Reform or Revolution, 7. Paul Mattick

The German Revolution

Contrary to Bolshevik expectations, the Russian Revolution remained a national revolution. Its international repercussions involved no more than a growing demand for the ending of the war. The Bolsheviks’ call for an immediate peace without annexations and reparations found a positive response among the soldiers and workers in the Western nations. But even so, and apart from short-lived mutinies in the French and British armed forces and a series of mass strikes in the Central European countries, it took another year before the military defeat of the German and Austrian armies and general war weariness led to the revolutionary upheavals that brought the war to a close.

The here decisive German Revolution of 1918 was a spontaneous political upheaval, initiated within the armed forces but embracing at once, either actively or passively, the majority of the population, to bring the war and therewith the monarchical regime to an end. It was not seriously opposed by either the bourgeoisie or the military, especially as it allowed them to place the onus of defeat upon the revolution. What was important was to prevent the political revolution from turning into a social revolution and to emerge from the war with the capitalist system intact.

At this time, neither the bourgeoisie nor the workers were able to differentiate between Marxism and Bolshevism, except in the political terms of democracy and dictatorship. Notwithstanding the military dictatorship in capitalist countries, it was the dictatorial nature of Bolshevism that the Social Democratic leadership used in order to defend the capitalist system in the name of democracy. Long before the November Revolution, the Social Democratic Party had been the spearhead in the struggle against Bolshevism, directly and indirectly opposing all working-class actions that might impair the war effort or break up the class collaboration on which its continuation depended. But all these efforts failed to prevent the revolution from overthrowing the old state and its war machine. So as not to lose all influence upon the unfolding political events, the Social Democrats were compelled to take part in them and to try to gain control of the revolutionary movement. To that end, the Social Democratic Party recognized the overthrow of the old regime and accepted the workers’ and soldiers’ councils as a provisional social institution, which was to lead to the formation of a republican democratic state in which Social Democracy could continue to operate as of old.

The collapse of the German Army in the autumn of 1918 had led to some constitutional and parliamentary reforms and the bringing of Social Democrats into the government as a measure to liquidate the war with the fewest internal troubles and, perhaps, to gain better armistice conditions. While the workers’ and soldiers’ councils in Russia were already beginning to lose their independent powers to the emerging Bolshevik state apparatus, they still inspired the spontaneous formation of similar organizations in the German revolution and, to a lesser extent, the social upheavals in England, France, Italy, and Hungary. In Germany, it was not the lack of effective labor organizations but their class-collaborationist character and their social patriotism that induced the workers to emulate the Russian example. Opposition to the continuation of the war, and preparations for the revolutionary overthrow of the existing systems had to be clandestinely organized, outside the official labor movement, at the places of work, linked with each other by means of committees of action. But before these planned organizations could enter the revolutionary fray, the spontaneously formed workers’ and soldiers’ councils had already put an end to the government by establishing their own political dominance.

The Social Democratic Party found itself forced to enter the council movement, if only to dampen its possible revolutionary aspirations. This was not too difficult, since the workers’ and soldiers’ councils were composed not only of radical socialists, but also of right-wing socialists, trade unionists, pacifists, nonpoliticals, and even bourgeois elements. The radicals’ slogan of the day, “All power to the workers’ and soldiers’ councils,” was therefore self-defeating, unless, of course, events should take such a turn as to alter the character and the composition of the councils. However, the great mass of the socialist workers mistook the political for a social revolution. The ideology and organizational strength of Social Democracy had left its mark; the socialization of production, if considered at all, was seen as a governmental concern, not as the task of the workers. “All power to the workers’ councils” implied the dictatorship of the proletariat, for it would leave the nonworking layers of society without political representation. Democracy was still understood, however, as the general franchise. The mass of the workers demanded both workers’ councils and a National Assembly. They got both – the councils as a meaningless part of the Weimar Constitution, and a parliamentary regime securing the continued existence of the capitalist system.

Whatever the differences between Bolshevism and Social Democracy, as political parties both thought themselves entitled to lead the working class and to determine its activities. Both assumed that if was the party through which the working class became aware of its class interests and was thus enabled to act upon them. While the Social Democratic Party was content with the control of working-class movements within bourgeois society, the Bolsheviks demanded the exclusive right to this control through the party state. But both these branches of Social Democracy saw themselves as the legitimate and indispensable representatives of the working class. A system of workers’ and soldiers’ councils, and new social institutions derived therefrom, was incomprehensible within the party concepts that had ruled the political labor movement prior to the revolution. And because opposition to capitalism had hitherto found its expression in the socialist parties, it is not surprising that they should have come to play a special and, as it turned out, the decisive role in the formulation of policy objectives for the emerging council movement.

In Russia too, as we have seen, the competition between the various socialist organizations within the soviets for control of the revolutionary movement excluded from the very beginning self-rule of the soviets, which, in fact, proclaimed as their political goal a democratic constitution and economic reforms compatible with the capitalist system. The Bolshevik coup d’état changed this situation by basing the rule of the party on the soviets, in which it had gained a majority, even though this majority was as accidental as that of 1903, which gave to Lenin’s faction within Russian Social Democracy the name “Bolshevik.” This situation repeated itself in 1917 with the protesting departure of the right-wing socialists and Social Revolutionaries from the Second Congress of Soviets. The Bolshevik government emerged from the congress as the self-appointed “Soviet of Peoples’ Commissars,” although the congress went through the formality of ratifying the new government.

Similarly, at the German First Congress of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils, the Social Democratic leaders were able to appoint themselves to governmental positions because they controlled the voting majority of the hastily gathered delegates, mainly functionaries of the two socialist parties, the Majority Socialists and the Independent Socialists. This majority was retained also at the Second Congress of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils and assured that the political program adopted was that of the Social Democratic parties. The self-liquidation of the councils in favor of the National Assembly was a foregone conclusion, because of the continued hold of these parties on their members and their unbroken influence upon the unorganized mass of the working population. The revolution, insofar as it had a clear-cut political character, was thus a social democratic revolution, with an emphasis on democracy and a total neglect of the socialist aspect of the Social Democratic movement.

While in both Russia and Germany the workers’ and soldiers’ councils had been instrumental in making the revolution, they were unable to turn themselves into a means for the reorganization of the social production relations and thus left the reordering of society to the traditional labor movement. As far as Western Europe was concerned, this movement had long ceased to be a revolutionary movement, but it had not ceased to express specific class interests and their defense within bourgeois society. The socialist parties were still workers’ organizations, despite their inconsistencies in class struggle situations and their violations of the socialist principles of the past. As institutions making their way within capitalism, their leaders and bureaucracies were no longer interested even in the programmatic “long-term” democratic transformation of capitalism, but concentrated upon the “short-term” enjoyments of their particular privileges within the status quo. Behind their effusive celebration of democracy as the “road to socialism” there stood no more than the desire to be fully integrated into the capitalist system, a desire shared by the bourgeoisie, which also favors social harmony.

It was then only to be expected that the class collaboration exercised throughout the war should be continued within and after the revolution. This was understood not only by the bourgeoisie but also by the military authorities, who accepted and supported the new “revolutionary government” even though its legitimation was still based on the workers’ and soldiers’ councils, seen as an unavoidable interregnum between the pre and a postrevolutionary capitalist government. In order to proceed to the latter, the whole existing state apparatus was left undisturbed by the “socialist government” and continued to function in its usual ways. All that the revolution was supposed to accomplish was a change from the as yet imperfect to a more perfect bourgeois parliamentary regime, or the completion of the bourgeois revolution, so long delayed by the persistence of feudalistic elements within the rising capitalism. This was the immediate and only goal of German Social Democracy. Its reluctance to extend the revolution into the economic sphere was even more pronounced in the trade-union leadership, which set itself in opposition “to any socialist experiment and any form of socialization at a time when the population required work and food.” The close wartime cooperation between the trade unions and private industry was reinforced, in order to prevent and to break strikes and to combat the politicization of the workers via the factory councils in large-scale enterprises. In brief, the old labor movement in its entirety became an unabashed counter-revolutionary force within a revolution that had played political power into its hands.

Insofar as the November Revolution was a genuine revolutionary movement, it found its inspiration in the Bolshevik Revolution, seen as the usurpation of power by the soviets, and was therefore opposed to the convocation of a National Assembly and the restoration of bourgeois democracy. It stood thus in opposition both to the prerevolutionary labor movement and to the spontaneously formed workers’ and soldiers’ councils, which had made the Social Democratic policies their own. There was, however, the possibility that this immediately given situation might change, not only because of the generally unsettled conditions, but also because of the openly counter-revolutionary activity of the Social Democratic leadership, which might discredit it sufficiently to destroy its influence in its own organization and in the working class as a whole. This was not an unreasonable expectation, as the Social Democratic Party had been split on the issue of war aims in 1917; this had led to the formation of the Independent Socialist Party (U.S.P.D.), as a first indication of the radicalization of the socialist movement. Until then, organizational fetishism, with its insistence upon unity and discipline, had been strong enough to prevent an internal break. Even the Spartacus League, which came to the fore in 1915, did not attempt to form a new party, but contented itself with the position of a left opposition, first in the old party and later within the framework of the Independent Socialists, so as not to lose contact with the organized socialist workers. Although the 1eaderships of socialist parties were considered to be beyond repair, this was held not to be true for the rank and file, who might be won over to the revolution. However, the Independent Socialists themselves encompassed a right wing, a center, and a left wing, reaching from E. Bernstein, K. Kautsky, and R. Hilferding to K. Liebknecht, R. Luxemburg, and F. Mehring, the latter three representing the Spartacus League. As an opposition party to the social-patriotic Majority Socialists, the U.S.P.D. was seen as the leading revolutionary organization with the greatest influence upon the radical elements of the working class. But because of the divisive structure of the party it was not able to play a consistently revolutionary role and left the determination of events to the social reformists. Only after these experiences, at the end of 1918, did the Spartacus League, together with some other local radical groupings, constitute itself as the Communist Party, calling for a soviet republic.

Just as little as the bourgeoisie and its Social Democratic allies were able to assess their chances for survival during the first weeks of the revolution, but could only try to prevent its radicalization through the immediate organization of all anti-revolutionary forces in a counter-revolution against the mere possibility of a true socialist revolution, so the revolutionary minority could not assess the probability of success or failure within a situation still in flux and capable of going beyond its initial, limited, political goals. For neither side, since both comprised social minorities insofar as their conscious goals were concerned, was there a way to weigh its chances, except by trying to realize its objectives. Only by probing the strength or weakness of the opponent was it possible to influence events and to gain some insight into the otherwise unpredictable course of the revolution. But this was no longer a question of competing political programs on a purely ideological level, but one of a confrontation of the armed revolution with the armed counter-revolution – a question of civil war. It was only in retrospect, after the defeat of the revolutionary minority, that it became clear that the revolutionary upheavals had been a cause lost in advance.

In organizing the defense of the capitalist system, the social reformists prepared for and provoked the civil war, all the while calling for its prevention, in order to arrest the rise of “Bolshevik anarchy” and to assure an orderly and bloodless transfer from the old to the new government. But civil war, Rosa Luxemburg wrote,

is only another name for class struggle. The idea of reaching socialism without class struggle through the Parliament is a laughable petty- bourgeois illusion. The National Assembly belongs to the bourgeois revolution. Whoever wants to use it today throws the revolution back to the historical stage of the bourgeois revolution; he is merely a conscious agent of the bourgeoisie or an unconscious ideologist of the petty-bourgeoisie. (2)

But though this is true, it did not bother the majority of the socialist workers, who had shared for so long in this petit bourgeois ideology, and who had no desire to turn the revolution into civil war now that the war had actually ended. In distinction to the situation in Russia, where the revolution was to bring the war to an end, in the Central European nations the war was liquidated by the bourgeoisie itself and the revolution was a consequence of this liquidation. There was no longer a war to be turned into civil war. There was also no peasantry utilizing the breakdown of autocracy for the appropriation and division of the landed estates, but rather, except perhaps in Hungary, a capitalistic agriculture with a reactionary peasant population. For the revolution to succeed it would have to be one made by the industrial proletariat, set against all other classes in society, and would therefore require the participation of the working class as a whole. It could not succeed if carried out only by a minority.

In their revolutionary elan and audacity the minority of German revolutionaries were, in a sense, even more Bolshevik than the Bolsheviks in their attempts to set an example to the working class. But although they did not hesitate to react to the persistent provocations of the counter-revolution, and though they did initiate revolutionary actions on their own accord, it was not in order to gain control over the revolution and to install their own dictatorship, but to bring about the class rule of the workers’ councils. While they did not want to make the revolution for the proletariat, they thought it possible that the sharpening of the class struggle would activate always greater masses of workers and draw them into the fight against the counter-revolutionary forces masquerading as defenders of democracy. Although their efforts ended in defeat, they had been inescapable, short of leaving the field entirely uncontested to the counter-revolution whose main stronghold, at this time, was German Social Democracy. Ironically, the Marxian aspect of the revolution was defeated in the name of “Marxism” in its purely ideological social democratic cast.


1. Korrespndenzblatt der Generalkomission der Gewerkschaften 28:46 (16 November 1918)

2. In Rote Fahne, November 20 1918.