Revolutions are characterized by the sudden eruption of the great mass of the working population from the position of passive observers into the role of forceful actors in politics. A slow, simmering accumulation of incendiary grievances build up over time, until some random spark ignites the indignation of the masses. We live today in a volatile era when revolutionary upsurges can and do spring to life anywhere at the slightest provocation. Across North Africa and throughout the Middle East, popular uprisings have quickly toppled long-ruling dictators and shaken the thrones of others, inspiring the imagination and the self-confidence of workers and youth in every corner of the globe.
Once the immediate aim of the upsurge has been met, though, the mass movement is faced with the question: “What now?” How this question is answered has a decisive bearing on whether the revolution follows through to the end, or sputters out, with all the old conditions of oppression set firmly back in place.
In order to find the way forward it is not enough for the newly-energized mass movement to simply know what it is against. It needs a solid idea of what it is for, and how to organize itself to achieve victory. It must forge in action a resolute leadership capable of guiding the movement with a clear vision of the ultimate goal. This is the indispensable role played by a strong Marxist tendency, a revolutionary party, deeply rooted in the working class, and thoroughly steeped in the rich history of the workers’ movement.
Marxists understand that in order to succeed, a revolution must bring to power the mass movement itself, with the working class at its head, and use that power to take over the commanding heights of the economy in order to begin the rebuilding of society on a socialist basis. Failure to follow through leads almost inevitably to counter-revolutionary defeat.
It is a grim fact of life that the history of the working class movement is filled with many more defeats than successes. Nonetheless, Marxists can learn key lessons from these experiences in order to help workers avoid similar mistakes in the future. Wellred USA now offers a valuable contribution to the education of the new generation of Marxists with the publication of the first U.S. edition of Rob Sewell’s Germany: From Revolution to Counter-Revolution.
Out of the carnage of World War I issued a wave of revolutionary uprisings that began with the 1917 Russian Revolution. The Bolshevik leaders of this revolution knew that the economically and socially backwards condition of the Russian Empire would limit its ability to quickly improve the quality of life for the working population. Those scant resources inherited from Tsarism were of necessity diverted to organize defense against the counter-revolutionary and foreign expeditionary armies. Lenin and Trotsky looked to impending upsurges in the advanced capitalist countries of Western Europe to extend the socialist revolution and assure the healthy survival of the young Soviet Union.
Foremost in their hopes was the working class of Germany — the most numerous proletariat in Europe, with millions-strong workers’ parties and trade unions, inhabiting one of the most advanced capitalist economies in the world. In November 1918, a popular uprising in Germany ended the war, and began a cycle of advance and retreat that lasted until 1923.
The old Social-Democratic Party leadership took on the role of defending the capitalist government against the revolutionary upsurge, even murdering Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, the most resolute leaders of the German workers. Workers repelled by the betrayals turned to the new Communist Party for guidance, but naive errors committed by the leadership — under the guidance of incompetent advisers such as Stalin from the Communist International — meant that no victory was to be had. The ebb of the revolutionary wave saw no improvement of social conditions, but rather deepening economic crisis, with a hyperinflation that destroyed the value of savings from one hour to the next. Stability was ruled out, and a reinvigoration of the workers’ movement portended a new upsurge.
In preparation for this inevitable revival, the German rulers shifted support to the radical-sounding Nazis. The Nazis eased into power by virtue of the failure of the leaderships of the working class parties to comprehend the danger and nip them in the bud. Within weeks, the Nazi government had destroyed the massive organizations of the working class, jailed their leaders, and guaranteed the coming of World War II.
Sewell paints the broad sweep of events that produced the powerful German workers’ movement; the invigorating impact of the Russian Revolution; the degeneration of the Socialist leaders; and the debilitating disorientation of the Communists with the rise of Stalinism, which paved the way for Hitler’s ascension to power.
If we want to fight fascism and prevent it from ever coming to power again, we must first understand what it is, how it arose, and how it could have been stopped by the organized working class. Serious students of revolutionary history and those who fight for a better world will find this volume invaluable, a fine introduction to a key chapter in working class history.
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The true lesson of Germany in the 1920s and 30s is that it was only after the repeated failure of the workers’ organizations to offer a solution and take power that the middle classes were driven to such extremes of despair. Under such conditions, the ruling class can lean on these layers of society to support reaction. However, before this were to happen again in Germany or in a country like the USA, the working class will have many opportunities to resolve the crisis in its own interests. This poses the need to transform the organizations of the working class into real weapons that can carry out the historic aim of the socialist transformation of society. In the words of Trotsky, the crisis of mankind is the crisis of (revolutionary) leadership. This can only be resolved by the building of a powerful Marxist tendency in the United States and internationally. That is the urgent task of the Workers International League and the International Marxist Tendency.
84 pages. By Rob Sewell. Printed in the USA.