Issue 232 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published July/August 1999 Copyright © Socialist Review
Three months after the crushing of the Paris Commune one of the greatest antiwar agitators of all time, Karl Liebknecht, was born. Karl, his four brothers and two half sisters were 'children of the revolution'. Their father, Wilhelm Liebknecht, was a leading figure in the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) and a friend of Marx and Engels. The year before Karl's birth Wilhelm had refused to vote in support of the Franco-Prussian War, and in 1872 he was jailed for high treason.
The young Karl was persecuted at school because of his father's notoriety and found it difficult to get a job as a lawyer. He didn't join the SPD till 1900, but then flung himself into activity. He wrote, 'Politics is eating me up. It has devoured every fibre of my body.' Liebknecht, was on the left of the SPD, which was becoming increasingly bureaucratic and respectable. He was particularly concerned with efforts to build a youth movement and above all with anti-militarism. He became heavily involved in campaigns to circulate anti-war propaganda to young men before they were conscripted into the army. In 1907 he was jailed for treasonable activity.
In 1912 he became a member of parliament and acquired a new platform for anti-war propaganda. He caused a major sensation by exposing documents which revealed bribery and corruption in the links between the war ministry and Krupps, the largest German arms manufacturer. When war broke out in August 1914 Liebknecht discovered that virtually all his former comrades supported the war. He believed the SPD was still a genuine socialist party. Moreover, he had always regarded the need for a disciplined organisation as paramount. Reluctantly he voted for the war credits.
Although only a tiny minority of the SPD opposed the war, Liebknecht, was sharply criticised by some of his comrades. After meeting a group of party activists, mainly industrial workers, in Stuttgart in September 1914, Liebknecht showed the ability of a true socialist leader to learn from the class: 'You are quite right in criticising me. Even if alone, I should have called out my "No!"... I have committed a serious error.'
Liebknecht tried to convince other members of parliament to oppose the war. One of the pro-war SPD members sneered that the response was astonished hilarity'. On 2 December 1914, when parliament was again asked to approve war expenditure, Liebknecht, alone remained seated as all the other parliamentarians stood up to affirm their support. He was not allowed to speak but his statement was distributed as an illegal leaflet. He described the war as 'an imperialist war, fought for the capitalist domination of the world market and for the political domination of important territories for settlement of industrial and finance capital.'
The German state could not tolerate such opposition. Liebknecht, although 43 years old, was called up into the army. But he could not be banned from speaking in parliament and he continued to use it as a platform to reach the masses outside. In May 1915 Liebknecht, wrote another illegal leaflet headed with the slogan that will always be linked with his name: 'The Main Enemy Is At Home':
By 1916 opposition to the war among soldiers in the trenches and hungry civilians was growing, and Liebknecht and his comrades in the Spartacus grouping decided to raise the stakes. On 1 May 1916 they called an illegal demonstration in the Potsdam Square in Berlin; 10,000 people attended, including many women and young people. As a contemporary report describes, 'They were so numerous that the usual skirmishes with the police began right away. The cops... quickly became very nervous and began to drive the crowd back and forth with blows. Suddenly, at the head of the crowd, right in the middle of the square, the loud sonorous voice of Karl Liebknecht rang out: "Down with the war! Down with the government!"'
Liebknecht was arrested and jailed. He told the court, 'No general ever wore a uniform with as much honour as I will wear a prison uniform.' The demonstration raised the struggle to a new level. On the second day of the trial 55,000 Berlin workers struck in his support. Liebknecht, now became an international symbol. For socialists in Britain and France his courage made it easier to oppose the official demonisation of all Germans as warmongers.
When Liebknecht was released in October 1918 Germany was in ferment. As the war ended workers' and soldiers' councils sprang up everywhere; the old imperial regime was replaced by a republic. Liebknecht, together with Rosa Luxemburg, found himself in the thick of the struggle and committed to building a new revolutionary party to replace the SPD which was now the last line of defence for German capitalism.
Liebknecht was a man of integrity and courage. He lacked, however, the clear judgement that Rosa Luxemburg possessed. In January 1919 he overestimated the immediate possibilities of taking power and was criticised by Luxemburg. Nonetheless, the combination of Luxemburg's penetrating intelligence and Liebknecht's agitational skills was a terrifying one for the German bourgeoisie and their SPD bodyguards. Liebknecht, was arrested and murdered while allegedly 'trying to escape'. Luxemburg was killed at the same time.
But nothing could destroy the heritage of Liebknecht's struggle against capitalism and war. Days before his death he wrote: