of “Luxemburgism” that had started in the KPD in the ‘20s did not dissipate in the DDR. In fact as early as 1924, “Luxemburgism” was used as a description of an ideological aberration, as an insult even. This development symptomatically showed how the Communist International in the grip of the Russian party moved away from Communism and towards the ideology of Marxism-Leninism.

In 1932, Ernst Thälmann, the chairman of the KPD, a Stalin-loyalist without any theoretical merits of his own, condemned Luxemburg, saying “We have to spell it out in all clarity: in all the questions where Rosa Luxemburg had a different opinion than Lenin, she was wrong.” He then lists her mistakes as “mistakes in the theory of accumulation, the peasant question (Bauernfrage), the national question, in the question of the problem of the revolution, the question of the proletarian dictatorship, the organisation question, the question of the role of the party and the spontaneity of the masses – from all this resulted a system of mistakes, which prevented Rosa Luxemburg from reaching the clarity of a Lenin.”

The chief Stalinist ideologist of the SED, Fred Oelßner, picked up these invectives in his “critical biographical sketch” about Luxemburg, published in 19518 . In typical Stalinist manner, he calls dissident Marxists (“Trotskyists, Brandlerist and SAPers”) “enemies of the working class”9 . He tries to claim Luxemburg as a historical figure and martyr, emptied of her strategic, political and theoretical thinking. And to utilise the murder in retrospect for cold war purposes, he even claims US-American agents had something to do with it.

The yearly LL-demonstration (as it’s now called) on the Sunday closest to January 15th, took place yesterday. As a large majority of the organisations taking part are Leninist, Stalinist, and/or Maoist, one has to observe that the hypocritical appropriation of Luxemburg as an icon without her ideas is still going strong. Placards show Luxemburg, Liebknecht and Lenin, others show Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin and Mao.

The DKP, the current German Communist Party, even have little red flags with their logo, some with Luxemburg’s face, some with Thälmann’s. Is it stupidity or cynicism? The DKP always parroted the line of the East German state and the SED. It’s estimated that they were funded to the tune of about 270 million euros during the cold war. But also less well funded dogmatic operations are following similar reactionary politics. The question is: how is it possible that there are groups in the demo that shout the names of “Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin!” without being challenged?
Let’s zoom back to find some possible explanations.

As we have seen, the foundation of the Communist Party took place in tumultuous times. Two of its most important figures were murdered only two weeks later. In a further round of fighting, many revolutionaries, including other members of the leadership, were killed in March, 1919 in Berlin. Council republics in Bremen and Munich were beaten down by similar alliances of the social democrats, the military and the Freikorps. The counterrevolutionary terror saw the murders of many leaders of the Munich Councils.

The extreme right saw its moment coming in 1920 and attempted a coup d’état against the republican social democratic government. By this time they were already donning swastikas on their helmets.

A general strike of the workers saved the republic, and what did the republic do? Once back in power, it used the military and even some Freikorps to put down the workers militias.

Despite the setbacks, the international communist movement gained momentum. In March, 1919, the Communist International was founded. In this and the second congress, which took place the following year, the range of radical groups from around the world was relatively broad, but increasingly the Russian Party took over control of the International and of the various member parties. Lenin wrote a pamphlet against the widespread left radicalism which he denounced as an ‘infantile disorder’.

In Germany, and also in some other countries, the Communist Party split into two parties which were initially about the same size. One kept the name KPD, while the other called itself the Communist Workers Party (KAPD). Some, like Otto Rühle 10 , an old comrade of Liebknecht, radically turned against Bolshevism and rejected the party form altogether. But once the revolutionary wave subsided those who advocated immediate revolution through the councils became an ever smaller minority.

In the three year gap between the fourth and the fifth congress, Stalin and his henchmen took total control of the Russian Party and the International. The new doctrine of “Socialism in one country” and the new ideology of Leninism – turned into sacred orthodoxy after Lenin’s death – were complete reversals of Marxism, dialectical thinking and communist strategy.

This process had already begun under Lenin and Trotsky, but it became solidified in the years after Lenin’s death and turned into a fully fledged counterrevolution under Stalin. A new bureaucratic state capitalist society was established in the country that falsely called itself the Soviet Union. The soviets, the Russian word for “workers councils”, had been disempowered from early on.

As the KPD became increasingly controlled by the interests of “Soviet” foreign policy, it gradually shed its most intelligent thinkers and functionaries. The bureaucrats who took over followed the party line dictated from Moscow, regardless of absurd u-turns and inconsistencies. They were the ones who followed the right line, everyone else was wrong. Nevertheless they sought to embed their politics in a continuity of the revolutionary movement from the beginning.

Exactly because Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht were murdered so early on in the history of the party, Leninists and Stalinist feel they can usurp their memory and use them for their own justifications even while denouncing their “faults”, as they did especially in the case of Luxemburg.

Other co-founders of the KPD, like Otto Rühle, Paul Levi, Paul Frölich, August Thalheimer, and Heinrich Brandler are not commemorated in the same way, despite their substantial contributions to the movement. Nor are non-KPD communists or anarcho-communists like Franz Pfemfert, Paul Mattick, Karl Retzlaw, Willy Huhn, Oskar Kanehl, Karl Schröder, Franz Jung, Erich Mühsam, or independent Marxist thinkers and writers such as members of the Institute for Social Research, Karl Korsch or the early Lukács, only to mention some of those who were active in Germany at the time.

This is the area where we should look back to find inspiration, and we will find it, not in the sanitised history of party bureaucrats, but in the rich history of critical Marxist dissent.

Christoph Fringeli


1 The term Spartacist Uprising (Spartakusaufstand) is misleading because the organisation of that name (Spartakusbund/Spartacist League) had become a part of the newly founded Communist Party of Germany, which did not direct or prominently organise the insurrection. At that time, the USPD (Independent Socialists) had a much larger following. But the KPD was taking part in the uprising and it was two of their main leaders who were murdered by the white terror.
2 Kritik des Gothaer Programms by Karl Marx, written in 1875, published posthumously in 1891 by Friedrich Engels in Die Neue Zeit. Later in Marx-Engels-Werke, Volume 19, p.13.
3 MdR (MP) Fritz Kunert stayed away from the vote, and repeated this in the second vote, this time joined by Otto Rühle.
4 Rosa Luxemburg, Die Akkumulation des Kapitals. Ein Beitrag zur ökonomischen Erklärung des Imperialismus. Buchhandlung Vorwärts Paul Singer, Berlin 1913. Later in Gesammelte Werke. Band 5: Ökonomische Schriften. Dietz, Berlin 1985. English translation as The Accumulation of Capital: A Contribution to an Economic Explanation of Imperialism. Translated by Agnes Schwarzschild, 1951, Routledge 2003, later in The Complete Works of Rosa Luxemburg, London and New York 2011.
5 The IKD (Internationale Kommunisten Deutschlands/International Communists of Germany) was a group of left radicals mainly in Bremen who became a founding component of the KPD.
6 Paul Levi (1883-1930), lawyer and politician, co-founder of the KPD and chairman of the party from March 1919 until 1921. He denounced the party’s insurrectionary tactics as “putschism” and stepped down from the leadership and then was expelled. He formed a Kommunistische Arbeitsgemeinschaft and re-joined the USPD, later the SPD, where he belonged to its Marxist left wing around the journal Klassenkampf.
7 Klaus Gietinger is a German director, writer and historian who published several works on the period of the revolution, specifically about the murder of Luxemburg and Liebknecht. Most recently November 1918 − der verpasste Frühling des 20. Jahrhunderts. Vorwort Karl Heinz Roth, Nautilus, Hamburg 2018.
8 Fred Oelßner: Rosa Luxemburg. Eine kritische biographische Skizze, Dietz. Berlin 1951.
9 “Trotskyists, Brandlerists and SAPers”. Brandlerists refer to Heinrich Brandler, a leader of the party in 1921-23, later of the “right” opposition KPO (Communist Party Opposition). SAPers are members/followers of the Sozialistische Arbeiterpartei (Socialist Workers Party) which was a left socialist party founded in 1931 in an attempt to gather together the Marxist left wing of the SPD and the anti-Stalinist “right” of the KPD.
10 Otto Rühle (1874-1943). Member of the Reichstag for the SPD before WWI, where he became the first MP to join Liebknecht in voting against the war credits. Co-founder of the KPD, later the KAPD and the Allgemeine Arbeiter Union (AAU). He came to oppose parliamentarianism altogether, and later also the form of the party, founding the Allgemeine Arbeiter Union-Einheitsorganisation (AAU-E) where political and industrial struggle were to be fought by the same non-party organisation. Combined Marxism with Adlerian psychology. Died in exile in Mexico.

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