Socialist Equality Party (Germany)
The Historical and International Foundations of the Socialist Equality Party (Germany)

The centrism of the USPD

27. In Germany on the evening of August 4, the Gruppe Internationale (later known as the Spartacus League) was founded on the initiative of Rosa Luxemburg. In Die Internationale and the illegally distributed Spartakusbriefe (Spartacus Letters) the group decisively opposed the war and, with Karl Liebknecht, who had rejected the war credits, had a deputy in the Reichstag (national parliament). The first editorial in Die Internationale from the pen of Rosa Luxemburg began with the words: “On August 4th, 1914, German Social Democracy abdicated politically, and at the same time the Socialist International collapsed. All attempts at denying or concealing this fact, regardless of the motives on which they are based, tend objectively to perpetuate, and to justify, the disastrous self-deception of the socialist parties, the inner malady of the movement, that led to the collapse, and in the long run to make the Socialist International a fiction, a hypocrisy”. There followed a sharp reckoning with the rightwing party majority and Karl Kautsky, the representative of the “Marxist Centre” or “theoretician of the swamp”, as Luxemburg called him.[1]

28. Centrism, as personified by Kautsky, proved to be a far greater obstacle to the revolutionary development of the working class than the largely discredited policies of the rightwing SPD leaders. It wavered between opposition and adaptation, adjusting in words to the radical tendencies among the workers, while tending in practice towards the rightwing course of the SPD leaders. In April 1917, the centrists organized themselves in the Independent SPD (USPD), after several Reichstag deputies had been expelled from the SPD because they had refused to extend the war credits. The USPD was led by Reichstag deputies Hugo Haase and Georg Ledebour. In their ranks were many prominent leaders of the pre-war social democracy, like the revisionist Eduard Bernstein, the economist and later Finance Minister Rudolf Hilferding and the theoretician Karl Kautsky. In November 1918, when workers’ and soldiers’ soviets rose up and forced the kaiser to abdicate, the USPD opposed the establishment of a soviet republic and joined the government of the majority Social Democrat, Friedrich Ebert. While Ebert allied himself with the army command, disempowered the soviets, suppressed the workers’ rebellions and saved the bourgeois order, the USPD served him as a left fig leaf.

29. The programme and politics of the USPD were marked by indecision, compromise and half-heartedness. It stood in glaring contrast to the mood of the workers, who, just 10 days after the party congress establishing the USPD, mounted the first mass strike against the war in Berlin. The USPD’s opposition to the war was limited to passive calls for peace. It rejected any revolutionary initiatives. After it entered the Ebert government, Rosa Luxemburg characterized the USPD with the words: “It always trudged behind events and developments, never walking at their head. It has never been able to lay down a fundamental delineation between itself and the dependent [SPD]. Every lurid ambiguity, which led to the confusion of the masses: negotiated peace, League of Nations, disarmament, the Wilson cult, all the clichés of bourgeois demagogy, which spread a darkening veil over the naked, abrupt facts of the revolutionary alternative during the war, found its eager support. The entire attitude of the party swung helplessly around the cardinal contradiction that, on the one hand, it tried to win the bourgeois governments as the competent powers for peace, while, on the other hand, it put the case for mass action by the proletariat. A faithful mirror of the contradictory practice is the eclectic theory: a hotchpotch of radical formulas hopelessly abandoning the socialist spirit.… Up to the outbreak of the revolution it was a case by case policy, without a comprehensive world view, which illuminates the past and future of German social democracy from a single light source, which has a view for the large sweep of the development”.[2]

30. The theoretical head of the USPD was Karl Kautsky, who justified its centrist politics with hackneyed bits and pieces of history and denounced the Russian October revolution. “Everything isrecognised in Marxism except the revolutionary methods of struggle, the propaganda and preparation of those methods, and the education of the masses in this direction”, as Lenin mockingly remarked about Kautsky.[3] At the center of Kautsky’s attack on Marxism was the rejection of the dictatorship of the proletariat. At a time when the war was exposing the democratic state everywhere as a brutal form of bourgeois class rule, Kautsky denied the working class the right to establish its own rule by revolutionary means. After the collapse of official social patriotism, international Kautskyism had become the most important factor on which capitalist society relied, as Trotsky noted.[4]

31. The German November revolution confirmed this. By entering the Ebert government, the USPD contributed decisively to its defeat. The November revolution, from which the Weimar Republic emerged, was, as Trotsky wrote, “no democratic completion of the bourgeois revolution, it was a proletarian revolution decapitated by the Social Democrats; more correctly, it was a bourgeois counter-revolution, which was compelled to preserve pseudo-democratic forms after its victory over the proletariat.”[5] This had tragic consequences. All the social forces that 15 years later would help Hitler to power, survived the revolution unscathed: the Prussian landed nobility, which formed the sediment of political reaction; the industrial barons and the financial aristocracy, who were responsible for Germany’s expansive war aims; the army command, which developed into a state within the state; the judges and officials, who rejected democracy; not to speak of the Soldateska, whom the Weimar Republic could not offer any civilian perspective and who became the foot soldiers of the Nazis. The working class had to pay a heavy price for the politics of centrism. That is the bitter historical lesson from the actions of the USPD in the November revolution.


Rosa Luxemburg, Parteitag der Unabhängigen SP, In Gesammelte Werke, Band 4, Berlin 1987, p. 423-424.


Leon Trotsky, Permanent Revolution.