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.

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Marcel Bois: Kommunisten gegen Hitler und Stalin – Die linke Opposition der KPD in der Weimarer Republik – Eine Gesamtdarstellung (Book Review)

Marcel Bois
Kommunisten gegen Hitler und Stalin
Die linke Opposition der KPD in der Weimarer Republik – Eine Gesamtdarstellung
Klartext Verlag, Essen 2014
ISBN 978-3-8375-1282-3

boiskommunisten4

With this 600 page strong book Marcel Bois offers the first comprehensive overall presentation of the history and sociology of the left opposition of the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) in the 1920s and early 1930s. The emphasis is on a very detailed and scientifically documented depiction of those groups who left the KPD from the mid-20s onwards in the course of its Stalinisation. These were on the one hand the groups around the former leaders of the party such as Ruth Fischer, Arkadij Maslow and Werner Scholem, who with Hugo Urbahns and others, founded the Leninbund (Lenin-League). On the other hand there were the Entschiedene Linke (Decisive Left) and the Gruppe Kommunistische Politik around Ernst Schwarz and Karl Korsch respectively, as well as The Wedding Opposition and smaller groups like Bolschewistische Einheit (Bolshevik Unity). A bit later, the organisational roots of Trotskyism in Germany also emerged. The Spartakusbund linkskommunistischer Organisationen around Franz Pfemfert had a special position in the milieu of the left oppposition.

The founding conference of the KPD took place at the turn of the year 1918/1919 within two months of the end of World War I. Less than two weeks later, two of its most important leaders, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, were murdered. There were several attempts from this time through 1923 to make the revolution in Germany happen, which all failed. Already in 1919 a back-and-forth started between more ‘left’ or ‘right’ leaning leaderships, and as early as October 1919 a large section of the party’s left were expelled. The issues at stake were the rejection of elections to parliament and the Leninist party concept by the left. In April 1920 this left constituted the Communist Workers Party (Kommunistische Arbeiterpartei Deutschlands, KAPD), and took with them a large part of the membership of the KPD. This marked a decisive historical break in the international communist movement that was echoed in similar processes of regroupment in other countries. Lenin famously targeted the left with his nasty pamphlet “Left-Wing” Communism, An Infantile Disorder, denouncing its ‘opinion, declamations and angry ejaculations’ as ‘childish’, ‘particularly stupid’, ‘fundamentally wrong’ and amounting ‘to no more than empty phrase-mongering’. In the process he defended participation in parliamentary elections and reactionary unions, and effectively the dictatorship of the party over the dictatorship of the proletariat. The KPD in the meantime ditched the ‘right’ leadership under Paul Levi, who was appalled by the fact that the party had been dragged into the ‘putschist’ adventure of the ‘March Action’ in 1921. Levi then printed the previously unavailable – now famous – text by Rosa Luxemburg in which she severely criticised the Bolsheviks. [Read more →]