What giant park in a capitalist city contains two memorials to two assassinated revolutionaries? It is certainly not Central Park or anywhere in the U.S. Along the Landwehr Canal in the Tiergarten in Berlin is a memorial to Rosa Luxemburg, at the spot where she had her arms tied behind her back, a rope put around her neck, where she was shot and then dropped into the canal. A few hundred yards north is a memorial to Karl Liebknecht, shot there by another group of soldiers under orders of the ‘socialist’ Social Democratic Party (“SDP”) in 1919. They were only the most prominent of many German revolutionaries murdered or killed in the 1918-1919 November Revolution, which ended the creaking Hohenzollern monarchy, but failed to establish a workers’ council republic. Essentially, a February revolution without October. Kerensky, not Lenin.
The ‘socialist’ SDP majority were the same ones who in August 1914 endorsed the German instigation of World War I, which split the Marxists in Germany, and led to four years of crushing death and misery for the German working classes and others across Europe.
Of all the ‘what ifs’ in history, this failure led to the most drastic consequences – the subsequent rise of the Nazi Party and World War II. Any failure of the Left emboldens the right, and when it involves the “Left” splitting and attacking each other, it increases the culpability of the wrong party. A successful German revolution could have lead to stronger working-class uprisings all over Europe and possibly prevented the rise of Stalinism in the USSR. The Hungarian Soviet in 1919 and the workers councils in Italy in 1920 were part of this same movement.
The present ‘American SDP’ is called the Democratic Socialists of America (“DSA”), who should really be called the Democratic Capitalists of America (“DCA”), in tribute to their now 88 years of blocking with the capitalist class. Congratulations, DCA! DCA members are found in the various commentariat magazines like “In These Times,” “Mother Jones”, “The Nation,” “Salon.com,” in the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, in various activist groups and in the staffs of some trade unions. They play an essential role in policing the Left and providing a transmission belt for reformist ideas to penetrate various rebellious movements. At the same time, they parade as ‘friends’ of the movements, which as Malcolm X pointed out, is sometimes more dangerous than open enemies.
This book is comprised of primary sources – anarchist, Marxist and blends of the two. It puts you in the streets with the rebellious red sailors of northern Germany, who had seized the German fleet in the Baltic, occupying the towns of Wilhelmshaven, Kiel & Bremen; with the council communists of Brunswick and Munich/Bavaria; at the seizure of the SDP paper’s building in Berlin; following the repression against the so-called Spartacist rising in January 1919 in Berlin, seeing the development of the Ruhr Red Army, based on a general strike and the factory councils in the industrial Ruhr valley; and with armed KDP militias in Vogtland near the Czech border which operated on and off into 1921.
We learn that the KDP (Communist Party, former Spartacus League) sabotaged a united declaration of the Bavarian Council Republic, and played a sectarian role at times. We learn that some of the anarchists supported federalism, and had no centralized, coordinated response to the national counter-revolutionary activities of the SDP and the German military staff. We learn of the “Red Stewards’ – working class radicals active in the factories that opposed the slaughter of World War I, and who drew close to the Spartacus League. We learn that the revolutionaries banned SDP and trade union bureaucrats from the councils in places. We learn of the revolutionary Germans’ support for Lenin & Trotsky in the concurrent civil war against the White armies in Russia. We see the hesitations, confusion, half-hearted measures, delays and misplaced trust of a revolutionary process extending over 6 months, involving soldiers and sailors, peasants, workers, the petty-bourgeoisie and the bourgeoisie, and layers of each class and group, and their political parties.
The main political issue was choosing a council republic, involving mass, democratically-elected workers, farmers and other strata, or a parliamentary system based on occasional voting, dominated by inflexible Party structures, the bourgeois press and money. For awhile, the two systems existed side by side in Germany as a kind of dual power, but the trajectory of the revolution went towards the conventional, with the help of a lot of killing by the Freicorps and White Guards. As Luxemburg noted, the elected legislature had been the form of power the bourgeois class chose in its fight with the feudal aristocracy. The SDP leadership chose the former, the revolutionaries across the board – even some SDP rank and file – chose giving power to the councils, a new form of mostly working-class power. As many writers noted, including Luxemburg, councils are the natural outgrowth of revolutionary situations, when the population itself gets involved in politics, not leaving it to others or occasional voting.
Bourgeois democracy in many countries, including Spain and the U.S., is at a new low, dominated by corporate money, bought-off representatives, a sclerotic Party system and a corporate media with no interest in any issues but the horse race. U.S. congressional and presidential politics essentially have little to do with real democracy. The German example of a council government, based on workplaces and geography, shows the ‘way forward’ to a democracy of the majority. “This” is what democracy actually looks like.
And I bought it at the Anarchist Book Fair – but it should also be available at May Day Books.
October 3, 2012