Tuesday, October 30, 2018

William A. Pelz - A People's History of the German Revolution

November 2018 marks the centenary of the start of the German Revolution. This was, as William Pelz notes in the conclusion to his book, an event of utmost significance. "Had", he writes, "the German Revolution been radical and purged the old state apparatus, there would most likely have been no Nazi seizure of power, no Third Reich, no World War II, no Holocaust." It would also, we should add, have strengthened the position of Soviet Russia and most certainly prevented that revolution's isolation and degeneracy. The world would be a very different, and likely better, place.

But the German Revolution is barely remembered. Pelz notes that few of his students had ever heard of it, and Chris Harman, famously called it the "Lost Revolution". So it is welcome that this new book has been published that can rescue the events of 1918 and 1919 for a new generation of activists. It is also good that this history has been written by someone broadly sympathetic to the Revolution and the people who made it.

Pelz locates the German Revolution as a culmination of a process that begins before World War One. This is the growth of the mass German socialist party the SPD. This, Pelz argues, was revolutionary in tone yet had developed a significant base within the system. Pelz quotes historian Lynn Abrams, "A working-class family could purchase its groceries at the socialist cooperative, borrow books from the Social Democratic library, exercise at a workers' sports club, sing in the workers' choir, if necessary call on the workers Samaritan Association in the event of an accident and draw on the workers' burial fund upon the death of a family member." But Pelz shows how the SPD had helped develop a "highly politicised working class" within which a "striking six percent put forth that there most important wish was to 'settle accounts with the capitalists.'"

It was this that led them to support German involvement in the war and then to take a counter-revolutionary attitude to the anti-war and then revolutionary movements. Pelz also shows the way that the deprivations of the war and the reality of life in the trenches helped create the spark for the events that began in late 1918. He also argues, convincingly, that anti-war sentiment was very strong in the German army quite early in the conflict.

The book is called "A People's History" and Pelz highlights the role of ordinary people in making the Revolution. In particular he celebrates the central (and often downplayed) involvement of women in the movements - first during the war when they played major roles in food riots - but then during the revolution itself. Women had been sucked into the factories as the men were sent to the front and played a crucial role in overthrowing the Kaiser and ending the war. I found these sections the most interesting and people who have read other accounts of the German Revolution will find much new material here.

I did have some problems with Pelz's account. Most important of these is that Pelz repeatedly dismisses those who argue that what was central to the defeat of the Revolution was the lack of a revolutionary "Bolshevik" type party. He particularly singles out Chris Harman for this criticism. But Pelz seems to misunderstand the role of such a party. The key problem with the German Revolution, as Pelz himself acknowledges, was that at particular points no strong enough force existed outside the SPD to hold back or drive forward the movement. Even when the German Communist Party (KPD) was formed this was too immature to play such a role. Lenin's Bolsheviks' in Russia were able to play that role and thus lead an insurrection after a year of revolutionary turmoil in which they had proved themselves to the masses. The existence of such a party in Germany, built long before World War One started, could have made sure the ups and downs of 1919 helped develop the working class movement in ways that ironed out its weaknesses.

This is most clear when looking at Pelz's discussion of the January 1919 Spartakist Uprising. This clearly should not have taken place - it's failure to involve a majority of the working class simply allowed the right to accelerate their repression. Instead Pelz argues that the alternative would have been a "revolutionary committee" that could have "deposed" the government and formed a new one based on the "left-wing USPD, the KPD and revolutionary shop stewards in Berlin". That may or may not have been successful as Pelz points out, possible leading to a bloody Paris Commune or a second "socialist" revolution. But surely the reason this didn't happen was the lack of clear revolutionary leadership - and had that existed in a party - the question of a workers' government might have been moot.

Chris Harman quotes Rosa Luxemburg before she was murdered. The defeat's cause lay she said, on "the contradiction between the powerful, resolute and offensive appearance of the Berlin masses on the one hand, and the irresoluteness, timidity and indecision of the Berlin leadership on the other". Harman then continues, "With a powerful revolutionary party, the Berlin working class would probably not have walked into the trap laid by Ebert, Noske and the generals".

To be fair to Pelz, he has not set out to right a manual for Revolutionaries, but a pure work of history. But the problem is that he also knows that had the German Revolution been successful it would have likely prevented the horrors that followed in the "midnight of the century". That success would have relied on the involvement of the masses in history which Pelz celebrates. But it also required political leadership that was prepared to take it forward. So while Pelz's book has much of interest, I recommend that it is read alongside other accounts such as that by Pierre Broue or Chris Harman's work.

Related Reviews

Broué - The German Revolution 1917-1923
Reissner - Hamburg at the Barricades
Fernbach - In the Steps of Rosa Luxemburg: Selected Writings of Paul Levi
Hoffrogge - Working Class Politics in the German Revolution
Trotsky - Lessons of October
Hippe - And Red is the Colour of Our Flag

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