Workers Hammer No. 230
A correction to our Militant Labour pamphlet
The police and the 1918-19 German Revolution
The following is adapted from Workers Vanguard no 1060, 23 January 2015, incorporating a correction from Workers Vanguard no 1062, 20 February 2015.
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With the military defeat of Kaiser Wilhelm II’s forces in November 1918, which ended World War I, the German capitalist order was deeply shaken. A revolutionary wave swept the country, triggered by a mutiny of sailors in Kiel, who sent emissaries around Germany rousing the working masses and calling on them to set up workers councils. The German proletariat drew inspiration from the example of the Russian October Revolution a year earlier, in which the working class, led by Lenin’s Bolshevik party, took power, sweeping away the tsarist autocracy and the capitalist class.
The Kaiser’s forced abdication, which was engineered by Prince Max of Baden to head off revolution, resulted in the reins of the government being entrusted to the Social Democratic Party (SPD), whose leaders had proved themselves outright class traitors through their ardent support of the German side in the imperialist war. With the outbreak of the November Revolution, society was precariously balanced between the nascent workers councils and the capitalist government headed by the Social Democrats. This situation of dual power posed sharply the issue of which class would rule: the workers or the bourgeoisie.
The SPD was given invaluable aid in its counterrevolutionary efforts by the Independent Social Democratic Party (USPD), which joined the SPD government the day after it took over. Dominated by centrists like Karl Kautsky who longed to reunite with the mother party, the USPD was the main political obstacle to proletarian revolution. In the absence of an authoritative communist party, it had the allegiance of tens of thousands of militant workers.
For courageously opposing the war, Spartacist leaders Karl Liebknecht, Rosa Luxemburg, Clara Zetkin, Leo Jogiches and Franz Mehring spent substantial time in the Kaiser’s prisons. Although fiercely combating the SPD’s wartime orgy of social patriotism, they lingered inside the Social Democracy. The Spartacists exited the SPD in 1917, only when they along with the centrists were pushed out. And even then the Spartacists embedded themselves in the USPD, not leaving to form the Communist Party (KPD) until the very end of December 1918.
Despite the great authority of Liebknecht and Luxemburg as revolutionary leaders, the KPD was unknown to the working masses when street fighting broke out a few days after its founding. The party had a total of at most a few thousand members, who were centred in Berlin with small, virtually autonomous groups scattered across the country. A revolutionary leadership is forged, tested and honed through intervention in struggle. Lacking such experience, the young KPD was faced with the daunting task of cohering an organisation while simultaneously navigating a revolutionary situation. (For historical background and documents, see John Riddell, ed, The German Revolution and the Debate on Soviet Power [Anchor Foundation, 1986].)
The January events
After the SPD took the helm of the government, Emil Eichhorn, a member of the left wing of the USPD, became the Berlin chief of police, acting on the false view that this arm of the bourgeois state could be transformed into a revolutionary instrument. On 4 January 1919, the Prussian Ministry of the Interior dismissed Eichhorn in a deliberate provocation. A 5 January edition of the KPD paper, Die Rote Fahne, called for a protest for the following day against Eichhorn’s sacking. The statement was also signed by the USPD and the Revolutionary Shop Stewards (RSS), a group of radical trade unionists based in the factories that was politically associated with the USPD.
The response was overwhelming. Hundreds of thousands of angry workers, many armed, flooded the centre of Berlin, burning for action. But no one took command. That evening, representatives of the USPD, RSS and KPD, intoxicated by the outpouring and counting on support from some troop regiments and sailors, issued a proclamation. It announced that the SPD government of Friedrich Ebert and Philipp Scheidemann was deposed and that power was provisionally in the hands of a “Revolutionary Committee” (RC) consisting of representatives of all three groups, among them Liebknecht.
The next morning, the workers again stormed into the streets, expecting to be led into battle. But again there was no leadership. The anticipated troops did not materialise to bolster their ranks. The masses embarked on spontaneous street fighting and armed occupations, including of the offices of Vorwärts, newspaper of the despised SPD.
In reality, the USPD — which had only quit the government after the SPD launched a bloody assault on the leftist sailors of the People’s Naval Division on 24 December — had no intention of overthrowing the regime of its recent collaborators. Pathetically, the majority of the RC voted to negotiate with the same SPD government they had announced they were overthrowing two days earlier! The KPD rightly denounced this move, finally announcing its withdrawal from the RC on 10 January.
But the government had been given precious time to organise a counteroffensive. SPD leader Gustav Noske was appointed commander-in-chief in the Berlin area. Declaring that “one of us must be the bloodhound”, Noske helped to prepare the Freikorps, fascistic volunteer battalions recruited by right-wing officers and financed by industrialists. The Freikorps, as well as a few regiments in the disintegrating army that remained loyal to the government, swept through the streets, smashing the insurgent workers and killing many of the best worker militants.
It didn’t end there. A particular target was the KPD leadership. With a state of siege having been declared, Noske posted proclamations slandering the Spartacists as looters — to be shot on sight. Vorwärts explicitly fingered Liebknecht and Luxemburg. On 15 January, the Freikorps, acting at the behest of the SPD, murdered them. The assassination of Leo Jogiches followed several weeks later. By eliminating the best leaders of the KPD, the SPD delivered a crippling blow to the revolutionary workers movement in Germany. It also dashed immediate hopes, not least in the fragile Soviet workers state, of extending the Russian Revolution internationally.
Correcting our error
In the 1994 Spartacist pamphlet Militant Labour’s touching faith in the capitalist state, we wrongly stated:
“Eichhorn was not a bourgeois cop, and neither were the core of his forces. In a situation of revolutionary turmoil, Eichhorn and his militia sought to replace the existing bourgeois police force and regarded themselves as accountable to the workers councils and the left, not to the capitalist government.”
It may have been the delusion of Eichhorn (and the workers) that he could simply “replace the existing bourgeois police force”, but we do not share this view. It contradicts the entire thrust of our pamphlet, which refutes the falsehood purveyed by reformist socialists then and now (among them successors of the Militant tendency — Peter Taaffe’s Committee for a Workers’ International and Ted Grant’s International Marxist Tendency) that cops are “workers in uniform”. The socialist pretenders sometimes cite the Eichhorn affair to emphasise their point.
The reality proves the very opposite. Many of the Kaiser’s police dropped their weapons and fled when Eichhorn took over, but the majority returned to work after Eichhorn appealed to them to do so. He did recruit a couple thousand “socialist” cops in late December to a new security guard (the Sicherheitswehr) assigned to patrol the streets alongside the old police. But the Sicherheitswehr abandoned Eichhorn in the midst of the tumultuous battles over his dismissal, having been bribed with promises of monetary reward and fearing the prospect of a face-off with pro-government army troops (see Hsi-huey Liang, The Berlin Police Force in the Weimar Republic [University of California, 1970]).
The history of Eichhorn’s police highlights Leon Trotsky’s assessment in What Next? (1932) that “the worker who becomes a policeman in the service of the capitalist state, is a bourgeois cop, not a worker”. Trotsky continued: “Every policeman knows that though governments may change, the police remain”, which perfectly describes the 1918-19 events in Berlin.
Last December, the ICL’s International Executive Committee voted to correct the error in the pamphlet, noting:
“The Spartacists’ break with the Social Democracy had been partial, notably on the question of the state, as shown by their continued defense of Eichhorn as police president. We would not have called for Eichhorn’s reinstatement. We would have defended the workers in the fleeting uprising in January 1919 against the SPD drive to crush the workers and soldiers councils and disarm the proletariat, while fighting to win the workers to the understanding that the capitalist state is an instrument of bourgeois repression that must be smashed.”
On 4 January 1919, the KPD’s Die Rote Fahne wrote: “The police force was trying to be a revolutionary police force, rather than actively or passively serving the counterrevolution”, thus reinforcing in the working class the widespread misconception that Eichhorn and his cops could be the guarantors of the revolution. This is wrong. What should have been said was that in a capitalist government run by the SPD at the behest of counterrevolution, the police force had to serve counterrevolution.
The German Spartacists had the duty to defend the masses who took to the streets to protest Eichhorn’s ouster. At the same time, the outpouring indicated that the workers regarded a USPD police chief as a gain of the Revolution. If one could simply take over the existing organs of the bourgeois state, then there is no reason for the workers to forge their own insurrectionary force, a workers militia, to sweep away that state.
This fatal illusion helped determine the course of events in January 1919. The workers, many of whom were armed, were not organised to struggle for power. Once this became evident, even the military units most sympathetic to the Revolution, such as the People’s Naval Division, vacillated. The door was opened for the counterrevolution to go on the offensive.
As VI Lenin explained in The State and Revolution (1917), the state is ‘‘an organ of class rule, an organ for the oppression of one class by another’.’ Later in this work, which is largely aimed at Kautsky and his ilk of the Second International, Lenin reiterated a key lesson that Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels drew from the experience of the 1871 Paris Commune, namely: ‘‘The working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery and wield it for its own purposes.’’ Lenin emphasised, ‘‘Marx’s idea is that the working class must break up, smash the ‘ready-made state machinery’.”Although the Spartacists were well acquainted with Lenin’s book, they had not yet sloughed off all the old social-democratic baggage when they came face-to-face with revolution.
Eichhorn’s “socialist” police force had zero connection to socialism because the working class had not seized power, instituted a workers government and smashed the capitalist state. Under capitalism, police cannot be “reformed” nor can citizens “police” them to make them act in the interests of the exploited and oppressed. Along with the courts and the prisons, the cops have a job to do — to protect and defend private property and the capitalist system itself.
For revolutionary leadership
Although the January workers insurrection is dubbed the “Spartakist Uprising”, the KPD neither anticipated nor led it. Rather, the new party was swept up in the mass revolt. Liebknecht in particular got caught up in the dithering USPD-controlled Revolutionary Committee. One version of events has it that when he returned from the meeting where the proclamation “deposing” the government was signed, Luxemburg reproached him: “Karl, is that our programme?”
Over the years, socialists had deeply adapted to the strictures of the state under the Kaiser. For example, a law passed in 1853 required all political meetings to have in attendance a police agent, who could terminate the meeting at will. The socialists accommodated to it, changing their language and their work to suit the law. While any organisation would have to take into account the law, part of the necessary response was to create an underground organisation, which the SPD and its direct predecessors failed to do.
In contrast, the Bolsheviks had developed their faction of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party separately from the reformist Mensheviks. By 1917, the Bolsheviks had through years of struggle forged a programmatically and organisationally cohesive cadre, as well as their own underground apparatus. Within a few weeks of the outbreak of the war, Lenin had resolved to split with the social-democratic Second International and to fight for a new, revolutionary international.
The Spartacists fought against the war on an internationalist basis, but their failure to appreciate the yawning gulf between revolution and opportunism meant they remained within the Social Democracy. As Lenin later put it in “A Letter to German Communists” (August 1921): “When the crisis broke out, however, the German workers lacked a genuine revolutionary party, owing to the fact that the split was brought about too late, and owing to the burden of the accursed tradition of ‘unity’ with capital’s corrupt (the Scheidemanns, Legiens, Davids and Co) and spineless (the Kautskys, Hilferdings and Co) gang of lackeys.”
From the first days of the November Revolution, the SPD vilified “Spartacus”, picturing them in Vorwärts as rapists and arsonists and Luxemburg as a wild, bloodthirsty beast. But despite the tightening of the noose, Luxemburg, Liebknecht and Jogiches remained in Berlin. Still holding that the necessary organisation and consciousness would spring from the masses themselves and failing to appreciate the indispensability of leadership, they did not get out of the line of fire when they had the chance. This was very different from Lenin, who retreated to Finland when counterrevolutionary forces temporarily gained the ascendancy in Russia in July 1917.
Germany in 1918-19 cried out for a steeled revolutionary party like the Bolsheviks, one based on the absolute independence of the working class from the capitalist state. When the workers rise up in revolutionary struggle against capitalist rule, they must have their own bodies of self-defence and their own organs of rule, under the leadership of communists. In the heat of events, the KPD leadership was moving closer to this Leninist understanding, but too late. The bloody tragedy in January 1919 underscores the danger of placing confidence in the possibility of taking hold of the bourgeois state to advance working-class interests, illusions that can prove fatal to revolution.