Ten years since its creation, the Alternative für Deutschland has established itself as a constant presence in Germany’s parliament. Now, it’s challenging the Christian Democrats — and seeking to tear down the historic barriers to the far right.
Leaders of the AfD attend the party’s tenth anniversary celebration on February 6, 2023 in Koenigstein, Germany. (Thomas Lohnes / Getty Images)
When Friedrich Merz first threw his hat into the ring to succeed Angela Merkel as chair of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in November 2018, he set himself an ambitious goal. Merz told the German tabloid Bild that he wanted to “halve” the right-populist Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), meaning to say he sought to win back half of its voters for the CDU. Back then, the AfD was hovering at around 15 percent in the polls. In fact, over the last five years its numbers have largely stayed the same — but the party now leads the polls in several states, successfully uniting wide swathes of the Right behind it.
This was hardly a foregone conclusion. Back in April 2013, more than one thousand people squeezed into a packed hotel conference room to attend the AfD’s founding congress. They cheered on an economics professor named Bernd Lucke who, his sights firmly trained on the CDU, spoke dismissively of the “old parties” and argued that Germany should step back from the EU, leave managing the economy to the market, and take a more conservative approach to social policy. Alongside Lucke, a chemist named Frauke Petry and a former journalist named Konrad Adam were also elected to the leadership of the AfD. All three have since left the party.
Ten years after its founding, the face of the AfD has changed dramatically: whereas conservative Euroscepticism represented the dominant theme in its early days, the AfD today is largely a far-right party. Nevertheless, one constant runs between the original and the current AfD: from the beginning, it sought to unite the political spectrum to the right of the CDU and its traditional coalition partner, the neoliberal Free Democrats (FDP).
Initially, the party represented an alliance between an ordoliberal current around a few dozen economics professors and a national-conservative network of aristocrats, Christian fundamentalists, and anti-feminists. A short time after its founding, however, a third current entered the stage: a völkisch, or ethnonationalist wing closely linked to the self-proclaimed “New Right” that first emerged in France and West Germany in the 1960s and harkens back to more traditional far-right ideas. Its core ideology is an ethnonationalism that understands the Volk, German for “the people,” to denote an ethnically homogeneous community. It sees its primary task as changing reality to fit this ideal.
Despite all the internal wrangling, splits, and power struggles, these three currents continue to set the tone in the AfD. The constellation necessarily entails certain internal contradictions, given the substantial differences between ordoliberals, national conservatives, and ethnonationalists.
Ten years after its foundation, the face of the Alternative für Deutschland has changed dramatically: whereas conservative Euroscepticism represented the dominant theme in its early days, today it’s largely a far-right party.
For example, the party contains highly divergent positions on economic and social policy as well as geopolitics. Another point of contention, around which most of the AfD’s internal struggles have revolved since its founding, is of a strategic nature: while a majority of the key figures in both the national-conservative and ordoliberal currents prefer tactical moderation and a parliamentary approach, a large part of the ethnonationalist wing favors a movement-oriented strategy based on fundamental opposition to the political system as such.
Nevertheless, despite these deep differences, the AfD has consistently managed to prevent the kind of split that would threaten its existence, staying true to the party’s project character and maintaining a focus on the points of unity that hold it together: the ideology of inequality.
Old Wine in New Bottles
After years of at times quite vicious struggles for power and control, the ethnonationalist wing in the AfD has now taken the lead. The party is thus effectively the parliamentary arm of German far-right radicalism — albeit in a modernized form.
This modernization is firstly of a substantive nature. It remains focused on the homogeneity of the Volk, but it no longer defines that homogeneity on the basis of genetics, being well aware that pseudo-biological concepts of race fell into disrepute with the defeat of Nazism. There are some modest attempts to rehabilitate the category of “race” in the German public sphere, but they are flanked by a parallel, much cleverer concept: “ethnopluralism.” Ethnopluralism takes into account the critique of genetically understood racism, but arrives at similar conclusions with the help of anthropological, ethnological, and psychological arguments: different peoples are allowed to live side by side, but they should not mix and rather remain “pure.”
The concept of ethnopluralism dates back to the 1970s. At that time, Henning Eichberg, a mastermind of radical nationalism in West Germany, developed the concept of ethnically homogeneous societies, with this rejecting the Left’s universalism and reformulating racist ideas in a manner that appears more harmless than the Nazis’ aggressive ethnocentrism. Ethnopluralism continues to shape the radical right across Europe today. It is fundamental for intellectuals of the New Right as well as for fascist and far-right currents in France, Italy, and Spain.
Ethnopluralism is popular in Germany not only among the so-called Identitarian movement (a neofascist protest group active throughout Western Europe), but also among AfD politicians. Hans-Thomas Tillschneider, a member of the state parliament in Saxony-Anhalt, mentioned the term positively in a contribution to the party’s programmatic debate in September 2018, stating that ethnopluralism represented the “leitmotif of the AfD program.” The party, he argued, ought to be “committed to preserving the ethnocultural unit that calls itself the German people in all areas.”
The ideology’s influence could also be seen when AfD honorary chairman Alexander Gauland, referring to soccer players from immigrant backgrounds, said that the German national team was no longer German “in the classical sense,” or when AfD speakers distinguish between “passport Germans” and “real Germans.” In terms of both its rhetoric as well as its policy platform, the ethnonationalist wing of the AfD ultimately stands for a kind of ethnically segregated apartheid state in which social and democratic rights are tied to national origin.
In addition to this ideological modernization, we can also observe a strategic modernization within the German far right over the AfD’s ten-year history. The AfD has long since ceased to function as a mere party, but forms one element among many in a far-right political project that also includes right-wing citizens’ initiatives, media, student fraternities, think tanks, and subcultures. The strategists of the ethnonationalist wing in particular not only seek to win votes, but fight over language and for control of the streets.
The concept of ethnically homogeneous societies rejects the Left’s universalism and reformulates racist ideas in a manner that appears more harmless than the Nazis’ aggressive ethnocentrism.
The AfD has clearly won the electoral contest within Germany’s right-wing camp, making gains in almost all classes and social milieus. Meanwhile its previous competitor, the more explicitly neo-Nazi National Democratic Party (NPD), and other far-right parties have largely faded into insignificance or dissolved entirely. That said, the ethnonationalist wing of the AfD in particular has a very low opinion of parliamentarism.
According to Björn Höcke, the undisputed leader of the ethnonationalists, the job of the AfD is to serve as the “voice of the movement” in parliament, which is seen above all as a stage on which to promote party positions. This is about more than just parliamentary work — speaking about his wing’s strategic orientation in a taped interview, Höcke explained: “A few corrections and minor reforms will not be enough. But German unconditionality will be the guarantee that we will tackle the matter thoroughly and fundamentally. Once the turning point has been reached, we Germans will not do things by halves.”
The struggle over language is one of cultural hegemony, or “metapolitics.” The concept of metapolitics was in many ways inspired by the strategy of the post-1968 New Left in France. It stipulates that the focus of right-wing politics should no longer be on elections and parties as such, but on the “pre-political space,” i.e. the battle over interpretations and ways of thinking. Götz Kubitschek, one of the founders of the Institute for State Policy (IfS), a far-right think tank and a cadre of the New Right, identifies three discursive strategies for the far right’s culture war:
First, the Right must expand the boundaries of what can be said through targeted provocations. To this end, it is necessary to “provocatively push forward along the fringes of what is sayable and doable.” The AfD has used this strategy of calculated taboo-breaking since its founding, enabling it to dominate political debates, especially in its early years.
Secondly, the Right should pursue a strategy of “interlocking” with the aim of “preventing the enemy’s artillery from firing.” The Right should interlock its own troops with those of the enemy, so that the latter never knows for sure “whether he will not hit his own people when he fires.” In practical terms, this means agreeing with conservative politicians when they condemn so-called left-wing extremism or the German government’s refugee policy.
Thirdly, Kubitschek recommends a strategy known as Selbstverharmlosung, roughly translated as “self-trivialization.” The Right must seek to “ward off the opponent’s accusations by displaying our own harmlessness and emphasizing that none of our demands fall short of the standards of civil society.” In reality, so this posture goes, the Right is not so bad; it opposes violence and supports the constitution and democracy. However, he cautions, the Right should be careful not to overdo it with self-trivialization.
The AfD has clearly won the electoral contest within Germany’s right-wing camp, making gains in almost all classes and social milieus.
In addition to the battle for votes and the battle for minds, the New Right is also pursuing a battle for the streets. Here, the AfD repeatedly succeeds in building bridges to right-wing street mobilizations such as Pegida, an Islamophobic extra-parliamentary movement. The preliminary high point of the strategy to establish the AfD as the leading force of the far-right movement was a demonstration in Chemnitz on September 1, 2018, at which top AfD personnel marched shoulder to shoulder with the figureheads of Pegida, Identitarians, and neo-Nazi thugs. The demonstration marked the first time that the AfD openly presented itself as the leading force of a right-wing united front linking the fight for the streets with parliamentary activity.
The Right-Wing Mosaic Under Pressure
The ethnonationalist wing of the AfD and the party as a whole experienced difficult years in 2020 and 2021. The party stagnated at around 10 percent in the polls, the Office for the Protection of the Constitution officially began monitoring its activities, and the opponents of the ethnonationalist wing gained ground in party infighting. All of this was cause for anxiety, and some far-right figures began to turn their backs on the party. To them, it appeared as if the “iron law of oligarchy” — coined by the Social Democrat-turned-fascist Robert Michels, according to which parties have a tendency to develop bureaucracies and power elites and thereby lose momentum over time — was playing out before their eyes.
At times, the AfD almost lost control over the battle for the streets. During the anti-lockdown and anti-vaccination protests that emerged around the COVID pandemic, the party lost its status as the avant-garde of the right-wing movement in some parts of eastern Germany to a group known as Free Saxony. Right-wing critics complained that the AfD had invested too little in consolidating its periphery and devoted insufficient attention to the movement.
In the meantime, far-right strategists are paying more attention to the interplay between the party and movement actors, developing the term “Mosaic Right,” coined by IfS intellectual Benedikt Kaiser in reference to German trade unionist Hans-Jürgen Urban’s concept of the “Mosaic Left.” The basic idea behind the term is that all right-wing forces should work on a common political project, but leave enough space for themselves in their respective spheres: the party, a magazine, a youth group, women artists, student fraternities, and right-wing hooligan groups. In a diverse modern society like Germany, the political right needs to be diverse as well.
An important base for the AfD and its ethnonationalist wing are the eastern German states, where the party has polled between 20 and 25 percent for several years. Here, the AfD scores points with antiestablishment rhetoric. East Germans’ lower level of trust in the institutions of the state is due in part to the fact that in the course of the eastern states’ accession to the Federal Republic, many things changed for the worse for East Germans within a short period of time: virtually overnight, the former industrial proletariat was confronted with forced structural transformation, targeted deindustrialization, and, as a result, mass unemployment.
What had taken decades in West Germany’s industrial regions such as the Ruhr — triggering upheavals in the social fabric despite the state’s attempts to soften the blow — took place within weeks in the early 1990s in the territory of former East Germany. Instead of the promised “blooming landscapes” promised by West German politicians, they were left with industrial ruins. Instead of hope came disillusionment.
The population’s ties to the ideologies and institutions of the old Federal Republic thus did not have to weaken over time in East Germany — they were never particularly strong to begin with. Unlike in western Germany, large parts of the former East have been caught in a permanent crisis of hegemony for thirty years, in which political and economic elites are unable to reach the masses and fail to establish a social consensus. Electoral turnout is significantly lower in the East than in the West, as are the numbers of citizens active in volunteer associations or nonprofit organizations.
This situation has enabled the AfD and its supporters to fill the vacuum, especially in rural areas, partly because the Right has succeeded in presenting itself as looking after the interests of eastern Germans. In doing so, the party consciously ties in with the experience of 1989–90: “Complete the Wende,” the term used to describe the uprising during that period, is a slogan frequently used by the AfD in eastern Germany. The message is clear: back then, the people rose up against the ruling party bigwigs; today, they do so against the political establishment of the Federal Republic.
The Parliamentary Arm of Street Violence
As a parliamentary representation of modernized far-right radicalism, the AfD tries to distance itself from violence as part of its aforementioned self-trivialization strategy. Yet despite all of its attempts to formally distance itself from that violence, links to potentially violent groups persist.
The Right has succeeded in presenting itself as looking after the interests of eastern Germans.
One example: the twenty-five people arrested in the so-called Reichsbürger raid in December 2022, when federal police arrested a network of suspected far-right militias, included a Berlin judge who sat in the German parliament for the AfD until 2021. The association, which called itself the “Patriotic Union,” had allegedly planned to storm parliament by force of arms and install a self-appointed government.
A second example: in June 2019, right-wing extremist Stephan Ernst shot and killed CDU politician Walter Lübcke, the head of the public administration of Kassel. Ernst had previously been an AfD supporter, attending its events and donating money to the party, and in 2018 helped with its state election campaign in Hesse by hanging posters and working campaign tables.
A third example: in October 2020, an AfD member drove an SUV into an anti-fascist demonstration on the fringes of a party event in Henstedt-Ulzburg in Schleswig-Holstein. Some of the victims were seriously injured. The public prosecutor’s office accuses the driver of hitting the protesters “with intent to kill.”
These are the most obvious instances of connections between the AfD and right-wing violence. There are many other cases that are difficult to prove directly, but where far-right propaganda incited the perpetrators of violence to put into practice the supposed will of the people as formulated by the AfD. Nevertheless, neither these connections nor the party’s ongoing far-right drift and its observation by the Office for the Protection of the Constitution have substantially harmed the AfD.
Ten years after its founding, the party has established itself as a durable political presence. It sits in almost all state parliaments, and has hundreds of deputies and even more staff. Hopes that the AfD would be torn apart by its internal contradictions have not been realized — and are unlikely to be realized in the future.
Unlike Die Linke, which is currently on the verge of a damaging split, the AfD manages to work through its fundamental internal differences of opinion, and in some cases even puts them to productive use. Disputes now take place relatively quietly behind the scenes.
The AfD also succeeds in papering over internal differences concerning the war in Ukraine. Similar to the Left, a wide range of opinions can be found in the right-wing camp when it comes to the role of Russia and NATO. The (mostly western German) voices that support NATO are likely in the minority within the party compared with those that express some “understanding” for the Russian invasion, partly because they see Putin’s Russia as a role model for their own political approach. Nevertheless, a degree of internal pluralism is allowed to exist on this issue.
Unlike Die Linke, which is currently on the verge of a damaging split, the AfD manages to work through its fundamental internal differences of opinion.
Following the last federal party congress in Riesa in June 2022, the balance of power has been clarified for the time being: the ethnonationalist wing is here to stay. The German Left must now prepare itself for at least ten more years of the AfD.
Nevertheless, the AfD faces a strategic dilemma: in all likelihood, the other parties will not form a coalition with it in the foreseeable future. Even in eastern Germany, where the AfD is particularly strong and the CDU is more reluctant to distance itself from the right-populists, no coalition is likely to be considered in the medium term. Right-wing forces in the CDU seeking to initiate such a move have so far been harshly rebuked for doing so. After talks between CDU and AfD members of the Saxony-Anhalt state parliament on tolerating a CDU minority government presumably took place at the end of 2020, Holger Stahlknecht, the CDU minister of the interior who was apparently open to such a proposition, was forced to vacate his post.
The fact that a coalition is very unlikely at this point suits the leaders of the ethnonationalist wing, as they do not aspire to cooperate with the CDU at all. Their model is Italy, where the extreme right has succeeded in putting so much pressure on the established conservative parties that they have largely eroded. That is the long-term perspective of the ethnonationalists: the destruction of the CDU. In the best-case scenario, a purified, heavily depleted CDU shifting significantly to the right will be willing to join an AfD government as a junior partner.
The AfD knows that this will not happen anytime soon. But its leaders think in larger dimensions and in the long term. If it’s up to the ethnonationalists, the AfD’s first ten years will only be the first step.
France is currently in flames. Millions have been taking to the streets to protest against the government’s anti-democratic measure to raise the retirement age. Across the Rhine, Germany — where there tend to be far fewer strikes — is also set to experience a historic strike.
Starting on Monday at midnight and lasting for 24 hours, hundreds of thousands of workers will be on strike. This is set to be the biggest strike in Germany in more than 30 years. It represents a convergence of different struggles in progress.
On the one hand, the railway workers’ union EVG (not the same as the train drivers’ union GDL) is demanding a 12 percent raise for their members. Three decades after a partial privatization, the state-owned railway company Deutsche Bahn is in permanent crisis, with workers desperately holding together a system that has been hollowed out by under investment. The participation is going to be so high that management announced the cancellation of all trains in the country.
On the other hand, the service sector union ver.di is negotiating a contract for public-sector workers. The TVöD contract covers 2.5 million employees of federal and city governments — in all kinds of workplaces, from hospitals to daycare centers to government offices — and the union is demanding 10.5 percent more money for everyone. The governments are only offering raises of 5 percent — which, since it’s below the inflation rate, would mean across-the-board wage cuts.
Other strikes are taking place now as well. Just last week, thousands of Berlin teachers were on strike for two days demanding smaller classes. Before that was a massive strike at the privatized German postal service. There, the ver.di bureaucracy announced a terrible compromise at the last second — a “raise” below the inflation rate, so a de facto wage cut — even though 86 percent of union members had voted to strike for as long as necessary until the full demands were won. This is a warning that the union bureaucrats are not to be trusted.
Faced with the “Mega Strike” on Monday, the capitalists’ representatives are attacking the right to strike, crying that the population “is being taken hostage” by unions. But the situation is the exact opposite: the only hostage-takers are the bosses. They threaten millions of working-class people: if you don’t keep working, for ever-lower wages, you’ll be thrown out on the street. But in the strikes, we see that workers are rejecting this blackmail. They are showing who is keeping the economy running: by simply folding their arms, they are able to bring everything to a standstill.
Different governments in Germany — whether they are led by social democrats, conservatives, greens, or even “The Left” — are all claiming that there is not enough money for wage increases to match inflation. But these same parties had no problem providing €100 billion for the military. At the same time, German corporations are making record profits. These capitalist politicians tell working people to “tighten their belts” to support the war effort — but they would never even dream of touching corporate profits.
On Monday, buses, trams, and subways in different German cities will stand still. Higher wages for workers in public transport companies are essential to recruiting new workers and overcoming the desperate shortages of personnel. And that is in turn essential for reducing carbon emissions in the transport sector. This is therefore also a climate strike. That’s why Fridays for Future and other climate activists have declared their support for it. The German government, which includes the so-called Green Party, is only interested in building freeways and subsidizing the car industry.
Unlike in France, it is unusual in Germany for different strikes to take place on the same day like this. Germany has one main union confederation, the DGB, with almost six million members. Yet the affiliated unions are involved in constant bureaucratic wrangling and almost never work together. Even during the “Mega-Strike” in Berlin, for example, the EVG and ver.di are planning to march separately.
The “mega-strike” is thus a result of huge pressure from below in Germany’s large but largely passive unions. Inflation has made it essential for workers to fight for wage increases. At the same time, workers in France are showing that fighting can get results, inspiring their class siblings across the border. But there is another important lesson from Paris: a one-day strike will not be enough. The “Mega Strike” deserves full support — and can only be a start for a real struggle to make the capitalists pay for their crisis.
Ferdinand Lassalle (1825-64) is often described as the “founder of German social democracy”. But his influence on the German workers’ movement was mostly disastrous.
Lassalle participated in the 1848 revolution, for which he spent a year in prison. But he was not at all the workers’ champion. Frederick Engels said, in an 1891 letter to Karl Kautsky, that until 1862 Lassalle was “a specifically Prussian vulgar democrat with strong Bonapartist leanings” before “he suddenly switched round for purely personal reasons”. Lassalle tried unsuccessfully to assume leadership of the main bourgeois party, the Progressives. His hatred of the liberal bourgeoisie and subsequent turn to the working class were largely due to his resentment at the liberals’ rejection of him.
In the 1860s, there was a revival of struggle in Europe, as the working class recovered from the defeats of 1848. This made it possible to establish an international workers’ organisation, the First International, in which Karl Marx and Engels were key players.
In the early 1860s, the German workers’ movement was starting to organise, notably in Leipzig. But lacking in experience and self-confidence, these workers felt the need for a spokesperson and turned to Lassalle. Still smarting from his rejection by the liberals, Lassalle saw an opportunity to put himself at the head of this burgeoning workers’ movement and use it as a vehicle to advance his own ideas. He founded the General German Workers’ Association (GGWA) in 1863 and ran it as a dictatorship.
Lassalle was killed in a duel in 1864, but his ideas had quickly become hegemonic in a section of the German movement. Marxist writer Hal Draper commented that, by the time the First International was established in 1864, “the German field had already been pre-empted by Lassalleanism”. Under Lassalle, the new movement “was cradled in the swaddling clothes of a bureaucratic dictatorship, nurtured on state-cultist politics, and educated in the spirit of the Cult of the Individual Leader”.
The centrepiece of Lassalle’s ideology was “state socialism”. Like the philosopher Georg Hegel (whom he studied at university), he believed that the state’s mission was to accomplish the development of human freedom. The role of workers’ or popular movements was essentially to pressure the state into fulfilling its historic role. Marx, having long since rejected the idea that the state could be any kind of progressive force, argued that “state socialism” was a form of reformism.
For reformists, social change comes about through tinkering with the existing state. But for Marx, the question is who controls society—that is, which class rules the state. Therefore, the aim must be a change in class power. Uncompromising hostility to the state, the instrument of the class that rules society, was central to Marx and Engels’ thinking—even before the 1971 Paris Commune demonstrated in practice that workers couldn’t simply take over the existing state but had to smash it and replace it with a new kind of state.
For Lassalle, however, the state was “the immemorial vestal fire of all civilisation”. And he drew no distinction between his idealist conception of the state and the oppressive nature of the state as it actually existed.
In practice, this meant siding with reaction. As Draper pointed out in the fourth volume of his monumental Karl Marx’s theory of revolution, “in 1862 reformists still had a choice between contending ruling classes, the old one still in control of the state [the feudal aristocrats] and the new one dominating the economy [the capitalists]. Lassalle chose the power that still visibly monopolised the state machine”. That is, he looked to a state that rested on the old reactionary class; concretely, he tried to form a secret alliance with Prussian Chancellor Bismarck against the liberal bourgeoisie.
In May 1863, Lassalle wrote to Bismarck. He boasted of his dictatorial powers within what he openly called his own “empire” (the GGWA), and asserted that “the working class feels an instinctive inclination towards dictatorship if it can … be persuaded that the dictatorship will be exercised in its interests”. He proposed an anti-bourgeois coalition: an alliance between king, aristocracy, army and his workers’ movement.
Lassalle described his personal dictatorship of the workers’ movement as “on a small scale the prototype of our next form of society on a large scale”, without the nasty “malcontent spirit” and “individual opinion” that characterised liberalism.
Nothing came of Lassalle’s secret dealings with Bismarck, which were exposed after his death. Engels commented to Kautsky that they “would certainly have led him to the actual betrayal of the movement, if fortunately … he had not been shot”.
Lassalle propounded what he called the “iron law of wages”, based on Malthusian population theory. “Under the rule of the supply and demand of labour”, he wrote, “the average wage always remains reduced to the necessary subsistence level … needed for eking out a living and for propagation”. Wages could not rise above the average for any length of time, as the working population would increase, bringing wages down again. On the other hand, wages could not remain for long below subsistence level, as poverty would lead to a reduction in the number of workers, and thus the supply of factory hands.
But if this were a natural law, Marx argued in his Critique of the Gotha Programme, it couldn’t be abolished, because it would govern “not only the system of wage labour but every social system”. The so-called law simply allows bourgeois economists to argue that “socialism cannot abolish poverty, which has its basis in nature, but can only make it general”. As Engels noted in a letter August Bebel in 1875, “Marx proved … in Capital that the laws regulating wages are very complicated … they are in no sense iron but on the contrary very elastic”.
The political conclusion arising from Lassalle’s “iron law” is that workers cannot improve their conditions of life through their own efforts, so there is no point engaging in collective economic struggle or forming trade unions. Lassallean logic suggests that the only way workers can be freed from the “iron law of wages” is to become their own employers.
And how do they do that? Lassalle’s solution was massive state loans to found large-scale cooperatives that would eventually take over all industry and all branches of the economy. This process would, at some point in the distant future, lead to socialism. So the state, rather than the working class, was to be the agent of social transformation, and no revolution was required. The central demand of the movement therefore had to be for universal (male) suffrage. Indeed Lassalle argued that it should be the only demand of the workers’ movement. He exhorted his followers to “be deaf to all that is not called universal and direct suffrage”:
“When [universal suffrage] comes … there will be at your side men who understand your position and are devoted to your cause—men armed with the shining sword of science, who know how to defend your interests. And then you, the unpropertied classes, will only have yourselves and your bad voting to blame if the representatives of your cause remain in a minority.”
These “men armed with the shining sword of science”—men like him!—would then legislate to ensure that the state provided the loans to set up producers’ cooperatives.
Lassalle believed that while state aid did not in itself amount to socialism, it nonetheless contained the “germ” of it. The state and its rulers were presumably not expected to understand this; otherwise they would hardly finance their own demise. But workers weren’t expected to understand it either!
Lassalle’s approach—not just socialism from above, but socialism by stealth—is the polar opposite of the conscious self-emancipation of the working class.
Marx condemned the Realpolitik of Lassalle, whose idea of practicality was to conform to existing conditions. But he understood its appeal to a working class that was still demoralised by a long period of reaction, and so was ready to “hail such a quack saviour, who promised to get them at one bound into the promised land”.
After Lassalle’s death, Marx and Engels set out to fight his ideas within the workers’ movement. They opposed the Lassallean project of getting state capital for producers’ cooperatives, on the grounds that this would only help the government extend its tentacles into the workers’ movement.
As Marx wrote in letters to Engels: “The Prussian state can not tolerate workers’ coalitions and trade unions … In contrast, governmentsupport to a few lousy cooperative societies is just the kind of crap that suits it. It means extending the noses of officialdom … corrupting the most active of the workers, emasculating the whole movement”. Lassalle’s “hapless illusion” that “a Prussian government would carry out a socialist intervention” was doomed to disappointment; and “the honour of the workers’ party requires that it reject such illusions, even before their hollowness is punctured by experience. The working class is revolutionary or it is nothing”.
In January 1965, Marx had written to J.B. Schweitzer, now leader of the GGWA, “telling him that he must array himself against Bismarck, that even the appearance of a flirtation with Bismarck on the part of the workers’ party must be dropped”. But in the 1866 election, the GGWA supported Bismarck’s candidacy. By this time, Marx and Engels had resigned as contributors to the GGWA’s publication.
Lassalleanism declined as the political power of the bourgeoisie grew and its weight within the state increased. By 1875, there were discussions about the possibility of unity between Lassalle’s followers and the Eisenachers—the group led by August Bebel and Wilhelm Liebknecht, who saw themselves as Marxists and had founded the Social Democratic Labour Party in 1869.
Marx believed that the Lassallean forces were being forced towards a merger because of their weakness on the one hand, and the growing independence of trade unions and influence of the Social Democrats on the other. Nonetheless, his preference was not for a united organisation, but for a period of common activity, a kind of united front. The vital step, in his view, was not agreement on a common programme but rather the advancement of the workers’ movement: “Every step of real movement is more important than a dozen programs”, he wrote in a letter to Wilhelm Bracke.
But Bebel and Liebknecht succumbed to impatience and opportunism, viewing organisational unity as a shortcut. At a conference in Gotha in 1875 the two organisations merged to form the Socialist Labour Party of Germany under a draft program that made huge concessions to the Lassalleans. The programme pledged that the party would work “by every lawful means to bring about a free state”. It contained none of Marx’s analysis of economic development, no word of revolution, no discussion of the class character of the state. Unity was achieved at expense of political principle.
Marx wrote a savage critique of the Gotha programme, which he described as “for all its democratic clang … tainted through and through by the Lassallean sect’s servile belief in the state”. To summarise his main objections:
First, the programme dealt with the state “as an independent entity”, whereas the German state in question rested on a reactionary class. The programme “attacked only the capitalist class and not the landowners” and described all classes other than the working class as “one reactionary mass”. This Lassallean distortion was used to “put a good colour on his alliance with absolutist and feudal” forces.
Moreover, the workers’ movement was viewed, again following Lassalle, “from the narrowest national standpoint”. Marx argued that working-class struggle is national only in form, not substance. The national state exists within the framework of the world market and the system of states. The programme thus reduced internationalism to “the international brotherhood of all peoples”, with no class content.
Second, the programme enshrined the slogan of “cooperative societies with state aid … on such a scale that the socialist organisation of the total labour will arise from them”. Marx’s response was scathing: “It is worthy of Lassalle’s imagination that a new society can be built with state loans just as well as a new railway!” Marx didn’t oppose cooperatives per se, or oppose making demands on the state. But he objected to such reforms being held up as the goal, a substitute for a rounded socialist programme.
For Marx, reformism does not simply mean the advocacy of reforms, but rather “assigning a certain all-encompassing meaning to the fight for reforms, its elevation to the be-all and end-all of politics”. Marxists fight for reforms partly to improve the conditions of workers, but more importantly as a way of developing the consciousness and confidence of the workers’ movement to go beyond reforms and challenge the capitalist system itself.
As for cooperative societies, “they are of value only in so far as they are the independent creations of the workers and not protégés of either governments or of bourgeois”. The key word there is “independent”.
Similarly, Marx drew out the political meaning of the demand for “state aid”: “Instead of arising from the revolutionary process of transformation of society, the ‘socialist organisation of total labour’ ‘arises’ from the state aid that the state gives to the producers’ cooperative societies and which the state, not the worker, calls into being”.
Thus the Gotha programme, following Lassalle, dispensed with the need for revolution and assigned the basic creative role to the state.
Engels, in his letter Bebel, also dismissed the idea of the “free state”: “As the state is only a transitional institution which is used in the struggle, in the revolution, in order to hold down one’s adversaries by force, it is pure nonsense to talk of a free people’s state … as soon as it becomes possible to speak of freedom, the state as such ceases to exist”.
Ominously for the future of German socialist organisation, Marx’s critiquewas suppressed for years, as were the passages in his writings that were most critical of Lassalle. The Gotha programme was, as Hal Draper described, a “bridge between the state-socialist reformism of Lassalle, which by itself had no future, and the bourgeois reformism of the type that did represent the future of German social democracy”.
Despite the Social Democratic Party’s formal rejection of Lassalleanism and the adoption of the seemingly more radical Erfurt program in 1891, a degree of confusion about the state—and therefore the seeds of reformism—remained within the German party.
Germany activated the “alarm stage,” phase two of three of the country’s emergency methane-based gas plans, on Thursday after Russia’s Gazprom throttled deliveries by 60%. Phase three would allow the government to implement energy rationing. German economic minister Robert Habeck told reporters the cutbacks were a direct political attack in retaliation for Germany’s sanctions against […]
A revolutionary upsurge after 1918 could have democratized German politics. Instead, the brutal repression used to contain that upsurge strengthened the authoritarian right, divided the German workers’ movement, and facilitated the rise of Hitler.
Soldiers of the German Freikorps, a right-wing paramilitary organization, during the Kapp Putsch to overthrow the nascent Weimar Republic and reinstall the monarchy, Berlin, Germany, March 13, 1920. (Bain News Service/Buyenlarge/Getty Images)
In recent years, German history during the Weimar Republic has become an increasingly familiar reference point in US politics. Anyone who stands to the left of Hillary Clinton or Joe Biden will find themselves compared to the Communist Party of Germany. Commentators asked if the Capitol Hill riot in January 2021 was a latter-day version of the Kapp Putsch, or even the Reichstag fire.
But the more people talk about Weimar Germany as the master key to our own time, the less we seem to know about its real history. Before we can discuss its lessons for today, we need to understand that history on its own terms.
Sean Larson is a historian who specializes in the German Revolution and the Weimar Republic and an editor at Rampant magazine.
How did the German monarchy fall at the end of 1918? And who were the key political actors at that time?
The German Kaiser was toppled by the November Revolution — the same November Revolution that ended the First World War. This revolution was not just a change of figureheads. It was a deep-rooted social revolution that swept through all the different aspects of German life. This came at a time of highly regimented, disciplined wartime routines. In city after city, as soon as people started taking over their neighborhoods and their workplaces, it created a new public sphere, the likes of which German people had never seen before.
The movement was pretty spectacular at times. For example, people in Munich stormed the military prisons and freed all the prisoners before setting up their own structures. In Hamburg, naval officers from the Kaiser’s army took up arms against the revolutionary workers, until a fleet of red sailors came in with a cruiser, turned their guns on the officers, and saved the day.
The revolution brought in all layers of the German population. Its main vehicle was the workers’ council. These were structures that had been developed by necessity during a series of wartime mass political strikes. The typical workers’ organizations, the trade unions and the Social Democratic Party (SPD), refused to participate in those strikes, so workers were left to develop their own structures. They came up with these workers’ councils: they were democratically elected, flexible, improvised bodies, designed to make decisions and then take action on the basis of those decisions.
Around the country, these bodies obviously looked very different in different cities, but they did share a few demands in common. Those demands included the democratization of the state and the army, nationalization of major industries, and workers’ power to organize a future out of this bleak wartime reality that a lot of people had just gone through for the last four years. The councils also started to exercise a real claim to social power. They weren’t just playing around. They were coordinating strikes, seizing counterrevolutionary newspapers, preventing troop movements, and they started to pose a real challenge to the existing structures.
However, they were also shaped by the various preexisting organizations and networks. The German workers’ movement was probably the best organized movement in the world before the war. The SPD and the Free Trade Unions, which were very closely affiliated to the party, were the chief expressions of that organization. Before the war, for working people, loyalty to those organizations was deeply rooted in a whole culture of political, social, and organizational services. It was an entire lifeworld.
The German workers’ movement was probably the best organized movement in the world before the war.
In 1914, the party and the unions suffered a huge blow to their credibility when they supported the war effort. This was more than simply an abstract betrayal of principle. It was also the beginning of a process whereby the party and the unions transformed themselves over the course of the war into the disciplinarians of an increasingly unsettled workers’ movement.
The Social Democratic leaders especially didn’t come out of the German Revolution looking very good. They went through lots of different twists and turns. They made alliances with the army, the industrialists, and parties to their right. They broke those alliances at some points and then reforged others at other points.
During the November outbreak, the unions also played a stabilizing role, because they created an institution with the employers called the Central Working Group. It was designed essentially to short-circuit the rank-and-file movement organized through the councils. They also got something out of it: under the pressure of the revolution, the employers agreed to the eight-hour day, a long-standing demand of the workers’ movement. That was a huge victory, even though it proved to be temporary. The joint body they created with the employers was one of the main organizers of the demobilization and played a big role throughout the rest of the revolution.
The other key organizers of the revolution were the revolutionary shop stewards. This was a network of trusted, well-placed metalworkers around the country. They had bases in Central Germany, and Berlin especially. They were responsible for organizing the wartime strikes that brought out over a million people, most of whom were women, in 1918 — 75 percent of those going on strike were women.
During the war, the revolutionary shop stewards were members of another party, the Independent Social Democrats (USPD). This was a large party that split from the Social Democrats in 1917, based upon opposition to the war, but also under the spell of the Bolshevik revolution in Russia. The USPD was something of a hodgepodge politically, united mainly by its pacifism. It functioned as a useful container for various forces, such as the revolutionary shop stewards.
The last group that I’ll touch on here is the more politically visionary element within the USPD at the time of the revolution, the Spartacus group. A huge number of Spartacists were in prison at the time of the November revolution, including their key leader, Rosa Luxemburg. Most of the Spartacus group’s cadre were graduates of the SPD party school that Luxemburg had run prior to the war.
Rosa Luxemburg addressing a crowd in Stuttgart, 1907. (ullstein bildullstein bild via Getty Images)
During the war, they cohered themselves by distributing a number of leaflets called the Spartacus letters that put forward Luxemburg’s political vision, which emphasized the self-activity of the working class. It called for the rejection of what they considered to be the very fixed and passive political recipes of the Social Democrats in favor of trusting the creativity of the popular movement.
They saw their perspective as being confirmed by the council movement, which was spontaneously improvised. But they also believed that socialists should aim to provide that movement with an ideological backbone. They had a vision that was forward-striving and decisive. They opposed themselves in that regard to the default wait-and-see approach of the unions and the Social Democratic Party.
Why did the Spartacist uprising take place in Berlin toward the beginning of 1919, and what were its outcomes?
The Spartacist uprising, or the January uprising, was the culmination of a monthslong dual-power struggle between the provisional government set up after the revolution and the council movement that had broken out all over the country. Throughout November and December 1918, these two forces were jockeying with each other for state power. They deployed various bureaucratic maneuvers, and there were also armed confrontations in the streets at some points, although the process did remain largely nonviolent.
With the help of a secret agreement with the German Army, the SPD leaders around Friedrich Ebert ultimately came to occupy the dominant positions within the provisional government, while workers in Berlin and elsewhere continued to assert control over their shop floors and their neighborhoods. They were acting in the councils and creating their own structures rather than relying on the institutions of the party and the trade unions.
There was a significant showdown shortly after the first nationwide congress of these councils in December 1918. The SPD was hoping to consolidate its control by ousting a bastion of revolutionary sailors who were holed up near the city center. In the course of the conflict, Ebert called in the old German Army command to fire on the sailors at Christmas. They ended up killing more than thirty people.
While this was happening, unarmed people from around the city, including many women and children, came to defend the sailors, and they ultimately repelled the attack. The incident became a turning point that polarized large sections of the movement against the SPD. It triggered the departure of the USPD from the provisional government, in which it had been participating in a junior role. It also marked a high point in an ongoing media campaign, across the full range of the Berlin press, that demonized the Spartacist leader Karl Liebknecht, portraying him as a master of chaos and harbinger of Bolshevism.
There was a seriously tense situation in early January 1919. Ebert’s administration felt compelled to consolidate its power by challenging the last real bastion of opposition to the provisional government, which was a revolutionary police militia controlled by the radical Emil Eichhorn. The attempt to dismiss Eichhorn from his post, in early January, prompted the revolutionary shop stewards to plan an anti-government demonstration for January 5. It should really be called the January uprising, because only afterward did the shop stewards invite the Spartacus group to join.
By this point, the Spartacists had helped organize the new Communist Party of Germany (KPD). They endorsed the demonstration. When the day came, it was unexpectedly massive, with hundreds of thousands of people. After a few speeches, they marched to occupy the offices of the Social Democratic newspaper, Vorwärts (Forward). The revolutionary leaders hadn’t really planned this, but once the facts were established on the ground, they defended it and called for a general strike. In response, the government organized a crackdown.
The SPD war minister, Gustav Noske, brought in battalions of the Freikorps, an extreme-right-wing paramilitary organization, to clear out the occupation. This was the beginning of a nationwide bloodbath by these protofascist forces, with indiscriminate and extrajudicial killings of suspected Spartacists all over the country, and ultimately the capture and murder of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht.
It’s hard to overstate the sheer violence that was involved in this crackdown. It was a witch hunt. People were having their homes barged into; they were being shot left, right, and center, without any semblance of a democratic trial.
After the repression of the uprising and the deaths of Luxemburg and Liebknecht, what was the balance of forces between the Social Democrats and the Communist Party in the German workers’ movement?
After this bloody spring of 1919, the first phase of the German Revolution can be considered over. The workers’ and soldiers’ council movement had been decisively defeated. What had become full-blown council republics in Bavaria and Bremen were brutally suppressed, as well as other epicenters of council power in Düsseldorf, Mannheim, Halle, and other cities.
One of the most important reasons that the Kapp Putsch could not continue was that German capital did not want it to.
The subsequent period, which lasted roughly from March 1919 to March 1920, was characterized by the turn of the revolutionary movement to more economically oriented factory councils as its arena. These were specifically based upon workplaces, unlike the political councils.
There were still ongoing strike waves, especially in the Ruhr industrial region, which was a key region for the German Revolution. There were also strike waves in Berlin and Central Germany. All of these strikes were calling for the socialization of the mines and the heavy industries. That demand was ultimately killed in committee by the new government, but it was an important part of the movement over the course of that year.
The workers’ movement shifted quite noticeably onto the defensive. They were responding to external events rather than calling the shots. In January 1919, the Weimar Republic had its first National Assembly elections. It was the first election where women had the vote.
It resulted in a new coalition government, predominantly comprised of what was called the Weimar coalition: the SPD, the Catholic Center Party, and the liberal party, the German Democratic Party. Over the course of 1919, the SPD leadership consolidated its alliance with the old military in the process of this repression, and their cooperation with these other parties in parliament further identified them with the state and the republic itself.
Meanwhile, the Free Trade Unions were undergoing a sweeping reorganization and centralization in the summer of 1919. This was partly in response to the German employers’ organizations, which had also gone through a sweeping reorganization and centralization earlier that year. The new organization of the trade unions was accompanied by a renewal of their ideological program. They put out a platform for a kind of union-led version of the welfare state.
This was designed to relegitimize the unions after they had lost a lot of trust during the revolution, and to take the wind out of the sails of a growing radical intra-union opposition, comprised of the USPD members around the factory councils and the revolutionary shop stewards. This opposition was challenging the unions from within.
The Communist Party of Germany was founded at the turn of the year by a bunch of politically heterogeneous groups that came together from around the country. They were really united more or less by the charisma of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. They were very young: at the founding congress, more than three-quarters were under the age of thirty-five. Half of them were workers.
The party that they founded was a rather loose grouping, with no real shared perspective on organization, and very weak ties to the working class. By that summer, the KPD had undergone all of this repression — a huge layer of its leaders had been killed — and it was in disarray, organizationally and politically.
There were elements within the new party that were exclusively devoted to refounding the political councils and refused to do anything else. They called for leaving the trade unions entirely. A lot of the other people in the KPD refused to put up candidates for parliamentary elections.
However, by the next party congress in October 1919, all of those elements had been expelled from the KPD, largely because of the efforts of its new leader, Paul Levi. The party that resulted was quite insignificant politically and consisted mainly of small, local, underground groups by February 1920.
How did the German left respond to the Kapp Putsch of 1920? What did the putsch reveal about the disposition of the German Army, the industrialists, and the civil service?
The Kapp Putsch was organized by German nationalists and a section of the Reichswehr, the German Army. Freikorps troops marched into Berlin on March 13, 1920, prompting the SPD government leaders to flee the city.
The quickest to react were the newly centralized trade unions under their leader, Carl Legien. The unions, along with the SPD and almost all parties of the Left, called a general strike on the day of the putsch. Notably, the KPD leadership initially refused to, as they put it, “lift a finger in defense of the Republic.” But they corrected their mistake two days later, after rank-and-file Communists around the country had already organized strikes and renewed the council movement.
The result of this call was the largest general strike in German history. Over 12 million workers halted their work. In Berlin, where the showdown really happened, two strike leaderships arose. One was based around the official union leadership. A more radical one was comprised of a coalition of the USPD, the KPD, and factory council movements, as well as the Berlin intra-union opposition, which was the focal point for union opposition around the country.
As the strike wore on, the presses were shut down and reliable communication was almost impossible in the city. In that context, as the strike was going on for days and days, it had this continuity and escalation largely due to the initiative of local groups of workers acting on their own. After five days, during which time the public officials’ union also joined the strike leadership, the putsch ended, but the strike did not.
Carl Legien entered negotiations with the SPD-led government while workers’ councils in the Ruhr formed a Red Army with a hundred thousand members and took control of wide swathes of Ruhr territory. Finally, the strike ended on the 20th, with promises by the government to institute the trade union agenda. The government then sent in repressive forces to put down the revolutionary movement in the Ruhr.
There were a few takeaways from the Kapp Putsch. First of all, the general strike revitalized the German left. Trade union membership hit 8.1 million members — the highest it had ever been. Union density in the crucial metalworking industry topped 91 percent. The strike and the Ruhr movement also put wind in the sails of the factory council movement again.
There was something else going on here, too. One of the most important reasons that the putsch could not continue was that German capital did not want it to. The employers’ organizations considered the whole affair to be premature at best, but a lot of them saw it as an outright crime, because it threatened the progress that they were making, with productivity levels finally recovering and signs that the exchange rate of the mark was improving.
How did the KPD come to launch the failed uprising that was known as the March Action in 1921?
I want to give a little context here, and not just for the March Action. Around this time, a lot of different things were happening that set up developments for the rest of the Weimar Republic. The year 1920 was a major turning point in the German revolutionary movement, and there were a number of developments that played into that — in the workers’ movement, in the economy, and also within the KPD.
Throughout 1919 and most of 1920, the revolutionary shop stewards and other factory council activists within the USPD had become increasingly dissatisfied with the leadership of their own party. In addition to the state violence that was unleashed over this period, their social conditions continue to stagnate or even deteriorate. The USPD’s left wing was attempting to organize direct, collective actions to improve the livelihoods of workers. But they were continually thwarted from doing so, because the USPD leaders were staunchly committed to a strategy that prioritized the labor-capital partnership that had been institutionalized in 1918.
A revolution of some kind in Germany would be the Soviet Union’s salvation.
Meanwhile, the Communist International (Comintern), based in Moscow, was making overtures that were becoming more and more attractive to the USPD left, because organizing along Communist lines would offer them more freedom of action, even if some of the leaders weren’t quite fully convinced on some of the points that affiliating with the Comintern would entail. On the other hand, the trade unions had been trying to liquidate the factory council movement. In January 1920, legislation was passed to do just that, and they finally succeeded in subordinating the factory councils under union authority in October that year.
After that setback, the left wing of the USPD decided to unite with the much smaller KPD, splitting the USPD down the middle at a famous congress in Halle, and forming what was called the United Communist Party in December 1920. The new party had about 450,000 members. It was the first mass Communist party outside of Russia.
Most of the rank and file of this new party had just gone through two years of enforced passivity and restraint under the more conservative USPD leadership. Their general mood was a very strong demand for action. The word “action” here was quite ambiguous — the meaning ascribed to it ranged from coordinated initiatives of a new type at workplaces throughout December 1920 and January 1921 to demands for what was constantly referred to as a great, all-encompassing deed in response to the intensification of the employers’ offensive.
It’s important to understand the economic conjuncture. In 1920, the global economy entered a recession. It had a severe impact on the Western Entente countries — the United States, France, and Great Britain — all of which implemented deflationary policies in response. That meant slowing economic growth and downsizing firms in the hope of a quicker recovery. When unproductive firms closed, there was a sharp uptick in unemployment, exacerbated by layoffs in the public sector.
In Germany, the government also wanted to institute deflationary policies, but was prevented from doing so because it was facing widespread riots and strikes in the fall of 1920. The government’s main concern was that deflation would cause a drastic rise in unemployment that could tip the scales of this social unrest toward full-blown revolution.
The March Action in 1921. (Wikimedia Commons)
When it came down to it, the state was forced to do the opposite of downsizing. An unprecedented decree on November 8 severely restricted the closure of factories and firms. At the same time, the government was subsidizing private firms to keep employment levels artificially high in the private sector at the cost of redundancy and inefficiency. In the fall and winter, when the government attempted to cut costs through layoffs in the notoriously bloated public railway and civil service systems, they encountered massive worker opposition and the mounting danger of a railroad and postal workers’ strike.
The only reason that the German economy kept running at this point was because the finance and economics ministries set up an elaborate system of export controls to maintain a rather slim export advantage throughout the 1920–21 recession. Private capital from the West was also flowing into Germany as a refuge, betting that the German market was going to make a big recovery.
This was a dilemma that continued to arise throughout the revolutionary period: the German state faced a task of restoring profitability, which under capitalism essentially required them to break the organized labor movement. However, German workers at this point were still too organized and militant. For now, capital and the state opted to “go along to get along,” even while they were constantly pushed by these economic conditions to reestablish control over the labor movement.
The March Action came in March 1921. After the Ruhr uprising of the previous year, the putting down of the Kapp Putsch had a rather contradictory outcome. In conjunction with the employers’ organizations and the demands of industrialists, the SPD in power started to expand state security apparatuses to intervene in civil disturbances and restore public order. As the depression deepened and conditions got worse and worse in early 1921, there was widespread looting and job-shirking, added to the regular spontaneous strikes about control of the shop floor.
All of this was creating a wildly unstable business climate. When factory directors in Saxony demanded that the government intervene, state officials prepared a police action to reestablish order. They moved in heavily armed police forces to occupy firms in the region. This was happening around mid-March.
Within the Communist Party, there was a very promising new strategy for workplace actions that was developing over the course of the winter, especially in the Ruhr and cities like Stuttgart. But at the same time, these blustery demands for that great, all-encompassing deed got support from a mid-level Comintern functionary who had recently barreled into Germany, Béla Kun, a hotheaded and not very experienced Hungarian. These discussions were all happening in a context where the two parties that had joined to form this new United Communist Party were still in the very early stages of integrating themselves organizationally, politically, and strategically.
The KPD leadership reacted to the police operation in Saxony by completely losing their heads. They decided that the situation was the turning point in the world revolution and issued a call for a general strike and armed resistance. In the event, only a minority of German workers heeded the strike call. The Communists then attempted to forcibly prevent huge numbers of noncommunist workers from entering their workplaces.
After about a week of police bombardments, with dynamite explosions and battles between workers, the March Action completely collapsed in utter defeat. The entire operation was a fiasco. It sowed distrust between rank-and-file Communists and their coworkers. In the aftermath, the KPD hemorrhaged members, losing about 300,000 of their original 450,000.
The other outcome of the March Action was a reforging of the bonds between the Social Democrats and the forces of order in the state and industry. The previous year, the Kapp Putsch had driven a wedge between the SPD and the unions, on the one hand, and the army and the employers, on the other. But the lessons of the March Action led to closer coordination between them in a shared hostility to communism and worker radicalism.
How would you characterize the relationship between the KPD and the Soviet government in the early 1920s?
The KPD’s relationship to the Soviets was mediated primarily through the Comintern, a body that encompassed Communist parties from all around the world. The first four congresses of the Comintern took place over this period. They were important strategic crucibles for the global communist movement, and especially for Germany; indeed, a lot of their central debates were all about Germany.
There can be a tendency to read the international influence of the Bolsheviks through the lens of subsequent developments under Stalin, when the carefully built international revolutionary movement was subordinated to the interest of an emerging bureaucratic class in Russia. But the reality on the ground in Germany from 1918 to 1923 was different.
The hyperinflation of 1923 has to be understood as a product of the class struggle.
Internationalism was the foundation of the Spartacus group. Every single one of the underground Spartacus letters during the war began with a prominent quotation from Luxemburg’s Junius theses, which were the founding document of the Spartacists. It read as follows: “The center of gravity of the organization of the proletariat as a class is the International, and the obligation to carry out the decisions of the International takes precedence over all else.”
That was Rosa Luxemburg. The Comintern’s main representative in Germany, Karl Radek, had also played an instrumental role in the development of the German socialist movement since before the war, especially in the city of Bremen. His continued analysis and advice proved indispensable for the German party throughout the revolutionary period.
Having said all of that, around the time of the March Action, there were also some severe frictions. Some of the elements of the Comintern created a lot of confusion among the leading German communist groupings, notably Béla Kun’s personal insistence on the insurrectionary offensive, but also others. I don’t think that influence was the decisive factor in the March Action, but it certainly didn’t help.
In Russia, the context was the failure of the Red Army’s Polish campaign and the looming introduction of the New Economic Policy: this was going to introduce capitalist measures, and they didn’t want to do that. There were a lot of hopes in the Soviet Union that Germany would provide some relief to the Soviet people: a revolution of some kind in Germany would be their salvation. When you combine that with the loss of several key KPD leaders and the organizational disarray of the party, that left the remaining leaders susceptible to Béla Kun’s influence, as well as their own party’s confused and impatient rank and file.
That said, I think that, starting in the summer of 1921, the KPD’s constant interaction with the International was a crucial reason why they were able to rebuild the Communist Party under the leadership of Ernst Meyer. They developed the strategy of the united front. That strategy was originally developed by rank-and-file German workers in Stuttgart, and then elaborated on theoretically and on an international scale by Karl Radek in January 1921.
This involved making a concerted effort to initiate joint struggles around basic needs at workplaces and elsewhere, and then politicizing them to bring in more and more workers from all parties in collective action. Sometimes that would involve official collaboration between the leaderships of the parties. The kernel of that idea was built out in practice in Germany over the course of 1922–23, and ultimately resulted in a more unified, capable, and battle-tested Communist Party going into the most revolutionary situation in 1923.
On balance, I think the International did more to strengthen the KPD in those early years than it did to undermine it. This was before 1924, when it took a sharp turn for the worse. In that early period, the International was much less like some kind of wire-pulling foreign body that was imposing itself on the KPD, and much more like a political foundation and home for Communist workers in Germany.
Why did 1923 become a year of intense political turbulence in Germany? And why did the planned Communist uprising not go ahead that year?
The year 1923 was probably the most revolutionary situation in the entire period. The hyperinflation is what most people know about, but the hyperinflation has to be understood as a product of the class struggle.
Starting in the summer of 1922, J.P. Morgan recalled foreign loans to Germany. As the recession was ending, Western competitors were recovering, and that eliminated Germany’s export advantage. That triggered a critical situation of industrial overcapacity in Germany, and immediately raised the stabilization question that had been put off since 1921 through the continued rise in inflation.
Here are the stakes of the inflation question: Everybody knew that somebody was going to have to pay for the social and economic burdens of the settlement and the end of inflation. Either German capital would have to be socialized and expropriated, or the workers would have to pay by increasing productivity and lengthening their working day. It was a question of control over the workplace, the economy, and the state.
In November 1922, the prominent industrialist Hugo Stinnes, who was the nearest thing to a leader of the industrialists, publicly denounced the failure of the Center-led government to adequately serve capital. In response, a few days later, the government resigned, to be replaced by a new administration under the technocrat-businessman Wilhelm Cuno, who the industrialists hoped would be more likely to finish the job of breaking workers’ resistance. That change in government happened toward the end of the year 1922.
Suddenly, in January 1923, the French entered the Ruhr in search of reparations payments. Their occupation temporarily suspended this conflict between the government and heavy industry. The two sides united in favor of passive resistance that prioritized civil peace or labor peace while they resisted the French demands.
Throughout that spring of 1923, government credits bankrolled firms in the occupied Ruhr territory, until the mark collapsed again in mid-April. By early summer, a number of things had happened as a result: price controls were abandoned, union-sponsored wage stabilization efforts broke down, and the blast furnaces and steel mills in the Ruhr ground to a halt. Labor peace disintegrated, giving way to a massive wildcat strike wave that enveloped the Ruhr and started to bubble over into an open challenge to state authority, both French and German.
This was the beginning of galloping hyperinflation. The authorities saw printing money and wildly rising prices as preferable to state intervention against the revolutionary movement. That revived movement was also made possible by the emergence of new, improvised institutions of the class struggle, which we can describe as more or less united front organs.
They consisted primarily of the factory councils, refounded on a new basis since the fall of 1922. But they also included consumer control committees, councils of the unemployed, and, importantly, a paramilitary organization that was created through the factory councils in November called the Proletarian Hundreds. Communists were often in leadership positions throughout all these bodies, but those bodies also encompassed members of all the workers’ parties and unions. They continued to grow throughout this unrest.
At this time, the new Cuno government was paralyzed during the summer between three forces: Allied demands for reparations, the intransigence of the industrialists, and this new revolutionary wave, not only in the Ruhr, but now rapidly spreading into Central Germany in Saxony and Thuringia. Meanwhile, fascist battalions were mobilizing around the country, in conjunction with an illegal, privately funded army known as the Black Reichswehr. This was a question of the state organizing the German Army illegally, contrary to the Versailles Treaty, but funded privately.
In the early summer, KPD rank-and-file leaders were instrumental in coordinating the movement through their positions in the factory and unemployed councils. But as the events reached new heights of radicalization in the Ruhr, the KPD leaders were worried that there was going to be an isolated upsurge that wouldn’t get the support of the rest of the country and could easily be put down. They used their positions in the united front organs to rein in large sections of the spontaneous movement.
That began a turn in party policy, away from a reliance on their regional cadres and toward what they described as a “refusal to be the driving element” in a bid for power, even while the revolutionary movements continued to explode. By the last week of July, there were rolling wildcat strikes and occupations of factories and mines proliferating in the industrial West, directed by the councils and demanding the overthrow of the Cuno government.
All of the reactionaries who were responsible for the Kapp Putsch got off scot-free and continued to receive their state-funded pensions afterward.
Dissatisfaction with the government had now spilled over into large sections of the middle classes, as well as a lot of the ruling-class people around leading members of Cuno’s party. This was also the period in which workers occupying mines in the Ruhr were erecting gallows to haunt their German managers.
In mid-August, the factory council headquarters called a general strike. That brought 3 million workers out in Berlin, toppling the Cuno government within twenty-four hours. Cuno was replaced by a grand coalition, one that included the SPD, under the National Liberal Party leader, Gustav Stresemann, who promised to finally stabilize the economy at the expense of workers. But the strikes didn’t end. The next day, sweeping political strikes expanded to all of Saxony and Thuringia, demanding the overthrow of the government and the creation of a workers’ government.
Where were the Communists in all of this? At this point, they belatedly recognized what was going on. This was a revolutionary situation, and they decided to prepare for an insurrection by withdrawing from all united front organs and going underground at the beginning of fall 1923. The KPD was now a mass party again, with just shy of three hundred thousand organized members and over 3,300 local groups. These KPD supporters were not just voters. They were active Communists — people ready to go to the barricades.
Over September, they made underground preparations for an armed uprising in October — what everybody was calling the German October. But in the process, they lost contact with the ongoing rebellions around the country orchestrated through the united front organs. The result was the demobilization of those movements, which ended up dissipating into scattered economic protests and hunger riots as the Communists disappeared from the joint institutions.
On October 10, the KPD leader, Heinrich Brandler, and other members of the party leadership joined the government in Saxony and Thuringia, hoping to use those positions to gather arms and organize the insurrection. The final hour came on October 21, at a meeting of the factory councils in Saxony. Brandler put forward a proposal to their coalition partners, who were probably the SPD members furthest to the left in any government, to call a general strike, which would likely lead to an armed insurrection.
The SPD leaders were pretty solidly on the Left, but the evaporation of the mass movement left no real extra-parliamentary basis for a workers’ government, which was particularly alarming in the face of an impending invasion by the Reichswehr. In that context, it was quite rational of the SPD left in Saxony to shrink from that initiative, which they did. The KPD slunk out of the meeting, and the German October was aborted.
At the end of September, Stresemann’s government cooperated with iron and steel industrialists to stabilize prices. They ended the hyperinflation, bringing the class conflicts that were underlying all of this out into the open. Government credits and wage supports for industry were withdrawn.
Large-scale layoffs ensued, creating a sudden spike in unemployment, just as the leaders of the coal industry unilaterally declared the end of the eight-hour day at the beginning of October, in contravention of the institutional partnership between the unions and the employers. Shortly afterward, the SPD was forced out of the national government, and troops were sent into Saxony to put down the insurrectionary movement and stabilize the business climate by dissolving the key gains of the German Revolution.
What was the role of political violence, both from the Left and the Right, during the 1920s, and how did the German courts and the various political actors and parties respond to it?
There was a clear gap between the republican, democratic ideals of the SPD, which was often in power over the course of the Weimar Republic, and the deep state responsible for administering that republic. Throughout the 1920s, and especially after 1929, the vast majority of the judiciary was unsympathetic, at the least, to the new state. Judges were dispensing extremely political verdicts, giving just a slap on the wrist to the perpetrators of political violence in support of so-called patriotic causes, while handing out draconian sentences for left-wing challenges to state authority.
For example, between 1918 and 1922, the far right committed 354 murders, while the left wing committed a total of 22 murders. Of those 22 cases, 10 received the death sentence, while for 326 of the 354 far-right murders — 92 percent of them — the people charged were just released. If they were convicted, they usually received just a four-month prison term. What’s more, all of the reactionaries who were responsible for the Kapp Putsch got off scot-free and continued to receive their state-funded pensions afterward.
Despite the fact that many of the revolutionaries in the beginning were coming out of an extremely violent war, the first couple of months of the revolution were largely a nonviolent period. The real break came after January 1919. The battles at that time, and especially throughout March and April that spring, were the bloodiest period of the revolution. All of it was carried out as a means to reestablish capitalist order. Violence in the Weimar Republic predominantly stems from the need for the new state to establish some authority, and it really begins with Noske’s months of brutal repression.
That period also marked the consolidation of the protofascist Freikorps, whose ranks only grew throughout the following years of revolution, while the official military forces were kept down to a hundred thousand people by the terms of the Versailles Treaty. You can consider all state power as rooted in the monopoly on violence, but, ideally, from the perspective of state managers, you never have to exercise that monopoly: the threat alone is supposed to be what gives the state authority and legitimacy in a capitalist society. Weimar could not rely on that assumption.
Weimar’s state managers, including Social Democrats, often had to make a calculation. How did they shore up the authority of the state in conditions of total crisis, with food shortages and huge challenges to stay in power? Some tried to avoid resorting to violence and the Freikorps, but once they committed to restoring capital accumulation as the basis of stabilization, they really didn’t have any other choice, given the circumstances.
The challenge to state power was not just a onetime thing. It was an ongoing challenge that lasted over five years of the revolution. Even beyond that, it persisted in various ways throughout the 1920s. After the global crash of 1929, you had the intensified street battles of the early 1930s.
Of course, the state is not the only source of violence in the Weimar Republic. After 1923, you had a process of industrial rationalization in the workplaces, spearheaded by the unions of all people, that ended up increasing worker productivity and therefore throwing a lot of unemployed workers out on the street. That was the context in which the streets started to become the new public sphere, where political power was contested.
The different parties set up armed paramilitary wings to test their power against each other through violence. The background condition of this was the declining legitimacy of the state among the population. The state’s authority was continually chipped away by its inability, on the one hand, to resolve the crises of capitalism, but also by these challenges from the revolutionary left and the reactionary far right.
The different parties set up armed paramilitary wings to test their power against each other through violence.
There was a huge difference between those two forces, of course. People were attracted to the Left initially by idealism and the hope of a better world. The promises of the new democracy were collapsing around them. More and more, revolutionary workers, especially in the period of the united front, were just people fighting for their basic needs. They were fighting for price controls on their groceries, or pensions for widows and orphans, or firewood in the winter, as well as things like the right to defend themselves against the Freikorps entering their homes in the night.
Communist cadres that arose from these initial joiners were then developed through collective actions and especially through a systematic plan of political education, which played a much bigger role in the KPD than it did in any other party. Fascism, on the other hand, developed its cadres through a military context, where violence served as a kind of baptism into a new, lifelong nationalist mission. That was the political content of violence in the Weimar Republic, which was generally much more conducive to the far right.
Overall, how would you say the formative years of the Weimar Republic contributed to its eventual collapse in 1933?
When we’re talking about the collapse of the Weimar Republic, we’re talking about the Nazi seizure of power. There are three major factors behind the rise of the Nazis and their seizure of power. First, you have the background condition of the loss of state legitimacy. Basically, all sectors of the population had lost confidence in Weimar governments to resolve all of these social fractures and economic crises. That included workers and the middle class, but more importantly, it included the industrialists, who no longer thought that the republican state was capable of resolving the situation in their favor.
The second major factor was the existence of a mass fascist movement with its particular character and ideology. By the early 1930s, you had an extreme right wing that, as opposed to previous forms of conservative anti-socialism in prewar Germany, was now committed to outright violence. This was a rather new thing. The fascists also represented a qualitative ideological departure from that older German right. They replaced the Wilhelmine values of hierarchy and privilege with a future-oriented ideology of national and racial community that could appeal to wider swathes of the population.
The third major factor behind the rise of the Nazis was, of course, the crisis conjuncture at the end of the 1920s. The economic crisis of 1929 quickly became a political and social crisis in Germany. That eliminated any chance for reformist welfare legislation, and therefore it eliminated the possibility of a social democratic future for the working class in general. The economic crisis also marked the onset of a turn by big businesses to these extra-systemic solutions, namely the Nazis.
All three of those factors were rooted in the patterns and processes established during the 1918–1923 period of crisis, revolution, and counterrevolution. The state lost legitimacy because of its inability — and the inability of all the ruling parties — to resolve the repeated crises and build on the compromises at the founding of the republic, which was a source of constant damage to their credibility. You had hyperinflation, persistent unemployment, deteriorating welfare provisions, and a never-ending cycle of cabinets being dissolved, all of which contributed to the lack of confidence in the republican state form among the different strata of the population.
You had an extreme right wing that was now committed to outright violence. This was a rather new thing.
Secondly, fascism was born in the counterrevolution of 1918–19, which was a turning point in public, political violence against civilians. There were a lot of different fascist groups in the Weimar Republic, but the violent radicalization of the Right as a whole was rooted in that revolutionary period and the ends to which they were deployed, to crush the workers’ movement. Their ideology was also shaped in those early years.
The Nazis didn’t grow because they were a narrow pet project of the capitalist class from the outset. They grew because they set up a violent racist nucleus, and then started to appeal to widening layers of what Clara Zetkin identified in 1923 as the politically homeless or socially uprooted, destitute and disillusioned people in the Weimar Republic, all of whom were constantly being churned out by the repeated crises.
Lastly, for the third factor, the crisis conjuncture, the social and political ramifications of that crisis, were also historically determined. After years of failed attempts to defang and co-opt the labor movement, the ruling classes were no longer able to organize themselves through the Weimar parliamentary system, let alone their economic interests. By 1932–33, the framework of the republic looked inadequate to take the measures that were required to restore the capitalist economy, as it had been able to do in 1923. Meanwhile, the Nazis were making themselves available as a credible mass movement and extra-systemic force.
There’s also something important that we could say about the dynamics between the SPD — in and out of state power — the KPD, and the movements. A lot of the core apparatuses of the republic were constructed more or less as stopgap measures, predominantly in reaction to communism. It became a teetering house, built largely on repression. Ironically, that only fueled adherence to Communist politics among wider layers of workers — first industrial militants, then the unemployed — despite the increasing irrationality and authoritarianism of the KPD, especially after 1924.
You had a mutually reinforcing cycle where the failures of both the SPD and the KPD generated an ever-widening space in which the fascist clowns, which is what they appeared to be in the beginning, were able to transform themselves into a reliable salvation force in the eyes of both industrialists and growing numbers of working people. When the Nazis came to power, they immediately started rounding up Communists and Social Democrats and killing them by the dozens and hundreds, as a prelude to the Holocaust and the genocidal murder of Jews.
There’s ultimately no way to explain the ascendancy of the Nazis without placing the process of revolution and counterrevolution in those early years at the center. Weimar society, on its social, political, and economic levels, was fundamentally unable to integrate its founding revolutionary breach and the institutional shifts that came along with it — both the reforms and the revolutionary movement. That was most evident, of course, during the episodes of social collapse and dual power: the November Revolution, the Kapp Putsch, and the 1923 hyperinflation, which were driven by the same revolutionary dynamics.
Even from the Social Democratic point of view, every strategy to establish a workable social democracy within the capitalist market framework crashed on the rocks of economic crisis and political backlash from the employers. The fundamental rift at the core of the republic played out through successive attempts by industrialists to achieve so-called stabilization, all of which failed until the very end. The deep crisis to which the Nazis then appeared to provide the solution was not just the global crash of 1929. It was the persistence of a mass revolutionary movement that refused to concede on people’s very basic needs and aspirations when confronted with the brutal imperatives of capital accumulation.
Berliners got to vote about expropriation once before. On June 20, 1926, the German Reich held a referendum about the demand to “expropriate the princes” without giving them “one pfennig.” The castles and forests still in the hands of the aristocratic houses were to be put into public ownership. At a time when poverty and unemployment was rising, there was little sympathy for the nobility that had been toppled in 1918. A huge majority of votes — 14 million, or 93 percent of all cast — said “Ja.”
But the Reich president Paul von Hindenburg, himself an aristocrat, declared that the referendum would only be successful if a majority of all eligible voters were in favour. Berlin, interestingly, even met this absurdly high quorum. But most of Germany did not — only 39 percent of eligible voters participated in the referendum. That is why, almost 100 years later, we are still stuck with German aristocrats living in obscene wealth, still owning all the forests, and demanding billions more from public coffers.
Now, it appears that we will get to vote about expropriation again. Instead of princes, however, we are now talking about the new financial aristocracy — the real estate companies that control hundreds of thousands of apartments in the German capital. The largest one, Deutsche Wohnen, has 100,000. The four largest companies own a total of 250,000 or so.
The campaign Deutsche Wohnen enteignen has cleared the hurdles to start a referendum. They collected 57,000 signatures — far more than the 20,000 required. The Senat was supposed to conduct a quick “legal review” of the proposal. The Interior Senator, Andreas Geisel from the SPD, took a full 441 days for that study! Yet the results have always been clear: expropriations are entirely possible according to Article 15 of Germany’s constitution (more on that in a second).
Now Berlin’s parliament, the Abgeordnetenhaus, has four months to vote on the proposed law. If they reject it, as they are almost certain to do, the initiative needs to gather another 170,000 signatures. Then, people in Berlin with German citizenship can vote on the proposal sometime next year. If it gets at least 50 percent of votes in favour, and at least 25 percent of eligible voters, then it becomes law.
Berliners are enthusiastic about the idea. A representative survey conducted by the Tagesspiegel at the beginning of 2019 (and that newspaper is beyond suspicion of communist sympathies) found that 54.8 percent of people think it is good that there is a push for expropriation.
How is this possible in Berlin, the former Frontstadt known around the world for its virulent anticommunism? It’s simple. The big monopolies have gone too far. Sucking up properties all over the city while ruthlessly jacking up rents, they have turned most of the population against them. Even my editor, when he heard about the story, mentioned he rents from Deutsche Wohnen and hates them.
If I were their public relations director, I would find a dozen or so renters who love Deutsche Wohnen and film them at a focus group, like those manipulative ads that Uber made about itself. But they haven’t done that — and I can only conclude that they can’t find even a dozen people in Berlin who have anything nice to say about them.
A leading figure of the campaign is Michael Prütz, an insurance salesman from Kreuzberg who has been active in Berlin’s radical Left for more than 50 years. (I interviewed him about his experiences as a 15-year-old Gymnasiast in West Berlin in 1968 for Exberliner magazine.) Prütz is shocked that after half a century of fighting against capitalism, he has finally found a topic where the majority of Berliners are on his side. Even older people in Steglitz-Zehlendorf, who once told him to “go over to the other side [of the wall],” are now in favour of expropriating big corporations, because… well, what else can you do when your rent keeps increasing year after year?
Some of the more than 100,000 apartments Deutsche Wohnen owns in Berlin. Photo: Deutsche Wohnen
Deutsche Wohnen is a strange construct as well, more of a financial company than a real estate company. Opponents of expropriation argue that this will prevent the construction of new housing — but DW builds very little. Instead, they buy up existing housing in order to raise the rents. According to one study, they pay out more in dividends to their investors every year than they take in in rent. This is possible because every year they claim higher values for the properties on their books. Your home, in other words, is just an object for financial speculation.
So how did this Artikel 15 allowing expropriation make it into Germany’s Basic Law? According to the official English translation, it reads:
Land, natural resources and means of production may, for the purpose of nationalisation, be transferred to public ownership or other forms of public enterprise by a law that determines the nature and extent of compensation.
When the Grundgesetz was written, lots of people were skeptical of capitalism. This was just a few years after the war had ended, and no one had forgotten who had brought the Nazis to power and who had accumulated tremendous profits from such horrific crimes. In 1946, a referendum was held in Saxony about the expropriation of Nazi criminals (which was basically the entire capitalist class), where 78 percent of people voted in favour. This is why the SPD, in order to sell the new capitalist republic in the West, told people it wasn’t a capitalist republic at all. Yes, the new constitution protected private property, but it also contained an article about the possibility to expropriate capital for the public good. Thus the SPD, now fighting against the demand for expropriation, was responsible for adding this possibility to the constitution.
In the last year, Berlin got the Mietendeckel, the law on rent-caps. Around 86 percent of homes in the city are rentals, and renters love the new law, but landlords are hoping to have it declared unconstitutional. Some people assume that the rent caps were the work of Berlin’s progressive “red-red-green” government. But really, it’s the opposite: it’s this very government that privatised most of Berlin’s public housing stock in the early 2000s, leading to the constant and explosive growth of rents. It’s not that the government is going against landlords — it’s only because you have stable majorities demanding expropriation that make the rent caps look like a compromise.
There is a bigger strategic lesson in this. If you want real reforms that improve people’s lives, then you need to fight for revolution. The only reason we won the eight-hour-day in Germany is because capitalists were terrified that they would be completely toppled in the revolution. As the Trinidadian Marxist C. L. R. James put it: “The rich are only defeated when running for their lives.”
And that is why it is worth fighting for expropriation now. If the property of these financial vampire squids is put into the hands of publicly-owned housing companies, Berliners will have more comfortable lives and pay lower rents. And even if it’s not successful, we can terrify landlords and get them to lower our rents.
World stocks nudged down on Thursday as Chinese economic data slowed in October and Germany only narrowly avoided a recession in the third quarter, adding to worries about the global growth fallout from the U.S.-China trade war.