The Mass Struggles in Germany 1918/23 (Documents)


Two articles by Anton Pannekoek in ‘Arbeiterpolitik’, February 1, 1919 (Vol.4, No. 5)

The outcome of the struggle

The defeat of the communists in Berlin will, for the time being, be of decisive importance for the whole of Germany, perhaps for a long time decisive for socialism in the whole of Europe. Because it means the restoration of the reign of capital, secured by veiled military dictatorship. This may keep Ebert and Scheidemann as puppets for some time to come, as long as it seems necessary to win workers by fraud: but then they will fall. And with it the whole chimera of the “socialist” state, with which millions of proletarians were fooled for two months.

Where do the roots of the defeat of the proletariat lie? The word immaturity says nothing yet. One must know what this immaturity consisted of: for only in this way can the strength for later more successful struggles be won. If we want to summarize everything in a single formula, we can say that the legacy of the old Social Democracy brought about defeat. And the future victory will come only by shaking off this legacy.

Of course: the Social Democratic past is not solely negative. The German workers have brought a deep class consciousness from 50 years of propaganda and training. The fact that everyone knew immediately, as it were, that capital and labor face each other, and that only the overthrow of the reign of capital could bring freedom – something the masses in Russia, for example, had to laboriously learn in the revolution – has given the German Revolution a rapid pace and has caused the workers to immediately and stormily advance everywhere to the farthest positions of power. They immediately knew the goal and the front of the struggle. The fact however, that they allowed themselves to be deceived with regards to the road toward the goal, about the demarcation line, that they partly regarded the agents of capital as leaders and helpers and did not take the right action in the decisive moments, is to be attributed to the forms of struggle and thought which the old social democracy had imprinted on the masses in its time of ossification.

Not much needs to be said about the old majority party. Only limited, petty-bourgeois thinking workers – but there were and still are many – could believe that Ebert and Scheidemann would bring socialism, and that they could have done so if they only wanted to. The truth that socialism and freedom can only be fought for by the workers themselves, where they face capital itself, in the workplaces, in the streets – this truth need not even be emphasized. For the praxis of the action of the “people’s deputies” must open everyone’s eyes to the fact that all their action was directed only against the workers and aimed at the restoration of the old “order” and the old powers. For the proletariat they had fine words, such as socialism, freedom, etc.; but their deeds – and the same applies to the main part of all their followers, the party and trade-union officialdom – characterize them as henchmen of reaction, as devoted servants of capital. Is that strange? Restoration of the old order for them means restoration of the conditions under which they were well and good and played an important role, with the hope of reaching even higher positions. But they could not expect much improvement from a proletarian revolution.

However, it would not be fair to judge the significance of the old social democratic principles for today’s struggles by the deeds of the traitors to these principles. The guardians of the genuine radical social-democratic party tradition are the independents. The independent party still has large masses of workers behind it who sincerely want socialism and reject any compromise with the bourgeoisie. Some, even among the leaders, are revolutionary, speak a revolutionary language, and thus keep the masses under their spell. What was their role? The same as before the war and during the war: they gave radical words as a substitute for radical actions. The old social democracy in its good times always used great radical words: that was its right when it had the sincere intention: we are still weak, but to the extent that we become stronger, our deeds will correspond more to it. But when action had to be taken, the worst legacy remained the words that one did not intend to follow with deeds. The extent to which the habit of the verbal protests had run into the blood of these guys was shown by chance: when during the Ebert-Haase government the Ukrainian revolutionaries complained that the German government let the German soldiers fight against them, the independents replied: we strongly disapprove of this; we vigorously protested against it. So, what more do you want? We have done our duty! And that was also their role during the Berlin struggles, which were decisive for the continuation of the revolution. By their verbal radicalism, they kept large masses of Berlin workers chained to themselves first, and then kept them from fighting.

If the Spartacus League had freed itself much earlier from fellowship with the Independents, the course of events might have been different. Then the smaller but reliable troop would not have been so quickly pushed into a decisive struggle. Now, of course, it exerted its influence on the whole radical Berlin working class; but it did not have the latter entirely for itself. This was already evident in the swaying of the revolutionary Obleute of the enterprises as to whether they should go along with the communists in the separation; the old devotion to the Independents held them tight. Now as the reaction advanced and wanted to eliminate Eichhorn, the masses acted in his defense, the Independents called for struggle, and the Communists entered the front ranks. But then the Independents immediately entered into negotiations with the government; they believed they were weakening Ebert, but the only effect was that they made their own masses dull, while Ebert let the reactionary units come with guns [artillery]. They raised the call for an “end to fratricide,” as if the class struggle between reactionary soldiers and revolutionary workers was a fratricidal quarrel, paralyzing the workers’ action; fearing the struggle, they pulled their masses out of the struggle and let the Communists bleed to death. And when Ebert had won, a “storm of protest” appeared in the “Freiheit”, a ridiculous series of resolutions by workers’ groups demanding Ebert’s resignation – as if he, as if the victorious reaction would give way to the powerless words of those who had let the fighters down and thus caused the defeat! As if the world is moved by words and not by deeds, by the devotion of the whole person!

Where does this fickleness come from, this wanting-and-not-able, this conflict between word radicalism and fear of action? Because the Independents, as the guardians of a theory that is no longer up to date, often want to be revolutionary, but with their insight and their knowledge they are essentially the same as the social patriots, therefore they always take these hard-boiled reactionaries as lost brothers and want to go together with them. Therefore also they shy away from those deeds that are now necessary, because they do not fit to their old theory. The pre-war social-democratic lessons have now become the worst obstacle to proletarian revolution. Only those who overcome them can be a firm fighter for the new world. Nothing is therefore more necessary than to persistently bring enlightenment about the essence of communism and its difference against the social democratic point of view. Then the workers will understand the lessons that are poured upon them from the praxis of these decisive times.

K[arl]. Horner (Anton Pannekoek), February 1st, 1919
Source: K. Horner, Der Ausgang des Kampfes, Arbeiterpolitik, 4th Vol. (1919), No.5, February 1. p.342-343. Facsimile pdf available at: (7.6 MB)
German Transcription: F.C., November 2018. Translation: H.C., November 27, 2018

International Communism

Communism is spreading throughout Europe, consciously leading the class struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat in order to establish the proletarian dictatorship. Not in all countries has the struggle thrived to the same height of development and thus to the same degree of inner clarity. In the most backward countries, it is only just showing itself as a spontaneous rebellion against the bourgeoisie and the old social democracy, without progressing to a new view. In the most advanced countries it has led to a new spiritual orientation, to a new way of looking at things, which we call communism. But everywhere the new direction finds the whole bourgeois world, including the previous social democracy, against itself.

The center and stronghold of communism and proletarian revolution is the Russian Republic. Spontaneously growing up from practical necessity, here the forms were created that determine the essence of communism and serve as models for the workers of other countries: the forms of proletarian class rule in contradiction to the formal bourgeois democracy to which social democracy everywhere adhered to. The bourgeoisie could not object much to the exploitation of formal democracy by the workers in the earlier period, nor could it do much against this: it also showed not to be directly dangerous. But against the establishment of the class rule of the proletariat, against the proletarian dictatorship, it must defend itself by all means, for this is directed against its existence as an exploiting class. Hence the constant struggle by all means against Bolshevik Russia. First, German imperialism cut off the best areas of food and raw materials from it. On all sides it was surrounded by enemy border states. Then the Entente imperialism took action as its most stubborn and powerful enemy. It incited the Czechoslovakians in the Urals, sent them weapons and auxiliary detachments, and pressed forward from the north, from the Arctic Ocean. But it sought to destroy the Soviet republic in a different way as well, by means of conspiracy. In the Geneva newspaper “La Nouvelle Internationale” of 23 November, a letter by Mr. Marchand is printed, a correspondent of “Figaro” and a patriot without Bolshevik sympathies, [which he] addressed to President Poincaré on 4 September; there the author describes with indignation the conspiracy of the Entente consuls in Petrograd, at which he was present, and that aimed at causing an artificial famine and thereby a rebellion, by blowing up the railway bridges in Petrograd. This conspiracy has also been brought to light by the Soviet government and it sheds light on the means that the Entente imperialism considers permissible in the struggle against communism.

With the collapse of German imperialism, the Entente governments got their hands free in the East. They sent the Balkan army to Odessa and Bessarabia and a fleet to Estonia. It seemed that a large military expedition should attack Russia from all sides. Afterwards apparently doubts have come. On the one hand, the matter was probably not so easy militarily: sending a large army into the endless steppes to force a population of fifty million who liberated themselves back into the old subjugation has great difficulties.

And then, in England and France, an ever greater unwillingness among the masses showed itself against having themselves be used for such a war. This greatly paralyzes a direct war of aggression. This does not mean that Entente capital gives up its intentions and wants to leave Russian communism undisturbed. It persists in its intention to weaken it as much as possible. It supports the troops in the enemy border zones, the Cossacks, the Ukrainians, the Finns, the Czechoslovakians, the reactionary Russian generals, by making available to them officers and above all guns and war material – which has now been released on a massive scale; and it also tries to form armies against the Soviet government out of the hundreds of thousands of Russian prisoners of war, who are now being transported back from Germany under its supervision. At the same time the English government – according to its proposal in Paris – wants to cunningly weaken the moral power of the Soviet government by inviting to a compromise and a restoration of bourgeois democracy, in order to demonstrate the infamy of Bolshevism to its own workers at the hand of the rejection of this impertinence.

While communism is still asserting itself strongly in Russia, it is spreading further and further in the defeated central European states. In Germany, the struggles so far have brought an outward defeat which proves that communism has not yet generally taken hold of all the working masses; but they have caused the core of the proletariat now to clearly see the contradictory character of communism and social democracy. In Hungary and Austria, communism is spreading more and more among the workers; terrible unemployment and food shortages are driving them into opposition to the governments formed by social democrats.

But what about the Entente countries themselves? We are immune to Bolshevism, a French politician declared, by our victory; Bolshevism is a disease of defeated people. To a certain degree he was right. First of all, defeat in war increases the misery of war to the highest degree, and then a defeated government is so weakened that it can easily be overthrown. In the Entente countries the symptoms are therefore different and the movement is necessarily backward and less conscious. The English proletarians are not yet massively for communism, but they are also not willing to fight against communism. They were willing to go to war against German imperialism, against “Kaiserism”; but now they are stormily pressing for demobilization. Thus they paralyze the government to a great extent in the struggle against foreign communism. That is the main reason why a stronger action against Russia – and in the future against Germany – cannot be taken.

But besides there is no doubt that communism itself is gaining ground even in these countries. We learn little about it, because the strictest censorship still controls correspondence and newspapers. But the very fact that this censorship is still so strictly applied proves how much the governments there fear the intrusion of Bolshevik ideas and truthful news from Russia. From the time of the English parliamentary elections there was an account of a meeting in London where Muir of the Gas Workers Union defended Bolshevism; similar events may have occurred elsewhere; and in Glasgow Maclean, a communist thoroughly educated by Marxism who led shipyard strikes during the war and was arrested for many years, received a large number of votes. In England, the communist movement leans on the spontaneous strike movement, that already flared up in the working masses in the years before the war, against the will of the big trade unions; it does not find itself confronted with a significant and congealed socialist movement, but rather with an old, rusty trade union movement that is exercised for practical reasons, but has no spiritual power over the minds because it has no spiritual content of its own.

In France too, censorship seeks to prevent the intrusion of Bolshevism and the leakage of news to the outside world. But this is not entirely successful. A Dutch newspaper (“N. Rotterdamer”) recently reported from Paris on 15 January:

“Last Sunday, the socialist League of the Seine Department (of Paris) had called for a large meeting to discuss demobilization, the most burning and difficult issues of the moment in France. The meeting had hardly been opened by the deputy Aubriot, when it became clear that the revolutionary spirit completely dominated the meeting and that the majority socialists Albert Thomas, Renaudel, Bracke were considered there just as the Spartacus people in Germany regarded Ebert and Scheidemann. Albert Thomas had even preferred to stay away. The deputy Bracke was constantly interrupted by shouts during his speech: Long live Lenin, Long live Trotsky, Long live Liebknecht.

The deputy Laval was heard at first; but when he emboldened himself by saying that French democracy would be insulted if it was believed to be prone to Bolshevism, fierce protests broke out from the assembly and the International was sung out loud. The deputy Renaudel could not take the word at all, so violently he was screamed down at his first appearance. He disappeared after some futile attempts to take the word. Then comrade Pericat tries the same, but each of his words is greeted by the same call of the assembly: Long live Lenin, Long live Trotsky, Long live Liebknecht. The chairman had long since left the presidium’s table and no longer considered necessary to officially close the meeting.”

This shows how the acts of communism in Russia and Germany already find their echo by the Parisian workers. It shows the mood of sympathy, under the influence of the own dissatisfaction against their government – admittedly also not much more. We do not need to have illusions that a revolution in the Entente countries is near. But this mood does effectuate that the governments are incapable of putting down the revolution in other countries. And if the revolution continues in Central Europe, then a new and enormous driving force will act from there on the countries of the victors.

K[arl]. Horner (Anton Pannekoek), February 1st, 1919
Source: K. Horner, Der internationale Kommunismus, Arbeiterpolitik, 4th Vol. (1919), No.5, February 1. p.344-346. Facsimile pdf available at: (7.6 MB)
German Transcription: F.C., November 2018. Translation: H.C., December 27, 2018

Next page:

  • A Letter from Comrade Pannekoek (‘Der Kommunist’, KAPD, July 1920)