The 1918 German revolution
The 1918 German revolution)

“We stand today ... before the awful proposition: either the triumph of imperialism and the destruction of all culture, and, as in ancient Rome, depopulation, desolation, degeneration, a vast cemetery; or, the victory of socialism.”

The German revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg wrote these words from a prison cell in 1916, describing a terrifying question posed by the First World War. 

The German Revolution of 1918, which began as a mutiny of soldiers and spread across the country like lightning, was the most important link in a global wave of working-class radicalisation that responded to the barbarism of war with the fight for socialism. The situation prompted British Prime Minister Lloyd George to write: “The whole existing order, in its political, social and economic aspects, is questioned by the masses from one end of Europe to the other”.

Yet most people have never heard of the German Revolution. While it figures at best as a footnote in mainstream accounts of the interwar period, it’s impossible to understand the most important events of the twentieth century without an account of this struggle. It brought down the kaiser (the German king) and ended the war. It divided the socialist movement permanently between revolutionaries and reformists, who ended up on opposite sides of the barricades. The revolution’s eventual defeat laid the basis for the devastating rise of the Nazis and sealed the fate of the Russian Revolution, completing its international isolation and paving the way for Stalin’s brutal dictatorship. 

For socialists trying to understand how revolutions can win, this story has enduring relevance. The German Revolution proved that what happened in Russia in 1917 was not an anomaly and that revolutions were possible in advanced capitalist societies. While pre-revolutionary Russia was still an autocratic and largely agricultural society, Germany had a developed industry, mass reformist political parties, a parliamentary system and trade unions. 

The German Social Democratic Party (SPD) was the largest and most prestigious party of the Socialist International—a network of mass socialist organisations that attempted to unite the workers of the world. The SPD boasted a million members and more than 90 daily newspapers, as well as weekly periodicals and journals, and was the single largest party in the German parliament. The party permeated every aspect of working-class life with youth organisations, socialist schools, sports clubs and cooperatives, and trade unions, which organised millions. Socialists internationally saw the German party as a source of hope and a model organisation. 

The outbreak of the First World War in August 1914 brutally shattered these hopes. This war was different from any that had gone before: an all-out slaughter organised by the major capitalist powers to redivide the world. Modern advanced technology was mobilised for industrial-scale slaughter that threatened to throw the entire continent back to the dark ages. 

Many socialists expected war, but few were prepared for what came on 4 August 1914. With the statement “We will not desert our fatherland in its hour of need”, SPD leaders lined up behind the German ruling class, voting in the Reichstag to fund the war effort. Luxemburg was so prostrate with grief that she briefly considered suicide. 

While this betrayal came as a shock to many, the decision to support the war had deep roots in the development of the party. While rhetorically revolutionary, the party had become reformist in practice. The peaceful growth of the SPD in a period of stability had led to the construction of a huge party apparatus: parliamentarians and their staffers, journalists, managers of the cooperatives and more. For many of these relatively comfortable apparatchiks, maintaining the party became an end in itself. Alongside this apparatus, the unions spawned thousands of trade union officials. They were professional compromisers, negotiating the terms of exploitation between workers and bosses, balancing the interests of each. They formed a conservative bloc inside the SPD. 

These divisions were clear well before the outbreak of war. When neighbouring Russia erupted in revolt and mass strikes in 1905, it provoked sharp debate in the party. Rosa Luxemburg, who travelled to Poland and participated in the revolution, led the charge for the radical left. Luxemburg argued that mass political strikes like those in Russia, and not patient parliamentary work and routine union bargaining, were key to developing socialist consciousness amongst workers. The trade union leaders, on the other hand, refused even to consider such action, declaring it “absurd” and a distraction from their day-to-day work. 

The party developed a strong tendency to subordinate political principles to maximising votes. This was most clear during the Morocco crisis of 1911, when the German government sent a warship to the Moroccan coast in response to French colonial expansion, risking an armed conflict between the two powers. This was a clear example of imperialist aggression, a policy driven by the desire of German industrialists to increase their footprint in Africa. While SPD worker activists who believed sincerely in the party’s anti-war platform were outraged, the response of the party’s parliamentary leadership was more circumspect. They warned that taking a stridently anti-imperialist position could hurt their chances at the next election and attempted to bury any agitation against German nationalism. 

Between the left, who argued for uncompromising class struggle and opposition to imperialism, and the right, who increasingly championed industrial peace and empire, sat a group of intellectuals and party officials like Karl Kautsky. Their role as a “centre” tendency was to paper over divisions, minimising the profound disagreements between left and right to hold the party together. In practice, the centre helped facilitate the growth and eventual dominance of reformists, who were entrenched in the bureaucratic institutions that dominated party life. 

Revolutionaries argued vehemently against the right, but they didn’t build a clear tendency opposed to the reformist trajectory of the party. Most revolutionaries accepted the SPD’s status as a “broad church”. A network of radicals led by Luxemburg began to organise during the war, eventually taking the name “Spartacus”. But they refused to abandon the SPD, aiming instead to transform it from within. In their manifesto they stated: “Not division or unity, not old party or new party is the concern, but the winning back of the party from below, through the rebellion of the masses”.

Despite the reluctance of the Spartacists to form their own party, the reality of the war would forever split the socialist movement. Supporting the war meant more than a vote in the Reichstag. The SPD’s acceptance of “social peace” meant refraining from criticising the war, abandoning any fight for reforms and enforcing a strike ban. 

Mainstream accounts of the war portray a German nation united by patriotic fervour. This is contradicted by the account of working-class leader Richard Mueller, who noted the mass of workers were “very reservedly” opposed to the pro-war mood in the rest of German society. Fear of repression intimidated militants, and discontent was driven underground for a time. In the factories, the unions acted as an industrial police force, collaborating with employers to enforce the no-strike pledge, and handing names of suspected agitators to the authorities. 

But the hunger, repression and death produced by the war forced discontent to the surface. The number of workdays lost to strikes rose from a quarter million in 1916 to almost 2 million in 1917, then leapt to more than 3 million in 1918 (before the revolution). Skilled metalworkers took the lead, forming the Revolutionary Shop Stewards—a clandestine network of militants that eventually mobilised hundreds of thousands in mass political strikes. The first such strike came in June 1916 to protest the arrest of anti-war militant Karl Liebknecht and was followed by a “bread strike” in April 1917. The impact of the Russian Revolution was on display when a strike in January 1918 led to the brief formation of workers’ councils: radically democratic workplace structures inspired by the soviets. 

Growing bitterness about the war eventually impacted the mainstream of the socialist movement. Many SPD politicians who had harboured private doubts now voiced criticism. In May 1916, the SPD suspended 34 MPs who voted against continuing repressive state powers. By early 1917, they had been forced out of the party and created the Independent Social Democratic Party (USPD). While the USPD became a focal point for those groping towards anti-war politics, and quickly attracted 120,000 militants into its ranks, it was far from a clearly revolutionary party. Many of its leading figures were reformists, like Eduard Bernstein and Karl Kautsky, who saw the war as an unpleasant interruption of their peaceful parliamentary and union activity. 

After being expelled from the SPD, the Spartacus League voted to join the USPD. They paid the price for not forming a coherently revolutionary organisation earlier, with only a few hundred members and very little influence in the new party. The Revolutionary Shop Stewards also joined the USPD. 

The revolution finally began in November 1918 with a mutiny of Imperial Navy sailors in Kiel who had been ordered on a suicide mission to salvage the faltering war effort. Commanding officers were stripped of their authority on ship after ship, and news of the revolt quickly spread among Germany’s war-weary and increasingly rebellious workers. All over the country, workers’ and soldiers’ councils were elected. Within a matter of days, the monarchy collapsed.

In the cities of Bremen, Chemnitz, Hamburg and Leipzig, where revolutionary socialists had strong roots, these councils immediately took power. They dismantled the machinery of the old capitalist government and dissolved the police force, replacing it with militias under council control. In Brunswick, the workers’ councils took control of some factories.

Terrified by this explosion in working-class self-organisation, the ruling class turned to newfound allies—the SPD. The chancellor handed power to party leader Friedrich Ebert, hoping to establish a stable capitalist government and dampen the revolutionary mood. The SPD, while mouthing radical slogans, was equally determined to prevent the working class from coming to power.

Ebert set up a provisional government consisting of delegates from the SPD and USPD. Despite the radical name, the Council of Peoples’ Commissars, its real objective was to hold together the structures of the crumbling German state: the bureaucrats, judges, police officers and military generals. On the second day of the revolution, Ebert received a call from General Groener, who told him that the Imperial High Command would recognise the government so long as it maintained strict discipline in the army and carried out the fight against “Bolshevism”—by which he meant the power of the councils.                             

Two potential paths had opened for the revolution. One was represented by SPD leader Phillip Scheidemann, who proclaimed the German republic from the window of the Reichstag on 9 November. But, at almost the exact same time, Karl Liebknecht declared to a crowd from the balcony of the royal palace: “Comrades, I proclaim the free German socialist republic ...The reign of capitalism, which turned Europe into a swamp of blood, is broken”.      

A situation of dual power had emerged. The capitalist state had lost its monopoly over political authority and armed repression, but was not yet defeated. The workers’ and soldiers’ councils controlled whole areas of the country but were not ready to sweep away the Ebert government. 

In these moments, the battle for the hearts and minds of the masses of workers and soldiers was crucial. The SPD positioned themselves as supporters of a revolution that many of its leaders reviled, whilst calling for “calm and order”—code for restraining the revolution from advancing beyond its initial accomplishments. They had on their side the simple fact that millions were entering into politics for the first time, many of whom had little understanding of the SPD’s betrayals during the war or the differences between the socialist groups. The SPD’s emphasis on “unity” made sense to workers who were only just beginning to shake off reformist assumptions about political change. 

Everywhere they couldn’t win the argument, the SPD resorted to dirty tricks, establishing phoney councils that only existed on paper (or were made up solely of party officials and trade union bureaucrats) to increase their dominance in the council movement. The massive apparatus they commanded allowed them to exert a huge amount of influence. 

The strength of the SPD was felt at the first national Congress of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils in Berlin in mid-December. Luxemburg and Liebknecht, the two recognised leaders of the Spartacus League, were not even allowed to enter the building. While they could command a serious following at street demonstrations, their influence amongst the mass of workers and soldiers was small. Although it contained some of the most brilliant revolutionary leaders in the country, the number of committed revolutionary socialists in the Spartacus League was tiny, only a few thousand. 

The chief debate at the congress was over the role of the workers’ and soldiers’ councils. With the SPD completely dominant, the outcome wasn’t even in question. By 344 votes to 98, the congress rejected a proposal to create a council-based government, and then voted to transfer power to the Ebert government to oversee elections to a new national parliament. The councils had voted for their own extinction; the left USPD leader Ernst Daumig bitterly described the meeting as a “political suicide club”.

The November Revolution had put the organisations of the German left to the test. The SPD had crossed the Rubicon, firmly committed to the defence of the capitalist system. The USPD, an incoherent mishmash of political ideas, was hopelessly divided; its moderate wing participated in the Ebert government, while its left argued for council power. There was a dire need for a revolutionary party that could carry out an uncompromising struggle for workers’ power. On New Year’s Eve 1919, the Spartacists met with other radicals to establish the German Communist Party. 

While the councils had been routed, the situation was moving quickly at the beginning of 1919. Support for Ebert’s government was narrowing in the capital. The USPD had abandoned it, and a strike wave centred on economic demands brought more workers into struggle. Now faced with a disintegrating army and hungry workers, the SPD turned to bloody repression to consolidate control.

First, Ebert sent loyal government troops to evict a unit of revolutionary sailors stationed in the Berlin palace stables. This provocation inflamed leftward moving workers, who took up arms to defend the sailors. For the first time, social democrats ordered troops to fire on revolutionary workers. Wary that the regular army (made up largely of soldiers drawn from the working class) would not long tolerate being used as attack dogs against revolutionaries, SPD politician Gustav Noske assembled the Freikorps—a highly reactionary paramilitary fuelled by extreme nationalism and hostility to the revolution. They were the first troops to sport the swastika emblem. 

The Ebert government deliberately provoked a general strike in the capital to create the pretext for initiating civil war against the left. On 15 January, the Freikorps murdered Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. In the following weeks and months, they travelled the length and breadth of the country, killing revolutionaries and disbanding workers’ councils. 

The first phase of the German Revolution had gone down in bloody defeat. Revolutionaries had been isolated, hounded and murdered, and remained a small minority in the workers’ movement. But already, important lessons could be drawn. 

The reformist leaders in the SPD, who before the war had appeared to be in favour of “moderation” and “gradual progress”, now turned out to be the most ruthless practitioners of counter-revolutionary violence. The challenge now was to build a party capable of organising and deepening the workers’ struggle that had erupted during the November Revolution. 

Order had been restored, but the German Revolution was not over. As Rosa Luxemburg prophetically wrote, days before her murder: “You foolish lackeys! Your ‘order’ is built on sand. Tomorrow the revolution will ‘rise up again, clashing its weapons,’ and to your horror it will proclaim with trumpets blazing: I was, I am, I shall be!”.

Building a mass communist party 

In the last months of 1918, Germany was rocked by soldiers’ mutinies, strikes and an armed workers’ movement. The revolution was a litmus test for socialists—it exposed the willingness of the reformist leaders to use lies, tricks and brutal violence to defend the system. On New Year’s Eve 1918, as civil war was brewing, delegates representing the Spartacus League and other small radical groups met to form a revolutionary alternative. 

Recently freed from prison by the revolution, Rosa Luxemburg drafted the program of the new Communist Party (KPD). The document focused on the necessity of workers taking power, warning: “We must not ... repeat the illusion of the first phase of the revolution ... thinking that it is sufficient to overthrow the capitalist government and set up another to bring about the socialist revolution”. Luxemburg stressed the importance of revolutionaries winning a majority in the newly formed councils: “We must prepare from the base up; we must give the workers’ and soldiers’ councils so much strength that the overthrow of the ... government ... will be merely the final act of the drama”.

While Luxemburg had tremendous authority, many delegates at the conference failed to appreciate her arguments. The KPD was largely made up of impatient young revolutionaries who ignored the fact that most political workers still followed the reformist Social Democratic Party (SPD), and that winning them would take a prolonged struggle. 

This was reflected in widespread opposition to Luxemburg’s proposal that the party participate in the upcoming National Assembly elections in order “to reveal its counter-revolutionary activities step by step to the masses’’. Leading delegates opposed electoral participation, arguing that the revolution had rendered parliament “obsolete”. But obsolete for whom? Perhaps for the few thousand revolutionaries represented at the conference, but not for the millions who looked to their first ever free elections as a momentous political event. 

In practice, the party’s call for a boycott was ignored, and the SPD and Independent Social Democratic Party (USPD) received a combined 46 percent of the vote—their largest ever. Similarly, the congress foolishly voted to abandon the existing trade unions just as millions of workers flooded into them. 

The ultra-left positions of the party—and the Spartacists’ reputation as unruly street fighters—reinforced the hesitancy of the Revolutionary Shop Stewards, who had spearheaded the strike wave of November and were considering joining the KPD. Talks between the two collapsed, leaving some of the most influential working-class leaders outside the KPD’s ranks.

The KPD was born struggling to survive. The brutal murder of Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht in January 1919 deprived the party of its ablest leaders, just as a civil war was starting to break out. 

SPD leader Gustav Noske declared himself the “bloodhound” and ordered the Freikorps soldiers to break strikes, smash the councils and murder workers. Workers spontaneously rose against this repression, but because their struggles weren’t coordinated, the government could pick them off one by one. Troops marched from city to city, violently restoring capitalist order. This posed the need for a mass revolutionary party capable of coordinating and linking actions across the country. 

The question of how such a party could be built fell to Karl Radek and Paul Levi, two of the most important surviving leaders of German Communism. They recognised that a swift victory for the revolution, like in Russia, was illusory. The German capitalist class was far stronger, and the existence of reformist institutions like the SPD and trade unions meant that belief in the possibility of peaceful transformation ran deep. They noted: “The next great struggles of the proletariat would have a reformist character, and therefore, the process of transforming the consciousness of the masses would be a long one”.

This meant revolutionaries had to patiently win workers who held onto reformist ideas but were moving leftward under the pressure of events. The deepening crisis of German capitalism was radicalising workers within the USPD who were fed up with the party leadership’s constant prevarication. Even though many rank-and-file USPD members distrusted the KPD, they were inspired by the Russian Revolution and admired the Comintern, the international organisation established by the Bolsheviks. Communists had an opportunity to recruit large numbers of USPD members.

One of the central obstacles to transforming the KPD into a mass party was the strength of “ultra-leftism” within its ranks. Ultra-leftism was not a coherent tendency but a diffuse current that rejected participation in elections and trade unions, and dismissed the possibility of collaborating with workers in reformist parties. They were united in their disdain of day-to-day workers’ struggle, eschewing any action that wasn’t immediately revolutionary. In practice, this resulted in an abstentionist political approach. Both Lenin and Luxemburg emphasised that this tendency reflected political immaturity that would naturally be overcome by serious experience. 

Paul Levi, on the other hand, was convinced that the ultra-lefts had to be expelled to achieve unity with the revolutionary workers who remained in the left wing of the USPD. At the party’s Heidelberg Congress in October 1919, he narrowly won a vote on his motion insisting that all members who did not agree to participate in the parliamentary elections and who refused to recognise the authority of the KPD’s central committee be expelled. Consequently, the leadership drove out more than half of its members. The KPD was reduced to a rump in important cities like Berlin and Hamburg. 

This drastic measure didn’t end ultra-leftism in the party. In March 1920, right-wing army officers and politician Wolfgang Kapp launched a coup against the SPD government. The coup threatened to install a military dictatorship and wipe out workers’ organisations. While President Friedrich Ebert fled, workers rose up. Bizarrely, the KPD leadership initially urged workers to abstain from defending their democratic rights, writing: “The revolutionary proletariat ... will not lift a finger for the democratic republic which was only a paltry mask for the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie”. 

By the time the leadership realised their error and swung in behind the struggle, it was firmly in the hands of the reformists and union leaders, who quickly wrapped it up. Nevertheless, workers’ success in stopping the coup restored their confidence after more than a year of bloody repression. In the June 1920 elections, both the USPD and KPD saw gains while the SPD’s vote collapsed. 

By the end of the year, Levi’s strategy of relating to leftward moving USPD workers was paying dividends. With the assistance of the Comintern, the KPD forced debates in local branches of the USPD about creating a unified revolutionary party. As conditions for unity, the KPD demanded the expulsion of all reformists, a clear commitment to council power and insurrection, and affiliation to the Comintern.

At a USPD Congress in Halle in October, more than half the delegates voted to accept these terms, leave the USPD and join the Communist Party, which quickly approached half a million members. Historian Pierre Broué wrote of this triumph: “With them were the militant workers, the organising cadres of the class, the leaders of the big mass strikes in Berlin during the War, the builders of the workers’ councils, and the nucleus of the Berlin revolutionary delegates during the War and the Revolution”.

Despite this hope, the new mass party quickly fell into crisis. This was caused by an incoherent leadership split between two diametrically opposed political strategies.

The “united front” approach had its origins in an initiative by Communist metalworkers, who proposed a list of five demands to their union leadership for joint action to defend living standards. Their objective was to strengthen the working class through unified struggle, while retaining revolutionaries’ organisational independence. Revolutionaries would prove to be the most effective fighters in practice, while their criticisms of reformism would not be muted. As Trotsky explained: “The reformists dread the revolutionary potential of the mass movement; their beloved arena is the parliamentary tribune, the trade union offices ... [We are] interested in dragging the reformists from their asylums and placing them alongside ourselves before the eyes of the struggling masses”.

Levi and Radek generalised this strategy and penned an open letter to SPD, USPD and union leaders calling for joint action against the fascist threat and the employers’ offensive. While this approach was clearly about challenging reformist organisations rather than compromising with them, it was ferociously opposed by the ultra-lefts, who hysterically denounced any cooperation with the SPD as betrayal. They ran a campaign to discredit Levi, which led him to quit the party’s Central Committee—a foolish move that only increased the influence of his opponents. 

The KPD left, led by Berlin activists Ruth Fischer and Arkady Maslow, put forward their own strategy, later rationalised as the “theory of the offensive”. They argued that “the working class could only be set in motion by a series of offensive acts”. This disastrous argument, which valorised provocative and reckless actions by an isolated minority, unfortunately gained a hearing within the party. It appealed to impatient young workers newly politicised by the revolution, but also seasoned former members of the USPD, eager for action. It was shamefully encouraged by Russian Comintern leaders Zinoviev and Bukharin, who were looking for a quick victory in Germany to ease their isolation in Russia after years of economic siege and civil war. 

In March of 1921, the SPD sent police into Mansfeld coal mines to seize arms and crush militant miners—the latest of many deliberate provocations. This time the Communists, desperate for an opportunity to go on the offensive, took the bait. The party attempted to turn this local struggle against repression into a national movement to seize power, raising the slogan “Whoever is not with us is against us”. What followed was a rising of sorts, including armed clashes with police and soldiers and an attempted general strike, but at best 200,000 workers heeded the KPD’s call. The ensuing repression crushed the KPD: 4,000 workers were jailed; 150 Communists were killed; and party membership collapsed to fewer than 150,000. 

While the ensuing debate nearly tore the KPD apart, within a few months a new leadership was putting the united front approach into practice. From 1922, the KPD proposed joint struggle with the unions to defend living standards and democratic rights. After the assassination of a Jewish politician by fascists, they were able to force the reformists to join mass demonstrations. The KPD also helped initiate a series of large strikes, partially rebuilding the strength it had lost. In the autumn of 1922, the party claimed about 250,000 members, while the SPD lost tens of thousands. The united front was a success.

In 1923, Germany once again fell into a deep crisis. The Cuno government, the most right-wing since the 1918 revolution, announced it would stop paying reparations to the victors of the war, triggering a French invasion of the Ruhr (Germany’s industrial heartland). Nationalist sentiment exploded and fascist activity intensified. 

While the situation was increasingly polarised, the desperate economic situation pushed nationalism into the background for most workers. Hyperinflation, which was largely a product of ruling-class profiteering, wiped out workers’ living standards.

The depth of the crisis exposed the uselessness of parliamentary manoeuvres and routine union bargaining. An SPD politician admitted: “One cannot deny that the mass of the working class is moving away from the old union tactics and looking for a new way. With the best will in the world, we can no longer hold the working class in check”. As reformists floundered, the KPD’s influence grew rapidly, and 20,000 factory and workers’ councils emerged. The party formed militias to defend strikes and resist the far right. On May Day, 25,000 armed workers marched through Berlin under the leadership of the KPD—the government was powerless to stop them. 

Of all the KPD leaders, only Heinrich Brandler elaborated a proposal to seize the initiative. He announced a day of armed anti-fascist demonstrations in the KPD’s flagship newspaper: “We are on the verge of bitter struggles, we must be entirely ready to act”. This inspired hope in members but terrified the party’s leadership. Nervous that they were walking into a repeat of the March Action, the KPD central committee eventually called off the actions.

Too shaken by past failures to move on to the offensive, the KPD leadership were quickly overtaken by events. A strike wave driven by economic desperation picked up. Workers were taking to the streets chanting “The exploiters to the gallows”. Then a three-day strike led by the factory councils brought down the Cuno government. With Communists rapidly gaining influence through the factory councils and a general sentiment that “things can’t go on like this”, a revolutionary situation was developing. 

The fall of Cuno alerted the Bolsheviks to the possibilities of revolution in Germany. They immediately summoned KPD leaders to Moscow to discuss preparations for an insurrection. The KPD went along with their proposals, but did so with trepidation rather than decisiveness. The plan was to enter the Saxon and Thuringian provincial governments, where left SPD leaders were keen for Communist participation to bolster their radical credentials. From there, they would arm the working class and use the inevitable state crackdown to launch a general strike and uprising through the militias that dotted the country. 

This plan had serious weaknesses. First, KPD leaders entering capitalist governments was likely to confuse workers and encourage the passive belief that the government would act for them. Second, the plan relied on left SPD politicians committing to initiating a civil war. While a section of the SPD had genuinely shifted to the left, there was little evidence they were willing to break with their reformist practice. Third, the Communists were so focused on technical and military preparations for the uprising that they neglected mass agitation at the factory level.

On 20 October, the German army marched into Saxony, and a conference of local workers’ organisations met under armed guard to discuss a response. Everything appeared to be in line, but when Brandler spoke to propose a national general strike and preparations for armed resistance, he faced stiff resistance from SPD ministers. Brandler immediately buckled and withdrew his proposal, effectively calling off the insurrection. The revolution collapsed into farce, and the most serious opportunity for revolution since 1918 passed the KPD by. 

Revolutionary crises don’t last forever; by the beginning of 1924 the capitalist class had the upper hand. Workers were confused and demoralised, and Hitler’s National Socialists were waiting in the wings, ready to be called upon to deal the final blow. 

This perplexing defeat can be explained only by a failure of political leadership. The German KPD had become a party of committed militants who could launch incredible struggles in the fight for socialism. But this party was built too late and came fumbling into existence. Paul Levi reflected in the heat of the revolution: “There is not a single Communist in Germany today who does not regret that the foundation of a Communist Party did not take place long ago, before the war”. The party made many mistakes and the leadership lost confidence, paralysing its ability to seize the revolutionary opportunities of 1923.

Prevarication, uncertainty and bitter divisions are inevitable when building a revolutionary leadership. Even the Russian Bolsheviks contended with a minority of leaders who opposed the 1917 October insurrection. But the Bolsheviks had advantages that their German counterparts lacked: years of experience in building a revolutionary party, deep roots in the workers’ movement and a coherent and collaborative leadership. This meant they could overcome the challenges of 1917 and seize the moment. 

The German Communist Party failed to lead a revolution to end capitalism. They were sincere and self-sacrificing but often flawed socialists who attempted to build a party that could lead workers out of capitalist hell and into a socialist future. The lessons from their experience provide a foundation for revolutionary politics that the radicals of today can draw from. From this perspective, as Pierre Broué wrote: 

“The history of the Communist Party of Germany during the early years of the Communist International ceases to be a history of lost illusions and becomes the prehistory of a struggle which continues to this day.”

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