January 1919: The Spartakist Uprising

By Dave Stockton

One hundred years ago, on the night of 15 January, 1919, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht were brutally murdered by right-wing soldiers. Rosa’s lifelong comrade and co-leader of the newly born German Communist Party, Leo Jogiches, was murdered by the same forces on March 10, having just publicised the manner of his comrades’ deaths. 

They were victims of a bloody repression visited on revolutionary Berlin workers by a government headed by leaders of the Social Democratic Party of Germany, the SPD, Friedrich Ebert and Philipp Scheidemann. The units of counterrevolutionary soldiers, the Freikorps, were working under the direct command of war minister Gustav Noske, also a social democrat, who, on taking up his post famously commented, “Someone has to be the bloodhound”.

The repression was the final act of a provocation launched by the counterrevolution, which prompted a largely unorganised takeover of buildings by lightly armed workers and soldiers and then their crushing by regular military forces using artillery and tanks. The “uprising” which had started on January 5 was crushed on 9-11. 

Luxemburg and Liebknecht had been major figures within the SPD for nearly twenty years; Rosa as one of its foremost theoreticians, journalists and public speakers.  Karl, the son of one of the SPD’s two founders, Wilhelm Liebknecht, was the founder of its youth movement and a courageous opponent of the approaching imperialist war. He was not so much a theoretician as a tireless agitator who, according to Luxemburg, lived in a perpetual whirl of activity, speeches and meetings. 

After the SPD capitulated to patriotism by voting for war credits on August 4, 1914, Rosa Luxemburg, Clara Zetkin, Karl Liebknecht, Leo Jogiches, Julian Marchlewski and the veteran Franz Mehring, formed an opposition to the war and the SPD’s betrayal. They were joined by a younger generation of leaders, Ernst Meyer, Paul Levi, Hugo Eberlein, Kate and Herman Duncker, Wilhelm Pieck, Eugen Leviné, and others. They formed a group that was first called the International Group and later the Spartakusbund. 

A much larger force,  the Independent Social Democratic Party of Germany, USPD,  was formed when the SPD leaders expelled deputies for voting against or abstaining on war credits and calling for peace negotiations. Despite persecution by the SPD majority, the new party’s membership rapidly grew to about 120,000. Many of the Berlin shop stewards who had led strikes in 1916 and 1918 against the war, and later the soldier and sailor mutineers who sparked the November Revolution, rallied to the party. Karl Kautsky and Eduard Bernstein joined it, too.  Its left wing was led by Georg Ledebour. The USPD leadership was generally considerably to the right of its members. 

From prison, Rosa and Karl advised the Spartacusbund to remain in the USPD to try to win it to revolutionary politics and away from its pacifist positions. It did not even occur to them to create a leadership abroad as the Russian social democrats had always done. Thus, Rosa found herself in the Barnimstrasse Women’s Prison and then the Wronke fortress for most of the war years. She could smuggle out her flaming appeals, such as the Junius Pamphlet, that famously proclaimed German Social Democracy a “stinking corpse”, but she could not crystalise a leadership of a new party to replace it, nor link it to an underground organisation. However, Leo Jogiches performed heroic work in networking and creating illegal links for producing the pamphlets and journals of the Spartacusbund.

By November 1918, Germany, like Russia in 1917, was in the throes of revolution. Germany had plainly lost the war and its urban population was near starvation as a result of the British naval blockade. Already, waves of strikes in 1916 and early 1918 had swept the country where the call for bread had linked with the demands for an end to the war. Revolution, when it came, was triggered by a mutiny of the sailors of the North Sea fleet. Soon workers’ and soldiers’ councils, Räte, began to be formed across Germany, modeled on the soviets of the 1905 and 1917 Russian revolutions. 

The Army High Command, terrified of repeating the Russian experience and desperate to prevent the army disintegrating completely, called on the civilian government of Prince Max von Baden to sue for an armistice to the Allies, particularly the American President Woodrow Wilson. They unceremoniously pressured the Kaiser to abdicate and encouraged the main mass working class party, the Majority SPD to form the government with Friedrich Ebert as its head. 

Liebknecht and Luxembourg, released from prison in late October and early November respectively, threw themselves into the fight for a socialist revolution to rid Germany of the warmongering generals and profiteering capitalists who had led the country into the terrible carnage of the First World War. They advocated a republic of workers’ councils like Russia. 

On November 9, mass demonstrations in Berlin led to the proclamation of a republic and the formation of a six-person Council of People’s Deputies, led by Friedrich Ebert. After some hesitation, the USPD decided to take up three of the posts. Ebert was working closely with the High Command which was politically cunning enough to see in the SPD the essential weapon need to avoid a socialist revolution. Ebert obligingly assured them that he “hated the revolution like sin”. 

At the same time, he offered Liebknecht a place on the Council. Clearly his objective was to compromise and tie the hands of the left by assuming office in what was in terms of its function a bourgeois government. Karl refused. Nevertheless, millions of workers and soldiers thought the new government and the SPD were the leadership of the revolution. 

The first workers’ and soldiers’ councils were led by revolutionary soldiers, sailors and workers’ shop stewards, Obleute. But as the Räte spread across Germany it became clear that the SPD was winning a large majority in them. Finally, when a congress of councils assembled in the Circus Busch in Berlin on December 16, Luxemburg and Liebknecht did not get delegacies. Out of the 489 delegates, the SPD Majority had 288 delegates and the USPD 90, of whom only 10 were from the Spartacusbund. 

The SPD majority voted for the convocation of a constituent assembly in early January. Ebert and Scheidemann made it clear that the Räte were temporary bodies and that a parliamentary regime was what they were after, and as as soon as possible. Meanwhile, Ebert affirmed the legitimacy of the Army High Command and asked them to send reliable units to Berlin and other revolutionary centres to ensure or restore “order”.

Of course, the Russian revolution had also started in this way but there were critical differences. After the ”spontaneous” February Revolution, the first soviets had a big Menshevik majority, who promptly handed the government over to the bourgeois politicians of the Provisional government. In Russia, however, during the February mass uprising, the officer corps had effectively lost control over the army units to soldiers’ committees. As a result, the soviets, especially the Petrograd Soviet, exercised more power than the government, a situation that became known as “dual power”. 

Alhough the Bolsheviks were in a minority in the soviets, they were a substantial one and they represented an experienced and disciplined party, rooted in the factories and barracks, whose programme and tactics went back to 1903, and whose existence as a fully independent party went back to 1912. In these years of preparation, they developed an illegal underground apparatus as well as legal organisations and mass publications. 

Moreover, in April 1917, they adopted Lenin’s April Theses, in effect a new action programme for transforming the bourgeois democratic revolution against Tsarism into a workers’ revolution against capital. Under Lenin, soon to be joined by Trotsky, they patiently but aggressively carried out agitation around the slogans of ending the war, feeding the hungry masses and distributing the landlords’ estates to the peasants, the famous, Peace! Bread! Land! They combined this with slogans to pass all power to the soviets and throw out the capitalist minsters from the Provisional government. 

On this basis, the Bolsheviks were able to win a majority in the Soviets by the end of August and take the lead in defeating a counterrevolutionary coup d’etat. As a direct result of deploying these tactics they were able to overthrow the government in an insurrection supported by the mass of workers and soldiers on October 25 (November 7 according to the modern calendar).

True, rank and file radical workers and sailors, led by Bolsheviks and anarchists, had attempted to overthrow the provisional government in the July Days of 1917. The Bolshevik leadership, after hesitation, supported the armed demonstrations underway but opposed the attempt to overthrow the government whilst it still had the support of a majority in the soviets. The Bolsheviks were subjected to government repression and Lenin had to go into hiding until the very eve of the October Insurrection.

In hindsight, we can see that Luxemburg and Liebknecht should have launched the sort of factional struggle Lenin waged in the Russian Social Democracy and which in 1912 led to the final emergence of Bolshevism as a party free of opportunism and compromise with the right. This meant that Bolsheviks were free to build up support in the working class for consistent revolutionary policies and to do so by combining legal and illegal means.

Luxemburg understood the importance of a revolutionary party, but her views of it fell short of the kind of combat party the Bolsheviks were building. Faced with the increasingly bureaucratised SPD she stressed instead the importance of the spontaneous activity of the working class, of its capacity for forcing the pace in a revolutionary period, as against the critical role of party leadership as strategist and tactician in the revolutionary struggle.

The new German Communist Party, KPD, was formed around the nucleus of the Spartakusbund and the International Communists in a conference held from December 30, 1918, to January 1, 1919. Before it had time to consolidate itself and launch a renewed challenge to the social democratic traitors, it was faced by the test of fire in a revolutionary uprising it had not planned. 

Ebert and the High Command had been putting together a reactionary armed force made up of loyal troops and the Freikorps, a militia of volunteer soldiers, some of whom had been involved in fighting the Bolsheviks in the Baltic. Late December saw a premature attempt by the military to disarm the revolutionary sailors and dissolve the armed workers’ organisations but this failed in the face of huge mass demonstrations of protest. In the midst of this crisis, the USPD members of the Council of People’s deputies resigned. 

The next provocation was the attempted removal of the left wing USPD police chief in Berlin, Emil Eichhorn. He refused to quit his post. Again, mass mobilisations flooded the streets. This convinced a number of revolutionary workers’ leaders, amongst them Karl Liebknecht, that it was necessary to overthrow the Ebert government in order to stop Noske’s Freikorps taking over Berlin. The demonstration’s sheer size, 500,000 and the accompanying general strike, convinced them that the masses were ready for action. 

An Interim Revolutionary Committee of 53 members was formed with USPD lefts, and Revolutionary Shop Stewards on it. Liebknecht, who was also a member, along with Georg Ledebour, argued that the time was ripe to overthrow Ebert.  They issued  a proclamation, declaring Ebert and the government deposed. Groups of revolutionary workers and soldiers had already occupied the building of the SPD daily, Vorwärts.

Luxemburg, however, was not convinced that the revolutionary forces were either strong or well organised enough as yet for such a decisive confrontation. Moreover, when the KPD central committee met, it rejected the call and indeed ordered Liebknecht to leave the Committee which in any case was in confusion. From this moment on, everything began to go wrong. The Revolutionary Shop Stewards, who had called the mass demonstrations, refused to support an “uprising” to remove Ebert. So, too, did the only revolutionary military force in Berlin, the People’s Marine Division, sailors from the Baltic fleet who had started the November Revolution. They declared their neutrality.

Ebert and Noske now pounced. From the 6-11 January, the revolutionary occupiers came under a full-scale attack from the Freikorps in which 156 ‘Spartakists’ were killed, some as they tried to surrender under a white flag of truce, others as they threw up makeshift barricades to protect the workers’ quarters on the eastern side of the city. 

Although the KPD central committee had not authorised the “uprising”, Rosa concluded that the communists had no alternative but to place themselves on the side of the insurrection, even though it was certain to fail. The small and ill-organised KPD was unable to do what Lenin and the Bolsheviks had been able to do in the July Days of 1917; to effect a retreat in good order that preserved the party, its morale and its leaders’ lives. 

Nevertheless, during their final few days, Rosa and Karl’s brilliant articles for the KPD daily Rote Fahne concentrated on the need for decisive action. Those who see a contradiction between her opposition to setting the goal of overthrowing Ebert at this conjuncture and her reported reproof to Liebknecht, “But Karl how could you, and what about our programme?” fail to understand her revolutionary method. To attempt to seize power at this conjuncture was a serious mistake, indeed an adventure, she thought. Events were to prove her right on this score. But resistance, even aramed resistance, to Ebert and Co’s attack on the revolutionary working class was justified and necessary. As can be seen in the article in Rote Fahne published on January 7, she was far from counseling retreat once battle had been joined. Indeed she sharply condemned those in the USPD who were trying to negotiate with Ebert. She talked of,

“….spineless elements [are] already industriously at work paving the way for ‘negotiations’, bringing about compromises, throwing a bridge across the abyss which has opened up between the masses of workers and soldiers and the Ebert government, inducing the revolution to make a ‘compromise’ with its mortal enemies.

“Now there is no time to lose. Sweeping measures must be undertaken immediately. Clear and speedy directives must be given to the masses, to the soldiers faithful to the revolution. Their energy, their bellicosity, must be directed towards the right goals. The wavering elements among the troops can be won for the sacred cause of the people by means of resolute and clear actions taken by the revolutionary bodies.

Act! Act! Courageously, resolutely, consistently – that is the ‘accursed’ duty and obligation of the revolutionary chairmen and the sincerely socialist party leaders. Disarm the counter-revolution, arm the masses, occupy all positions of power. Act quickly! The revolution obliges. Its hours count as months, its days as years, in world history. Let the organs of the revolution be aware of their high obligations !”

As Noske unleashed his dogs of war, the Freikorps, to indulge in a bloody frenzy against the left. Rosa wrote her last article, “Order Reigns in Berlin”.

“Was the ultimate victory of the revolutionary proletariat to be expected in this conflict? Could we have expected the overthrow of Ebert-Scheidemann and the establishment of a socialist dictatorship? Certainly not, if we carefully consider all the variables that weigh upon the question.”

She acknowledged the revolutionary immaturity of the mass of the soldiers, the countryside the lack of coordination of the revolutionary centres across the country, that  “they still do not march forward in lockstep with one another, there is still no unity of action, which would make the forward thrust and fighting will of the Berlin working class incomparably more effective”.

Nevertheless she asks and answers the vital question:

“Does that mean that the past week’s struggle was an ‘error’? The answer is yes if we were talking about a premeditated ‘raid’ or ‘putsch’. But what triggered this week of combat? As in all previous cases, such as December 6 and December 24, it was a brutal provocation by the government.

“The revolution’s enemies can also take the initiative, and indeed as a rule they exercise it more frequently than does the revolution. Faced with the brazen provocation by Ebert-Scheidemann, the revolutionary workers were forced to take up arms.”

This analysis spells out the reasons for the defeat but also her belief in final victory. It shows how the “Order” boasted of by the treacherous social democratic leaders will be short lived:

“Order reigns in Berlin! You stupid lackeys! Your order is built on sand. Tomorrow the revolution will rear its head once again and to your horror will proclaim, with trumpets blazing: ‘I was, I am, I will be!’”

Luxemburg’s last struggle, like the whole of her life, is an inspiration. Her memory has been trampled on by her opponents and misrepresented by her supposed supporters as a weapon against Bolshevism. As for Liebknecht, despite his tactical mistakes in 1919 he, too, remains an example of revolutionary will and courage.    

Trotsky summed up the significance of  the two shortly after the news of their murder reached him:

He talked of the, “valour of determination, that heroism of action which makes the figure of Liebknecht unforgettable to the world proletariat. And at his side stands Rosa, a warrior of the world proletariat equal to him in spirit. Their tragic death at their combat positions couples their names with a special, eternally unbreakable link. Henceforth they will be always named together: Karl and Rosa, Liebknecht and Luxemburg!”