How German workers' movement nearly won, then lost, the revolution

Friday, August 21, 2015


Marines join protesting German workers in Berlin during the November 1918 revolution.

The German Left & the Weimar Republic
By Ben Fowkes
Haymarket Books, 2015
399 pages, US$28.

Socialist historian Ben Fowkes has given us a unique and vivid text documentary of the German workers’ movement during the tumultuous years of its greatest influence — from November 1918 to its defeat by Nazism 15 years later.

Fowkes presents 182 brief statements reflecting every socialist viewpoint during these years. His running commentary — short passages interspersed among the documents — provide a well-researched and insightful capsule history of the German Left in this period.

Fowkes’s study has the rare merit of placing side by side texts from the two great antagonists of the workers’ movement at that time, the Communist Party (KPD) and Social Democratic Party (SPD).

For socialists, this unique resource breaks through veils of historical interpretation and ideology, and permits us to hear the protagonists of our movement’s past in their own words.

In November 1918, during the final days of World War I, a worker-led uprising overturned Germany’s authoritarian empire. Formal authority shifted to workers’ and soldiers’ councils.

However, leaders of the largest workers’ party, the SPD, feared a social revolution. They called on the pillars of the old regime — the army, police, bureaucracy and judicial system — to restore order and defeat the workers’ upsurge.

The SPD thus ensured the empire was not replaced by workers’ rule, but by a capitalist democracy, usually called the Weimar Republic.

The SPD’s actions proved self-defeating. As Fowkes notes, for Germany’s capitalist rulers, “once the mass movement had been liquidated, there was no further reason to tolerate socialist interference in the economy, or anywhere else. For this reason, the reforms of 1918-19 proved impossible to defend in the long run.”

Behind the democratic form of Weimar rule was the harsh reality of army and police repression. Already in May 1919, the KPD said of the SPD’s course: “They have restored in a new form … the military state.” Within it, resurgent rightist forces fought to undo the 1918 revolution.

For example, the eight-hour day, a signal victory of the revolution, did not survive past 1923. The Weimar Republic fell in 1933 with the triumph of Nazism, consummating the victory of counter-revolution.

Fowkes’s book focuses on the efforts of workers’ parties to resist the rise of fascism and secure a different outcome.

His documentation shows that the SPD, the largest workers’ party through this period, remained largely proletarian in its composition and continued to speak the language of class struggle, even as the socialist goal disappeared from view.

Its leaders, meanwhile, were committed to alliance with the less reactionary capitalist parties as a strategy for defence of the republic from the monarchist parties to the right.

This “lesser evil” logic, the book demonstrates, gradually forced the SPD into subservient acceptance of right-wing rule. In foreign policy, the SPD sought alliance with the victors of World War I, while rejecting alliances with the Soviet Union.

Protests against this pro-establishment course within the SPD were varied and vigorous, as Fowkes shows. This created potential for unity in action with Communists. Nonetheless, the SPD remained essentially united until the end.

The German Communist movement, by contrast, was essentially unified in purpose but divided on strategy. Although much smaller than the SPD, it was energetic and militant, with more than 100,000 members and the support of millions of voters.

On its foundation in January 1919, Fowkes notes the KPD’s members “were enthusiastic about the October Revolution in Russia, and … wanted something similar in Germany, but had different ideas of how to get there”.

Fawkes writes: “The Spartacist [KPD] leaders, Rosa Luxemburg above all, thought the coming revolution should be the achievement of the whole working class and would take time to prepare; the Left Radicals on the other hand called for an immediate insurrection.”

Both viewpoints were strongly rooted in the party ranks, and the contradiction between “mass” and “vanguard” orientations persisted through the party’s life. The party’s course in this respect was worked out in practice mainly around the issue of forging a united front with SPD members and supporters.

The documents in The German Left and Weimar trace the KPD’s shifts back and forth on this issue, from engagement with SPD forces to unrelenting hostility. These shifts continued even after the mid-1920s, when the party fell under the control of bureaucratic forces in Moscow led by Joseph Stalin.

The question of the united front — that is, of common action by the KPD and SPD or by their components — was posed, above all, by immediate issues such as protection of the eight-hour day or defence against attacks by rightist bands.

The Communists also called on the SPD to break its alliance with capitalist forces and join the struggle for a “workers’ government”.

Fowkes documents what he terms the highpoint of such joint action: a broad campaign for the expropriation of former German princes that won 16.7 million votes in a 1926 referendum — more than half again on the combined vote of the workers’ parties in the previous national elections.

In 1928, the KPD reversed course and thereafter aimed its main fire against the SPD, cutting off its access to the SPD ranks. Fowkes traces the central role of Stalinist leaders in Moscow in imposing this policy, which opened the road to Hitler’s victory.

Yet even though stifled and deformed by Stalinist domination, the debate between “vanguard” and “mass” approaches — now conducted mainly by dissident communist currents around the united front issue — continued until Hitler’s triumph and after.

Many socialists are familiar with the first years of this debate from Pierre Broue’s magisterial account, The German Revolution, 1917-1923. Fowkes provides documentary backup for these years along with an effective outline of the decade that follows.

For example, he gives us a wide range of dissident viewpoints within the SPD, introducing us to many forgotten figures while providing relevant insights.

There are also significant omissions. Leon Trotsky’s German supporters are not heard from. Also, the diverse solidarity, defence and cultural efforts — a major arena for KPD-SPD contact — are mentioned, but not documented.

The book refers to the united campaign for the legal right to abortion in 1931 — “the last time the KPD and the SPD publicly agitated together on the same platform” — but no text is provided.

We are left to wonder if socialist women were perhaps in the lead more generally in united-front efforts.

Yet such omissions are inevitable. Fowkes’s focus, indicated by his title, is not on the life of the mass movement but on the left movements’ relationship to the state. Limiting scope in this manner was needed to produce a book with a coherent focus of a manageable length — just shy of 400 pages.

In analysing the party’s relationship to the state, Fowkes poses four probing questions, all of which still have resonance for us today:

• Was Weimar “democracy” worth defending?
• If so, should it be defended by “extra-constitutional methods” (mass actions, protest strikes, etc.) as well as by the constitutional process?
• “Was it necessary, to defend democracy, to extend and deepen it?”
•“Was it possible for Social Democrats and Communists to unite temporarily to defend and deepen democracy?”

Some clarification would be helpful here on what is meant by “democracy”. The SPD regarded the Weimar constitution as the vehicle for a transition to socialism. But the KPD considered it, like the authoritarian monarchy it replaced, as a buttress of capitalism, and aimed at replacing it by workers’ democracy.

Where they agreed — some of the time — was on the need to defend democratic rights embedded in the Weimar system against the threat of right-wing overthrow.

But even if we define “democracy” in that manner, neither party was consistent. The KPD answered “yes” to all four of Fowkes’s questions, but only some of the time; the SPD’s response was “yes” on the first question and usually “no” on the other three.

This discussion has a contemporary ring in societies marked by a Weimar-like combination of limited democratic constitutionalism and a repressive security state, with the first element under increasing pressure from the second.

Despite restrictions of space, The German Left and the Weimar Republic provides chapter-length surveys of several topics rarely considered in studies of this period. These include the German left’s stances on foreign policy, the armed forces, and questions of gender and sexual politics.

The sociology of their movements receives extensive attention, including through useful statistics on their breadth of support. A short chapter surveys eight of the more significant socialist currents outside the SPD and KPD.

For a more rounded account of the German communist movement, especially after 1923, readers can consult Fowkes’s Communism in Germany Under the Weimar Republic. Among many other relevant studies, Eberhard Kolb’s The Weimar Republic Sourcebook and Eve Rosenhaft’s Beating the Fascists? German Communists and Political Violence 1929-1933 are worth a look.

However, Fowkes’s document collection stands as an excellent introduction for today’s socialists to workers’ political experiences under the Weimar regime.

[Reprinted from International Socialist Review.]

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