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Revolution or Evolution?

During the popular uprising in late 1918, Rosa Luxemburg argued that the power to govern Germany should be held by the newly formed workers’ and soldiers’ councils.  In January 1919, workers rebellions took place in many German cities and towns, and council republics were declared in Bremen and Bavaria. In most cases, the councils cooperated with the existing local administrations to remedy food shortages, restore the rule of law, and accommodate soldiers who were gradually returning home from the war.

Eduard Bernstein disagreed with the call for council rule, arguing that it lacked sufficient working class support.  “All power to the councils” wasn’t an achievable aim in the new Weimar Republic, Bernstein believed, given an economy devastated by four years of war and facing the consequences of military defeat, including the punitive Versailles Treaty.  He favored instead working within the constitutional framework of the Republic to advance the aims of democracy, workers’ rights, and peace.

On November 9, 1918 at 2 PM, when it had become clear that the Kaiser had abdicated, Social Democrat Philipp Scheidmann announced from the balcony of the Reichstag in Berlin that “the people have triumphed,” and that the “German Republic” has been established. Ominously, though, he acknowledged the remaining daunting challenges: “The consequences of the war, need and suffering, will burden us for many years.” (video)

Philipp Scheidmann announces the birth of the Republic from  the balcony of the Reichstag in Berlin.

Two hours after Scheidmann’s pronouncement, Karl Liebknecht, speaking from the Berlin City Palace, proclaimed the inauguration of socialism in Germany and said that “the rule of capitalism, which has turned Europe into a cemetery, is broken.” The conflict between these two visions of the future — the first projecting a more gradual path to a fundamentally better society than the second — would turn out to be irreconcilable, contributing to the fall of the Weimar Republic in 1933.

Karl Liebknecht proclaims “the Free Socialist Republic of Germany” from the Berlin City Palace.

In this photo of a street demonstration in Berlin in 1919, the sign on the left reads: “Alle Macht den A.S. Raten” (“All power to the workers’ and soldiers’ councils”). This was the demand made by those, including Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, who believed that the councils could and should govern the nation.

That a civil war might prove disastrous is the message of Max Pechstein’s poster (1919) showing a baby and the admonition: “Don’t strangle young Freedom through disorder and fratricide. Else your children will go hungry.” The child carries the red banner of revolution and freedom.

Notwithstanding their conviction that the moderate social democrats were betraying the socialist cause, both Luxemburg and Liebknecht opposed the Spartacist League’s revolutionary insurrection in Berlin early in 1919, on the grounds that it was premature and lacked sufficient popular support. Yet they endorsed the uprising when the League, against their counsel, decided to carry it out. The effort was crushed by the social democratic government, through the intervention of police and military forces. The paramilitary Freikorps murdered Liebknecht and Luxemburg in January 1919.  The brutality of the response to the uprising was condemned by many social democrats, including Eduard Bernstein.

Liebknecht had been revered by many as an indefatigable and principled defender of the working class, and Kollwitz represents him as a fallen saint or Christ. In her homage to Liebknecht, Kollwitz emphasizes the grief and profound respect without providing any explicit political message. Although Kollwitz didn’t share all of Liebknecht’s political views, she knew the Liebknecht family personally and was deeply affected by his murder. (One of her own sons had been killed in the war a few years earlier.)

The deaths of Luxemburg and Liebknecht drove an even deeper wedge into the ranks of social democrats:

Revolutionary perspective — If ever humanity had the opportunity to build a truly democratic, classless society, then Germany in December 1918 and January 1919 was such an historical moment.  But that opportunity was squandered when short-sighted, career-seeking politicians allied with the forces of reaction to violently halt the on-going transformation.

Evolutionary perspective — The revolution succeeded!  Taking a peaceful path, we established a constitutional republic, with the possibility of advancing toward democratic socialism.  Had the far left been willing to work with us, we might have achieved that aim. Instead, their refusal to collaborate led to fascism.

The November Revolution and its aftermath influenced the work of many “second generation” German expressionist artists, including Conrad Felixmuller.

Käthe Kollwitz, Memorial for Karl Liebknecht

Conrad Felixmüller, People Above the World
(Liebknecht and Luxemburg), 1919

Unlike Rosa Luxemburg, who advocated “All power to the workers’ and soldiers’ councils,” Eduard Bernstein favored working within the newly constituted Weimar Republic’s institutions, including the Reichstag (parliament), to consolidate and expand the gains of the revolution.  To the right is a commemoration of the revolution held in the Reichstag in 1921. The banner above the archways reads: “Unity and Justice and Freedom.” The Republic had just adopted a new constitution, but the years of hyperinflation were about to begin, exacerbating the problems of economic destitution and political gridlock.

Eduard Bernstein had always been involved in the debates within the German left regarding the best path forward for social democracy, and he remained involved when the disagreements became violent in 1918 and 1919. He joined the new Social Democratic government, but pleaded with the Party’s leaders to reconcile with those further to the left. Listening to Liebknecht speak at a mass rally, he writes that he sensed at once that such calls for radical transformation might increase the likelihood of a counter-revolution. When the Spartacist rebellion occurred in early 1919, he deplored the brute force, authorized by Social Democratic Party leaders, with which it was beaten down. Like many, many others, he mourned the deaths of Liebknecht and Luxemburg.