Roots of Fascism: Failure of the German Revolution 1918


Beside August 1914 and the Russian Counter-Revolution, the third contributor to the ‘many deaths of socialism’ in this critical period of the early 20th century is the so-called German Revolution of November 1918. Here the German working class suddenly found itself within the revolutionary situation of an abdicated monarchy, a defeated military and a severely war-weakened, indeed collapsed social and industrial system. However, despite thus achieving a bourgeois – i.e. political and constitutional – revolution almost by default, the German working class revealed its low level of socialist consciousness. One could say that it revealed itself to be, for the most part, the authoritarian product of German modern history, a history of revolutionary defeats from the bloody suppression of the Peasant Uprisings of the 1525 century to the weak and abortive democratic attempts of 1848, a long psycho-history of violently inculcated mass obedience and feudal-patriarchal backwardness.
The generation of 1918 was of course the more immediate product of the Kaiser’s Second Reich and its authoritarian Prussian institutions in its mirror-image working class versions, i.e. loyal, obedient, highly disciplined members of the authoritarian, patriotic, corporate-friendly unions and the authoritarian, increasingly consciously anti-revolutionary Social Democratic party. They thus possessed – like their antagonists the German bourgeoisie itself – neither the confidence of a revolutionary tradition of radical dissent and rebellion nor any experience of democratic self-activity. Nor did they possess a concrete, practical vision of their supposed ‘socialist’ goals beyond the continuation of the social-democratic practice of parliamentary democracy and some more worker-friendly social welfare laws.
Thus, in November 1918, they literally did not know what to do with the power that had fallen to them except to, as quickly as possible, divest themselves of it.[i] This happened despite the spontaneous, fairly widespread and potentially revolutionary development of German versions of autonomous factory committees and soviets: the Arbeiterräte (workers’ councils). So, what actually happened?
Workers’ councils were not intellectual constructs of socialist theory or parties but practical products of grass roots proletarian struggle, of mass strike experience.[ii] The early beginnings of workers’ councils in Germany can be seen in the wild cat mass strikes of 1916-18, i.e. in the middle of the world war and against their own patriotic unions. Revolutionary shop stewards (revolutionäre Obleute), mostly highly qualified tradesmen working outside and against their statist and corporatist unions, were usually the catalysts or initiators of these strikes. January 1916, for example, saw 55,000 metal workers in Berlin striking, against the will of the patriotic SPD and unions, in political protest against the military court prosecution of SPD left-wing leader and anti-war activist Karl Liebknecht. Early 1917 – around the same time as the spontaneous formation of workers’ councils (soviets) in St Petersburg – then saw the first development of explicitly named ‘workers’ councils’ (Arbeiterräte) as both factory committees and as elected strike committees for whole cities. In April 1917 revolutionary shop stewards again initiated another mass political strike involving 220,000 workers in Berlin and more than 300,000 nationally. Strike demands were for adequate food and fuel, peace, the rejection of annexations, the freeing of political prisoners, freedom of coalition and assembly, the end of censorship and civil rights for all. In January 1918, 500,000 workers in Berlin and over a million in Germany went on strike for peace without annexations, the inclusion of workers’ representatives in peace talks, adequate food supplies, the ending of the militarisation of factories, the immediate release of all political prisoners, electoral reforms and democratisation of the state. In Berlin, 414 elected workers’ delegates elected an eleven man workers’ council to lead the strike. Union leaders were explicitly excluded from the council and SPD representatives were only accepted after much resistance. As a result the government declared military law over Berlin, meetings were dissolved and striking workers arrested or pressed into military service.
In November 1918 the armed Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils had – on the basis of the workers’ previous mass strike experiences – then sprung up spontaneously at the grass roots level throughout Germany after the sailors’ mutiny and insurrection in Kiel on November 3rd . In classic direct-democratic fashion, workers voted their representatives onto their councils at factory level, had the power of recall over them and also armed themselves in many towns and cities. They thus, very briefly, held de facto power: although not actually occupying the factories, in many localities, they organised transport and food supplies and oversaw the actions of the local and regional government bureaucracies.[iii]
According to left-wing historian Arthur Rosenberg, the feeling that the old capitalist order was at an end and that a new economic order was now needed at that time found public expression in a widespread call for the ‘socialisation’ (Vergesellschaftung) of production, not only among workers but even among broad sections of society, including among intellectuals.[iv] This amounted, at least partially, to a revolutionary dual-power situation, a unique historical opportunity.
However, a mere week after the insurrections, governmental collapse and partial dual power situation, at the first meeting of the 3,000 newly elected Berlin workers’ and soldiers’ council delegates on November 10th, their Social-Democratic majority voluntarily abdicated this very power by officially recognising the sovereignty of the SPD self-proclaimed, provisional Ebert government. This SPD-majority on the soldier and worker councils obviously lacked the ‘will to sovereignty’, the vision, courage and self-confidence to take over the running of society.[v] This decisive lack was again expressed in the first National Congress of Worker and Soldier Councils held in Berlin in December 1918: while 98 delegates voted for the workers’ council system, an overwhelming 344 voted for the elections to a national parliament favoured by the SPD.[vi] Political power had been handed back to the SPD, still the main political representative of the working class, and thus to the capitalist system and the ruling elites.
The SPD had suddenly found itself in power by default after the imperial army had skilfully evaded the responsibility of a ‘dishonourable’ peace by handing over power to ‘a civilian government which could then take the opprobrium of accepting defeat’.[vii] The latter then became an important populist element in later right-wing and Nazi mythology and propaganda against the so-called ‘November criminals’ who had allegedly perpetrated a treasonous ‘stab in the back’ – Dolchstoss – of the of course ‘undefeated’, valiantly fighting German army.
The SPD quickly made no bones about its bourgeois allegiances. One of the provisional Ebert-(SPD) government’s first acts was the infamous ‘Ebert-Gröner pact’ in which army chief General Gröner ‘offered Ebert the support of the army if Ebert would adopt a moderate course and suppress the more radical council movements.’[viii] Continuing the ‘patriotic’ role it had unwaveringly demonstrated throughout the whole course of the bloody imperial war, the SPD government then assiduously worked together with the military, political, judicial and economic ruling members of the old imperial regime to quickly stabilise the authoritarian social system run by these elites and of which it had become – despite its remnant ‘Marxist’ factions and occasional ‘socialist’ rhetoric – the mere loyalist ‘opposition’. Similarly, the war-supporting trade unions, energetically ignoring the historical opportunity and many workers’ desires for more fundamental change, entered into an institutional cooperative alliance with the temporarily weakened employers in the so-called Stinnes-Legien agreement that settled on the introduction of the eight hour day and the recognition of the official unions in return for a sidelining of the workers’ councils and their open challenge to the capitalist factory system.
This fatal political and economic cooperation with the ruling elites frustrated or confused many workers, hatefully split the left, and actually fatally weakened the Social Democrats themselves (and allied liberals) for good: they both lost around 50% of their electors within a mere eighteen months: in the June 1920 elections[ix]. This Social-Democratic politics of allegiance with the capitalist and militarist elites in fact strengthened the previously weakened anti-democratic right and thus, ultimately, sealed the future, fascist, fate of the formally democratic Weimar Republic. Like the left-social-democrat Bolsheviks in Russia, the right-social-democrat-bourgeois allegiance also went as far as even bloodily suppressing any minority working class attempts at grassroots democratic autonomy or militant workers’ revolt. Ironically, given the Bolsheviks true counter-revolutionary role, like the military and the right Social Democrats and right-wing unionists also simply demonised any such attempts as so-called ‘Bolshevism’. The ultimate manifestation of Social Democrat leaders’ hatred of worker autonomy or any militant self-activity uncontrolled by the Party was thus expressed in outright military repression, particularly in the infamous Social-Democrat Gustav Noske’s armed coalition with the ex-monarchist army and right-wing proto-fascist militias (Freikorps) to shoot rebelling workers by the hundreds or murder revolutionary leaders like Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht, Gustav Landauer, Kurt Eisner.
The German workers’ council movement was thus quickly destroyed both from without and within. In helping the Social-Democratic Party to institute the new Weimar constitution centred on party politics and parliamentary democracy instead of attempting to widen their own non-party, council forms of direct democracy based on the control of production, the workers’ and soldiers’ councils, dominated by SPD worker majorities, completely and successfully sidelined themselves. The SPD government also later helped further crush the remaining workers’ councils by initially ignoring their attempts at constitutional recognition and then watering down their role at factory level.
A fatal political line could thus be plausibly drawn from the fiasco of 1918 to the fiasco of 1933. That is, from the defeat and self-defeat of the soldiers and workers’ councils through the typical ‘series of fudges and compromises, satisfying neither left nor right’[x] of the initial SPD government to the rapid popular drift to the authoritarian right and authoritarian left which culminated in the right wing elite’s final elimination of the formally democratic Weimar Republic in the late twenties/early thirties, their facilitation of Hitler’s accession to power in 1933 and the resultant European catastrophe of World War Two and the Holocaust.
In essence, the failure of the 1918 German ‘Revolution’ – from a libertarian left perspective – lay in the fact that it was a merely political, and thus bourgeois, not a social, and thus socialist, revolution. It effected merely constitutional change from Empire to Republic while failing to effect radical democratic and socialist changes in the underlying capitalist socio-economic structure itself. The means of production were not ‘socialised’, i.e. placed under the democratic control of the workers and community. In fact, the November Revolution was even half-hearted as a merely political revolution, failing to radically challenge the interlocking and virulently anti-democratic power of the industrial, judicial, bureaucratic, military and educational elites who were then free to constantly undermine it from within.[xi] Thus saved by Social-Democracy and reconsolidated, and with any, however minimal, popular self-activity, and thus real social alternative, long gone, these ruling classes finally and successfully buried their hated Weimar Republic in 1930-33, i.e. in right-wing de facto dictatorships even before Hitler’s accession to power.
German anarcho-syndicalist Rudolf Rocker’s contemporary (1921) summary of the two failed revolutions of 1917-18 puts the responsibility for the double tragedy on the socialist parties:
In Russia the revolution was buried by the dictatorship, in Germany by the constitution. In both cases socialism was stranded by the power politics of the socialist parties. (…) In both cases the result was the same: the bloody subjection of those without property and the triumph of capitalist reaction.[xii]
Of course this anarchist perspective of, predictably, blaming the ‘power politics of the socialist parties’ – as true as it may be in many respects –, still begs the obvious question of why the overwhelming majority of workers actually supported or, at the very least, let themselves be somehow ‘stranded’ (or ‘betrayed’) by their ‘own’ parties and their ostensibly Machiavellian power politics.
Another contemporary left-wing summary of the reasons for the failure of 1918/19 came to a different conclusion, a historical, psychological and anti-authoritarian one with somewhat of a tradition in Germany [xiii]. In this interpretation, Germany is seen historically as ‘a nation of the servile’ that has to learn to liberate itself through practical struggle and/or social catastrophe. At the end of his Von der Bürgerlichen zur proletarischen Revolution (1924), ex-SPD MP, then active council-communist and Adlerian pedagogue Otto Rühle first speaks harshly of the majority of the German proletariat betraying their militant ‘class brothers’ by blindly following their ‘non-revolutionary’ organisations and their ‘demagogical and self-centred’ leaders.[xiv] Rühle then expresses a ‘deeply shameful and sad’ recognition that this proletariat – despite having itself intimately experienced the terrifying consequences of bourgeois-capitalist politics in four years of ‘wading through an ocean of blood and tears’ during the first world war – had known nothing better to do in the hour of revolution than to once again rescue this very same ‘incredibly brutal, impertinent, arrogant, cultureless’ German bourgeoisie. He expresses a certain understanding for the ‘thousands who thereupon threw in the towel’ in frustration and despair, saying: ‘This nation of slaves cannot be helped!’
However, Rühle then sees this gut reaction as unjustified since in his view this German nation did not deserve activist anger but activist help. It was after all the victim of a system of century-old slavery that had ‘broken and thrashed all inner independence and freedom out of them’, the victim of ‘one big betrayal that their leaders had perpetrated on them again and again’. Ever the pedagogue, Rühle then argues that the proletariat thus now had to ‘go through a terrible school of hunger and slavery’, through a period of heightened capitalist exploitation. Intuiting Germany’s descent into fascism nine years later, he optimistically opines that even if this means the initial ‘release of all the bad instincts and vices of the martyred creature’ in the end the ‘school of plagues’ would become a ‘school of insight and political awakening.’ Thus Rühle’s intense personal despair at the self-defeat of the German revolution in which he had actively participated is transmuted into the not uncommon pedagogical hope that the suffering experienced in yet another social catastrophe, like fascism, will, somehow, finally ‘teach’ insight.
Several other well known German Marxists of the time came to a similar ‘pedagogical’ conclusion. An example is Rosa Luxemburg’s final public speech at the founding of the German Communist Party in Berlin in December 1918, a few weeks before her and Karl Liebknecht’s murder by right-wing Freikorps soldiers acting on behalf of the Social-Democratic government. Here she sanguinely speaks of the German working class’ ‘shame and denial of its socialist responsibilities’ during the four war years being thus almost understandably followed by the November Revolution as ‘three quarters imperialist collapse rather than victory of a new principle’.[xv] Even where soldier and worker councils had come into existence they had had no real consciousness of their revolutionary calling. She speaks of the November Revolution as having been merely political, half-hearted, lacking initiative, and ‘as naïve and unconscious as a child crawling outside without knowing where to.’[xvi] As ever, she pinned her hopes on workers now incrementally learning through their own deeds, through autonomous strike action as well as through the various counter-revolutionary actions and betrayals of their social-democratic leaders. If they failed to do so and realize socialism, however, Luxemburg presciently and correctly foresaw the possibility of a relapse into hyper-imperialist ‘barbarism’, new wars, famine and disease threatening to turn much of the world ‘into a smoking heap of rubble’.[xvii] Now, almost a century later, at the end of another capitalist cycle of accumulation in an era of nuclear weapons and global ecological collapse, her ‘socialism or barbarism’ alternative would again seem to be of great political relevance, this time on a more obvious planetary scale.
On such readings, ultimately, as mentioned above, there seems to be no alternative to concluding that the degree of psychological independence, self-confidence and corresponding political awareness was historically not developed enough to be able to prevent the triumph of counter-revolutionary Social-Democratic party politics. In that sense, indeed, the latter politics, and not that of revolutionary minorities, can be seen as an adequate or truthful expression of the mass consciousness of the time. About twenty years after the event, Rudolf Rocker altered his blame-the-SPD-leaders opinion cited above to one agreeing with Rühle and Luxemburg: there was now no point in blaming them for the failure of the revolution, since the German people themselves were not capable of building a socialist society ‘after all the [authoritarian] education it had enjoyed.’[xviii]
Marxist economist and council-communist Paul Mattick also sees the German Revolution as being mainly an expression of spontaneous working class enthusiasm for ending the war rather than for changing society; in his view the majority of the population did not aspire to a new society but merely to the restoration of a more benign form of liberal capitalism free of militarism and imperialism.[xix] 
As another active Marxist of the era (and one time communist Minister of Justice in the regional government of Thuringia) , Karl Korsch, saw it: the events of November 1918 demonstrated a cultural lag of sorts, a significant gap between objective conditions and subjective awareness; the opportunity of moving to socialism was missed because the psychological preconditions for this transition were in the main lacking; there was ‘no decisive and fervent mass belief in the practical achievability of a socialist economic system combined with a clear knowledge of the next steps to be undertaken.’[xx] Or, again in Otto Rühle’s words:
All the objective preconditions were there. There was only a little thing missing that vulgar orthodox Marxism had never considered: the subjective will, self-confidence, the courage to try something new. But this one small thing was everything.[xxi] 
Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch also speaks of November 1918 as another example –like Germany’s pre-revolutionary 1840s – of ‘a great moment finding a small generation’, of an historical situation in which ‘the objective conditions for a revolution existed but too few subjective factors had turned out to be revolutionary.’[xxii]
Despite the differences – greater extent and development of soviets and factory committees building on the 1905 experience, greater degree of Social-Democratic, i.e. Bolshevik, counter-revolutionary terror, greater worker, sailor and peasant resistance – a similar conclusion can probably be drawn in regard to the Russian working and peasant classes and their ultimate failure to counter the Bolshevik party and state and construct socialist self-management on the basis of their own autonomous and directly democratic organisations.

[i] German bohemian and one-time revolutionary Franz Jung’s autobiography Der Torpedokäfer (pp. 126-129) contains a touching passage describing a non-party political meeting of hundreds of common people in Berlin just after the fall of the old regime in November 1918. The passage is worth quoting at length. – ‘These people who had attended party rallies and mass meetings but never been asked their opinions or spoken before, wanted to know what was actually happening now, what was going on elsewhere behind closed doors, and what was to happen now. On the one hand, they felt something had to come that would change everything, change their daily lives. On the other hand, they had no idea of what and how anything could be changed. They felt that what was loudly happening outside the hall was not what they were vaguely hoping for , that all that was merely politicians arranging things amongst themselves, that if one government fell, it would just be followed by another and then by another…However, when at the end of the meeting Franz Pfemfert, a radical writer and organizer of the meeting, spoke of the need to become self-active and forge one’s own destiny, to de-mask the fake revolution at one’s workplace or in one’s party instead of leaving it all to the political ‘rent boys’ of parliament and the hordes of party leaders and functionaries, the crowd was silent and left in quiet panic”. Jung ends with a summative reflection that might resonate with anyone who has been involved in social struggles and is concerned with the expansion of popular power and thus true democracy: “They were all in the right; I was very impressed. But what should one do? How to articulate and get close to them, so that they may understand themselves, their isolating barriers and their commonalities and the hidden power that is present in each single personbut which cannot become effective as long as it is constantly being buried anew each day.’ (own translation and italics, P. L-N).
[ii] The information in this paragraph is taken from D. Schneider & R. Kuda, Arbeiterräte in der Novemberrevolution, pp. 16-21.
[iii] A. Rosenberg, Geschichte der Weimarer Republik, p. 17.
[iv] Ibid., p. 19.
[v] Brandt-Loewenthal cited in E. Kolb, Die Arbeiterraete in der deutschen Innenpolitik 1918-1919, p. 119.
[vi] D. Schneider & R. Kuda, op.cit., pp. 26-27.
[vii] M. Fulbrook, A Concise History of Germany, p. 157.
[viii] Ibid., p. 159.
[ix] A. Rosenberg, op.cit., p. 99.
[x] M. Fulbrook, op.cit., p. 158.
[xi] Ibid.
[xii] R. Rocker,op.cit., p. 127 (own translation, P. L-N). Rocker of course later also moved away from such convenient external blaming towards a recognition of the internal psycho-historical immaturity of the masses who still ‘expect total salvation from a new government as much as much as the believer expects it from God’s Providence’ (Absolutistische Gedankengänge im Sozialismus, p. 22).
[xiii] Karl Marx’ notes on the psychologically dependent state of the German working class in 1868 neatly mirrors Rühle’s comments (about fifty years later) to a tee: ‘Here [in Germany] where the worker is bureaucratically ordered about from childhood on and who believes in the bureaucracy set before him, here the main task is to teach him to walk on his own two feet.’ (Cited in D. Schneider & R. Kuda, op.cit., p. 42 (own translation and italics, P. L-N).
[xiv] The following summary has been translated by the author from Otto Rühle’s Von der bürgerlichen zur proletarischen Revolution(re-issued in facsimile of the 1924 edition in 1970 by the Berlin Institut für Praxis und Theorie des Rätekommunismus), pp. 74-74.
[xv] R. Luxemburg, Rede zum Programm (December 1918), in S. Hillmann (ed.), Rosa Luxemburg – Schriften, p. 204. (own translation, P. L-N)
[xvi] Ibid., p. 210.
[xvii] From Luxemburg’s pamphlet ‘What Do the Spartacists Want?’ also written in December 1918, which famously and presciently summarized the historical alternative as Sozialismus oder Barbarei (‘socialism or barbarism’). Given capitalism’s course towards global ecocide and imperial Armageddon, and depending of course on how one defines ‘socialism’, Luxemburg’s alternative would still seem to be historically very valid.
[xviii] R. Rocker, Absolutistische Gedankengänge im Sozialismus, p. 45.
[xix] P. Mattick, Otto Rühle und die deutsche Arbeiterbewegung’, op.cit.,pp. 14-15.
[xx] K. Korsch, ‘Grundsätzliches über Sozialisierung’ (1920) cited in Ernst Gerlach’s introduction to K. Korsch, Marxismus und Philosophie (1923), p. 11. (Own translation, P. L-N). Paul Mattick concurs with Korsch’s assessment: ‘Nobody really knew what a socialist society should look like and which steps needed to be undertaken to get there. The slogan of ‘All Power to the Councils!’ – quite effective as a slogan – left the essential questions unanswered.’ (Mattick, Otto Rühle…., p. 14. Own translation, P. L-N).
[xxi] O. Rühle, ‘Brauner und roter Faschismus’ op. cit., p. 15
[xxii] E. Bloch, Das Materialismusproblem, p. 379. (Own translation, P. L-N)

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