Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Pierre Broué - The German Revolution 1917-1923

In the introduction to his own book on the German Revolution, the Marxist Chris Harman wrote that "Revolutions that are defeated are soon forgotten. They become lost from view; footnotes to history, glossed over by all but a few specialist historians." This is indeed true of the German Revolution, in part because the defeat of this revolution was the beginning of the "midnight of the century". Had the German Revolution been successful, it is likely that Hitler would never have come to power, the Holocaust been avoided together with the Second World War and the Russian Revolution would have lost its economic and political isolation. Stalin might not have seized power and the history of the second half of the twentieth century could have been very different.

Pierre Broué's book on the German Revolution is extremely important. Its detailed analysis and systematic use of the archives available at the time it was written mean that it is an important text of history itself. This is part serves to rescue some of the "Lost Revolution" for new generations. But Broué is no objective historian, he writes with the explicit intention of understanding the defeated revolution and the forces involved to better arm future socialists and revolutionaries. He concludes that "the history of the Communist Party of Germany during the early years of the Communist International ceases to be a history of lost illusions, and become the prehistory of a struggle which continues to this day."

Despite covering an event that lasted barely five years, the book is enormous in its scope. The Brill edition that I have read weighs in at almost 1000 pages (though rather extraordinarily and frustratingly it has no index, which for a book of this nature is a terrible omission). It would be a mistake for me to attempt to tell the actual narrative of the German Revolution in this review, instead I recommend both this book and other readings below.

Broué begins with the concrete forces on the ground, or the "battlefield" as the first chapter is called. Broué weighs up the isolation of the revolutionary left in Germany during the First World War, a few thousand individuals, with no common organisation or strategy. A few individuals such as Rosa Luxembourg and Karl Leibnickt remain prominent, both from their anti-war campaigning and their prestige from years in the German Social Democratic Party. The SPD had, at the outbreak of war, abandoned its traditions of revolutionary Marxism and supported its own national bourgeoisie. Millions of workers were demoralised and isolated by this, and many supported the war itself. But as the years passed, conditions worsened and the reality of modern warfare became apparent. The German Revolution exploded in November 1918, driven by a enormous mutiny of sailors who refused to take their ships to certain destruction. Within days the revolt had spread the length and breadth of the country and revolutionary organisations, councils representing workers, sailors and soldiers were elected. This was enough to force the abdication of the Kaiser and bring an end to World War One. The weakness of the movement was the lack of political clarity and the old SPD, reclaiming its socialist mantle was able to take the movement by the head and subdue the revolutionary impulse. With a new government in power, the counter-revolution began and many militants, including Luxemburg and Liebknecht, who had just formed the German Communist Party (KPD) were murdered.

The strength of Broué research though, is to put this into the context of the changing Germany. The story of World War One here, is not one simply of passive acceptance of the slaughter in the trenches, but also of heroic individuals who organised anti-war activities, who printed leaflets and distributed them on pain of death, who organised underground networks of workers and militants to strike and protest against food shortages and worsening conditions.

This approach to the history of the revolution continues throughout the book. Broué constantly attempts to get across what the situation was like on the ground. In part he does this by reporting the slogans and "political lines" of different left organisations, such as the KPD. But he also reports from the memoirs of individuals involved. This is a social history from the bottom up, but not one were individuals are examined in isolation. The role of the political parties is scrutinised deeply, particularly the KPD and its predecessors. Related to this, is the importance to which Broué places the role of the Communist International.

The Russian Revolution had a profound importance for the German Revolution and those who took part in it. Early photos of the street demonstrations of November 1918 show placards with "All Power to the Workers Councils" written on them, and Karl Liebknecht in his speech to the assembled masses in which he declared the Socialist Republic of Germany, extended greetings to the brothers in revolutionary Russia.

The Russian Revolutionaries, conscious of the need to spread the revolution, created the Communist International to assist with this, and the influence of the International was felt throughout the years covered by this book and beyond. This was in terms of financial aid, Broué comments on how the resources of the KPD during 1923, the year of extreme economic crisis were helped by the CI which:

"in 1923, the material help of the ECCI [Executive Committee of the Communist International] permitted the Party to maintain 27 daily papers, and to pay 200 full-time workers. With its own resources, the KPD could have maintained only four papers, and barely a dozen employees."

But the assistance was also personal, both in terms of individuals like Karl Radek who spent months at a time in Russia assisting and advising the German socialists, as well as reporting back to Moscow. Additionally, delegates from the German socialist parties would visit Russia for advice and discussions.

One of Broué's themes is that the revolutionaries were frequently unprepared for events. The spontaneity of the November revolution took even the most brilliant Marxists by surprise. Yet frequently the KPD were left bewildered by events. Take the Kapp Putsch, when a proto-fascist leader attempted to seize power, only to be prevented by mass strike action happened almost independently from the KPD leadership who initially denounced the strikes.

Part of the problem was that the KPD constantly looked to Russia for advice. While this was was understandable, the Bolsheviks had, after all, made their own revolution, the situation was very different. It also led to a certain lack of self-confidence from the Germans as well as a certain naivete. Broué quotes one German KPD leader, again in 1923, as arguing that;

"under no circumstances should we proclaim a general strike. The bourgeoisie would find out what we are planning and would destroy us before we start. On the contrary, let us soften down out spontaneous movements. Let us hold back our groups in the factories and the unemployed organisations so that the government will think that the danger is over. And then - after they are lulled into an illusion of complete safety - let us strike in one night, quickly and decisively, arrest the government, storm the Reichswehr barracks and ring the knell of the last battle."

Such simplistic notions of how class struggle can be carried out were extremely worrying, but in part they had be fostered by an International that had encouraged the German's to believe that they were on the verge of revolution. Despite the bravery of thousands of communists, the belief that revolutionary movements could be turned on and off like this had soured the organisation for several years. The faith in the CI as an instrument of revolution helped undermine the ability of the KPD to understand the mood inside the workplaces and on the streets. This is why the mass strikes that brought down the Cuno government in 1923 seemed to come out of the blue for the Communists and why, when the CI insisted that another revolutionary movement was on the cards in October 1923, the leaders of the KPD were unable to argue against them, or present a more realistic portrayal of the balance of forces.

This is not to say that the CI was a negative force. Without the CI the KPD would have indeed been short of resources, as mentioned above. But they would also have been without some brilliant leaders and ideas. The turn taken by the Communist International towards United Front work in the early 1920s as the revolutionary moment ebbed was crucial in Germany. It meant that the growing KPD would try and find common ground with the members of the SPD over concrete demands, and pull them towards revolutionary politics, out of the arms of reformist leadership of the SPD. As the fascists began to grow, and increasingly use murderous methods against the left, such united tactics would prove indispensable. Their abandonment in the Stalin era, post 1923 for a set of politics that deemed the SPD worse than Hitlers' movement, would lead directly to the destruction of the left.

The problem was that the KPD became a mass party in the midst of successive revolutionary periods, or at least periods of intense class conflict. This meant that at its core were very few revolutionaries who had been skilled in years of organising. The lack of self-confidence at crucial moments, betrays a lack of confidence in their own organisation and ideas and that in turn, is a consequence of lack of experience.

This problem begins with the death of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. Their murder removed the best leaders of the revolution, individuals who, had they survived would have developed and learnt from the different stages of the revolution. Certainly, it is hard to imagine Rosa Luxemburg who had, over the decades, engaged in fraternal debates and polemics with Lenin and Trotsky, accepting the ideas of the CI automatically.

A third key individual, was the revolutionary Paul Levi. Broué's book in some ways is an attempt to rescue Levi and his legacy from the mud that has been thrown at him over the years. For a period in the immediate aftermath of the deaths of Luxemburg and Liebknecht he was the KPD leadership. His instincts were cautious and balanced the ultra-leftist tendancies of the young organisation, but mixed with this caution was a genuine gift for understanding the balance of forces. His critique of the KPD in calling the March Action in 1921, an attempt to physically kick-start the revolution, was entirely accurate, yet his breach of discipline was severe enough for him to be expelled. Sadly Levi refused to attempt to work for conciliation and he became another lost leader, in a time when his experience and links to the pre-war socialist movement would have been invaluable.

Broué finishes the book with an analysis of the CI itself. It is clear that the author puts much importance to this body, indeed he wrote a history of the Third International that has yet to appear in English. For Broué the CI was a brilliant tool, but a flawed one. He quotes Lenin, arguing that many of the motions passed by the CI were "too Russian", i.e. that they were based too much on the Russian experience, with all the differences that existed between that country and those of Western Europe. As one chapter title has it, "Grafting Bolshevism onto German Stock" was never going to be easy. Broué acknowledges that often the KPD had it right,

"relations between the KPD and the Russian Party between 1919 and 1922 followed almost constantly the same pattern: a sharp conflict at the level of proposals made or initiatives taken by the Germans; a vigorous critique by the leaders of the ECCI; and then an intervention by Lenin, who while making some formal criticisms, judge the German initiative acceptable". 

With Lenin's death and the loss of his personal prestige and brilliant analysis, this process was made worse. Lenin fought to develop and build the independence of the KPD as well as maintain its organisation integrity, taking a deep and close personal interest in the ideas and activities of individual German leaders. Following the defeat of 1923, Broué concludes ominously, that the role of the CI was fundamentally different, from then onwards "the policies of the KPD were to be written almost entirely in Moscow, and in Russian."

Broué's has produced a rich and important text here. The detail is astounding and, particularly I imagine, for those engaged in the socialist movement today, the defeat and mistakes made in this period are terrible to read about. The lost opportunities doomed millions to a terrible fate in World War Two and the Holocaust. But learning from the past, and in particular, learning the lessons of revolutions, even lost ones, is something that is important to those organising today. Broué's book deserves to be a key text for revolutionaries today, those building movements or engaging in revolution will find much of use here.

At the heart of Pierre Broué's monumental work, is the idea that ordinary people can and do change the world. Its this revolutionary emphasis that makes this book more than a work history but part of helping us change the future. As he puts it near the end;

"We believe that the German Communist Party could have been victorious, even though it was defeated. There does not exist any Book of Destiny, in which the victory of the Russian October and the defeat of the German October, and the victory of Stalin and then Hitler, could have been written in advance. It is human beings who make history."

Related Reviews

Campbell - A Rebel's Guide to Rosa Luxemburg
Luxemburg - Reform or Revolution
Reissner - Hamburg at the Barricades

Recommended Reading

Chris Harman's history of the German Revolution, The Lost Revolution, is a superb introduction to this event and, while similar in analysis to Broué he has a number of differences. It is also shorter and much easier to carry on the bus. You can buy it here. Revolutions don't just have economic consequences, they change all sorts of aspects of people's lives, The German Revolution for instance, led to new freedoms for gays and lesbians, Colin Wilson's article here has much more about this aspect.

Neil Davidson has reviewed Broué's book here and I recommend that review. Leon Trotsky's Lesson's of October is a polemic written about and in response to the failure of the German Revolution. My own review of this contains further links to aspects of that discussion.

In this Socialist Worker article Ian Birchall introduces two short extracts from The German Revolution. His conclusion that "Broué was a revolutionary first and an academic second. He knew which side he was on and he knew what was at stake" is a fitting tribute. He also wrote a obituary of Broué here.


Sinabrow said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sinabrow said...

Sorry for deleting my comment!
There seems to be no option to edit a comment.

Reposting the comment,

Thanks for the excellent review.
I always enjoy reading your reviews.

"the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce"

That's one of my favorite quotes comes from Marx.

By the way,

I'm looking forward to the English translation of the following books.

Trotsky by Pierre Broué

El hombre que amaba a los perros (The Man Who Loved Dogs) by Leonardo Padura

Here is a link to the book's introduction by Leonardo Padura.

I'm sure you will review the above books,as soon as it is published in English.

To tell the truth, I'm very interested in Leon Trotsky.

Trotsky related books I have as follows,although I have not read all of them. :)

Trotsky trilogy by Isaac Deutscher

In The Blue House by Meaghan Delahunt

Stalin's Nemesis by Bertrand M Patenaude

Thankfully, All four volumes of Tony Cliff's biography of Trotsky and Duncan Hallas' Trotsky’s Marxism are available online at, as you know.