By Rida Vaquas, Clarion Editor
In the Twittersphere, a bizarre claim by right-wing Labour activist Luke Akehurst has surfaced that post-WW1 German President Friedrich Ebert was in fact a democratic socialist whom the revolutionary Spartacist League were very unreasonably trying to overthrow. In this narration of history, the violent suppression of thousands of working-class militants in Berlin, and the murder of socialist leaders Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, were entirely justified – the actions of a socialist government defending its hold on power.
This complete disservice to working-class history is dependent upon an idolisation of the party membership card, where socialism is not about deeds, but about the pettiest kind of gatekeeping. One can endorse unity with the (Kaiser’s) national government in wartime and send millions of working class people to their graves and still be a socialist. One can expel the left-wing opposition to this policy from the party and still be a socialist. One can preside over a government which enables protofascist paramilitaries to murder hundreds of working-class militants (the same militants who overthrew the Kaiser), and still be a socialist. If Friedrich Ebert is a socialist, the word socialist is a meaningless label.
There is an argument that there has been no evidence to establish the Ebert government’s direct responsibility for the murders of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht (those seeking evidence, such as Leo Jogiches, were murdered only two months later). Even leaving aside that question, it is evident that the Social Democratic press bear moral responsibility. In their attacks on the Spartacist League, the Social Democratic paper Vorwärts published a poem on 13th January 1919 – only two days before Luxemburg’s arrest – which more-or-less explicitly called for her murder, bemoaning that “Karl, Rosa, Radek and company / none are there, none are there”. The “there” in the poem was the morgue. If Ebert’s government did not kill her, even the most charitable thing that can be said for them is that they allowed her to be killed.
Let’s be clear, a “liberal democracy” that is sustained through the blood of working-class activists, through torture and extrajudicial killings by paramilitaries which later provided support for the Nazis, is not a regime that has any moral legitimacy to call itself socialist.
So why would you be in the Labour Party if you prefer Luxemburg to Friedrich Ebert? In Group Portrait with a Lady, the German novelist Heinrich Boll describes a worker who kept a picture of Rosa Luxemburg in his wallet, like a saint. Luxemburg represents everything that Ebert will never be for the international working-class movement: a holy spark in our history. She is one who dared to follow the truth once she found it, and threw her lot in with the aspirations of the working class movement, regardless of how much it cost her. For her, political clarity could never be sacrificed on the altar in order to show a banal respect for the leadership.
This brings us onto the source of the controversy, the phrase “socialism or barbarism”. Do not “read and repeat these words thoughtlessly” as Luxemburg criticised her contemporaries for doing, but get to grips with what they mean. It is not a choice akin to picking out an ice cream flavour at the shop, “we’ll have two scoops of socialism please” or “my favourite flavour is barbarism”. Rather, barbarism is the default setting for society in the face of the labour movement’s passivity. It’s only through building a conscious, organised, and international working-class movement that we have any chance at all of escaping into socialism.
Luxemburg witnessed the world turn into a cemetery of proletarian futures during World War One. In an age where climate change threatens millions of people worldwide, and the far right are occupying governments from Brazil to Hungary, it is easy to lapse into a nihilistic despair, sigh “there’s nothing we can do”. But our gravestone is not quite chloroformed yet, and still wildflowers can spring up around it. Our task is to make sure they do.
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When Ebert met returning German troops, he told them that they had not been defeated in WW1. This statement is false and helped to create the myth that Germany had not been defeated.
Logically, therefore, it must have been ‘stabbed in the back’ at home.
This myth was very widespread in Germany and helped propel Hitler to power and helped provide the conditions for the Holocaust.
Words do matter and Ebert unwittingly assisted the Nazis.