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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Marxism Contra Justice

Bernardino Mei, Allegory of Justice (1656)

A critique of egalitarian ideology

 

Revolution is a job that must be done without weakness… We are but the instruments of a necessity that carries us along, drags us forward, lifts us up… which will doubtless pass over our dead bodies. For we are not chasing after some dream of justice [aucun rêve de justice] — as the young idiots who write in little magazines say — we are doing what must be done, what cannot be left undone. The old world dug its own grave, and is now falling in. Let’s give it a little shove.

Victor Serge, Conquered City (1930)1

One of the most common misconceptions surrounding Marxism today is that it constitutes a doctrine of “social justice.” So widespread is this belief that one often finds it held by Marxists and anti-Marxists alike. Alan Maass, editor of the American Trotskyist organ Socialist Worker, considers Marxian socialism “part of a rich history of opposition to inequality and injustice,”2 being at its heart a “struggle for justice and equality.”3 Likewise, coming from a quite different tradition, the French Maoist octogenarian Alain Badiou upholds “justice” as “the qualification of an egalitarian moment of politics in actu.”4 Even Richard Spencer’s right-wing Radix Journal affirms something similar: “Marxism is the [intellectual] source of the modern ‘social justice’ movement… prevalent among youths and in universities.” While the evaluation here is no doubt negative, especially when compared with the positive appraisals of Maass and Badiou, the reactionaries nevertheless come closer to understanding this ideology’s material root: “Communist ideas [about justice] are appealing on a superficial level, because ‘equality’ seems an obvious truth in a society that revolves around money.”5

In either case, whether positive or negative, these value judgments rest upon a faulty interpretation of Marxism’s theoretical and practical premises. Neither Karl Marx nor his immediate successors based their critique of capitalism on an ideal of justice. This stood in marked contrast to the strains of utopian socialism that came before, which couched their demands in terms of “righting wrongs” and redressing historical grievances.6 Despite explicit disavowals on the part of Marx, however, many readers believed there was at least an implicit sense in which he felt that capitalist society is unjust. Roughly three dozen articles were written on the theme between 1970 and 1990, by analytical Marxists like Norman Geras, G.A. Cohen, and Allen W. Wood. But this debate rehashed, without knowing it, an earlier debate that pitted Eduard Bernstein against Rosa Luxemburg on the one hand, and Ernest Belfort Bax against Paul Lafargue on the other. Grasping the true stakes of these debates requires a certain familiarity with the issue’s development over time, so a brief overview of the various historical conceptions of justice is in order. Once this has been achieved, Marx’s own views on the matter may be further elucidated, which will then shed light on what came later. [Read more →]

Talk: Revolution & Counterrevolution in Germany 1919 @ Vétomat Berlin 14-01-2019

Our new series of talks, discussions and presentations brought to you by Datacide and next:now is going into its fourth round on January 14th, 2019 with a talk about Revolution and Counterrevolution in Germany 1919 and beyond, by Christoph Fringeli.

As always at Vétomat, Wühlischstr. 42, 10245 Berlin

Doors open 7pm, talk will start 8.30

On January 15th, 1919, communist revolutionaries Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht were murdered in Berlin. They were only the two most prominent victims of the counter-revolutionary white terror that followed the attempts at a socialist revolution in Germany after World War I.
Only two weeks earlier they had been involved in the foundation of the Communist Party of Germany (KPD). It was at a crucial moment of the revolutionary development that had forced the Kaiser to abdicate and saw workers and soldiers returning from the battlefield to set up workers’ councils.

The biggest of the workers parties, the Social Democrats (SPD), created a coalition with centrist bourgeois parties as well as with the military and the proto-fascist Freikorps fighters, who they used to squash the uprising rather than supporting the radical changes demanded by their base.

CF will look at the historic dynamic unfolding from the failed revolution, the developments of the communist movement in Germany and the contradictory ways these events are remembered and commemorated.