A Century of Betrayal, Part 2

The Role of Social-Democracy in the Mass Slaughter of World War One

Part 2 — The Legacy of Betrayal

Originally Published: December 2014

A defiant German communist worker stands before a Freikorps firing squad during the 1918 November Revolution. The German Social-Democratic government dispatched the right-wing militia to brutally crush the fledgling workers’ revolution.

THE BREAKDOWN OF THE EUROPEAN capitalist order on the eve of the First World War, occurring a century after the final defeat of Napoleon, signaled not only a new epoch in the development of capitalism, but also in the political alignments of the exploiting and oppressing classes. New times demanded new forms and institutions through which capitalism could maintain its rule and survive “the war to end all wars.”

The parallel collapse of international social-democracy, its splintering into several competing “socialist” and “Marxist” currents, gave the ruling classes a golden opportunity. As much as these schisms in the Socialist International aided in the regroupment of the more revolutionary elements, ultimately leading to the formation of the Communist International in 1919, they also cleared out any remaining “far-left” dissidents within the milieu of social-patriotism and social-pacifism. Five years after the outbreak of War, the social-democratic parties of Europe and North America bore little resemblance to their former selves.

Nature abhors a vacuum. The utter discrediting of the traditional parties of capitalism, the collapse of most European economies as a result of four years of war and the growing mass discontent among workers in all of the belligerent countries forced the exploiters’ and oppressors’ hand; they now had to turn to their former-enemies-turned-allies for salvation from a workers’ revolution.

Classes and Parties under Imperialism

German Social-Democrat Philipp Scheidemann announces formation of the republic in Berlin, November 9, 1918.

In order to better understand how such an alliance became possible, it is necessary to step back and look at how class relations were changed by the rise of imperialism, and how that created a series of “strange bedfellows” that defined the political contours of the 20th century worldwide.

The growth of large-scale industry beyond the single factory, the single city and the single country, the rise of monopolies and trusts, the dominance of finance capitalism, and the alliance between political and economic power created by state-monopoly capitalism, left the capitalist class with a dilemma. The economy had grown to such a size and scope that the owners could no longer administer it, either as individuals or as a class.

Certainly, such a situation had already begun to develop in the largest of industrial enterprises. Throughout the 19th century, both the massive private enterprises and nationalized industries were compelled to employ individual petty bourgeois as managers and professionals. But with the continuing expansion of the economy, growing from world market to world production process, the relationship between the class of owners and the class of managers needed to change. In order to keep capitalism stable and growing, the capitalists had to bring the petty bourgeoisie forward as a class and place them in a relatively co-equal (more like junior partner) position at the head of the process of production and distribution.

This development transformed social relations among the three classes of capitalism. When this mode of production was beginning, large sections of the petty bourgeoisie were under threat of liquidation and “proletarianization” — i.e., becoming wage laborers. This made many sections of the class susceptible to the arguments and vision of the revolutionary workers’ (communist) movement, as the creation of a classless society would save them from a lifetime of wage-slavery. But with the opportunity to become a relative co-equal with the owners, that door closed.

Ultimately, though, this new agreement with the petty bourgeoisie would come at a price. Long periods of the 20th century would be marked by what Engels described as the petty bourgeois carrying the bourgeois construction of capitalist society “to its logical conclusion” — that is, to complete the fundamental tasks of the revolution the capitalists started against their feudal predecessors a century before: democratic government, a social-welfare “safety net,” public works programs, agricultural and land reform, labor law reform, and so on. In the U.S., this came in the form of the New Deal. In Europe, it was known as the “social-democratic consensus.” Throughout the so-called “Third World,” it was known simply as a variety of “socialism” (African Socialism, Arab Socialism, etc.). Indeed, in a very distorted way, these changes were also a core element of the bureaucratic, petty-bourgeois “socialism” of the former USSR, the European “people’s democracies,” Cuba, etc.

However, this “socialism” — this “social-democratic consensus;” this “New Deal” — was no longer something considered harmful to the capitalist class. With the rise of state-monopoly capitalism and the world production process, those safeguards that the petty bourgeoisie once saw only possible through a “socialism” with the workers as the ruling class could now be achieved through a “social-democracy” built atop a capitalist economy, adorned with nationalized industries and a “cradle-to-grave” social-welfare state.

Germany: The Rescue Party

Illustration in Red Tribune, a journal of the Communist Party of Germany, describing the Social-Democratic government as a “dagger in the back” of the German working class.

Because of its impending defeat in the First World War, Germany was the first country to turn to their social-democratic organizations to save themselves from workers’ revolution. The abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm Hohenzollern and resignation of his government meant that the only loyal political force the ruling classes could rely upon was the Social-Democratic Party of Germany. Its leaders were offered control of the state by the remnants of the monarchist government. Later that day, Philipp Scheidemann, who would become Chancellor within three months, announced the formation of the new republic.

The most immediate crisis facing the new social-democratic government was the growing workers’ revolution, which was the reason why the monarchist regime collapsed and the ruling classes turned to their loyal “opposition.” As opposed to the new capitalist republic and its phony “Council of the People’s Deputies,” the workers’ councils and their armed detachments were pushing well beyond the desires of the Social-Democrats. Increasingly, the Communists were winning support in the councils, much like the Russian Bolsheviks had in the summer of 1917.

Under increasing pressure from the exploiting classes and openly fearing the threat of a revolutionary working-class majority in the workers’ councils, the Social-Democratic ministers allied themselves with the reactionary nationalist Freikorps veterans’ militia to crush any support for the fledgling Communist Party of Germany in the workers’ councils — a step on the path to disbanding the councils and their republic in favor of a return to the Reich, minus its exiled monarch.

In January 1919, the German Social-Democrats once again called on the Freikorps to bring “peace” to the streets of the capital, Berlin, by assassinating Communist Party leaders Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg. Social-Democratic Chancellor Friedrich Ebert and his War Deputy, Gustav Noske, ordered and approved the execution of the Communist leaders. This was then followed up in March by orders to the entire Freikorps to forcibly shut down all workers’ councils, thus paving the way for the republic to rule.

By rescuing capitalism from destruction in 1918-19, the Social-Democrats cemented their relationship with the bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie as a reliable “ruling party” (and loyal opposition) for Germany for over a decade. As a party proven to hold as its highest principle the preservation of “democracy” (read: capitalism) against “Bolshevism” (read: workers’ power), the Social-Democrats were called on whenever the ruling classes needed a “left” or “socialist” face (or fig leaf) for their reactionary schemes. From the Kapp Putsch in 1920 to the defeat of the workers’ uprising in 1923 and through the early years of the worldwide Great Depression, the SPD was called on any time workers needed to be rallied and used as a battering ram against their own interests.

When the newly-appointed Chancellor Heinrich Brüning began to rule by decree in 1930, causing immense misery for the working class, the Social-Democrats mouthed opposition, but “tolerated” him remaining in power, then called on workers to support him in the election. Unwilling to break with capitalism, even when it was growing increasingly totalitarian, the SPD refused attempts to keep Hitler and the Nazis from taking power through “anti-fascist” agreements for a “united front” with the Communist Party and other self-described workers’ organizations. This division, and the resulting lack of organized mobilization against the pro-Nazi ruling classes, allowed Hitler to secure power, and his state to crush and atomize all ostensibly working-class organizations (except those affiliated to the Nazis), including the Social-Democratic Party itself, as well as imprison thousands of Communists, Social-Democrats, trade unionists, liberal democrats and artists — a dress rehearsal of sorts for the mass incarceration and eventual extermination of Jews, homosexuals and others labeled “inferior” or “deviant” under “National Socialism.”

Capitalism’s “Second Party”

The rotten fruit of betrayal: Less than 15 years after the German Social-Democrats saved capitalism and crushed the workers’ revolution, Hitler and his Nazis were able to take power without so much as a shot being fired, wiping out the entire organized working-class, including the “official” Communist Party and the Social-Democrats themselves.

The period following the end of the Second World War was a kind of golden age for social-democracy throughout the world. The massive devastation in Europe and East Asia, combined with the waves of “decolonization” that swept through the so-called “Third World,” led to the growth of social-democratic parties and movements in every corner of the globe. Some of these were allied with the organizations of the reconstituted Socialist International, while others put their hopes in establishing a “people’s democratic republic” under the aegis of the Soviet Union.

With the stabilization of the world capitalist system, marked by the existence of the bipolar world alignment, the “social-democratic consensus” was able to come into its own. Whether the system of state-monopoly capitalism was heavier on the “state” (as in the case of the “Soviet bloc” and its international partners) or on the “monopoly” (as with the U.S., Western Europe and its partners), the program was essentially the same: social welfare, public works, land reform, labor law reform, all capped off by an ostensibly democratic and/or republican form of governance.

For classical social-democracy, its continued violent opposition to “official Communism” was still its ticket in the door to the chambers of capitalist state power. As they had in Germany, the social-democratic parties became a bulwark of capitalism against the “threat” of revolution. Often times, this also meant being a bulwark of reactionary nationalism and chauvinism against the “national liberationism” of “Marxist-Leninist” social-democrats fighting for independence an end to colonial or semi-colonial domination, such as in Korea in 1950-53 or Vietnam in the 1960s.

By the time that the power of the parties of bureaucratic petty-bourgeois socialism (the “official Communists”) began to disintegrate, their social-democratic cousins had become the established “second party” for capitalism (or, in the case of the U.S. and a few other states, an active current within the existing liberal “second party”). In many of the former “people’s democracies” and “Third World” countries, the “official Communists” simply recast themselves as European-style social-democrats, carving out a space in the new regimes. At the same time, with the end of the “Evil Empire” (the USSR), the ruling classes no longer had to pretend that it was the champion of “liberty, equality and brotherhood.” And so, true to form, the social-democrats became the spokespeople for what came to be known as neo-liberalism and globalization — that is, the application of the fruits of the technological and digital revolutions to the capitalist production process — and, most recently, harsh austerity measures.

Throughout Europe, classical social-democracy has been the go-to party for implementing massive cuts to the very social-welfare programs that their predecessors had actually fought for decades before. In Africa, Asia and Latin America, the same trend of “socialism” is used to quell workers’ unrest over their countries’ debts to the Great Powers and its organs (e.g., the IMF) and demands for massive cuts … sometimes with a “Communist” or “ex-Communist” social-democratic movement in place to channel popular dissent back into the ruling classes’ political system.

The festering legacy of betrayal: German Social-Democratic Chancellor Gerhard Schröder sits with the former CEO of Volkswagen to announce the beginning of massive cuts to social-welfare programs, including unemployment insurance, retirement and pensions.

Today, as the exploiting and oppressing classes more openly embrace the corporate-welfare state and give the armed enforcers of “law and order” a blank check and license to kill with impunity, and large sections of the splintered and mutually-hostile “left” look for the latest shortcut to a “mass following,” the orbit of social-democracy continues to grow. So-called “revolutionary Marxists” and “communists” readily adapt to the statist fetishism of the social-democrats, limiting themselves to slogans and demands that are not only mere reforms of capitalism realizable under the existing system, but also acceptable to one or more factions of the bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie.

This is the other, often unspoken, legacy of the social-democratic betrayal: The path taken by the organizations of the Socialist International beginning in 1914 remains well-groomed and inviting for current and future generations of well-meaning “Marxists” looking to get rich quick.


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