German Revolution ends horror of war

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liebknecht.jpgWhat passing-bells for those who die as cattle?
         Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
         Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.

 
Wilfred Owen, Anthem for Doomed Youth

On the eleventh hour on the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918, the armistice took effect on the Western front. One year after the victory of the Russian Revolution, the German proletariat had entered the scene of world history and brought an end to "the Great War". Austria-Hungary soon followed suit and the "old regime" had collapsed.

Capitalism had reached an impasse in the early 20th century. The major powers were dominated by inter-imperialist conflicts between themselves and class struggle at home. The revolution of 1905 had not only shaken Tsarist Russia but strike waves in Germany and France had also rattled the previous peaceful climate. Economic stagnation in 1907-9 caused a temporary respite to the struggle but in 1910, the German workers were once again mobilising and the British workers followed them in striking in 1912, involving a million workers in both countries, the pre-war peak.

The struggles were not only economic: massive demonstrations of tens of thousands of workers were held against a war between the great powers and the mood that developed over the suffrage struggle in Prussia in 1910 was such that the leadership of the nominally Marxist German Social Democratic Party felt compelled to attempt to rein in the party membership. The period was one of increased radicalisation.

World War I and the working class

World War I, a conflict between the great imperialist powers, cut across this wave of radicalisation.  Strike figures dropped significantly in the period 1914-1916. Black reaction was the prevailing mood in Europe. The leaders of the socialist international had capitulated to the bourgeoisie and voted for the war, with the exception of Russia and Serbia. The participants of the anti-war Zimmerwald conference of 1915, held in Switzerland, could, as they joked, be transported in two coaches.

The outbreak of the war had caused a temporary outbreak of national chauvinism and, even though it quickly dissipated when the horrors of trench warfare became apparent, the mood of the working class was initially one of shock rather than anger. Yet this was no longer the case in 1916.

The Spartacists, a left faction within the German Social Democratic Party, had been conducting agitation in the factories against the war and 10,000 workers came out in May against the war. When Karl Liebknecht, the leader of the Spartacists, was imprisoned, 50,000 went on strike. In November 30,000 workers demonstrated in Frankfurt. The situation had changed.

In 1917, strikes and mobilisations picked up all over Europe. Germany, France and Britain all experienced serious strike waves in 1917. The working class was growing tired of the war and inflation was taking off. Furthermore food was rationed and hunger riots became commonplace. In Germany, which was worst affected, the rations had fallen to 1,100 calories per day (3,000 was recommended by a German war-planning commission). The war had reached a stalemate on both the Eastern and Western front and anger was seething.

Sick of War

The workers of Europe were sick of the war. In Berlin and Leipzig 200,000 workers struck in April and in Paris 250,000 workers struck in December. In 1918, 1 million workers struck in Britain. In Austria-Hungary a general strike mobilised 700,000 in January and half the war fleet mutinied the following month. The predatory treaty of Brest-Litovsk that had been forced upon the Bolsheviks after the Russian Revolution caused 1,000,000 German workers to down their tools. Europe was in flames.

Army morale was severely affected by this collapse of "the home front". The soldiers had lost their will to fight but letters from home, even though they were heavily censored, exposed the horrific situation in Germany. The commanders of the German army attempted a few last, desperate gambles.

In the summer of 1918, reinforcements from the Russian front had arrived and the German high command was attempting to achieve a decisive victory before U.S. troops landed in France. It turned out to be the straw that broke the camel's back. The previously reasonably disciplined German army fell to pieces and mass-desertions took place. It is estimated that up to one million soldiers decided to turn their back on the war and return home.

The high command became increasingly desperate. The high sea fleet that, for good reason, had been left in the ports since 1916 was ordered to sail on 28 October. The sailors refused to sail, took control of the city and set up a council, all on 3 November. They were joined by workers and soldiers in Hamburg, Bremen and Lübeck on 6 November and by Dresden, Leipzig, Chemnitz, Magdeburg, Brunswick, Frankfurt, Cologne, Stuttgart and Nuremberg on 7 and 8 November.

On the ninth, Berlin fell to the soldiers and workers who set up their council in the headquarters of the high command! On 10 November a joint meeting of the Berlin workers' and soldiers' councils appointed a new government of People's Commissars consisting of Social Democrats of various shades. The German Revolution had begun.

The German High Command now had to beg the allies for mercy. Their desperate gamble had failed and the unconditional armistice, previously rejected, was now signed. Lloyd George, Clemenceau and Wilson, all facing troubles at home were not inclined to be merciful. The allies retained the naval blockade as a means to be able to impose a draconian peace on the new German government.

Fear of revolution

If the German high command was panic-stricken, the British and French were fearful. Reports of acts of disobedience were streaming in to the commanders of the British and French forces.

In effect, the allies were keeping the German population on the brink of starvation. Before the war, Germany had imported something like 20% of its food. Partly due to incompetence and partly due to necessity, domestic production had also fallen dramatically during the war. The result was dire for the German population. The question that the generals and politicians asked themselves was how long French and British soldiers would let their German brothers and sisters starve.

German gold

The leaders of the allies had their eyes set on German gold reserves and capital. If Germany was allowed to import, it would inevitably pay with its gold reserves. That would mean less gold left to pay war damages. France, in particular, was keen on seeing these reserves handed over to the allies and opposed most strenuously the lifting of the blockade.

In a telling episode during the negotiations, retold ten years later by Keynes, the famous economist, Lloyd George got up and attacked the French Minister for Finance, Klotz. Lloyd George proclaimed that, unless Clemenceau put a halt to the obstruction, 'M. Klotz would rank with Lenin and Trotsky among those who spread Bolshevism to Europe.' According to Keynes Lloyd George argued that, 'as long as order was maintained in Germany, a breakwater would exist between the countries of the Allies and the waters of revolution beyond. Once that breakwater was swept away, he could not speak for France, but he trembled for his own country.'

The most far-sighted of the bourgeoisie in Britain and France saw the danger that revolution in Russia posed. Now Germany was also under threat and, unless checked, revolution could spread all the way to France and Britain. Yet at the same time, both the French and the British governments were highly indebted after the war and did not want to impose the repayments on their own working classes for fear of the effects.

In 1917, the Russian proletariat inscribed their name in the history books as the first successful workers' revolution and in November 1918 the German proletariat followed suit. The bourgeoisie of Western Europe were desperate to keep revolution from affecting France and Britain but they were divided as to how. In the end they opted to attempt to stabilise the German government and lift the blockade. That did not spell the end of the German revolution and it was to continue for another six years.

In future issues of Socialist Appeal we will continue the story of the German Revolution.

Educate Yourself

  • Educate Yourself
  • The Fundamentals of Marxism
  • Dialectical Materialism and Science
  • Historical Materialism
  • Marxist Economics
  • The State
  • Russia, Lenin, Trotsky and Stalinism
  • Anarchism
  • Feminism
  • Fascism
  • The National Question
  • Revolutionary Strategy
  • Revolutionary History

Socialist Appeal are proud to publish this basic guide to help focus your studies of Marxist theory and practice. Visit the various tabs to find links to introductory articles, classic texts, and audio talks for different topics. We also invite our readers to become acquainted with the more basic ideas of Marxism by starting with the recommended short reading list, going through the FAQ section, reading this article that combats the myths about Marxism, and listening to the following audios:

Why Marx Was Right - Alan Woods

What is Marxism? - Alan Woods

What Will Socialism Look Like? - Fred Weston

What is Socialism? - Rob Sewell

We will be expanding and developing this section over time. Please contact us if you have any questions, or if you'd like any suggestions on what to read next.

Reading the classics of Marxism is the best way to understand these ideas. At first it may seem difficult, but every worker and young person knows that things worth having are worth working hard for!  Patient and persistent study, discussion, and ultimately, the day to day application of these ideas over a lifetime are the key.

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Marxist theory is the basis upon which our analysis, perspectives, program, and participation in the movement are based. It is our "guide to action." This why Socialist Appeal and IMT place so much emphasis on political education. To this end, we have created an extensive Education Plan to assist comrades in their political development. This is an important resource.

However, it's length and scope may seem daunting to new comrades. With this in mind, Socialist Appeal has compiled a shorter list of classic works and other important writings we think will serve to lay a strong foundation in the ideas and methods of Marxism. We would like to encourage all our supporters and those interested in learning more about Marxism to read (or re-read!) through the works on this list.

This selection of writings is an excellent introduction to many of the fundamentals of Marxist theory. There are many other writings that could be added, but this selection provides a strong basis for those wishing to equip themselves with the necessary ideas for the daily work of fighting for socialism.

Many of these are smaller books or pamphlets; some are more lengthy books; and others are just short articles. This

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Dialectical Materialism is the philosophy or methodology of Marxism. Every political movement, party, or even statement of any kind bases itself, consciously or unconsciously, on some sort of philosophy or world outlook. Marxism is concerned with effecting a radical change in society, and therefore requires an exceptionally clear, thoroughgoing, and systemic set of philosophical principles.

The ideas of Dialectical Materialism, based on the best traditions of philosophical thought, are not a fixed dogma but a system of tools and general principles for analysing the world materialistically and scientifically.

If we are to understand society in order to change it, this cannot be done arbitrarily, since the human will is not master of nature; rather, our ideas and thoughts are reflections of necessary material laws. Instead, we must seek to understand the laws of how human society changes. By following our education plan for Dialectical Materialism, the reader will familiarise themselves with this way of looking at the world so that they too can begin to apply Marxist ideas.

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Historical Materialism is the result of Dialectical Materialism applied to human society and history. It encompasses the general theory of how and why society develops in the way it does. A deeper, more concrete understanding of these principles in combination with a study of real, living history of class struggles enables us to come to a general understanding of where capitalist society is headed and what political strategy is required to successfully influence the course of events.

The basic principles of Historical Materialism are that human society has inherent laws guiding it - its developments are by no means arbitrary or accidental, nor the mere subject of the will of great men and ideas. Human individuals can and do influence society according to their ideas, but only ever within definite material constraints and conditions. Above all, the law determining historical development is that of the development of the means of production - meaning economically productive technology, science, technique etc. The extent of the development of the productive forces determines the social relations of production - i.e. the structure of society, class relations etc. Each social system has its inherent laws of motion. If we want to overthrow capitalist society, we must understand how

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Marxist economics is the study of the laws of motion of capitalist society. Why does capitalism perpetually go into crisis? Why does mass unemployment exist? Are commodity production, the domination of the market, and rich and poor natural, immutable states of being for humanity? Or are they merely the products of this specific mode of production - capitalism? If so, is there any way capitalism can exist without these problems, or by minimising them?

Marxist economics is a “holistic” way of analysing capitalist economy. It starts out by placing it in its real historical context (rather than dreaming up abstract idealisations of capitalism to justify it, as bourgeois economics does), studying all its interconnections and contradictions, rather than artificially isolating one aspect of it. In doing so, Marxist economics lays bare the functioning of capitalism; the exploitation and injustice inherent within it. Those who want to get to the essence of why, in the 21st Century, despite having a more advanced understanding of the world than ever before, humanity seems plunged into perpetual crisis it cannot get to grips with, should look no further than Marxist economics, beginning with the writings of Marx himself.

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Like money, the state is something we are all very familiar with and take for granted, but its real essence tends to elude us. The ideologists of capitalism have tried, in various ways, to justify the capitalist state as supremely rational; a neutral arbiter for society, and the embodiment of justice. For Marxists, the state is not at all neutral, nor just. It is certainly anything but rational. We must strip the vale of mysticism away and reveal the state’s real basis. To do that, we have to treat the state historically - taking in its origins, rise, and eventual fall.

The state has not always existed. It is inseparable from class society. Ultimately, it is the instrument for the ruling class to oppress and hold down the masses, guaranteeing the status quo and the sanctity of property. Although the modern state performs many other functions, these are secondary to its real basis - the protection of a set of property relations. To do this, it needs “armed bodies of men” and a monopoly on the use of violence. To establish socialism, it will not be possible for the working class to use the state as it currently exists - that is, with

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The Russian Revolution is the greatest event in world history for Marxists. For the first time, the working class successfully took and held power. The slaves fought back and won. For these reasons, the name of Lenin and Trotsky, and the entire 1917 episode, has been deliberately dragged through the mud by the bourgeoisie ever since.

Naturally they are aided in this task by the degeneration of the revolution and by the existence of Stalin’s monstrous dictatorship. However, Stalinism represents the opposite of Bolshevism’s real traditions, which readers can read about in this section, as well as the Marxist explanation for why Stalinism took place and what this means for our movement.

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Radicalised youth, seeking to understand how to change modern society, naturally tend to look to both Marxism and Anarchism in equal measure. The question as to which philosophy, or which combination of the two, has the best answers, has long been at the forefront of the minds of revolutionaries.

Anarchism is naturally attractive to all those correctly alienated by bureaucracy in the revolutionary movement. Anarchists are certainly correct to reject Stalinism and careerism. However, it is not sufficient simply to reject these phenomena. We need to understand why bureaucracy and oppression exist and what role they play, in order to understand how to avoid them. We believe that, for all its opposition, Anarchism has little to say about the alternative to bureaucracy. Instead, it is Marxism’s historical materialist method that allows us to understand these problems. In this section the reader will find a series of articles dealing with anarchism and the issues that anarchism raises.

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The discrimination and oppression of women is integral to class society, such that Engels even referred to it as the “first class oppression”. Along with the class system itself, the oppression of women often takes on the appearance of being natural, immutable and eternal, since it has been with us for so long.

But Marxism is a historical science, concerned with understanding the fundamental changes that society goes through. It cannot be satisfied with comfortable prejudices. A study of the origins of human society, as Engels famously conducted in his book The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State, reveals that the oppression of women is by no means natural and was not even known for much of our history. As Engels explains, the oppression of women arose with the emergence of class society and private property; it will fall with it.

Marxists are fully in solidarity with feminists: we are irreconcilably opposed to the oppression of women and fully support the struggle for their emancipation. We believe this will be achieved through the class struggle, since that is the basic locomotive of history in a class society such as ours. However, Marxism represents a distinct set of

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Fascism is something of a bogeyman in modern British society, and has an almost mythical character in bourgeois public opinion. But despite constant talk of it, very little is said about why it happened and how it may or may not happen again.

Fascism is really the death agony of capitalism and the “distilled essence of imperialism”. The fascists in Germany, Italy, Spain and other countries were only able to come to power on the back of defeats of the working class. Ultimately, the madness of fascism expresses the historic crisis and dead-end of capitalism that had arrived by the early 20th Century, alongside the inability of the working class to take power and replace capitalism with a workers’ state, due to the corruption of their leadership, in the form of both reformism and Stalinism. Fascism could and should have easily been avoided had the working class possessed a militant and united leadership prepared to take power.

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The question of nationalities - that is, the oppression of nations and national minorities, which has characterised capitalism from its birth till the present time - has always occupied a central position in Marxist theory. Once again, the historical materialist approach of Marxism dissolves the apparent “natural” role of the nation as a necessary expression of human society. Nations have by no means always existed, nor will they always exist in the future.

The nation as we know it today is a product of the development of capitalism and its need to unify peoples into units of a certain size (depending on the level of the system’s development – e.g. more recently formed nations tend to be much bigger) to consolidate the market. The contradictions and tensions between nations are a result of capitalism’s “combined and uneven” development. The contradictions of the capitalist mode of production itself force each ruling class to expand outwards, developing a global market and imperialism in the process.

The violent tensions that this process breeds in turn give rise to nationalism, racism and wars. There is no way a successful world revolution, abolishing the global capitalist system, can take place without a careful and nuanced understanding of the

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Socialist Appeal is the British section of the International Marxist Tendency, which is active in around 40 countries. Our aim is to spread the ideas of Marxism, in an organised fashion, in the labour and youth movement. Only the British working class has the ability to change British society, because of the central role they play in production and their shared interest in establishing socialism.

However, we must carefully study the history and traditions of the British working class in order for Marxist ideas to connect with them. There are all too many groups who simply declare themselves the vanguard of the British working class, and have a dismissive attitude to the class’ real traditions.

In this section readers will find a series of articles explaining our position on the class struggle in Britain, the key points in the history of the British working class and the lessons to be learnt from them, and the strategy of the Marxists in relation to the movements of the masses.

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The ideas of Marxism and the need for a revolutionary party are not the result simply of a single individual, but arise from the study of history - the history of class struggle. In this respect, the revolutionary party is often referred to as being the memory of the working class, and our task is to learn the lessons from history in order to prepare for the revolutionary events taking place today and in the future.

In this section we present a series of articles and audios covering the key revolutionary struggles in history - from the early class struggles in Rome to the tremendous movements of the working class in the 20th Century. By reading and listening to these, our readers should gain a good overview of the history of the revolutionary movement and the main lessons to be learnt from these.

For analysis of 21st Century revolutionary movements, check out the News and Analysis sections of the website!

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Marxist theory

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