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Dmitry Yudo aka Overlord, jack of all trades
David Lister aka Listy, Freelancer and Volunteer

Sunday, March 14, 2021

On Revolutions

This week I'm going to cheat a bit, or rather, be efficient in my working. I've recently been studying for my history degree, and last week my real life job's shift patten stuffed me up a bit. So, I'm going to repurpose an essay I wrote for the degree, for this weeks article. An added bonus here is that the basic question is a bloody interesting one, and one I'd invite you to consider and stick your comments on.

The Question concerned the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 and the German Revolution of 1918.On the surface of it, both revolutions are identical, so why did one succeed, and the other fail? Well here's my take, feel free to stick your views in!

Note: The pictures are an addition for this article, just to give some imagery.


Question: Why did the Bolsheviks succeed in Russia but far-left groups fail in Germany in 1917–20?

The assorted socialist revolutions occurring just after, indeed in the dying days and years of, the First World War had very different outcomes. The variance in the end state of the revolutions is at first glance quite curious due to the similarities involved. To determine why this occurred we should consider the differences and similarities to see if we can determine the factors that caused the success or failure. On this spectrum, we have the German revolution for an example of a failure, and the Bolshevik October Revolution as the diametrically opposed example, a successful revolution. We could also include the 1916 Easter Uprising as an example of a revolution that found the middle way between success and failure.

Both the German and the Russian Revolutions can be broken down into three distinct parts. The first is a failure of morale and resulting rebellion within the military forces due to setbacks during the Europe spanning conflict that was the First World War. In the case of the Soviets, it was brought about due to the high casualties experienced during the trench warfare, and the general disenfranchisement of the soldiers (Trott, and Mackie, 2020a, p.71). In the case of the German forces, the malaise started in the German fleet (Trott, and Mackie, 2020a, p.84). Germany was under naval blockade by the vastly bigger Royal Navy. The German fleet had largely avoided a fleet action apart from the Battle of Jutland in 1916. The exact outcome of this battle was unclear at the time, and all the German sailors would have known is they had taken heavy losses. In October 1918 the German high command was preparing for another go at a decisive battle to bring the British to the negotiating table and thus lift the blockade that was strangling Germany. This led to a mutiny amongst the sailors (Trott, and Mackie, 2020a, p.84-85). This generalized disorder and military collapse led to both Germany and Russia adopting a more democratic ruling system and deposing the old ruling kings. At the time both countries were suffering food shortages due in part to the war situation and were having to make do with food substitutes (Trott, and Mackie, 2020a, p.82). The quality of these substitutes can be seen by the fact the Imperial War Museum has in its collection an original hunk of German bread issued at this time. Despite the passage of over 100 years and no attempts being made to preserve it the bread still appears the same as the day it was cut from the loaf (Imperial War Museum, 2011). It is likely, as William Cobbett (1763-1835) pointed out with his famous quote ‘I defy you to agitate any fellow with a full stomach’ that this lack of basic food provided a boost to the revolutionary spirit.

Revolutionary spirit in the flesh.

A short period after the change in power there followed a second socialist uprising, 8 months for Russia, and just 2 months for Germany (Trott, and Mackie, 2020b). These sub-revolutions were known as the Bolshevik (or October) Revolution and the Spartacist uprising. This secondary uprising is where we see another divergence between the two main revolutionary examples.
This difference comes from different views of the two revolutions’ leadership, on the writing of Karl Marx (1818-1883). In his writings, Marx suggested the only way forward for society was to hold a revolution, which would lead to the utopian Communist world which Marx prophesied would follow on from the capitalist system (Pike and Barber, 2020a, p.137). The leader of the Bolshevik revolution was Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (1870–1924), he interpreted the writings of Marx to mean that the revolution would be created by a group of 'Trained Marxists' (Pike and Barber, 2020b). These would be indoctrinated into the theory of Marxism and lead the charge, dragging the population with them.
The Spartacist uprising was led by Rosa Luxemburg (1871–1919). Her views on Marx’s writing was that the people would lead the revolution, and it would be a much more spontaneous groundswell of opinion (Pike and Barber, 2020a, p.156-157).

Germans manning a barricade.

Revolutions of this nature require force to be employed to overthrow the existing political system. Thus under these circumstances the trained, and more importantly, the motivated forces will nearly always provide better results. The lack of indoctrination and motivation can clearly be seen in the writings of Toni Sender (1888-1964) Autobiography of a German Rebel.

‘In the first hours of the revolution, we encountered what was to prove our main handicap, the Soldiers councils. The soldiers to a large extent were completely untrained politically. What they demanded was the end of the war with as little disturbance as possible. They wanted to be able to go home and to work. They were not concerned with the need to uproot the forces which had led the people into war.’ (Sender, 1940, pp.92-93)

This lack of fervour would not allow the mass of the population to carry on in the face of adversity, such as a strongly defended counter-revolutionary position. A reason for the failure is if one is to take the Marxist doctrine as quasi-religious, then everything that Marx utters will come to pass. In his 1848 work The Communist Manifesto Marx (assisted by Friedrich Engels (1820-1895)) states the following:

‘The Communists turn their attention chiefly to Germany because that country is on the eve of a bourgeois revolution that is bound to be carried out under more advanced conditions of European civilisation[...]’ (Marx and Engels, 1848, pp.74)

As The Communist Manifesto heavily references previous revolutions, and why they failed, it would seem that in this passage they are implying that Germany is further advanced along the path of Capitalism, and thus, logically, closer to its end. The end is of course the inevitable communist revolution. As it seems inconceivable that Luxemburg had not read all of Marx’s other works, she may have been expecting a population that was primed for revolution and uprising, rather than one that was largely apathetic to the cause. Thus it could have seemed to her that she did not require the same level of preparation as Lenin applied to his endeavour.

Bolshevik's ready to storm the winter palace. Contrary to popular imagery that action was no where near as epic as is often portrayed.

In the October Revolution the outcome was a complete success with the overthrow of the fledgling parliament. This seizure of power allowed the revolutionaries to set up councils in each town to govern the area, these were called Soviets (Trott, and Mackie, 2020a, p.74). The larger state would become a union of Soviets or the Soviet Union. These Soviets allowed the mass of the population to actually see a tangible benefit, that of self-rule. Equally, the Bolsheviks would employ a large amount of political indoctrination (Pike and Barber, 2020a, p.160-161). These moves gave the Bolsheviks significant popular support. This support was critical during the counter-revolutionary period after the end of the First World War, where allied forces moved to support the counter-revolutionary forces known as White Russians. The popular support was able to be maintained and enabled the Bolsheviks from collapsing during the reverses suffered during the early part of the Russian Civil War, such as the Battle of Tsaritsyn when British tank formations led the White forces in a stunning attack that utterly crushed the Bolshevik defenders, coming very close to killing one of the senior Bolshevik Leaders, one Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin (1878-1953). However, Bolshevik morale held, and they were able to launch a counter attack (Overlords Blog, 2014). 

In comparison during the Spartacist uprising, they lacked the prepared forces and relied on waiting for the population to support them. In contrast, the counter-revolutionary forces ensured food security and managed to unite the population to gain support (Duffy, 2009). While some Revolutionaries were highly motivated and indoctrinated, these were in the minority. Equally, on the counter-revolution side, they had similar forces from the right-wing of politics. These were formed into the Freikorps (Trott, and Mackie, 2020a, p.88). These were armed, motivated bands who would help the forces of the German Republic to fight off the German Marxists. It is at the hands of a pair of Freikorps men that Luxemburg was shot.

Freikorps, with what looks like a VP-21 armoured car and a flamethrower. Compare to the pictures earlier of Communist revolutionaries and you can quickly see the disparity between the two. Freikorps vehicles, and helmets also seemed to feature skulls as a motif, so it was likely they were playing on the fear as well.


Earlier I mentioned the Easter Uprising. This too seems to fit the pattern close to that of the two revolutions detailed so far, drawing elements from both. The Easter Uprising was driven by a mix of sectarian, nationalist and Marxist ideas. Like the Bolshevik revolution, it was launched due to the situation caused by the First World War, in this case, the revolutionaries saw an opportunity with the British distracted. Drawing from the Spartacist uprising we can take the general lack of preparedness on a military front, which meant the uprising was soon crushed by the counter-revolutionaries. However, the level of contemporary support for the revolutionaries is difficult to gauge as it is said that widespread popular support did not occur until the leaders of the revolution were executed. This shifting of support led to the outbreak of the Irish war for independence, and the subsequent split of Ireland (Wolffe, 2020a and 2020b).

While the Bolshevik and Spartacist revolutions seem to be identical at first glance, it is the underlying structure of the forces involved that altered the outcome. The Bolsheviks planned for a fight and ensured they had the motivated manpower to win it, then grabbed the popular support of the peasants. Even so, it was still a close-run thing. The Marxists in Germany during the Spartacist uprising, however, just sat there and waited for things to turn out as they thought they should. They also failed to grasp the means of popular support to ensure they survived the counter-revolution.
It seems that the key element in determining the success of a revolution is the scale of popular support. However, it should be noted that by preparing properly in a military sense, you can then obtain popular support.


  • Duffy, M. (2009) Primary Documents: Friedrich Ebert on the first Post-imperial German government, 10-17 November 1918. Available at https://www.firstworldwar.com/source/abdication_ebert.htm ( accessed 22/9/2020) [quoted in Trott and Mackie, 2020a] 
  • Imperial War Museum (2011) bread, piece of. Available at: https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/30085605 (Accessed: 29/03/2020).
  • Marx, K. and Engels, F. (1848) The Communist Manifesto. Moscow: Progress Publishers. [Available at: https://archive.org/details/communistmanifestomarxengels/page/n3/mode/2up accessed on 24/1/21]
  • Overlords Blog (2014) The British battle of Stalingrad. Available at: http://overlord-wot.blogspot.com/2014/11/the-british-battle-of-stalingrad.html (Accessed: 30/11/2014).
  • Pike, J. and Barber, A. (2020a) ‘Marx, Luxemburg and Lenin’, in The Open University (ed.) Revolutions, Book 2. Milton Keynes: The Open University, (ed.) Revolutions. Milton Keynes: The Open University, pp. 113–168.
  • Pike, J. and Barber, A. (2020b) ‘Marx, Luxemburg and Lenin’, A113: Revolutions. Available at: https://learn2.open.ac.uk/mod/oucontent/view.php?id (Accessed: 24/1/2021).
  • Sender, T. (1940) Autobiography of a German Rebel. London: Labour book service. [quoted in Trott and Mackie, 2020a]
  • Trott, V. and Mackie, R. (2020a) ‘Revolution and counter-revolution, 1917–23’, in The Open University, Revolutions, Book 2. Milton Keynes: The Open University, pp. 57–111.
  • Trott, V. and Mackie, R. (2020b) ‘Revolution and counter-revolution, 1917–23’, A113: Revolutions. Available at: https://learn2.open.ac.uk/mod/oucontent/view.php?id=1725857 (Accessed: 24/1/2021).
  • Wolffe, J. (2020a) ‘Religious division and political polarisation in Ireland’, in The Open University (ed.) Revolutions, Book 2. Milton Keynes: The Open University, pp. 221–273.
  • Wolffe, J. (2020b) ‘Religious division and political polarisation in Ireland’, A113: Revolutions. Available at: https://learn2.open.ac.uk/mod/oucontent/view.php?id=1746218 (Accessed: 24/1/2021).


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