Catastrophe in Germany, disorientation in New Zealand

“We come into this House as representatives of the working-men in certain electorates of the Dominion, and we come to state not our views alone, but the views of the men and women who have sent us here. We do not come merely to attempt to make a change of individuals on the Government benches. We of the Labour party come to endeavour to effect a change of classes at the fountain of power. We come proclaiming boldly and fearlessly the Socialist objective of the labour movement throughout New Zealand; and we make no secret of the fact that we seek to rebuild society on a basis in which work and not wealth will be the measure of a man’s worth…

“We do not seek to make a class war. You cannot make that which is already in existence…”

Cartoon of Harry Holland from NZ Truth, 6 July 1918

With these words, Harry Holland entered the capitalist Parliament as the Great War drew to a close, declaring his revolutionary intentions, using the parliamentary platform to denounce Conscription, the War Regulations and war profiteering, to reject the ‘pro-German’ slander levelled against any form of working class resistance, and to defend the interests of the working class in this hostile environment. Holland was clearly preparing for a surge of class struggles that he anticipated when the soldiers returned. At the same time, his speech framed the struggle for working class power exclusively in electoral terms as the fight for a parliamentary majority for the Labour Party, and, in the interests of maintaining the unity of the broad-church working-class party, left the key question of the imperialist character of New Zealand’s war untouched.

At the very same moment that he was delivering this speech, the revolution in Germany which Harry Holland had anticipated for so long, and on which he had staked so much, was opening.

The Bolshevik decree for peace without annexations, which Holland had written about in the Maoriland Worker, was rejected by all the belligerent powers; consequently the Bolshevik government had been forced to conclude a separate peace with Germany on extremely unfavourable terms. Germany occupied territories containing one-third of the population of the former Russian empire, crushing workers governments in Ukraine, Belorussia (Belarus today), Latvia, Estonia, and Finland. Peace with Russia gave Germany some new advantages in its war with the Allies, enlarging its base of industrial and agricultural production and freeing up fifty divisions of troops for the western front. But that was insufficient to overcome the disadvantaged position Germany had held since the United States joined the War in April 1917 on the side of the Allies, bringing its immense industrial capacity and up to two million fresh troops. In 1918 the war escalated, along with its human cost in death, injury, and economic dislocation. Famine spread in both Russia and Germany.

The price Germany had to pay for crushing the revolution in Latvia, Finland and the Ukraine was the demoralisation of its army, which began to disintegrate over the northern summer of 1918. The German revolution began in late October with a mutiny in the North Sea fleet. In a final, desperate attempt to turn around the deteriorating military situation, the German admirals ordered out the navy to attack the British navy in the English Channel; at the naval base at Wilhelmshaven, the sailors acted to prevent the ships leaving port. A thousand sailors were jailed in reprisal, but a mass solidarity movement sprang up to defend them involving the sailors on board the ships, the workers in the port of Kiel and nearby cities, and, before long, the soldiers sent to put down the rebellion.

Sailors’ Council formed by revolutionary sailors aboard the Prinzregent Luitpold in Wilhelmshaven The placard says “Soldiers’ committee of the Prinzregent Luitpold. Long live the socialist republic” Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-J0908-0600-002 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

On November 3, officers opened fire on an unarmed demonstration, killing eight. The next day, the workers responded with a general strike. By November 6 the revolt had spread to Lübeck, Hamburg, and the other big cities of the North Sea coast; by November 8, to the Rhineland, Bavaria, and cities across Germany. Mass strikes and demonstrations broke out, soldiers joined the revolt. Wherever the authorities resisted, the key buildings were stormed by armed workers and soldiers. Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils assumed control of the cities.

Friedrich Ebert, SPD leader appointed Reich Chancellor as monarchy disintegrated.

The Social Democratic Party (SPD), the mass working class party whose leadership had supported the war, attempted to defuse the revolutionary crisis and hold back the mass movement. In particular, it tried to hold onto Berlin – and to save the monarchy. “Fellow citizens! I urgently appeal to you: leave the streets! Maintain law and order!” read a November 9 appeal from SPD leader Friedrich Ebert, as colossal demonstrations gathered in Berlin. Ebert had just been appointed Reich Chancellor by Prince Max von Baden in a last-ditch effort to preserve the monarchy through coalition with the SPD.

Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, foremost leaders of communist current in German revolution of 1918

The ‘Socialist Minority’ in whom Holland placed his hopes was the Internationale group (Spartacists), a revolutionary group led by Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg. Liebknecht had been released from prison on October 23, where he was greeted by a demonstration of 20,000 revolutionary Berlin workers. Luxemburg had been released from prison in Breslau, and had only just arrived in Berlin. The Spartacists issued an appeal to workers and soldiers which warned, “The same “Socialists” who for four years served as the government’s pimps have in recent weeks been stalling you day after day with promises of a “people’s government” a parliamentary state, and other such rubbish. Now they are trying everything to weaken your struggle and pacify the movement…

“Soldiers! Do as the sailors from the fleet have done. Join with your brothers in work clothes. Do not let yourself be used against your brothers. Do not obey the officers’ orders. Do not fire on freedom fighters… Workers and soldiers! Now prove that you are strong enough and that you are capable enough to wield power. Long live the socialist republic!”

Events moved quickly. On November 9, speaking at a huge rally of Berlin workers, SDP leader Philipp Scheidemann judged that it was impossible to save the monarchy; he announced the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II and proclaimed a republic. The SPD succeeded in drawing a section of the Independent Social Democrats, (USPD) into a coalition government. The armistice with the Allies was signed two days later.

Luxemburg wrote on 18 November: “What has been accomplished? The monarchy has been swept away. Supreme governmental power has been handed over to the workers’ and soldiers’ representatives. But the monarchy was never the real enemy. It was only the cover, the figurehead for imperialism… Like all bourgeois governments, the monarchy was only the administrator for the ruling classes. The criminals who must be held responsible for the genocide are the imperialist bourgeoisie, the capitalist ruling class… this cannot be dispatched in a twinkling by a few decrees from on high, but can be set in motion only through the conscious action of the urban and rural working people…

Armed demonstration by Berlin workers, 6 January 1919

“What is the present revolutionary government doing? It simply leaves the state as an administrative organism, from top to bottom, in the hands of yesterday’s supporters of Hohenzollern absolutism and tomorrow’s tools of the counter-revolution. It convenes the national constituent assembly, thereby creating a bourgeois counterweight to the workers’ and soldiers’ power, shunting the revolution onto the rails of bourgeois revolution, and conjuring away the socialist goals of the revolution.”

Liebknecht added a few days later, “Between the political form of the German revolution up to now and its social content lies a gaping contradiction, which cries out for resolution… Its political form is that of proletarian action, its social content that of bourgeois reform… The “Socialist government” to the best of its ability, has preserved or restored the entire bourgeois state and administrative apparatus and the military machinery. It is extremely hard for the workers’ and soldiers’ councils to get any real control over these institutions… As the proletariat grows weaker in this way, all its mortal enemies are rapidly assembling… There is no time to lose, or else in a few weeks the proletariat will stand before the ruins of its hopes.”

Workers defend occupation of newspaper, Berlin, January 1919. Barricade is made of rolls of newsprint and bundled newspapers.

When the ‘gaping contradiction’ was resolved, the resolution was in favour of the bourgeois power. In early January 1919, the working class was thrown back by a SPD-led counter-revolution, in the form of an armed assault on the Berlin workers’ movement. The SPD government goaded the revolutionaries into a premature showdown, and the minister responsible for military affairs, Gustav Noske unleashed against them forces of the Freikorps, anti-worker volunteer battalions recruited privately by right-wing officers. (The Freikorps later formed the nucleus of Hitler’s Storm Troopers.)  The workers of Berlin responded to the provocation with a series of massive armed demonstrations up to half a million strong, but were defeated. As an anti-working class dragnet spread through Berlin in the wake of the defeat, on January 15 the two outstanding experienced revolutionary leaders of the working class in Germany, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, were captured and murdered by Freikorps troops acting on the orders of the SPD government.

It took some time for the news of this tragedy to become clear to the rest of the world. The first reports in New Zealand were as inaccurate and politically slanted as the cable reports of the Russian revolution, referring to a “Spartacusan Coup d’Etat.” The Maoriland Worker published a statement on 12 February congratulating the German Social Democracy “upon the brilliant and almost bloodless revolution they have achieved, by which the power of the militarist and capitalist class has been overthrown, and the Socialist Government established” and “welcoming the agreement between the two sections of the German Socialist movement.”

However, the Dominion reported 7 February that the Wellington SDP had passed a resolution “That the Wellington branch of the Social Democratic Party places on record its deepest and most sincere regret at the brutal murder of Comrades Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg by the militarist supporters of Prussian reaction and foes of the working-class revolution. It expresses the opinion that the names of those two devoted and illustrious champions of and martyrs for the cause of humanity will be enshrined forever amidst the noblest of mankind, and earnestly trusts that their work for international Socialism will be completed and crowned by the establishment of the co-operative commonwealth in all lands.”

Key SPD figures in the government which rescued capitalist rule: (L to R) Otto Landsberg, Scheidemann, Gustav Noske, who took prime responsibility for the bloody suppression of the working class in January 1919, Ebert, and Rudolf Wissell.

An account of the January counter-revolution, hostile to the Spartacists but more factual than previous accounts, was carried in the Christchurch Star on 15 May 1919, and a few days later the Sun carried SPD leader Scheidemann’s justification of the murders. By this time the facts were fairly clear, even to observers in New Zealand.

Of all the shocks and setbacks Harry Holland experienced in his political life, this was undoubtedly the most wounding, despite the fact that the events were entirely beyond his control. Since the early years of the century, when he first came into contact with German refugees in Sydney who had been members of the vibrant and growing Socialist movement in Germany, Holland had looked to the mass Social Democratic Party of Germany as his greatest model and inspiration. He had been delivering lectures on ‘The Coming Revolution in Germany’ at intervals since 1905, from Broken Hill to Sydney to Waihi. Even after the SPD’s historic betrayal of 1914, he fully expected that given the right conditions, the powerful German working class, led by the revolutionary minority of the Party, would be able to reclaim leadership of the Party and set it back on a revolutionary course.

Now those conditions had matured, the working class had attempted to do just that, and it had been defeated. The class-collaborationist right wing of the Party – the ‘William Hughes’ wing, to borrow Holland’s characterisation of Kerensky – had crushed the working class, murdered the revolutionary leadership, and consolidated a capitalist government. A colossal defeat had been dealt to the strongest working class in Europe.

Moreover, the strategic course followed by the German revolutionaries, and the character of the party they had been building, was very similar to Holland’s own strategic course, and the party he was building. Their failure to make a clean and timely organisational break with the ‘patriotic’ socialists of the SPD and its centrist split-off, the Independent Social Democratic Party (USPD) was a key element in their defeat. Likewise, Holland had not made a clear political and organisational break with the patriotic element in the Labour Party.

There is no record of any thinking or discussion by Holland or any of his collaborators in New Zealand on the questions arising out of the German defeat. While it must have been devastating, there is no indication that Holland revised any of his conceptions in the light of these events. He continued doggedly to believe in the “one big political party” embracing the whole working class, containing within it all the diverse tendencies of socialism – even after witnessing the catastrophic outcome of this form of organisation in the midst of a revolutionary crisis. And the constraints placed upon his thinking by the responsibility he felt to speak, in Parliament and in print, not just for himself but for the entire Labour Party, grew tighter all the time.


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