January 1917 – The German Left in Ferment

Extra-Ausgabe der Uetersener Nachrichten von Sonnabend den 1. August 1914 "Erklärung des Kriegszustandes!".
Extra-Ausgabe der Uetersener Nachrichten von Sonnabend den 1. August 1914 "Erklärung des Kriegszustandes!". Foto: Wikipedia Public Domain

The development of German Social Democracy is inextricably linked to the pre-history of the revolutions in Russia. As the most important left party of the pre-war period, it still had great influence upon international social democracy. The political actors of the revolutions attached great expectations to developments in Germany: the support of Soviet Russia by a Revolution in Germany.

The general picture of conditions in Germany is characterised by the policy of truce with the German Empire by the SPD leadership. The opposition to this course had already begun to grow increasingly strong since the outbreak of the war. At the beginning, there was the small “Gruppe Internationale” with Rosa Luxemburg at the helm, which would later become the Spartacus League. Karl Liebknecht and later also Otto Rühle had taken an important stance with their ‘no’ to war loans, which the SPD leadership answered with repression and expulsion from the party and Reichstag fraction. At the same time, a secret network of workplace representatives began to establish itself, in order coordinate the protests of the workers – that was the decisive source of the council movement in the German November Revolution. They were the ones who, despite the resistance of the SPD leadership, organised protests against the jailing of Karl Liebknecht during an anti-war demonstration. Their significance quickly increased to the same extent as the worsening of the supply situationand the pressure upon workers increased. With the ‘Hindenburg Programme’ and the ‘Law on Supportive Service to the Fatherland’ (Gesetz über den vaterländischen Hilfsdienst), social life had been largely militarised. In the words of Gustav Stresemann, Germany should become ‘a single armaments factory’. Only the ‘Sozialdemokratische Arbeitsgemeinschaft’ (‘Social Democratic Workgroup’) voted against the ‘Hilfsdienstgesetz’ in the Reichstag. Eighteen representatives from the SPD around Georg Ledebour and Hugo Haase, who no longer wished to go along with the SPD’s continuing course of war, had formed this group at the end of 1915.

The weight of the opposition within the SPD is reflected for example in the decision by local party organisations to turn a special election for a Reichstag seat for the electoral district of Grimma-Oschatz-Wurzen that had become vacant into a declaration against the policy of truce: they nominated an opponent of the war, Richard Lipinski, as their candidate. He lost against the conservative candidate with 6,288 to 7,974 votes. Lipinski saw in the support for his position by the party rank-and-file an act of ‘putting the reorganisation of the party to the test’. (Lipinski 1917, p 410)

On 7 January 1917, the opposition within the Social Democratic party met in order to discuss how it should proceed both in parliament and outside of parliament. It wanted to return the SPD to its course as an anti-capitalist party. The resolution of the conference declares, ‘The policy conducted by the party leadership during the war is incompatible with this, since it strengthens the bourgeoisie, supports the expansion of its power, while continuing to further split the working class and inhibit the pursuit of the socialist goal.’ (Reichskonferenz 1958 [1917], p 527) The SPD leadership responded on 18 January by expelling the dissenters. With that, the decay of the SPD entered a new phase. (Here is a newspaper report from this period: https://archivewk1.hypotheses.org/tag/sozialdemokratische-arbeitsgemeinschaft) The opposition conference of 7 January became the starting point of the founding of the USPD in March 1917, which quickly became a mass party.

Materna summarises the developments of 1917 (focusing upon Berlin) as follows, ‘….the gradual formation of the left, with Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht, Leo Jogiches and others into the Spartacus group; its remaining within the centrist grouping around Goerg Ledebour, Hugo Haase, Ernst Däumig, and others, the leadership of the USPD and its Reichstag fraction; the advancing change of opinion in the workplaces and the emergence of the movement of oppositional trade union functionaries, who as representatives and shop stewards in the armaments factories, the branch commissions, and finally also in the mid-level local administration of the German Metalworkers Association (DMV) won influential positions as the most important Berlin trade union organisations’. (Materna 2009, 93)

However, the Spartacus group had a distanced relationship to the Social Democratic Workgroup; certainly also due to the experiences of the previous years. Rosa Luxemburg regarded it as an illusion that the SPD could once again become what it was before 1914. Franz Mehring describes another side of the situation in February 1917 as follows: ‘It is probably understandable that it was or is difficult for many old comrades, for whom the party had become a true home, to decide; so that they have tried to rescue it from the ruins and search for something that can be rescued. But everything in the world has its limit.’ (Mehring 1973 [1917], p 703) But this is another story, which however already refers to the new splits in the course of the revolutionary events of 1918-1919.

The situations in Russia and in Germany were therefore not quite as different as some thought and still think. With the beginning of the war, the rulers in politics and economics had both posed the question of the system, to which the actual masses, and not for example a small circle of professional revolutionaries or politicians, gave an answer with their own revolutionary activity.

Sources and further reading

  • Lipinski, Richard. 1917. „Die Nachwahl in Grimma-Oschatz-Wurzen.“ Die Neue Zeit Jg. 35 (1. Band Nr. 17 vom 26. Januar 1917):405-410. (siehe auch die Quelle in der online-Bibliothek der FES)
  • Materna, Ingo. 2009. „Berlin – das Zentrum der deutschen Revolution 1918/1919.“ In Die November Revolution 1918/1919 in Deutschland. Für bürgerliche und sozialistische Demokratie. Allgemeine, regionale und biographische Aspekte. Beiträge zum 90. Jahrestag der Revolution, hrsg. von Ulla Plener, 92-103. Berlin: Karl Dietz Verlag. (siehe auch die Quelle im online-Angebot der RLS)
  • Mehring, Franz. 1973 [1917]. „Ein Schritt vorwärts.“ In Franz Mehring Gesammelte Schriften Bd. 15 Politische Publizistik 1905-1918, hrsg. von Thomas Höhle, Hans Koch und Josef Schleifstein, 703-704. Berlin: Dietz Verlag.
  • Reichskonferenz. 1958 [1917]. „Entschließung der Reichskonferenz der Parteiopposition vom 7. Januar 1917 über die Aufgaben der Opposition.“ In Dokumente und Materialien zur Geschichte der deutschen Arbeiterbewegung Reihe II Band 1 Juli 1914 – Oktober 1917, hrsg. vom Institut für Marxismus-Leninismus beim ZK der SED, 526-527. Berlin: Dietz Verlag.