Ernst Meyer was born in in Prostki in 1887. He studied economics and philosophy at the University of Königsberg. He joined the Social Democratic Party (SDP) in 1908, while he was still a student. At the time the SDP was deeply divided into three groups. The leader of the right-wing, Eduard Bernstein, had published a series of articles where he argued that the predictions made by Karl Marx about the development of capitalism had not come true. He pointed out that the real wages of workers had risen and the polarization of classes between an oppressed proletariat and capitalist, had not materialized. Nor had capital become concentrated in fewer hands.
The chairman of the party, August Bebel, remained a Marxist but believed that socialism could best be obtained through the parliamentary system. Paul Frölich has argued: "The SPD divided into three clear tendencies: the reformists, who tended increasingly to espouse the ruling-class imperialist policy; the so-called Marxist Centre, which claimed to maintain the traditional policy, but in reality moved closer and closer to Bernstein's position; and the revolutionary wing, generally called the Left Radicals (Linksradikale)." Meyer became a member of the Left Radicals. Headed by Rosa Luxemburg it included Clara Zetkin, Karl Liebknecht, Franz Mehring, Karl Radek and Anton Pannekoek.
Meyer received his PhD in 1910. After leaving university he began working for Vorwärts, the SPD's official daily newspaper. In 1911 Meyer was promoted to the position of the economics editor of the newspaper. Meyer was also a leading figure in the anti-militarist section of the SDP. In 1907 Liebknecht published Militarism and Anti-Militarism. In the book he argued: "Militarism is not specific to capitalism. It is moreover normal and necessary in every class-divided social order, of which the capitalist system is the last. Capitalism, of course, like every other class-divided social order, develops its own special variety of militarism; for militarism is by its very essence a means to an end, or to several ends, which differ according to the kind of social order in question and which can be attained according to this difference in different ways. This comes out not only in military organization, but also in the other features of militarism which manifest themselves when it carries out its tasks. The capitalist stage of development is best met with an army based on universal military service, an army which, though it is based on the people, is not a people’s army but an army hostile to the people, or at least one which is being built up in that direction."
Karl Liebknecht was the only member of the Reichstag who voted against Germany's participation in the First World War. He argued: "This war, which none of the peoples involved desired, was not started for the benefit of the German or of any other people. It is an Imperialist war, a war for capitalist domination of the world markets and for the political domination of the important countries in the interest of industrial and financial capitalism. Arising out of the armament race, it is a preventative war provoked by the German and Austrian war parties in the obscurity of semi-absolutism and of secret diplomacy."
Paul Frölich, a supporter of Liebknecht in the SDP, argued: "On the day of the vote only one man was left: Karl Liebknecht. Perhaps that was a good thing. That only one man, one single person, let it be known on a rostrum being watched by the whole world that he was opposed to the general war madness and the omnipotence of the state - this was a luminous demonstration of what really mattered at the moment: the engagement of one's whole personality in the struggle. Liebknecht's name became a symbol, a battle-cry heard above the trenches, its echoes growing louder and louder above the world-wide clash of arms and arousing many thousands of fighters against the world slaughter."
Clara Zetkin later recalled: "The struggle was supposed to begin with a protest against the voting of war credits by the social-democratic Reichstag deputies, but it had to be conducted in such a way that it would be throttled by the cunning tricks of the military authorities and the censorship. Moreover, and above all, the significance of such a protest would doubtless be enhanced, if it was supported from the outset by a goodly number of well-known social-democratic militants." Meyer carried on the fight at the Vorwärts but on 15th April, 1915, he was removed from his position on the paper's editorial board.
Immediately after the vote on war credits in the Reichstag, a group of SDP anti-militarist activists, including Ernest Meyer, Franz Mehring, Wilhelm Pieck, Julian Marchlewski, Hermann Duncker and Hugo Eberlein met at the home of Rosa Luxemburg to discuss future action. They agreed to campaign against the war but decided against forming a new party and agreed to continue working within the SPD.
In May 1915, Karl Liebknecht published a pamphlet, The Main Enemy Is At Home! He argued: "The main enemy of the German people is in Germany: German imperialism, the German war party, German secret diplomacy. This enemy at home must be fought by the German people in a political struggle, cooperating with the proletariat of other countries whose struggle is against their own imperialists. We think as one with the German people – we have nothing in common with the German Tirpitzes and Falkenhayns, with the German government of political oppression and social enslavement. Nothing for them, everything for the German people. Everything for the international proletariat, for the sake of the German proletariat and downtrodden humanity."
Over the next few months members of this group, including Meyer, were arrested and spent several short spells in prison. On the release of Rosa Luxemburg in February 1916, it was decided to establish an underground political organization called Spartakusbund (Spartacus League). The Spartacus League publicized its views in its illegal newspaper, Spartacus Letters. Like the Bolsheviks in Russia, they began to argue that socialists should turn this nationalist conflict into a revolutionary war.
Dick Howard has argued: "Agitation continued throughout the war; yet the Spartacus League was never very strong. All agitation had to be carried out in strict secrecy, and the leaders were more often than not in jail." Members included Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht, Leo Jogiches, Paul Levi, Ernest Meyer, Franz Mehring, Clara Zetkin, Wilhelm Pieck, Julian Marchlewski, Hermann Duncker and Hugo Eberlein.
On 1st May, 1916, the Spartacus League decided to come out into the open and organized a demonstration against the First World War in the Potsdamer Platz in Berlin. One of those who attended reported: "It was a great success. At eight o'clock in the morning a dense throng of workers - almost ten thousand - assembled in the square, which the police had already occupied well ahead of time. Karl Liebknecht, in uniform, and Rosa Luxemburg were in the midst of the demonstrators and greeted with cheers from all sides." Several of its leaders, including Liebknecht and Luxemburg were arrested and imprisoned.
In 1918 Meyer helped establish the German Communist Party (KPD). He opposed the Spartakist Rising in January, 1919, and after the executions of Rosa Luxemburg, Leo Jogiches and Karl Liebknecht he worked for Die Rote Fahne (The Red Flag), the official newspaper of the KPD. Meyer's friend, Paul Levi, became leader of the KPD. His moderate approach to socialism increased the size of the party. Meyer joined Levi in the German delegation to the 2nd World Congress of the Communist International in Moscow in 1920.
Levi remained a supporter of the theories of Rosa Luxemburg and this brought him into conflict with Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky. They were especially upset with the publication of Our Path: Against Putschism. In 1921 Levi resigned as chairman of the KPD over policy differences. Later that year, Lenin and Trotsky, demanded that he should be expelled from the party. The following year he arranged for Luxemburg's book The Russian Revolution to be published.
Meyer now became the leader of the German Communist Party. Meyer returned to Moscow in 1922 as a member of the German delegation to the 4th World Congress of the Comintern. However, his influence went into decline with the emergence of Ernst Thälmann. By 1929 he was removed from all party official posts. In 1930 he married Rosa Levine, the widow of Eugen Levine.
Ernst Meyer died of of pneumonia on 2nd February, 1930, at the age of 43.
(1) What Does the Spartacus League Want? (14th December, 1918)
I. As immediate measures to protect the Revolution:
1. Disarmament of the entire police force and of all officers and non proletarian soldiers; disarmament of all members of the ruling classes.
2. Confiscation of all weapons and munitions stocks as well as armaments factories by workers' and soldiers' councils.
3. Arming of the entire adult male proletarian population as a workers' militia. Creation of a Red Guard of proletarians as an active part of the militia for the constant protection of the Revolution against counter-revolutionary attacks and subversions.
4. Abolition of the command authority of officers and non-commissioned officers. Replacement of the military cadaver discipline by voluntary discipline of the soldiers. Election of all officers by their units, with right of immediate recall at any time. Abolition of the system of military justice.
5. Expulsion of officers and capitulations from all soldiers' councils.
6. Replacement of all political organs and authorities of the former regime by delegates of the workers' and soldiers' councils.
7. Establishment of a revolutionary tribunal to try the chief criminals responsible for starting and prolonging the war, the Hohenzollerns, Ludendorff, Hindenburg, Tirpitz, and their accomplices, together with all the conspirators of counter-revolution.
8. Immediate confiscation of all foodstuffs to secure the feeding of the people.
II. In the political and social realm:
1. Abolition of all principalities; establishment of a united German Socialist Republic.
2. Elimination of all parliaments and municipal councils, and takeover of their functions by workers' and soldiers' councils, and of the latter's committees and organs.
3. Election of workers' councils in all Germany by the entire adult working population of both sexes, in the city and the countryside, by enterprises, as well as of soldiers' councils by the troops (officers and capitulations excluded). The right of workers and soldiers to recall their representatives at any time.
4. Election of delegates of the workers' and soldiers' councils in the entire country to the central council of the workers' and soldiers' councils, which is to elect the executive council as the highest organ of the legislative and executive power.
5. Meetings of the central council provisionally at least every three months - with new elections of delegates each time in order to maintain constant control over the activity of the executive council, and to create an active identification between the masses of workers' and soldiers' councils in the nation and the highest governmental organ. Right of immediate recall by the local workers' and soldiers' councils and replacement of their representatives in the central council, should these not act in the interests of their constituents. Right of the executive council to appoint and dismiss the people's commissioners as well as the central national authorities and officials.
6. Abolition of all differences of rank, all orders and titles. Complete legal and social equality of the sexes.
7. Radical social legislation. Shortening of the labor day to control unemployment and in consideration of the physical exhaustion of the working class by world war. Maximum working day of six hours.
8. Immediate basic transformation of the food, housing, health and educational systems in the spirit and meaning of the proletarian revolution.
III. Immediate economic demands:
1. Confiscation of all dynastic wealth and income for the collectivity.
2. Repudiation of the state and other public debt together with all war loans, with the exception of sums of certain level to be determined by the central council of the workers' and soldiers' councils.
3. Expropriation of the lands and fields of all large and medium agricultural enterprises; formation of socialist agricultural collectives under unified central direction in the entire nation. Small peasant holdings remain in the possession of their occupants until the latters' voluntary association with the socialist collectives.
4. Expropriation by the council Republic of all banks, mines, smelters, together with all large enterprises of industry and commerce.
5. Confiscation of all wealth above a level to be determined by the central council.
6. Takeover of the entire public transportation system by the councils Republic.
7. Election of enterprise councils in all enterprises, which, in coordination with the workers' councils, have the task of ordering the internal affairs of the enterprises, regulating working conditions, controlling production and finally taking over direction of the enterprise.
8. Establishment of a central strike commission which, in constant collaboration with the enterprise councils, will furnish the strike movement now beginning throughout the nation with a unified leadership, socialist direction and the strongest support by the political power of the workers' and soldiers' councils.
IV. International tasks:
immediate establishment of ties with the fraternal parties in other countries, in order to put the socialist revolution on an international footing and to shape and secure the peace by means of international brotherhood and the revolutionary uprising of the world proletariat.