G. Zinoviev

From the Archives of Marxism

Karl Liebknecht and the War


Source: Fourth International, No. 5, Winter 1959, pp. 58–61.
On-line Publication: Zinoviev Internet Archive, January 2016.
Transcription/Mark-up: Einde O’Callaghan.

Prefatory Note

January 15th of this year marks the fortieth anniversary of the odious assassination of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht by reactionary army officers with the complicity and encouragement of the official German Social-Democratic leadership. In commemoration of this tragic event, we are publishing here a slightly shortened version of a noted article on Liebknecht by Grigori Zinoviev, who, by one of history’s grim variants, himself later fell a victim to a murder (after the judicial farce of a “Moscow Trial”) by another executioner who, claiming to represent socialism thereby, treacherously sent some of its finest leaders to their deaths – Stalin. For what Stalin did to the great tradition of Liebknecht and Luxemburg, readers should consult, on p. 25, the article, The Embezzled Heritage, by Comrade P. Richards.

Karl Liebknecht did not all at once become the Karl Liebknecht that the international proletariat knows today. In his political activity there was a long-drawn-out period during which he was but little different from the other leaders of the German Social-Democracy. In that far-off time nothing suggested the international historic role that Karl Liebknecht was to fill during the war. Suffice it to say that during the 1905–1915 decade, in the struggle of the “Russian” currents, Karl Liebknecht more often stood nearer to the Mensheviks than to the Bolsheviks.

The “growing up” of the Social-Democratic Liebknecht into the Liebknecht of the Spartakusbund and of the armed insurrection took place during the world war. The international communist youth movement, that brings the youth up in an ardent love for Karl Liebknecht and quite rightly sees in him its best leader together with Lenin, must become acquainted with the real Liebknecht, with all the weak and strong sides of his political activity, all the more so in that Liebknecht’s failings were not individual failings, but rather the failings of a whole wing (and not the worst one) of the international workers’ movement. The figure of Liebknecht loses nothing of its greatness thereby. Lenin wrote that Rosa Luxemburg was mistaken on the question of the independence of Poland, that in 1903 she made an incorrect evaluation of Menshevism, that she was wrong about the accumulation of capital, that she committed an error in July 1914 with her support of a fusion of the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks (at the so-called Brussels Conference called by the Second International), that she erred on several fundamental questions of the Russian revolution in her 1918 prison writings. “But,” Lenin added, “despite these failings, she was and remains an eagle” – quoting thereby the well-known Russian verses to the effect that it happens that the eagle sometimes descends lower than the hen, but hens never rise in the air like eagles.

Naturally Karl Liebknecht also was and remains an eagle. The truth, the whole truth, about his life and his struggle, about his failings and his virtues, makes the genuine heroism of his stand during the first imperialist world war still clearer and more gripping.

The name of Karl Liebknecht, as it has gone into world history, is inseparably connected with the war. The greatness of Karl Liebknecht consists in the fact that he succeeded better than anyone except Lenin in expressing with unusual forcefulness the turn in the proletarian revolution that took place in the working class of Germany and the other warring countries in connection with the first imperialist world war.

It is not especially necessary to recall that the working class of Europe which emerged from the first imperialist world war was not at all the same that it had been at its beginning. Every month of the imperialist world war was an enormous lesson for the international proletariat. Every salvo on the imperialist battlefields hit also the reformist pacifist illusions in those layers of the European working class which had entered the First World War with the feelings generated in them by the 25-year-long peaceful development of the Second International.

Blood poured out in floods. Every week tens and hundreds of thousands of men lost their lives. With every day, poverty, sufferings, and hunger grew. Already in the first months of the war, hesitations and doubts began to seize the patriotically disposed workers who were under the influence of the Social-Democracy. Soon the hesitations and doubts gave way to an ever greater hatred of the war, which the Social-Democratic leaders were calling the “great” and “liberating” war. It fell to Karl Liebknecht, we repeat, to express in the broadest and deepest way precisely this swing taking place in the mass millions of the working class ; together with these masses, to drive through to revolutionary decisions ; and, together with them, and in their name, to protest against the war with the whole might of his ardent heart. He succeeded better than anyone else in expressing the anger and pain, the sufferings and protest, and, developing therefrom, the ripening revolutionary determination of the best part of the European working class that the criminal hands of the bourgeoisie and their Social-Democracy had sent on to the imperialist battlefield.

In Barbusse’s remarkable book, Le Feu, that gives a hitherto unequalled artistic description of the imperialist war, the author shows us, in one of the work’s most brilliant passages, how – the war was then at its height – the image of Liebknecht blended with the best aspirations of the workers and soldiers.

Liebknecht’s strength came precisely from the fact that he had understood, when the war was going full blast, how to express with incomparable force the workers’ passionate and flaming hatred for the war, and, together with this, their fresh and still partly naive hopes for an immediate revolution against the war.

Even before the war Karl Liebknecht was very strongly interested in the Russian revolution. He paid intense attention to the events of the revolution of 1905. But Liebknecht did not at that time succeed in forming a full and clear idea of the class significance of the Russian events: he found no correct estimate of Bolshevism and Menshevism. Until 1915 Liebknecht did not support the Bolsheviks.

Within the German Social-Democracy Liebknecht was in the left, Marxist wing. He had, however, no positions that especially differentiated him, no special sort of general platform on “German” questions. He stood for the need of anti-military propaganda at the moment when the “fathers” of the German Social-Democracy considered it “tactless” to speak about it. He paid great attention to the organizing of the youth at a time when the same “fathers” considered it almost a joke. (A negative and anything but benevolent attitude about the organizing of the youth was and still is one of the characteristic traits of opportunists.) These were extraordinarily great merits in Liebknecht. By his stand for anti-militarist propaganda and his support of the youth organization Karl Liebknecht was in a certain way preparing his future role during the imperialist war. But these were the only “buds” that an outside observer could discover as foresigns of Liebknecht’s future role in the coming war.

Liebknecht was in the left wing of the German Social-Democracy. But he considered this party to be his party, and the unity of the German Social-Democracy was, in 1914, still untouchable. Until the outbreak of the war and during its first period, Karl Liebknecht could not bring himself to form an open opposition to the majority of the German Social-Democracy and still less to think of a split. On August 4th 1914, on the occasion of the famous vote of the German Social-Democrats for the war credits, Liebknecht, who had led a hot fight within the parliamentary fraction against the vote, still limited himself in public to a weak protest. It was only on December 2nd 1914, at the voting of five hundred million additional marks of war credits, that Liebknecht made his declaration and, alone among the 111 Social-Democratic representatives, voted openly against the credits. But even this declaration of Karl Liebknecht was so indecisive that the Bolsheviks, in the article Not Heroes, felt themselves obliged to say:

Now Liebknecht’s declaration has also been published. In the first part, the character of imperialist piracy of the war is excellently stigmatized; the second part exhausts itself in proclaiming the slogan, “Peace.” The conclusion so much contradicts the premises that it clashes like a discord. If all that Comrade Liebknecht says about the essence and causes of the war is correct (and it is undoubtedly correct), then for socialists the conclusion can be only: transformation of the imperialist war into civil war.

At this stage of the war Liebknecht expressed only the workers’ elementary drive for peace and the first glimmerings of understanding of the imperialist character of the war among the Social-Democratic workers. It was only in the Summer of 1915, when the first Zimmerwald Conference met, that Liebknecht approved the Leninist slogan of the transformation of the imperialist war into civil war. Karl Liebknecht had by then been called to military service and could not take part in the work of the Zimmerwald Conference. He sent a letter to the Conference, however, ending with the words: “Not civil peace, but civil war, is the password for the day.”

At this time there was being formed the Spartakus group, that played so glorious a role in the history of the German revolution. At the head of this group stood Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, Liebknecht as the political leader and agitator, Rosa Luxemburg as the theoretician and ideological initiator. Just the first appearance of this group won from the bourgeoisie and the Social-Democrats a hatred that was an honor for it. The historical significance of the first actions of the Spartakus members is indubitable. Nevertheless there cannot be passed over in silence the fact that the Spartakus group in the first period of its existence still did not have a resolute Bolshevik programme. The members who represented this group at Zimmerwald and at Kienthal went partly with Martov against Lenin. Organizationally the group still remained tied up with the broadest union of oppositional German Social-Democrats who later founded the USP [Independent Socialist Party].

The theoretical position of Karl Liebknecht was also at this period not yet thoroughly worked out. Nevertheless the figure of Liebknecht from this time on grew not merely daily but hourly. Mobilized into military service, he continued his anti-war propaganda in the army, and neither the state of siege nor the moral poison of the official Social-Democracy intimidated him. His “comrades” of the Social-Democratic Party did not fear even to present him as crazy. The deadly hatred of the Prussian military regime followed his every step. But Karl Liebknecht’s determination grew only the more, the timbre of his voice was hardened, and his revolutionary will was all the more tempered. At the head of a handful of Berlin workers he demonstrated on the Potsdammer Platz, to raise openly the banner of the fight against the war. This demonstration of the Berlin workers, relatively weak numerically, under Liebknecht’s leadership, will go down in world history as one of the most famous episodes which testifies to the great boldness of this fighter for the proletariat during the darkest years of the war.

At that time Karl Liebknecht issued the famous slogan: “The enemy is in your own country! Turn your bayonets against your own bourgeoisie!” These words had the effect of a bomb. It is necessary to have lived through that time of war to understand what an effect these words of Liebknecht must have had. For these bold words, German militarism, to the approving murmurs of the official German Social-Democracy, sent Karl Liebknecht to jail. But even in prison Karl Liebknecht remained the banner-bearer of the German workers. And it was just there that he became the banner-bearer of the world revolution.

The longer the imperialist war went on, the higher grew the mountain of corpses, the more dreadful the situation of the working class became, the greater became the discontent of the toilers and the revolutionary determination of the proletarians in all the warring countries, and the brighter Liebknecht’s name shone out to the workers in the bloody darkness of the imperialist war. At that time, the name of Liebknecht was known to far wider circles than the name of Lenin, who was in those days forced to act directly only in the illegality of the émigrés.

The Russian revolution broke out. From prison Karl Liebknecht sent the Russian workers a fiery message of support. At this time Karl Liebknecht began to become convinced of the full correctness of the position of the Bolsheviks. His former “friends,” the Russian Mensheviks, including all the “radicals,” showed themselves to be as vulgar social traitors as the Scheidemanns and Eberts. Only the Bolsheviks brought Karl Liebknecht’s programme, his slogans, and his name to the mass millions of workers and soldiers set in motion by the revolution. In the 1917 July Days Lenin and those comrades standing nearest him experienced a fate that was close to Karl Liebknecht’s – an effort was made to slander them, too, to cover them with mud, as had been done with Liebknecht, and they also were branded as “agents of foreign powers,” and were put in prisons and fortresses as “enemies of the fatherland.” And those who were only yesterday their comrades of the party and of the International, the Libers, the Dans, the Tseretellis, and the Chernovs, had their hand in these shameful calumnies.

Through the thick walls of his prison the news of events in Russia penetrated to Liebknecht. With ever growing interest Liebknecht collected every bit of news from the first country in which the revolution had broken through the fiery ring of war. He enthusiastically greeted the Bolsheviks’ October victory while still within the walls of the same prison. The Bolsheviks had seized power. They are proud to have had the friendship and total and unreserved political support of a fighter like Karl Liebknecht.

For a few months the proletarian revolution in Russia made a triumphal march from victory to victory, as Lenin expressed it. But now the first great international difficulties rose up before it. German imperialism was still sufficiently strong to force the revolution to pass through the Brest[-Litovsk] period. In the discussions inside the Bolshevik Party about the permissibility of signing the Brest[-Litovsk] peace, the name of Liebknecht played no small role. In Germany the revolutionary wave was certainly rising. The victory of the German revolution could be expected, not each month, but each day. If Liebknecht wins, he will naturally free us of all our difficulties and correct all our stupidities, said Lenin to the “left” communists, but it does not follow therefrom that we can permit ourselves to commit many stupidities and that we can in the present correlation of forces refuse to sign the Brest[-Litovsk] peace.

The Russian revolution signed the Brest[-Litovsk] peace. This fact provoked from all the social-patriotic elements of Russia an unprecedented explosion. Petty-bourgeois patriotism reached white heat. The leaders of the Second International throughout the world, including Germany, for their part did everything in their power to slander the Bolsheviks, to cast suspicion on the motives for their action, and to put them in the most unfavorable light in the eyes of the working class of Western Europe. Once more it was Karl Liebknecht who from prison gave the signal to the best part of the German working class as well as to the European proletariat. He said to the West European workers: If the first proletarian revolution must accept the harsh Brest[-Litovsk] peace, the Bolsheviks are not to blame for this: in the first place it is the fault and the misfortune of the West European workers themselves in that up to now they have not been able to go to the aid of the Russian revolution in an adequate way.

Meanwhile the strength of German imperialism was declining more and more and approaching complete exhaustion. With ever greater speed the revolutionary crisis in Germany drew near. The war-crushed masses drove toward the revolution. The official German Social-Democracy did everything it could to keep these masses under the yoke of imperialism. But it was already too late. The military defeats of Hindenburg and Ludendorff precipitated the collapse. Every day, every hour, the German workers grew more revolutionary. Karl Liebknecht was their banner-bearer, their leader. Liebknecht’s fame shone forth to all the oppressed, all the revolutionary workers of the world.

The revolutionary movement of the German workers and soldiers freed Liebknecht from prison. Directly on emerging from prison Liebknecht went at the head of a powerful workers’ demonstration to the building of the Berlin Soviet Embassy, before anything else, to bring his greeting to the Russian proletarian revolution. He took off his hat to the red flag of the Soviet republic: his first speech in revolutionary Germany was in honor of the Russian revolution and the Soviet power.

From this first minute on, Liebknecht’s whole work was uninterruptedly at the service of the proletarian revolution. Around the Spartakus members there rallied the whole revolutionary part of the German working class. Liebknecht’s name was a torch that showed the way to the growing ranks of the revolutionary German proletariat. Daily and hourly the influence of the Spartakus group grew.

But the German bourgeoisie and the German Social-Democracy were incomparably better organized and cleverer than the Russian bourgeoisie, the Russian Social-Revolutionaries, and the Mensheviks. Above all else they were studying the experiences of the Russian revolution. If the Kerenskys, Tseretellis, Chernovs, Libers, and Dans, who had the power in their hands, launched the slogan, “Continuation of the war to a victorious conclusion!”, the Scheidemanns and Noskes, as well as Ebert, who also had been given power, launched above all the slogans, Conclusion of peace at any price! Peace with the Entente imperialists; war with the revolutionary workers! Peace with Clemenceau and Lloyd George – war against Karl Liebknecht and Lenin! These were the slogans of the “Social-Democratic” government that came out of the November revolution. The Eberts and Noskes cold-bloodedly used the readiness to fight of the German revolutionary workers, who were driving for action, to lead them into a premature uprising and then stifle it in the proletariat’s blood. This criminal plan of the “fathers” of the German Social-Democracy was successfully prepared and carried through to the end. The January uprising of the men of Spartakus was stifled in the blood of Germany’s best workers. The young German Communist Party was by a treacherous murder of their best leaders, Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg – deprived of their leadership. Only the day before, Noske and Liebknecht, Ebert and Rosa Luxemburg, were still members of the one and only “united” German Social-Democratic Party. Today Noske and Ebert are the murderers of Liebknecht and Luxemburg. Not only by his life and struggle, but also by his heroic death, Karl Liebknecht served the great cause of the German revolution. The circumstances of his death enabled the German workers to realize how decomposed was the German Social-Democratic Party, the same party that to this very day is the first paladin of bourgeois domination.

In the analysis Lenin made, in 1921 after the March action, of the causes of the defeat of the revolutionary uprising in Germany, he said the following in the Letter to the German Communists:

At the critical moment, the German working class did not yet have a genuine revolutionary party, as a result of delay in splitting, as a result of the influence of the fatal tradition of unity of the soldout men devoid of character (Kautsky, Hilferding, and Co.), the whole gang of lackeys of capital (Scheidemann, Legien, David, and Co.).

As a result of delay in splitting! It was just that mistake that the Bolsheviks had not made. Already long before the war they had split with the Mensheviks. The enormous advantage possessed by the Bolsheviks was that they went into the war and therefrom into the revolution as an independent Bolshevik party whose hands could not be tied by “unity” with the Mensheviks. That was the guarantee of the Bolsheviks’ victory. Enriched by the “Russian experience,” and driven to paroxysm by the imminent proletarian revolution, the German and the whole international bourgeoisie, the leaders of the German and the whole international Social-Democracy, did everything to make the not yet reenforced ranks of the ill-armed revolutionary workers fall into a trap and to smash them as quickly as possible. The workers, inhumanly tormented by the war, pushed for insurrection. “Hatred led to a premature uprising,” said Lenin.

Over the corpses of the Spartakus workers, over the corpses of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, the Social-Democracy led the bourgeoisie in “free” Germany (which was called by the first “Social-Democratic” government, to the derisive hoots of the workers, a “socialist” republic) to power, which it held thenafter. The German proletariat has paid dear for the delay in splitting away from the Social-Democratic Party, for its failure to make a solid and strengthened Bolshevik Party.

The heroic uprising of the men of Spartakus was fought down, but it sowed the seeds of victory. Those seeds are germinating.

The way from the official Social-Democracy to “Spartakism” is, naturally, an enormous step. The way from the Spartakusbund to the Bolshevik Party is a still greater stride forward. But the way from Bolshevism to “Spartakism” would be a step backward.

From Liebknecht forward to Lenin! If Karl Liebknecht were still alive, he would be the first to say that precisely this, and not the contrary, must be the way of the revolutionary proletariat. Liebknecht himself was going just this way, and only the treacherous bullet that killed Liebknecht prevented him from leading the German proletariat further along this road.

Last updated: 30 January 2016