In November 1918 German workers overthrew the Imperial government, ending the First World War. What began with a sailors' revolt quickly spiraled into a revolution. Within weeks Workers' Councils had taken control of several German cities. A Social Democratic government took place amidst a sort of dual power. That same government would end up sponsoring the murder of Rosa Luxemburg by right-wing militias in January 1919.
The pamphlet's writings, by Rosa Luxemburg, span from when the German revolution of 1918-9 broke out, and Luxemburg was released from jail on 8 November 1918, through to her murder on 15 January 1919 by a right-wing militia operating under the protection of the Social Democratic government. An introduction by Paul Vernadsky, author of the Workers' Liberty book "The Russian Revolution: When Workers Took Power", tells the story of the German revolution and discusses the findings of recent scholarship on the events. Some of Luxemburg's articles are new translations by Stan Crooke.
The German revolution grew out of the combined impact of the Bolshevik revolution in Russia in October-November 1917, the rise of workplace organisation in German industry during World War One, and rising disillusion and disgust at the World War.
Germany was facing defeat. At the start of November, sailors in Wilhelmhaven and Kiel mutinied against their commanders' order to send them out to sea in a last-minute suicidal foray.
Between 1 and 15 November, workers’ and soldiers’ councils took charge of many German cities. In the great industrial centres the uprising followed a common pattern: first, workers’ mass strikes and demonstrations, then soldiers joining the revolt, and finally a joint workers’ and soldiers’ council taking control.
On 9 November Germany was proclaimed a republic and the Social-Democrat leader Friedrich Ebert was made chancellor in the old legal forms. On 10 November, a “Council of People’s Delegates” was formed, borrowing its name from the workers’ government in Russia, with Ebert leading that Council too.
It was a coalition of the SPD - the old socialist mass party of the German working class, which had betrayed its politics at the start of World War One by backing the German ruling class's war, but still retained some support - and the USPD, the party formed in 1917 by a large chunk of the SPD's left wing, expelled from the SPD for (weak) opposition to the war.
Rosa Luxemburg had been the foremost leader of the radical left in the SPD and then in the USPD. But the radical left was organised only as an informal network.
Luxemburg's articles document her struggle to rally the radical left into a coherent political force. The SPD was trying to damp down and eventually to dissolve the workers' councils, and to have the old capitalist administration survived in reformed shape. The USPD was critical but unclear and irresolute.
Millions of workers were newly awaking to politics, and many of them inclined to back the SPD as representing what they had thought of, before they became politically activated, as the big, effective left-wing and working-class political force. Others backed the USPD. In the countryside, millions of farmers and workers in small enterprise remained under conservative hegemony.
Rosa Luxemburg, in her articles, attempted to chart a strategy and tactics which would enable the revolutionary left to establish a clear profile as against the SPD and the USPD, to win over support from them, and to help the workers' councils take state power as they had in Russia.
This was one of the most dramatic periods of working-class revolutionary struggle so far in any highly-developed capitalist country, analysed and responded to by one of the greatest revolutionary Marxist writers of all time.