Memorial for protesters shot by Reichswehr on 27 October 1923, Saxony Memorial for protesters shot by Reichswehr on 27 October 1923, Saxony. Photo: Unukorno / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

The failure for there to be a workers’ revolution in Germany, 1919-23, is of pivotal importance to world history. John Westmoreland explores the longstanding debate

In the summer of 1923, the working class in Weimar Germany were moving towards revolution. Strikes and clashes with police and the army sparked across the country. The German Communist Party (KPD) was better organised and led than it had been since its formation. It was in a position of leadership in many industrial towns and states. But the revolution never came.

The reasons for the failure of the revolution to materialise have been debated by historians of the left ever since. The debate revolves around objective and subjective factors.

Objectively, did the conditions in Germany in October 1923 meet Lenin’s dictum for spotting a revolutionary opportunity? Lenin said that when the ruling class is unable to govern in the old way, and the working class is no longer prepared to be governed, then a workers’ revolution is possible.

Subjectively, the leaders of the revolution need, not only, to understand the objective situation, but possess the determination and creativity to lead workers in a revolutionary assault on capitalist state power. Revolutions are decided, in the final analysis by action.

Trotsky, writing after the failure of the German October, was clear that the objective circumstances were revolutionary, and the failure of the German October rested on a leadership that was all too ready to capitulate. Two qualifications need to be made about Trotsky’s analysis.

First, his attack on the leaders of the KPD was driven in part by his completely justified, and ultimately heroic, defence of the revolutionary traditions of the Bolsheviks in the face of Stalin’s rise to power. The death of Lenin in January 1924 increased the importance of this.

Trotsky’s Lessons of October was written in the aftermath of Lenin’s death. It is a very important explanation of Trotsky’s theory of ‘permanent revolution’. Put simply, the remaining Bolshevik leaders’ attitude to the 1917 revolution was ‘job done!’ They were more concerned with governing and managing Russia (now the Soviet Union) than fighting for revolution, and the leadership was heavily influenced by a conservative layer of bureaucrats who favoured Stalin.

On the first page of  Lessons of October Trotsky gives this brief analysis of the failure of the German October:

‘In the latter part of last year, we witnessed in Germany a classic demonstration of how it is possible to miss a perfectly exceptional revolutionary situation of world historic importance.’

The view taken in this article is that it is true that the leadership of the KPD had many flaws, above all they were divided, but October 1923 was not an objectively revolutionary moment, and their failure has to be understood in that context. October had revolutionary potential for certain, but it fell well short of Lenin’s criteria given above.

The ruling class were definitely able to govern in the old way, because they had the forces of the armed state at their disposal. There were no worker-soldier committees as there had been in Russia in 1917. There were no mutinies in the Reichswehr; no executions of right-wing officers; and confronting them in an armed uprising in 1923 would have proved fatal.

The Reichswehr was later to swear an oath to Hitler, submit to Nazi racial policies and conduct a genocidal race war. Of course, that couldn’t be foreseen in 1923, but the army had been massacring workers for years under the orders of their Prussian generals, and there was no reason to believe that it had changed.

The KPD leadership had its limitations for sure, but this raises the question of why the KPD’s advisers and leaders in the Communist International (Comintern) urged them to set a date (25 October) for an armed insurrection. Trotsky encouraged this plan. Lenin had cherished the thought of a German workers’ revolution until his last gasp, and he had spelled out his criticisms of the KPD leadership with great passion. Why did the leaders of world communism commit a leadership that was still immature, to revolution by timetable? It is time for honest reflection.

Background to 1923

The German working class was the most highly organised in the world. It grew in the astonishing transformation of Germany into a leading industrial power by 1900. The German Labour Party (SPD) was a huge organisation that encompassed much of working-class life: SPD sports and leisure clubs; SPD shops and houses, even SPD funeral provision. The German trade unions and the SPD had been built and organised in the face of state persecution since the time of Bismarck. The strength of the German working class and its ability to influence politics was the reason why the capitalist class in Germany was later to bankroll Hitler and the Nazis, and lever Hitler into power.

The end of World War One was brought about largely because the German working class refused to fight on. The impact of the Bolshevik revolution on German workers was profound. Mass strikes, and mutinies in the navy and at the front, led to the fall of the Kaiser.

Two opposing left parties fought for power in Berlin. The newly formed revolutionary party, the Spartacus League (soon to become the KPD), declared a workers’ state in Berlin from the Kaiser’s palace, and at the other side of town in the Reichstag, the SPD declared Germany to be a parliamentary democracy.

Defeat in war humiliated the supporters of the Kaiser. The whole of the armed forces and state bureaucracy had been created to serve the Kaiser’s rule. They worshipped militarism, and hated democracy. But in the face of revolution, they were forced to side with the SPD in the hope that once the Communists were crushed the SPD might follow.

The generals and the leaders of the SPD came together in the ‘Ebert-Groener Pact’. Ebert was the leader of the SPD, and Groener was a general. The Ebert-Groener Pact was to shape politics in the years to come. The army crushed the workers’ revolution and murdered the communist leaders Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht at the instigation of the SPD government.

Thus, the Weimar Republic was founded on the corpses of Germany’s greatest socialists. But the working class was still a force to be reckoned with. It prevented the generals and the Junkers (Prussian aristocrats) from restoring a dictatorship. On the surface, the military supported the government, but on the ground, they supported the fanatical nationalists that formed a militarised opposition to the government, the Friekorps.

The Friekorps were soldiers who refused to disband after the war. They murdered socialists and parliamentarians who signed the terms of the post-war peace, the Treaty of Versailles. In 1920, they took over Berlin in an attempted coup. They were led by an officer, Wolfgang Kapp, who gave his name to the revolt – the Kapp Putsch. When Ebert, now President of the Republic, called on the Reichswehr to restore order, it refused.

Ebert’s government fled Berlin, but he begged the trade unions for a general strike in defence of the Republic, and this proved to be decisive. The strike stopped everything moving in Berlin – even the water in the taps! Now it was Kapp’s turn to flee. The Friekorps was disbanded but carried on their anti-democratic activities in the nationalist groupings that were taking shape, including Hitler’s Storm Troopers, the SA.

The KPD had to operate illegally at this time, but they grew out of the battles fought between the workers and the Friekorps. German workers had learned that dealing with the forces of reaction meant military organisation. The defeat of Kapp was a victory for the working class and showed their collective power.

Thus the stage was set for the future of Germany. Would the Weimar Republic, a liberal compromise with reaction, fall to the democratic forces of the working class, or would it be replaced by a dictatorship of the right? In 1923 there was no inevitability about this.

The enforcement of the terms of the Treaty of Versailles brought revolutionary potential back to Germany. The scandalous reparations imposed on Germany fuelled the inflationary tendencies that had developed during the war. Failure to meet the repayments to the victorious powers saw French and Belgian troops invade Germany’s industrial heartland, the Ruhr, in December 1922. The French wanted to take possession of German coal, steel and timber.

The occupation of the Ruhr by an enemy force enraged the nationalist right, who campaigned for states to declare independence from the federal republic. This was the case in Bavaria and the Rhineland. The government responded by ordering passive resistance from the workers in the Ruhr. The political crisis caused by French troops on German soil soon coupled with another powerful incentive for workers to fight.

The hyperinflation of 1923 is known by all students of German history. It was, in part, deliberately engineered by financiers and industrialists to bring about the fall of the republic. This group profited enormously from the inflation. The industrialist, Hugo Stinnes, became known as the ‘Inflation King’. He grabbed up businesses going under at knockdown prices and became the richest man in Germany.

The devastation of hyperinflation can be measured in many ways: the burning of worthless bank notes for fuel, the collection of wages in wheelbarrows, or the rising price of bread. A loaf that cost 160 Marks in 1922 rose to 200,000,000,000 Marks by late 1923. Wages had to be renegotiated weekly, but all pay rises were soon wiped out as inflation soared. Workers fought a continuous battle against starvation, mainly through strikes, but also with attacks on town halls and police stations. The need for system change was obvious and workers began to join the KPD in their hundreds.

The threats from the fascist right; the machinations of major industrialists to overturn democracy, a crippling inflation that led to starvation and unemployment, all forced workers to fight. But the battles workers were fighting were not joined up. The fight lacked unity of action and purpose even though the various uprisings came from shared grievances.

From the above we can conclude that by 1923 the German working class found themselves fighting the ruling class in a potentially revolutionary struggle. But to change the revolutionary potential into a revolutionary possibility, there would need to be a crisis in state power, where the means of repression, the police and the army, failed to protect the capitalists. Only then would the workers be able to conquer the state and establish a workers’ state. This never happened.

The KPD leadership

As was said earlier, the leadership of the KPD had many weaknesses. After the murders of Luxemburg and Liebknecht the revolutionary party in Germany had to come up with leaders that could face up to the task of delivering a revolution that would end Russia’s isolation and open up the possibility of further revolutions.

However, revolutionary leaders with theoretical and strategical powers don’t spring from the earth or grow on trees. And in the case of Germany, the rapidly changing situation offered both opportunities and pitfalls to leaders who were learning on the job.

The leadership reflected the attitudes prevailing among the workers themselves. The anger of the working class prompted a sense of urgency in the leadership and led to premature action. The losses workers suffered encouraged a propagandist approach to the struggle and a turn away from action.

Lenin devoted much thought to these issues. He wrote a pamphlet that set out both the difficulties of revolutionary leadership, and the remedies that communists needed to take on board. In Left Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder Lenin addressed the mistaken approaches of the German communists. These mistakes were ultra-leftism and defensism.

The ultra-lefts believed that revolution was mainly an act of will, and that revolution could and should be fought for without preparatory work among the workers. Defensism was the other side of the coin, that sought to put off the revolution until the working class was properly educated and fit for revolution.

What is wrong with both ultra-leftism and defensism is that they separate revolutionaries from the day to day struggles of the workers. The ebbs and flows of the class struggle dictate how we should respond, not some preconceived revolutionary posturing.

Without going into a detailed history of the KPD in the years 1919-23 we can say with certainty that as the revolutionary year of 1923 progressed, the leadership remained divided. The nearest German leader to Lenin’s ideal was Heinrich Brandler, who had fled Germany in 1921 to meet with Lenin in Russia.

A couple of examples might help to reveal some of the problems that the KPD endured because of a divided leadership.

During the general strike against the Kapp Putsch, when workers were not only striking, but fighting the Friekorps in the streets, the KPD put out a leaflet against the strike! KPD comrades in Berlin were obviously never going to forgive Ebert for the murders of Luxemburg and Liebknecht, but at that precise moment the strikers were confronting the actual murderers.

The leaflet declared: ‘The revolutionary proletariat will not lift a finger for the murderers of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht.’ Precisely the opposite of what the working class was doing! This was disgraceful abstentionism at a crucial moment of struggle.

In March 1921, the KPD adopted the ultra-left position of taking revolutionary action when the working class was in no way prepared for revolution. The March Action has been rightly described as the March Madness.

In 1921, in the Halle-Merseburg constituency (in Prussian Saxony), the KPD launched their ill-fated March Action. The workers of the area, especially those working in the Lignite mines and chemical industry, were involved in strikes and clashes with the police. The workers had been battling the Friekorps during the Kapp Putsch and many had retained their weapons. The government sensed revolution, and set about quelling the unrest using force.

The KPD completely misread the situation. They were buoyed by their unprecedented electoral success that year, which saw them gain more votes than the SPD. The KPD leaders linked communist electoral success and the armed resistance of the workers to the state, and concluded that revolution was on the cards. This required a turn to action. The result was disastrous. The majority of workers were not fighting a revolutionary struggle, and the balance of forces favoured the state. The KPD did make an impact. For example, their call for a general strike did bring out workers over a wide area, and the workers fought heroically in a number of industrial towns, but the March Action was crushed. There were over a hundred workers killed and as many as three thousand arrested. This decimated the ranks of the communists for the time being and sowed doubt in the minds of their supporters.

However, such was the speed of events that the KPD was able to bounce back from the disaster due to the ongoing inflation and continued battles with the Nazis. The KPD’s militancy in the trade unions continued to draw in workers. By 1923, the KPD claimed half a million members, with real influence in many workplaces. The defeat in March also led to a new approach among a section of the KPD leadership.

After the failure of the March Action, Brandler and other leading communists fled to Russia to avoid arrest. After meeting with Lenin and Trotsky, Brandler came back to Saxony convinced of the united-front tactic. It proved to be highly successful. By working with left members of the SPD, the communists were able to form ‘workers’ governments’ in Saxony and Thuringia. This enabled further recruitment to the party, but came with a new set of problems that proved to be their undoing.

Entering into bourgeois governments was a tactic that could, and did, pay off. But the object was to end ‘obsolete parliamentarianism’ as revolution approached. Lenin had analysed this in Left Wing Communism:

‘It has been proved that, far from causing harm to the revolutionary proletariat, participation in a bourgeois-democratic parliament, even a few weeks before the victory of a Soviet republic and even after such a victory, actually helps that proletariat to prove to the backward masses why such parliaments deserve to be done away with; it facilitates their successful dissolution, and helps to make bourgeois parliamentarianism “politically obsolete”.’

The evidence suggests that Brandler and the KPD never fully grasped this, and assumed that a working partnership with the SPD was an end in itself. Obviously the united front could not be the final arbiter of revolutionary action. That would fall to the role of the revolutionary party, winning the leadership of the working class and preparing to conquer state power.

The revolutionary year, 1923

In the years 1921-23, the working class had built impressive defence organisations, and central to this were the Proletarian Hundreds.

The rise of nationalist paramilitaries, like the SA, threatened to smash working-class organisation. In response, the workers organised their own fighting battalions. The Proletarian Hundreds united SPD and Communist workers. They were often ex-soldiers that acted as the armed section of working-class defence. The membership card for the Hundreds in Leipzig spelt out their aims: ‘To enlighten the working class as to the dangers of fascism. To guard workers’ meetings and demonstrations.’

The Hundreds’ influence varied across Germany, but most of the industrial centres established them. They were particularly strong in the Ruhr, where they worked alongside French Communists in fraternising between workers and French troops, and also in Saxony and Thuringia, where the KPD was in government with the SPD.

The KPD built united-front activity with the SPD where possible. Inevitably, some leading communists denounced the united front as caving in to the SPD. Prominent among the ultra-lefts in the KPD was Ruth Fischer. She ceaselessly denounced other communists, especially Brandler, who led the KPD in Saxony. Fischer veered from left to right, sometimes supporting two conflicting opinions at the same time. She admitted to her own confusion when she recalled the German October some years later: ‘Twenty years afterward, I am not able to identify myself with any of the groups involved.’

The KPD leadership was clearly not united as the revolutionary opportunity began to loom larger. And the revolutionary potential of the situation was being talked about across all classes. Workers were flooding to the KPD, according to Brandler. General von Seeckt advised the government that revolution and ‘major social disorders’ were on the cards. Both the government and the communists geared up for action. In Russia, optimistic talk of a German October temporarily brought the conflicting personalities of the leadership together.

The Revolution that never was

In August, the Politburo met and Trotsky outlined a plan with which everyone else, apart from Stalin, agreed. Chris Harman writes:

‘The moment was fast approaching, [Trotsky] said, for a decisive struggle for power in Germany, the German October. There were only a few weeks to prepare for it, and everything else must be subordinated to its preparation’ (Chris Harman, The Lost Revolution, p.273).

And then:

‘Key leaders from the German party (including some of the “lefts”) were invited to Moscow to discuss preparations for an armed rising’ (ibid).

The thought of the world’s leading communist theoreticians meeting in Moscow to form a plan for an armed revolution in Germany is surely mind boggling?

When Lenin got back into Russia from exile, in 1917, he immediately tracked down the leading workers. He interrogated them for hours. He then used the workers’ testimony to attack the Bolshevik leadership, whom he accused of being fatalistic about the revolution.

From April to October, Lenin was in lock-step with the advanced section of the working class, but here, as if Lenin had never existed, the Marxists who were about to deify him and turn his mummified corpse into a shrine, decided to organise an armed insurrection ‘in only a few weeks’!

Just two years before, when he heard of the disastrous March Action, Lenin had referred to it as ‘insane and harmful’. He had reproached the German communists saying, ‘It is necessary to fight ceaselessly and in a systematic manner to win the majority of the working class, starting inside the old trade unions’. Had the German leadership been transformed since then? No. Should they have been set a date on which to carry through a revolution of world transforming importance? We shall see.

After the communists had secured enough weapons with which to fight the Reichswehr, the revolution was supposed to begin with a general strike. Over the summer, strikes broke out all over Germany, driven in large part by acute starvation. Therefore, a general political strike was a real possibility. The strikes, it was argued, would draw the state into a decisive conflict with the working class.

The revolutionary potential in the situation was obvious. The state was preparing to attack and the workers were going to have to defend themselves. If the Hundreds were abolished, the workers would be open to fascist attacks, and at the mercy of the capitalists. Therefore, a fight was inevitable, and the communists were perfectly correct in planning their response.

In August, the government of Wilhelm Cuno, that had fed the bankers and industrialists, fell amid great jubilation. Working-class action had brought down a capitalist government. But this had the effect of reinforcing the determination of the government to get its act together.

For the government, sections of the ruling class that had been hostile to the Republic began to offer support to it. This included the incoming Chancellor, Gustav Stresemann, and support from the army and the capitalists. Stresemann had a plan to end the inflation and get French troops out of the Ruhr. In short, the ruling class got behind him with the instruction that the threat of Communist revolution had to be extinguished. In mid-October, the forces of general Mueller started to enter Saxony where the revolution was planned to start, but Mueller was prepared to play a waiting game. He made sure the workers knew of his presence and that he had been authorised under clause 48 of the constitution to use ‘special powers’ to ensure order.

At this point Lenin’s advice about the short-term tactic of communists entering into bourgeois governments was crucial, but it was ignored. Brandler attempted to make the call for the general strike with the assumption that his SPD partners in government would fall into line.

The call for the general strike to start the revolution would come from a meeting of workers’ organisations in Chemnitz on 21 October. Getting the resolution for revolution passed was taken for granted as many of the delegates were KPD members. To get it passed, however, sections of the SPD would have to come across and join the KPD on the road to revolution. The meeting took place without interference from the army, but many delegates referred to the presence of Mueller’s troops in the state. This proved to be enough to split the united front, just as Mueller had hoped.

Brandler insisted that action in Saxony would be met with solidarity action that would bring about the national general strike. He was almost certainly right about this. However, Brandler was not prepared for the SPD shrinking away. Zeigner, the SPD leader, was fearful of taking an action that would fracture the German federation of states. He argued that this would give Mueller the cue to attack using the special powers granted to him. The SPD delegates broke away from the united front, leaving the KPD exposed.

The question now was whether to call off the revolution or press ahead and draw in SPD workers whatever their leadership said. Brandler and the KPD leaders, plus Radek, who was the Comintern’s agent on the ground, decided to call off the revolution. Just like that, the revolution by timetable was cancelled. Lenin’s warnings had gone unheeded.

Sadly, all the thinking had gone into the plan for armed insurrection, and the point of the general strike was to act as the opening gambit in a civil war. There was no plan B, But, there were other alternatives that could and should have been attempted.

The general strike should have been called, because that would have raised the standard of revolution while avoiding an armed conflict. From a successful general strike, it would have been possible to press for demands, such as disarming the fascists, nationalising key industries and so on. The general strike would have empowered local activists and kept the revolutionary road open.

In the event, the climb down by the KPD did not stop Mueller. He imposed martial law in Saxony; killed and arrested a number of communists; and took Zeigner himself into custody. Hamburg somehow failed to get the news that the revolution had been called off. The ‘Hamburg Rising’ saw the KPD take over police stations and raise the banner of revolution there. But the rising was crushed within 24 hours and over a hundred communists were killed. The crushing defeat of the Hamburg Rising should serve to make the point that a shootout with the German army in an armed rising was never going to win.

Legacy

The failure of the German October left a bitter taste. Recriminations followed. Most importantly, many communists turned against the tactic of the united front. This was amplified in Russia as Stalin’s war on ‘Trotskyist adventurism’ took hold. The SPD were now branded as one half of fascist twins. This foul sectarianism divided the working class and played to the advantage of Adolf Hitler in his rise to power. A united front of SPD and KPD workers could have stopped him in his tracks. This makes the debate over the German October, and where blame should lie for its failure, critical.

Nobody knows in advance how a revolution will turn out when it is launched. And Trotsky was certainly correct to argue that the KPD had to make a stand in October. With the benefit of hindsight, we can argue about what that might have entailed. The problem was that by setting a date for the revolution, the KPD was locked into one line of march that prevented tactical flexibility. The burden of delivering the hopes of communists across the world for a successful revolution no doubt compounded Brandler’s fears. We must also acknowledge that the moment Mueller’s troops entered Saxony the battle there was always going to be defensive, and Brandler probably realised that all too clearly.

For us, the German October should be a reminder that without successful mass action by the working class, capitalism is capable of producing almost unimaginable horror. The negative outcome of October 1923 was the triumph of Hitler in 1933, followed by a terror regime that smashed the working class and led to the Second World War and the Holocaust.

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John Westmoreland

John is a history teacher and UCU rep. He is an active member of the People's Assembly and writes regularly for Counterfire.

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